Monthly Archives: June 2006

being American in Fiji

When i landed in Fiji, i had no hotel reservation but had decided that i would simply go to the travel place and get a dorm somewhere in the islands that promised to have a security safe for my laptop. I figured it was an adventure so whatever happened would be entertaining. Upon exiting customs, i was surrounded by travel agents… i followed a nice woman up to her office where she gave me various brochures. She recommended a place called The Resort on Walu Beach and told me that it was filled with travelers like me. The price was uber cheap and i was promised a single room for cheaper than dorm prices. I figured that it should be entertaining and would let me test the waters with backpacker culture so i said yes.

I arrived on the island and everyone was exceptionally nice but there was a tension in the air that i couldn’t read. There was definitely nothing sacred about the Walu Beach Resort – it was set up for people trying to find themselves while drinking profusely. I put my bags down, took a shower and wandered down to take a walk. My room had another bed in it but there was no one there so i didn’t question the single thing. The staff was super nice and helpful… and then i started talking to the other travelers. There was lots of bitching – the food was atrocious, the water didn’t work, the people were rude, there were no available beds so people were sleeping on mattresses in the common rooms, etc. I found it strange since i had no such problems. But then i started watching – i would go up to the service people and they would be beyond helpful… the Brits and Irish and Aussies would go up and get the cold shoulder. Huh. At one point, a German couple were quite frustrated because of the lack of water and the failure of the dive master to show up to scheduled dives; the manager started yelling at them to leave; they said they’d leave if they could have their money back; he threatened to call the police. I shirked away to my private room.

And then the Americans arrived… It seems as though there’s this program where American college students come to “do conservation work” in Australia (whereby they pay a lot of money to an organization that brings them down under to party and provide a resume stamp). At the end of their trip, they get a week in Fiji full of activities. Walu Beach suddenly became filled with made-up college girls tanning while listening to loud music and gossiping for everyone to hear and college boys strutting their stuff, yelling and drinking profusely. They were the classic selfish American travelers that i’m always embarrassed to see outside of the US. That said, they had money. Lots of it. They were treated like angels. They got special beachside cabins, special food, special activities… they were waited on hand and foot with smiles and laughter. That first night, as the food lines were created (Americans outside, everyone else inside), i was pushed towards the Americans line… and then i got it… the staff thought i was one of them. By the end of the next day, it was clear to the staff that i was not one of this tour group even though i was doing scuba and spending more money on activities than the backpackers (i decided a massage was more interesting than 3 drinks). And then everything changed.

They stopped fixing the water in my room so i had no running water. I got a roommate (who masturbated loudly while i was “sleeping”). And everyone became super rude. It was an amazing shift but i was already very aware of the negative-ness so i just continued being super sweet whenever i faced staff. But i was definitely tired of the general negative atmosphere and it was magnified by the dynamic with the Americans so i decided to go back to the mainland a day early and check into a hotel where i knew i could take a shower and get an edible meal.

I’m quite glad i went to Fiji – beautiful lands, scuba diving with sharks, beach relaxation… It was also really fascinating to see the racial tensions between the native Fijians and the Indian Fijians, to see the way that the culture was still rife with anger from various recent uprisings. It was really eye-opening to see the role of tourists in the economic landscape of that culture and to see how certain places tried to hide the negativity from the tourists (especially at the more upscale hotels). Like i said, i’m really glad i went but i can’t say that i need to return soon… and certainly not as a tourist.

I also realized that i’m not sure that i could do the backpacker thing. After a week of “so, where have you been… where are you going?” i thought i was going to strangle someone in the same way that i hate that all club conversations seem to circle around sex, drugs or the music. I don’t think that i do well being in a place where i have no structure or responsibilities. I prefer going to places because locals have invited me and they want me to do something. I’m going to have to rethink my post-grad school traveling plans as a result of this journey. For this reason, i’m glad that i decided to land in backpacker zone.

finland is wonderful

Brief update: The last week in Finland has been utterly lovely. Aula was one of the most stimulating events i’ve been to in a long long time – brilliant conversations in session and over drinks long into the “night” (how on earth can you call it night when it’s still light out???). I got to meet some folks that i’ve been long curious about and hang out with old friends. This was my first time in Helsinki and it was warm and breezy and utterly lovely; the food was great, the people were fascinating and full of far too much style. I got to spend the weekend on a small island in the Archipelagos with a gloriously rustic cabin – no electricity but utterly glorious outdoors-ness. There was a proper Finnish sauna with dips into the Baltic.

Now, in some reverse-alphabetical logic, i’m off from Finland to Fiji for a few days of vacation before New Zealand. My current logic is that i’m going to rent a car and camp around Fiji since i can’t seem to find cheap bures available in the Coral Coast. Has anyone driven Fiji? Is this a good or disasterous plan? I’m trying to find a solution that involves the ability to lock up my crap and wander around the island – dorms make this impossible so a car seems like a good idea where i can drop into a dorm every few days. Gosh, i *hate* traveling with a laptop but, sadly, i have no choice on this round. More brief updates from down under and then more serious thinking soon! Hope everyone is having a glorious summer!

NSA spying on digital publics

Over 40 people sent me a link to the New Scientist article: Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites. First, thank you. Second, ::sigh:: I wish that i could say that i’m shocked, but i’m not. Still, i want to address it.

Those of you who knew my work at MIT knew that i was obsessed with the socio-structural information one could derive from email correspondences. Jeff Potter and i put together Social Network Fragments to visually convey how much information was available through just a single person’s email archives. If you’ve ever CCed anyone, you’ve told everyone on that list meaningful information about your connections. Individual archives hold meaningful data about dozens of people’s social networks. To show this, we put our visualization up at a gallery in New York to make a statement about the privacy implications. Of course, one person’s data is nothing compared to the data that AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo! have. We couldn’t find anyone who had never sent or received an email from each of those companies. I’d guess that each could generate a pretty decent model of the entire nation’s social network.

Part of what makes email networks so powerful is the redundancy. It’s not just the one email you received from or the fact that you have this in your addressbook, but the fact that you have an ongoing dialogue. Repetitive CC patterns are also super informative. What emerges is pretty fascinating – you can see who operates as bridges and start to get a sense for different functioning clusters and the power of structural holes. Spam is blatantly apparent, but you can also find breakups and love affairs without even getting into content analysis.

The government asked us to engage with them to help them track terrorists; we refused. But, given where we presented this work and who was in the audience, i can’t pretend as though this work didn’t help them think of ways to make sense of communication pattern networks and this has often haunted me. I’m all in favor of tracking down malicious individuals, but, as we’ve seen with the AT&T case, the government is happy to step all over individual privacy in the process. I understand why network researchers want to work for government agencies: infinite funding, computation power and the ability to access massive data sets. Still, i could not do it, as intriguing as the work is.

While our work was fascinating, in order for the big questions to be asked, you’d need to get one of the major three email providers to turn over their data. My hope was that this would never happen, but i have to say, i never thought a telco would sleep with the NSA. The fact of the matter is that the data that the NSA has because of AT&T is far far far more powerful than what they can derive from MySpace or other social networks. Why? It is behavior data, not articulated data. I will come back to that in a moment. But think for a moment… even if you don’t subscribe to AT&T, do you know who your friends subscribe to? All of their data is included which means your conversations with them are too. Thus, even if you’re like me and are boycotting AT&T, you’re still in the system. We all are.

So behavioral and articulated… we’ve talked about this before, but there’s a huge difference between saying you’re friends with someone and actually being friends with them. Of course, this probably doesn’t matter in a McCarthy era where any thread that connects you to a Communist is good enough. Friends on MySpace are equivalent to all the other familiar strangers you interact with every day – shopkeepers, cabbies, waiters, etc. If the government is really trying to gather information, they cannot be stupid enough to think that your list of 9000 friends is meaningful, but people have been accused of patronizing the wrong stores before. Of course, the value in the bazillion friends is that it provides starting information to find network clusters. In other words, it’s one thing if you’re friends with Lucky, but it’s another if all of your friends are also friends with Lucky. What is most interesting though is if all of your friends are friends with Lucky and you aren’t… experience has shown me that you and Lucky were once good friends/lovers and are now not on the best of terms.

There is also a lot of other public data in MySpace that is meaningful and i’ve been using this for analysis purposes. Top 8s are quite significant… even more so when they change. Combined with the Top 8s of those people (etc.), you can start to get a really meaningful picture of cliques. Comments are meaningful (except for the “Thanks for the add” ones) but picture comments are even more meaningful and repeat comments from the same person are the most meaningful. By complementing friends lists, this material provides a layer of behavioral data on top of the articulated data.

All this aside, what bothers me the most about this is the fact that the government thinks this is OK just because it’s possible to do. Some people will immediately argue that of course they should, it’s public data! Whenever you leave your home, someone could track your movements, marking every time you enter and leave different buildings, marking what you’re wearing and who you’re speaking with in public, etc. People hire PIs to do precisely this (often when they assume our partners are cheating). No one would be cool with a government snoop sitting on every street corner marking the public paths of every citizen just because they could. Luckily, the overhead of this is so outrageous that we only do it when we are really concerned about a particular individual. Networked technologies not only make this easier, but they also make the snoop invisible. Problematically, people don’t sweat the invasion so much because they can’t see it.

An argument that people make is that you should have nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong. This is sooooo irritating. First, this is only true if you are interested in upholding hegemonic cultural norms. The adorable gay couple next door are doing nothing wrong in my eyes, but their kissing is all sorts of problematic to a government that wants to ban their right to love each other. Aside from queer life, think about all of the decisions you made that aren’t necessarily “normal” even if many of us live a pretty privileged life. Second, there’s a difference between illegal and not exactly the best impression. I want the ability to pick my nose when i don’t think anyone’s looking and i don’t want a camera to capture me scratching my ass on a cigarette break outside of work. That’s just plain embarassing. I don’t want to always smile or stand up straight or pretend like i’m in a good mood just because an image might go down on my permanent record. That’s just plain exhausting. Third, everything is context dependent. I’ve done nothing wrong when i stumble out of 1015 drunk as hell and hail a cab, but my drunken stumble is not something that i want to expose to my advisor or, frankly, the government. These are the types of images that people turn around to accuse me of being a citizen or clearly guilty of something else.

I will never forget sitting in the courtroom when my stepfather countersued my mother and accused her of cheating on him. We were all dumbfounded – i didn’t think my mother had cheated and she was pretty sure she hadn’t so we were all curious what this magical evidence was going to be. Apparently, he had hired a PI and he’d snapped photo after photo of… *my* high school boyfriend. Rob always looked older, but the fact that someone thought that my mom was dating him had me laughing for days. Yet, the humor of this paled in comparison to one utterly hysterical photo. It was taken pretty late at night and there was Rob walking the dog out back of our apartment near the woods. The dog was squatting and peeing and Rob was holding on to his penis peeing about 2 feet away from the peeing dog. This picture went down on the divorce record. I often tried to imagine how his Naval officer would’ve felt about this image.

Just because things can be made persistent or information about people’s social lives can be revealed does not mean that it should be done. What the government is doing is not simply watching people in public – they are taking this data and computationally analyzing it to get to the core of people’s practices. This is an invasion of privacy and an act of intense surveillance where the government is spying on its own people. They are doing so without a warrant and justifying it by saying that it is public. Just because people act in public does not mean that it should be stored, analyzed and graphed. Of course, i doubt the law in on my side on this one – it was not written for a world in which such data would be so easily accessible and most of the law concerns the collection of data, not the analysis of it.


I passed my qualifying exams! Woo woo!!!

Of course, the last 24 hours have been quite strange. I’ve been prepping for quite some time. Yesterday, i chilled and a friend came and did reiki with me. I was heading to bed, all relaxed when I heard a pounding on my door. I found this quite strange given that i have a gate to my apartment. I started walking downstairs when my doorbell started ringing. And ringing. I reached the bottom and it was my neighbor. “Isn’t that your car?” I looked out and said yes. “There’s a guy in it.” I was totally frazzled and i walked down and started pounding on my car window. “Get out of my car! What are you doing in my car?” He said that the door was open. “No it wasn’t! Get out of my car!” He said he was going to sleep in it. “Get out of my car!!!” I started flipping out as my neighbor was calling the police. The guy got out and started walking down my street, away from the situation… slowly, as though nothing was wrong. At that point, i realized the window was shattered. I realized the light had been turned off, the glove compartment was open. The hood was popped. He was going to steal my car! My neighbor explained that he saw him get out of the backseat, walk around and get into the front seat. My other neighbor came out and said she had heard glass break. Baroo? The cops arrived in two minuts, but couldn’t find the guy – they confirmed that he was most likely going to steal the car. Eeeek! So now, a day after getting my car from the shope, i had to go back to the shop with a broken window. What a strange event only hours before my exam.

In reflection, i realized how thankful i am that my neighbors are so kinda, that they reacted so fast, that they cared. I’m soooo lucky. I cannot imagine how i would’ve felt coming out this morning to drive to my exam to find my car missing. Thank god for my neighbors. But then i was sad. The guy was about my age, was wearing gloves and had a backback. It was clear that he broke the window with something he had on him, in that bag. He was intentional about his theft. He did not care – he lied to me. It makes me so sad that he thinks that this is the best thing. He cost me hundreds of dollars but that doesn’t matter. I understand being poor, but i cannot imagine living a life where such theft seems reasonable. I found that i was more sad than angry, more thankful that my neighbors cared than upset that this man wanted to steal my rather simple car. It was strange to go to my exam with glass all over my car, to think about what different life paths he and i have.

Still, i got to my exam and my committee was so full of insight and good thoughts. The process was more enjoyable than scary, even though i was terrified walking in. I found that i enjoyed their critiques, found their concerns valid and intriguing. I’m looking forward to starting proper data collection. But first, i’m looking forward to a vacation. ::bounce:: Finland, Fiji, New Zealand – here i come!!

a break in the woods

On Friday night, i finished a complete draft of my dissertation proposal and realized i needed to take a break before the final push. So i decided to go to a campout with a bunch of friends down in Santa Cruz. It was warm and sunny and it was sooo nice to drive down there. And then, when i arrived, there was a sign pointing the way to False Profit where my friends had set up a little village inside the camp. I plopped down and food was given to me. I helped make a huge bonfire and then laid out on the dock watching the stars for hours. I danced like mad to Tipper, Lorin Bassnectar, and Boreta amongst others. I drifted to sleep in a tent still caked with Playa. I was dirty and i loved it. Getting away from the city to take a break from reading/writing was the best thing ever. I feel energized and ready for this week. Now, it’s time to go kick some ass!

Three more days and counting.

spatial nature of MySpace

Over on Networked Publics, Kazys Vernelis asked Is MySpace a Place? I wrote a comment in response that others might find interesting. (And perhaps prompt folks like Anne to put me in my place.)

I would argue that MySpace is a ‘place’ in that it’s a locatable site that people “go to” and it has structural walls regulated through being logged in, being inside the domain, etc. But i would argue that this is not that important. Instead, i would focus on how MySpace is an ‘imagined space’ (stretching Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’) where the space is framed by the perceived rituals, norms and acts that constitute MySpace participation. [I would also argue that MySpace is a ‘medium’ in a McLuhan sense because of its role in ‘extending man’ into the virtual for social engagement. In this way, participation might destroy the platial nature of MySpace by letting people participate in imagined communities where MySpace is simply a channel through which communication and performance occur. But it does not destroy the spatiality invoked.]

I think things get confused by bringing Habermas into the fold because his definition of spatiality is rooted in the public sphere which is entirely framed by discursive engagement. He sees identity as constructed in private such that the public sphere is the gathering of private individuals for the purpose of verbalized communication. Nancy Fraser is useful in this way because she argues that a core component of publics is the way they allow individuals to negotiate identity. Pulling in Goffman in response to Fraser, spatiality is constructed by shared situationalism through which impression management can take place.

This is where i end up talking about ‘digital publics’ because the nature of public life in a new networked age relies on architectural properties not normally present in (unmediated) social life – persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences. While we can turn to celebrity culture and mass media’s role in collapsing contexts (Meyrowitz) to get a grasp on what’s going on, negotiating these types of publics is new for most people. Digital publics are tricky because they rely on a networked structure, not a group structure dictated by audience or location. The same turn that complicates digital publics complicates issues of spatiality. In short, what are the boundaries? This is why i’d argue that it’s an ‘imagined space’ instead of a space as we normally conceptualize it.

[How terribly am i misreading theoretical ideas of space and place?]

academic humor

God i love PhD Comics. Right now, my working dissertation proposal title does have a colon in it. And some fancy buzzwords. Rather than wit, it has a symbol. Of course, it’s only a mod of a title i’ve been using for my MySpace stuff generally which makes me uber lame… [“Why American Youth (heart) MySpace: Identity Production and Digital Publics”]

I don’t know if there are other academics reading this, but i’d sooo love to hear your dissertation titles… I sent this comic to a few friends yesterday and it made me giggle to think how stereotypical we all are in our title creations.

Six more days and counting.