Monthly Archives: July 2006

this is your mouse brain on drugs

Mouse Party is a funny Flash game that lets you explore how mice brains react to different drugs. Even though it’s not particularly informative, it’s kinda entertaining to watch a bunch of drugged out animated mice groove to chillout music and see how they react when you put them in the chair to be studied. ::giggle::

(Tx: Mor)

Blogher has begun

I feel like an alien at Blogher. It’s *sooo* amazing to see so many women kicking ass. Since i’ve left V-Day, i’m rarely around so many women. At the same time, i’m faced with the challenge i always face when in a room full of women. I’ve definitely grown up in a boy’s world, trying to out-boy the boys. I’m used to being aggressive to get my voice heard; i’m used to a language of critique, not compliments; i’m used to trying to take up space to be seen. Here, i just feel so awkward and out of place in a place that should feel comfortable. ::sigh::

The other thing that i’ve realized is that i’m not a “blogger” in the sense of the word that others here use. The women here have been so empowered by their blogging – they joined a movement, connected with people, built a community… They love the actual act of blogging, are excited to be bloggers as a primary identity. There’s so much interest in getting an audience, in figuring out how to build a business from it, in figuring out how to attract ads. I blogged before there was blogging because i needed to get my internal neuroses out there. I’m still afraid of the fact that i have an audience and i’m certainly not trying to attract more people. I’ve resisted putting up ads because i don’t want to make money off of my linguistic explosions (although paying my bandwidth costs would be nice); i don’t want to feel responsible to my blog. I’ve become a blogger because people have assigned me that identity but even though i’ve been blogging forever, i’m not really a part of this movement. That makes me feel guilty – i’m given an identity that is more practice-driven than culturally driven… ::gulp::

The best part of being at Blogher is that i know that i have a lot to learn from these women. I’ve already had some amazing conversations and just now a woman from Eggbeater is talking about how food blogging is super political because food is about class, race and culture. ::jaw drop:: Wow – that rocks!

aggregating the “best of” blog entries

I have put together a page of “best of” blog entries. Based on conversations with people and going back through what people saved in, i pulled out essays and entries from the last two years that people seemed to find particularly valuable. I will be editing this list (and recommendations are *very* welcome). In particular, i haven’t gone back through the Friendster posts yet (or anything so i’m sure there are other nuggets in there that people will be interested in. Right now, the best-of includes about 40 entries on everything from social networks to blogging to privacy to academia to Wikipedia. Some of those essays make me wince looking back but i still think that they’re valuable. Let me know what you think!


an ode to a math teacher: benevolent dictators and urban tribes

The social network structure of friendship is rarely a bounded group. Even if we are friends, the imagined community of my friends is different than your imagined community. This is why you get these beautiful web-like structures when you model friendship, why the guests of a friend’s cocktail party typically include many people you know and a few that you don’t, and why figuring out the guest list for an event can be a dramatic process. It’d be a lot easier if everyone attending had the same idea of who all should attend wouldn’t it?

Since i’ve been in San Francisco, i’ve been part of a group that could be defined as an “urban tribe.” Urban tribes are particularly funny because they are all about turning a friendship structure into a group structure. Tribes often have a notion of membership but it is often unclear what constitutes membership. Is membership social affinity? Dues? Participation in tribe activities? Is there a “core” group? Is it about housing? Sexual relations? What?

My “urban tribe” has been plagued with the membership question for quite some time now. On one hand, you would think it wouldn’t matter – who cares if Bob and Sue see Sue as a member and Ann doesn’t? Yet, it is technology and the required articulation of groups that torments us. One simple question turns the basic negotiation of friendship into a complete nightmare: who should be on the group’s mailing list?

A mailing list is a group structure – it has boundaries and one is either ‘in’ or ‘out’ – it is not possible to be ‘in’ to some people and ‘out’ to others like it is when you think of ego-centric friendship communities. Of course, with any group, there are members who view other members with disdain and would prefer that they were not also part of the group. This is one of the common features of urban tribes that Ethan Watters describes. Mailing lists push people to think in terms of group structures, even when the social cost is great. Faced with having to resolve this, it shouldn’t be surprising that an urban tribe swings back and forth between seeing itself as a collective with an identity that trumps individual relationships and seeing itself as a group of friends first and foremost.

Think about this for a moment… Remember how difficult it was to decide your Top 8? This required you to personally choose your closest friends and exclaim them for the world to see. Now imagine having to collectively agree with your friends on who should be in each other’s Top 8. Imagine having to say to some of your close friends that they’re not in the collective Top 8 because other people don’t like them enough, don’t feel as though they’re close enough to the center of the group or whatever. This might be cool if the individual thinks of themselves as separate from the group, but if they want to be part of the group, it reeks of middle school clique drama.

My particular urban tribe used to handle this through benevolent dictatorship. The person in charge of the list decided who got to be on the list when. Not surprisingly, people resented this person – they bitched and moaned and questioned the fairness of the process. Luckily, the benevolent dictator’s ego was strong enough and he was central enough to most people that the bitching didn’t really do any damage. Yet, as time passed, folks decided that a democracy would make more sense. The benevolent dictator stepped down and for the last year folks have been trying to figure out how to best handle issues of membership.

Consensus is a mess – it’s quite clear that not everyone likes everyone else. It was much easier when folks felt stuck with the other people and could blame the benevolent dictator. Now that everyone has veto, it’s clear that no one passes the everyone test. Representative democracy is also disastrous because the representatives were trying to be good by everyone and they end up getting resented by everyone and then depressed personally… few people want to attend bureaucratic meetings and even fewer want to be representatives. As time goes on, it becomes quite clear that we were much better off with a self-appointed benevolent dictator with an ego that could handle everyone’s bitching. And besides, people *like* bitching, regardless of who is handling what. That’s the beauty of urban tribes – they run on drama as fuel. Of course, you don’t _elect_ a benevolent dictator so how do you turn back?

What i find most fascinating is that, as the process unfolds, the group-ness is breaking down… the ego-centric community networks are trumping the group-ness and smaller clusters are emerging based on who feels closer to whom. Organizing events continues to bring the group together but efforts at creating democracy tear it apart. To complicate matters, as we get older, it gets harder to do events which makes it harder to have community solidarity. Additionally, folks keep moving away for work or school so there’s geographic and attention splintering and we’ve reached the age where coupling is rampant, making the local networks far more significant than the group networks. I’ve never believed that urban tribes postpone marriage but i do believe that marriage fragments urban tribes.

I don’t know what the answer is but there’s something fascinating about seeing my social life play out some of my research conundrums – namely, how do you resolve group structures and networks? I wonder to what degree has organizational technology like mailing lists and forced people into moving towards a group model… I also wonder if social network sites like MySpace are letting people move back towards a network structure by encourage bulletin postings instead of group membership… I wonder if the next generation won’t have the same sorts of tribe structures because of MySpace… I wonder i wonder i wonder…

best of?

Folks often tell me that they give pointers to my blog to people in the industry to get a sense of what’s happening in social media. I find this embarassing and tend to play ostrich so that i can go about writing about whatever. At the same time, i kinda realized that this blog is hard to navigate if you don’t know me… so i started thinking i should do something to help strangers find things that are particularly relevant and interesting. I decided i should create a best-of list. In trying to create a best-of, i got super self-conscious again. I started looking at entries and wondering if that was really that interesting to people who didn’t know me. So, i decided that i should turn to you…. What do you think is particularly interesting here? What entries do you think i should include in a best-of list? Sorry – i’m a bit neurotic about things like this but i’m trying to suck it up and realize that more than a few people read this blog. ::gulp::

furniture for sale

I’m planning on selling some furniture and technology and other random things. Here’s what i’ve got right now – i’ll update this list as i find new things around my house. Photos are at Flickr. You’d have to pick the items up (in San Francisco) before July 30 (except for the mattress which would have to happen on July 31). Let me know if you have any questions!

– Blue/green dresser – $25

– full mattress and boxspring – $10 (pickup: July 31 only)

feigning injuries for insurance companies

On my first night in Los Angeles, my friend got into a small accident. She was driving a Uhaul, going 5MPH and trying to move lanes when she hit an SUV who had pretty much ignored her. It was difficult to figure out what the SUV lady was thinking because she didn’t speak any English. We called the cops who said that they would not send anyone unless there were injuries. There were none. The SUV lady wouldn’t exchange info with us and kept calling someone and it was clear by her movements that someone who spoke English was coming. Eventually, her granddaughter showed up and explained that her grandmom didn’t speak English. Duh. The granddaughter exchanged insurance and contact information with my friend. Everything seemed fine – a dent on the SUV and a damaged bumper on the Uhaul but no one was hurt.

Today, my friend got a call from one of the insurance people who asked her to go through everything. She explained what happened in great detail. They asked why there was no police report and she explained that she’d called the cops but they only come when someone’s hurt. They asked so no one was hurt? And my friend was like no. And then it became obvious that the woman had filed injuries. WTF?

Having seen the woman and the car and having hung out with the woman for a good 20+ minutes waiting for the granddaughter, there’s *no* way that there were injuries. No possibility of whiplash and it was the passenger side. She wasn’t holding on to any part of her body and her granddaughter said nothing. Everything was normal, even if we were all a bit frazzled.

But then i started wondering, what’s the cost of reporting injuries? I mean, if she succeeds in declaring injuries, she gets money even if she’s lying, right? But what does she lose if the insurance company shows she’s lying? Are there any costs to lying when it comes to insurance? My moral fabric is horrified by the idea but then again, i return pens when i stole them from stores after signing credit card receipts. I cannot imagine lying to get more money from insurance. Of course, everyone thought that i should sue this person and that person after my neck accident. But it was an accident – i couldn’t ethically feel good about lying even if it cost me an arm and a leg. Yet, for others, is there any reason not to lie? What happens if you get caught lying to medical insurance?

from architecture to urban planning: technology development in a networked age

Last week, i had drinks with Ian Rogers and Kareem Mayan and we were talking about shifts in the development of technology. Although all of us have made these arguments before in different forms, we hit upon a set of metaphors that i feel the need to highlight.

Complete with references to engineering, technology development was originally seen as a type of formalized production. You design, build and ship products. And then they’re out in the wild, removed from the production cycle until you make Version 2. Of course, it didn’t take long for people to realize that when they shipped flaws, they didn’t need to do a recall. Instead, they could just ship free updates in the form of Version 1.1.

As the world went web-a-rific, companies held onto the ship-final-products mentality in its stodgy archaic form. Until the forever-in-beta hit. I, for one, *love* the persistent beta. It signals that the system is continuously updating, never fully baked and meant to be organic. This is the way that it should be.

Web development is fundamentally different than packaged software. Because it is the web, there’s no vast distance between producers and consumers. Distribution channels cross space and time (much to the chagrin of most old skool industries). Particularly when it comes to social software, producers can live inside their creations, directly interact with those using the system, and evolve the system alongside the practices that are emerging. In fact, not only *can* they, they’re stupid to do anything else.

The same revolution has happened in writing. Sure, we still ship books but what does it mean to have the author have direct interaction with the reader like they do in blogging? It’s almost as though someone revived the author from the dead [1]. And maybe turned hir into a kind of peculiar looking Frankenstein who realizes that things aren’t quite right in interpretation-land but can’t make them right no matter what. Regardless, with the author able to directly connect to the reader, one must wonder how the process changes. For example, how is the audience imagined when its presence is persistent?

I’m reminded of a book by Stewart Brand – How Building Learn. In it, Brand talks about how buildings evolve over time based on their use and the aging that takes place. A building is not just the end-result of the designer, but co-constructed by the designer, nature, and the inhabitant over time. When i started thinking about technology as architecture, i realized the significance of that book. We cannot think about technologies as finalized products, but as evolving architectures. This should affect the design process at the getgo, but it also highlights the differences between physical and digital architectures. What would it mean if 92 million people were living in the house simultaneously with different expectations for what colors the walls should be painted? What would it mean if the architect was living inside the house and fighting with the family about the intention of the mantel?

The networked nature of web technologies brings the architect into the living room of the house, but the question still remains: what is the responsibility of a live-in architect? Coming in as an authority on the house does no good – in that way, the architect should still be dead. But should the architect just be a glorified fixer-upper/plumber/electrician? Should the architect support the aging of the house to allow it to become eccentric? Should the architect build new additions for the curious tenants? What should the architect be doing? One might think that the architect should just leave the place alone… but is this how digital sites evolve? Do they just need plumbers and electricians? Perhaps the architect is not just an architect but also an urban planner… It is not just the house that is of concern, but the entire city. How the city evolves depends on a whole variety of forces that are constantly in flux. Negotiating this large-scale system is daunting – the house seems so much more manageable. But 92 million people never lived in a single house together.

[1] Note to Barthes scholars: i’m being snippy here. I realize that the author’s authority should still be contested, that multiple interpretations are still valid, and that the author is still a product of social forces. I also realize that even as i’m writing this blogpost, its reading will be out of my control, but the reality is that i’ll still – as author – get all huffy and puffy and try to be understood. Damnit.

education and Skywalker Ranch

Yesterday, i flew up to Skywalker Ranch to meet with a bunch of people who think about/work on issues around education. It was held there because it included folks from the George Lucas Educational Foundation (and was put on by the Institute for the Future and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation). OMG… drool. That place is just ridiculously gorgeous! There were gardens and a lake and vineyards and all things pretty northern California. PLUS there were original life sabers and other movie memorabilia. Mega drool.

On top of being in an idyllic setting, the meeting was quite engaging. It was very school-focused and a small group of us came to the realization that schools need to start serving the tension between ego-centered, personalized, individualistic society and globalized society. There used to be scales – people would be part of local communities, broader communities, nation-states, etc. Networked society is altering the relationships between people and communities are suffering because of the lack of cohesion, social norms, etc. When we think about education (especially when we talk about its role in relation to civic life), we need to stop damning technology and start engaging with the shifts that have occurred in the architecture of sociality. We started toying with what that would mean as a design criteria for educational infrastructure. (I was trying really hard to think of optimistic ideas for formal education but i also realized how much i still detest the bureaucratic nature of public schools.)