Monthly Archives: September 2006

Facebook is open

Facebook is open. I’ve already received friend requests from companies selling their wares by creating a Profile. I am also faced with more contexts that i can deal with. (Note: i’m not accepting friendships from folks that i know in the blogosphere until i figure out how to mix this with my role as an academic and TA. I am also not inviting folks so please don’t ask.)

Anyhow, i owe this issue a long analysis but i’m too tired right now to do anything but say le sigh. *Major* le sigh. I do not believe that social network sites are able to sustain lots of conflicting social contexts. Or, rather, i don’t believe that they can continue as a hang-out space. I know that Facebook will continue to grow but i believe that the core value of it will be lost for the sake of growth. MySpace is already struggling to cope with what happens when teens and parents/authorities are in the same place. At least most professors have had the curtesy to keep distance. Unfortunately, this opening will not simply allow college students without .edus and high schools students to join. It will also open the doors for every adult who is obsessed with youth – parents, authorities, pedophiles, commercial enterprises…

Le sigh.

(tx Liz for the image)

a spazzy danah talk

When i was in North Carolina a few weeks back, i gave an off-the-cuff talk at UNC. The ibiblio folks have uploaded a video of it to their site. Since i still can’t stand seeing myself speak, i won’t watch it but if i remember correctly, about half of it is me answering various questions that i received before the talk and the second half is me answering questions in the room. It’s by no means a formal talk but rather a spewing of random ideas, thoughts, and observations. I don’t know if it’ll be interesting to anyone, but i figured i should at least post about it since so many ibiblio folks are wandering over here from their site (hi!!!)

The Term “Social Network(ing) Sites”

Early in my research of Friendster, there was a great deal of discussion by sociologists about the name of these sites. Originally, the press was using the term “social networks” to describe them; this outraged the sociologists who ranted on and on about how these were not actually social networks. Since MySpace exploded, the media has chosen a new term “social networking sites.” Needless to say, this didn’t fare any better in the eyes of sociologists and i got critiqued at a social network conference for using this term. Likewise, on the mailing lists, there has been plenty of grumbling. Although i’m usually the first to defend whatever the mainstream term is, i have to agree with the sociologist’s critique.

“Social networks” are the network of relationships between individuals in society. Social scientists of all stripes study the social networks of people (and corporations, nation-states, animals, etc.). “Social networking” is a term that makes most social scientists cringe. As a verb, it is meant to signal the active process of seeking to build one’s social network. Not surprisingly, every business school goes out of its way to teach social networking to their students based on some hypotheses about how different relationship structures will help people at work. This active schmoozing makes my skin crawl because there’s nothing genuine about it.

By employing the term “social networking sites,” the media is doing a disservice to most people who participate on these sites. The connotation, especially to non-participants, is that people are running around these sites meeting strangers (… who are predators). EEK! We don’t want to think of our teens as networking with unknowns. (Moral panic ensues.) The verb form gives off a problematic impression and it obfuscates what people actually do on these sites. Most folks hang out with their friends. They go there to model their social network, not to engaging in social networking. (LinkedIn and other professional sites are different.)

While parents, authorities, and the media are using the term “social networking site,” it’s not what i’m hearing from teens. They don’t talk about the sites as a collection – they talk about MySpace and/or Facebook. The exception is when they reference the moral panic or parental concern. For example, “My parents don’t think that social networking sites are safe.” When they are talking about what they do, where they go, they use the brand names. Given that teens are not using the term except in reference to their parents, i’m going to stick with “social network sites” in an attempt to properly convey what is actually going on. I encourage others to do the same.

I realize that it’s too late to re-frame this term in public discourse but i also think that the issue needs to be highlighted. All too often we forget how our terms stem from and magnify our fears, subtly and unconsciously. Our terms carry politics with them.

the consequences of ‘modern’ life

Yesterday’s UK Telegraph printed an open letter from numerous academics, professionals, and artists concerned about the health of youth. The piece, signed by hundreds, is called: Modern life leads to more depression among children:

Sir – As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.

Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it’s now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.

This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.

Given the British slant of this, i’m kinda surprised to not see David Buckingham on the list of signers. His book After the Death of Childhood: Growing up in the Age of Electronic Media deals directly with this issue, showing both positives and negatives of contemporary society.

I strongly support this letter. I believe that discourse about the state of children’s health is desperately needed. The issue is complex – it is not a matter of just taking away junk food or banning TV; it is about rethinking the child-raising process at all levels. It is also not something that just pertains to psychology, but also to sociology, anthropology, economics, media studies, politics, education, etc. There are scholars researching many components of this but the issue itself extends far beyond the academy. I’m concerned that the media has defined the concerns and that there is too little discussion between scholars and the public at large. I would *love* to see this change.

One concern i had in reading this letter is that i fear people will interpret it to mean that technology is bad bad bad. (For that reason, i bolded two parts that i think highlight key sites of trouble in our society.) By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us – parents, educators, politicians, media, … society in general. TV is allowing children to have desperately-needed downtime, the Internet provides them with the a place to hang out amongst their friends when they are locked into their nuclear family residences. If we take their plea seriously (and i hope we do), i think that it’s important to put down our adult biases, our technophobia, our xenophobia, and our parental fears to think about youth’s worlds from their point of view.

Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

Last night, i asked will Facebook learn from its mistake? In the first paragraph, i alluded to a “privacy trainwreck” and then went on to briefly highlight the political actions that were taking place. I never returned to why i labeled it that way and in my coarseness, i failed to properly convey what i meant by this.

When i sat down to explain the significance of the “privacy trainwreck,” a full-length essay came out. Rather than make you read this essay in blog form (or via your RSS reader), i partitioned it off to a printable webpage.

Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama

The key points that i make in this essay are:

  • Privacy is an experience that people have, not a state of data.
  • The ickyness that people feel when they panic about privacy comes from the experience of exposure or invasion.
  • We’ve experienced the exposure hiccup before with Cobot. When are we going to learn?
  • Invasion changes social reality and there is a cognitive cap to being able to handle it.
  • Does invasion potentially result in a weakening of meaningful social ties?
  • Facebook lost its innocence this week.

Please enjoy this essay and forward it on to both technology folks and Facebook participants. I would like to hear feedback!

welcome to LA

When i heard about the ForBiddeN Playboy launch party, i decided that would be a perfect opportunity to see LA at some of its weirdest. I conned Xeni into coming with me to see the MySpace porn queen diva at her best. In responsem, she conned me into going to the Suicide Girls 5th year anniversary party (y’know – the one that Paris Hilton was at and got arrested for a DUI afterwards… and no, i didn’t manage to notice Paris). Xeni has a *fantastic* writeup of our adventures so i won’t bother repeating them here. (Also, definitely see her ForBiddeN-centric write-up at Wired).

Instead, i want to offer a few extra thoughts. First, and obviously (from my POV), Hollywood LA is *WEIRD*. I knew i didn’t have the clothes to prance around at this events so i chose the safe route: wear all black. I couldn’t help but giggle when i heard girls commenting on other girls’ purses and clothes pointing out brand names. One girl’s fake breasts stood straight out Tank Girl style and i couldn’t help but stare as she shuffled on mega-high heels and her boobs didn’t bounce a bit. And wow was everyone on the look at me plan. I’ve never seen so many people stand around and dance in a way that was meant to be photographed. Luckily, Xeni and i were on a “mission” which at least made me stick around observing for a while without feeling totally awkward.

Second, i’m completely fascinated by how ForBiddeN managed to use MySpace to propel herself into the land-o-fame. While her approach was very DIY, she was lapping up and asserting the traditional construction of fame (complete with meatheads who bullied me away from her because i was not VIP). There were fans lurking around everywhere, hoping to be noticed. The crowd outside begging to get in was impressive given the situation. So what’s next for Miss Playboy? Acting lessons. Glad to know that the desire to reach traditional celebrity-hood is alive and well.

Finally, i’m still fascinated by all of the different publics within MySpace. People definitely get their panties in a wad over porn queens’ presence in MySpace but the thing is that it’s just one small aspect of the site. Yet, it’s the extremely self-promotional aspect, the side that wants the glitz and glam that the camera has to offer, the people that desperately want your attention. And the funny thing is that they get it. Personally, i think that i’m done with the diva side – i’m much more comfortable with the awkward teens who are just hanging out. Hell, i’m even more comfortable with the missionaries who have been trying to tell me about Jesus. Of course, that’s not a media spectacle.

will facebook learn from its mistake?

As Fred Stutzman noted, Facebook Broke Its Culture this week. In an attempt to provide something that would make people’s lives easier, they created a privacy trainwreck. Earlier this week, they unleashed a feature that notified all of your “friends” of EVERY update that you make. Live. Feed style. Users panicked! Sure, anyone could’ve written a script to do that. Sure, it’s data that’s already there. But not in aggregate. The problem is that sometimes people don’t want information to be easier to access.

Not all “friends” are friends. Sometimes, you say yes to save face but you count on those people not actually being stalkers. They don’t really watch your page with any focus so most of what you put up goes by unnoticed. But not if all of your “friends” are notified of your every move.

As the chaos mounted, people started protesting. Nearly 700,000 joined a “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group. Others discussed boycotting the service or deleting their accounts.

Apparently, Facebook is paying attention to this uproar. It doesn’t sound like they’re going to revert the feature but, instead, let people opt out. Yet, at the same time, they think that people will get used to it. And they are telling their users why they should like it. (Gosh i hate when people try to configure their users.)

This situation is quite interesting. People are taking to the (virtual) streets to object to what the architects are doing their (virtual) city. They don’t like the changes in the architecture and they want their voices heard. And it also looks like virtual protesters can raise a far greater ruckus than the ones in meatspace.

While digital communities are fantastic, one of the issues is that people don’t actually own the turf in which they’re creating cultural artifacts. When earthquakes rattle digital streets, it’s not Mother Nature at work. It’s the work of a Corporation. We all like to think that these corporations have the best of intentions and we rely on them to serve the people. Yet, as Sasha is always reminding me, they are not elected officials, this is not a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. We count on the creators to be benevolent but they can make an earthquake whenever they want and we still have to clean up the pieces.

I wonder what this protest cost Facebook. I also wonder if they will learn from this. (I still have immense respect for Six Apart from the time when they pissed off their users and apologized and changed.) But more than anything, i wonder when companies will start thinking of their users as constituents and think about engaging them before executing major changes to the foundation of their social interaction. Of course, i recognize it’s a tradeoff. Companies don’t want to leak what they’re doing pre-launch but if they change things radically, they piss off their core members. And the core members disengage emotionally because they don’t feel as though they’re a part of the system. Yet, in my opinion, to use Kathy Sierra’s phrase creating passionate users is *everything*. And that means engaging them rather than being as dramatic as Mother Nature.

Update: I decided to respond to myself. Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama


Over the last week, i’ve gotten innumerable emails about lonelygirl15. Folks were wondering if i was behind it or if i knew who was. They wanted to know my opinion, if i thought it was fake.

I did. I thought it was fake but i expected that it was a TV or movie organization. I was kinda curious if it was an ARG but it didn’t look like it. I decided that i should do a proper analysis of the different bits when the news broke: LonelyGirl15 is crafted by a group of filmmakers as an art project. Here’s the letter they wrote to their fans on the forum explaining LonelyGirl15:

To Our Incredible Fans,

Thank you so much for enjoying our show so far. We are amazed by the overwhelmingly positive response to our videos; it has exceeded our wildest expectations. With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story– A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience.

Right now, the biggest mystery of Lonelygirl15 is “who is she?” We think this is an oversimplification. Lonelygirl15 is a reflection of everyone. She is no more real or fictitious than the portions of our personalities that we choose to show (or hide) when we interact with the people around us. Regardless, there are deeper mysteries buried within the plot, dialogue, and background of the Lonelygirl15 videos, and many of our tireless and dedicated fans have unearthed some of these. There are many more to come.

To enhance the community experience of Lonelygirl15, which you have already helped to create, we are in the process of building a website centered around video and interactivity. This website will allow everyone to enjoy the full potential of this new medium. Unfortunately, we aren’t programmers. We are filmmakers. We are working furiously to complete the website, and hope to have it up and running shortly.

So, sit tight. You are the only reason for our success, and we appreciate your devotion. We want you to know that we aren’t a big corporation. We are just like you. A few people who love good stories. We hope that you will join us in the continuing story of Lonelygirl15, and help us usher in an era of interactive storytelling where the line between “fan” and “star” has been removed, and dedicated fans like yourselves are paid for their efforts. This is an incredible time for the creator inside all of us.

Some thoughts

Now that i’ve killed the suspense, let me back up and tell you about what happened. For those who aren’t familiar, videos by LonelyGirl15 started appearing on YouTube over the summer. She’s supposedly a teenager who is homeschooled by religious parents who don’t know she’s creating videos online. Her friend Daniel helps her with the videos and they often talk back and forth across their videos. It’s rather endearing but too good to be true.

As more videos popped up, people started questioning whether this was real or not. Speculation mounted and fake lonelygurls started to appear. People created videos to comment on LonelyGirl15. People flocked to the LonelyGirl15 forum to discuss. Problem is the LonelyGirl15 domain was registered before the videos started appearing. People started tracking down more and more clues, trying to hone in on what it was, who was behind it. Suspicion mounted. In classic fan style, people dove right down and tore apart all of the data. Quite a few thought that this was an ARG, Jane McGonigal style, but she denied involvement on NPR. Others thought it was an advert or some marketing campaign.

The clues people dug up were fascinating. Personally, i was intrigued by “Bree’s” MySpace profile. I knew it was fake but i didn’t know if the YouTube LonelyGirl15 made the MySpace profile LonelyGurl15. Why did i know it was fake? Well, i read too many teenage MySpaces. Not sure i should give away clues as to how to create a real-looking fake MySpace profile. ::wink::

Then press started covering it. Hands down, The New York Times had the best coverage. I can’t help but wonder if the NYTimes knew the truth because they are certainly using the same language: “Hey There, Lonelygirl – One cute teen’s online diary is probably a hoax. It’s also the birth of a new art form.” If so, go Adam for good reporting!

I like the idea that it is an art form but i also think it’s part of what Henry Jenkins calls Convergence Culture. Regardless, it’s super cool that people are using new media to create narratives. They are telling their story, truth or fiction. Of course, this makes many people very uncomfortable. They want blogs and YouTube and MySpace to be Real with a capital R. Or they want it to be complete play. Yet, what’s happening is both and neither. People are certainly playing but even those who are creating “reality” are still engaged in an act of performance. They are writing themselves into being for others to interpret and the digital bodies that emerge often confound those who are doing the interpretation. In many ways, this reminds me of the Fakester drama during the height of Friendster. As one of the instigators behind the Fakester manifesto explained, “none of this is real.” I won’t get all existential on you so we’ll leave it at that.

In many ways, i have to admit that i’m sad that the truth is out. I was really enjoying the suspicion. Far more than any episode of Lost or reality TV show. I was enjoying not knowing who was behind it and spending hours speculating and trying to find hints. I was enjoying watching a community of people talk endlessly about what they thought might be going on. Sure, the videos were quite endearing (although the ending of Poor Pluto disturbed the hell out of me) but do i just want to watch the videos by themselves? I’m not sure. I think i liked them for the mystery.

Regardless, i absolutely love the way people are using all of these new social technologies to create cultural experiments. To me, this signifies the importance of social media.

Update: The LATimes is reporting that emails concerning the site come from the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a talent agency in Beverly Hills. (Perhaps i wasn’t as off as i thought?)

Update (9/13): The NYTimes has the full story. Bree is Jessica Rose, a 20-ish film student. LG15 is a 4-person production meant to create intrigue.

Update (9/16): For anyone who is interested in this topic, i’d suggest checking out Henry Jenkins’ entry on astroturf, humbugs, and Lonely Girl and Jane McGonigal’s entry on not fetishizing participation.

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