Monthly Archives: April 2008

MacArthur Forum talk on “Teen Socialization Practices in Networked Publics”

Last Wednesday, I gave a talk in Palo Alto as part of the MacArthur Forum “From MySpace to Hip Hop” alongside the rest of the Digital Youth Research Team. I’m still waiting on the videos and as soon as I have them, I will post them. In the meantime, I thought that I’d share my crib from the talk. For those of you who know my work, much of this will be familiar. Still, it’s a pretty good overview of my project. Enjoy!

“Teen Socialization Practices in Networked Publics”

UPDATE: The videos are now up on YouTube: MySpace to Hip Hop, A MacArthur Forum, 04.23.08

I Want You To Want Me

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar currently have a fascinating visualization up at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art called “I Want You To Want Me.” This beautiful video showcases the piece and its various movements. In short, they’ve taken profile content from online dating sites and used it to construct an image of humanity through their tastes, desires, self-descriptions, and ideas about the world. This is an interactive visualization on a touch-screen, allowing viewers to navigate through people’s self-expressions, all represented as bubbles with people trapped inside. The piece is currently on display at the MOMA and will be until May 12. If you get to check it out, tell me what it’s like to play with it since I’ll only get to see the video. (Silly dissertation.)

I love that Harris and Kamvar use dating material to reflect society. I think that such expressions of intimacy are perfect for getting at the diversity and commonality of humanity. This also makes me think of Golan Levin, Kamal Nigam, and Jonathan Feinberg’s The Dumpster which is an interactive visualization of the romantic breakups of American teenagers as seen through their blogs.

I’m in awe of all of these artists and their ability to create such engaging interactive visualizations of social data. Yummy tasty goodness.

my creative environment

Anil Dash asked folks to tell him about their work environments, about what the environment is like where they feel most creative. In a moment of procrastination, I responded and I thought I’d share. If you’re so inclined, I’d love to know what is on the other side of your computer. I do love to hear how people’s lives are organized.

Two weeks before I hunkered down to write my last mega treatise, all of my CDs were stolen from my car. I whimpered on a mailing list and this super kind guy burned off 200 of the ones I lost and sent them to me. That week, I also bought the new Son Kite album. I took the 201 CDs with me to the cottage where I hibernated. One small problem… the CD player in the house in the middle of the woods did not play burned CDs. So, for 10 days, I listened to one CD on repeat: Son Kite’s “Perspectives Of.”

Ever since then, whenever I hunker down to write something longer than a blog post, including all of my articles and most of my essays, I mostly ignore the other 10,000 songs in my iTunes and play Son Kite. On repeat. Every once in a while, I expand out a little bit.. some Dr. Toast here, bluetech there, a little Antix, Ticon and Vibrasphere. But it mostly comes back to Son Kite.

To separate serious writing from anything else (since I never leave my house), I switch to more organic sounds. Blog posts get a little jazz, a little downtempo. When I am emotional and need to just run around the house screaming as a coping mechanism for writing, I turn on Ani DiFranco. Anyone who has followed my Last.FM lately probably realizes that there’s been a lot of screaming.

As for environment, my living room (a.k.a. office) has been the same for years. Two fuzzy green couches with 5 separate sitting options. Legs up on fuzzy stool. Surrounded by 1200 books, organized obsessively by topics and catalogued in a database for easy locating… a dozen or so sitting on the couch beside me. Lots of plants, all organic colors, no TV or monitor of any kind. A big calming buddha statue that weighs over 200 pounds and a variety of paintings from friends and travels. Huge windows with lots of light streaming in and birds chirping outside. Candles for nighttime. Twelve different lights that can be combined in different ways in relation to my mood. No fluorescents, all incancesdents.. I love the environment, but lighting really affects my productivity. Most importantly, my cat Marbellio sits on my left side or above my head on the windowsill all day while I work.

I’ve transported this setup to four different apartments since 2002. I can’t work in offices or anywhere where the lighting is headache producing. I can’t work at desks. I’m not so good at working without books surrounding me or my cat purring next to me. Environment really really matters when it comes t me producing anything of value.

Palestinian girls, dating, and the mobile phone

Last fall, Hiyam Hijazi-Omari and Rivka Ribak presented a paper called “Playing With Fire: On the domestication of the mobile phone among Palestinian teenage girls in Israel” at AOIR. They studied teen girls who received their mobile phones from their boyfriends and hid them from everyone else. Through this lens, they examine how the mobile phone alters social dynamics, relationships, and the construction of gender in Palestine. In short, they document how culturally specific gendered practices (not technological features) frame the meaning and value of technology.

All too often, we think of technology as empowering or restricting. We focus on the technology and its features rather than the ways in which it gets embedded in the lives of people. The phone has always been a gendered technology. (If you have any doubts, read Claude Fischer’s “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.”) While the story of the mobile is quite different, even the tensions between its use as a business tool and its use as a tool for family communications have been narrated through the lens of gender.

Palestinian boys give their girlfriends phones for the express purpose of being able to communicate with them in a semi-private manner without the physical proximity that would be frowned on. At the same time, girls know that parents do not approve of them having access to such private encounters with boys – they go to great lengths to hide their mobiles and suffer consequences when they are found out. While the boys offered these phones as a tool of freedom, they often came with a price. Girls were expected to only communicate with the boy and never use the phone for any other purpose. In the article, Hijazi-Omari and Ribak quote one girl as expressing frustration over this and saying “I did not escape prison only to find myself another prison.” These girls develop fascinating practices around using the phone, hiding from people, and acquiring calling cards.

For teens, the mobile phone is a key device for negotiating intimate relations throughout the world. Studies done in the U.S., Jamaica, Japan, the U.K. and elsewhere all point to the ways in which teens negotiate private relationships using their mobiles. Mobiles are a critical tool for being in a relationship. Yet, most of our studies focus on the ways in which offline intimacies are extended across space and time through the mobile. What Hijazi-Omari and Ribak are finding with Palestinian girls is that the mobile is allowing them to have private encounters and relationships when these would be otherwise impossible.

This article helps elucidate the ways in which youth from different cultures are navigating social relations through the mobile. It is well-written and filled to the brim with fascinating data that tickles the brain. A must read for anyone interested in cultural difference involving the mobile!

After the storm…

After deciding that I couldn’t go to New Orleans for V-Day because of my dissertation, I started having pangs of regret. At the last moment, I called up my former colleagues and told them that I bought a last minute flight and would fly down there to be at their beck and call. I realized that I would forever hate myself for failing to go help in New Orleans.

I didn’t go to New Orleans to sit and watch the talks and enjoy the food. This is probably a good thing since I didn’t see a single talk or eat a single beignet or poboy. I landed at midnight and began working at 1AM. I worked 20 hour days for the next two days, eating whatever food ended up in my hands by accident. I worked my ass off and, even though I’m sore and emotionally exhausted, I don’t regret one minute of it.

V-Day’s 10th Anniversary was something special. I don’t even know where to begin. There were the dozens of international activists that we flew in to have them tell their stories, activists we had spotlighted over the years – women from Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, Kenya, etc. Next year, our spotlight will be the Democratic Republic of Congo and with us this year was Dr. Mukwege from the Congo. He is part of the V-Men movement and was given an award for his work. He reconstructs women’s vaginas after they’ve been brutally torn to pieces while being raped during war. He has reconstructed hundreds of women and his work never ends.

We helped 1200 women who were victims of Katrina return to New Orleans for the first time since the storm. On the first morning, we stood in a line and hugged them and welcomed them. Thus began the tears. And oh the stories, dear god the stories. There were also thousands more women, Katrina Warriors who came to the Super Dome for the event. Many had unbelievably dreadful stories of what it was like to live in the Super Dome after the storm. After the storm… After the storm… So many sentences began with “after the storm.” What followed moved me in every which way and then some. Heartwarming stories of neighbors working together. Terrifying stories of being stopped from leaving New Orleans or the Super Dome by police officers and military. Personal stories about losing loved ones. A story of a dog rescued and then the rescuer refusing to give her back to her owner. Frustrating stories about FEMA. Oh, FEMA. No one had a single nice thing to say about FEMA. Asking local women about FEMA was kinda like asking a teacher about NCLB. Anger seethes through every pour.

The focus of this V-Day was obviously the women of the gulf south. The Super Dome was transformed to be a positive space for these women. Women of the Gulf South were treated to massages, aromatherapy, beauty treatments, yoga, and health services. All for free. Thousands and thousands of women showed up.

I played beck and call girl, doing what was needed whenever it was needed. I shuttled things from one place to another, tracked down activists, helped women get services. I held the hands of women who needed to be heard, hugged women who were in tears and needed to be validated, and even stood and took it when women needed to yell at me out of frustration. Many of these women needed to hear that someone cared. Many were at their wit’s end. The stories of suicide in New Orleans continue. The horror stories of bankruptcy and loss, alienation and disease continue. The victims of Katrina feel abandoned. And for good reason. As a nation, we have abandoned them. And it breaks my soul into pieces. I am embarrassed by my country, by our willingness to let this situation go untreated.

My friend I.S. keeps telling me that things down there are really bad, still really bad. I only half believed her. I mean, I heard it but I didn’t get it. On my way to the airport, a taxi driver drove me around town, including to where the levees broke. He used to work as an engineer in the chemical plant. It hasn’t reopened so he now drives a cab. He showed me how bad things still were, told me stories. There’s still spray-paint on the houses marking the dead. The mold is still visible and you can see through houses, or what was once a house and is now a crumbled shadow of a house. There are people who have rebuilt but most of their neighbors haven’t, creating a truly eerie feeling around there, especially in the rich neighborhood right under where the levee broke. The taxi driver explained how they patched the levee in a way that was strong and secure; he then showed me the difference. But next he sighed, pointing out that the levee is bound to break at a new point with the next storm. Until the levee is rebuilt, it’s going to keep on happening. It could be fixed, but well, the government…

On the first evening of the event, we showcased a play called “Swimming Upstream” by a group of local New Orleans’ writers about what it was like to live through Katrina. All true stories. Powerful, painful. Stories of neighbors, stories of friends… positive and horrifying. Once again, not a single nice thing to say about the government. I started getting a picture of just how corrupt and fucked up FEMA really was.

The second night was a production of The Vagina Monologues. After helping out backstage until curtain, I finally got a moment to sit down. I watched the show. I cried and I cried and I cried. The new pieces were all so amazing. And the gift to the Congo Doctor. And the local gospel choir. And then there was the final monologue… It was supposed to be played by Oprah but she was sick. It didn’t matter though because the woman who played it was far better than Oprah. The piece was called “Hey Miss Pat” and it was performed by Liz Mikel, a young actress Eve met in her travels. The piece was about an older New Orleans woman who cooked for all of her neighbors. It was telling the story of Katrina from the POV of someone who prided herself in taking care of her community… whose community was gone because of Katrina. It was heart-wrenching and Mikel had all of us in tears. Then, when it ended, Eve Ensler got on stage to thank Mikel. And then she told the audience that a special guest was here tonite – the real Miss Pat. Mikel gasped and said, “Oh my Lord!” before bursting out in tears, bringing the audience with her as the real Miss Pat came up on stage to hug her. What it was like at that moment…

I don’t have the language to capture the sheer energy of the women involved with and participating in the V-Day events this year. All I can say is that the event moved me more than I’ve been moved in a long, long time. And I am so grateful to have been able to help. And I’m so grateful to be a part of V-Day. Until the violence stops.

musing about social networks and g/local cultures

While taking a break from my dissertation to do my taxes, my mind wandered back to my data. I started reflecting on how the new suburbia* parents I met when interviewing teens knew few other adults in their community. They knew other adults in passing – fellow churchgoers, parents of kids’ friends, etc. but many didn’t really socialize outside the family. Explanations always seemed to boil down to time, but I couldn’t help but wonder if lack of interest was also part of it. One parent complained that it was more fun when there were playdates because she could choose which adults to hang out with; when her kids started making their own friends, dealing with other parents became a nuisance. In thinking about who these parents knew in their communities, I started wondering about the diversity of the people they were likely to know.

My mind then began chewing on the importance of knowing people in your community to being invested in “buy local” rhetoric. In my social circles, “support your local XYZ” is a collective mantra that is more abstract the experiential. I don’t know my local farmer, store owner, bookkeeper, etc. but there is an ethos that I should support them anyways. What happens when that ethos doesn’t exist? People are expected to be outraged that box stores are costing their neighbors their jobs, but what if you don’t know your neighbors let alone the people who own the local stores? Lacking that personal connection or liberal guilt, doesn’t it make sense to save money instead of support local?

In many of the middle class new suburbia communities I visited, many of the cash registers at box stores were worked by teenagers. What if parents are more likely to find someone they know at the cash register of a box store (a kids’ friend) than a local one? What’s the likelihood of building a long-standing connection with the waiter, grocer, movie ticket guy, person behind the cash register, etc.? Given the general turnover of jobs like this, what’s the likelihood that the front-facing people of a store are likely to be there the next year? And if you don’t know the owner, all you know is who works at the front. [Older folks seemed to be much more likely to visit establishments frequently where they build long-lasting relations with local folks while the “no time” parents didn’t appear to be doing that.]

It seems to me that kids have much more extensive and diverse local networks than their parents. But these networks are age-based, meaning that they knew other teens. When these teens talked about the ideal places to work as a student, they talked about working in box stores or Starbucks or the mall because they valued larger stores where other teens worked the same shift and where it was likely that other teens would come and visit them. They certainly weren’t fighting for local small business to stay.

I know that the above observations are way overgeneralized, but this is a musing not an academic report… It’s quite possible that these observations don’t hold up more broadly – I didn’t collect enough data to say either way. Still, I couldn’t help but thinking about that observation as a side thought.

And I can’t help but wonder about how different social network structures in different communities might have a lot to do with issues behind local vs. global. If you’re more likely to know people globally than locally, why be invested in local business? (Ignoring for the obvious long-term implications that are too abstract to be felt in comparison to the immediate wallet impact.) This could especially be true if you don’t expect to live in a community for the rest of your life. How much do mobility and homophilous connections result in not building enough local social solidarity to sustain local business? Perhaps there is no correlation between community social network structures and investment in local businesses, but I can’t help but wonder if there is. It would seem to make sense, no?

Anyhow, random late night musings…

* Its important to distinguish between new and old suburbia. My observations explicitly concern new suburbia where entire neighborhoods of people have been living in their house for under 5 years, where neighborhoods are rigidly planned and yet structured to permit next to zero neighbor interaction or child play space, where cars are needed to get a carton of milk, where walking gets you nowhere and there aren’t sidewalks anyhow, etc. Old suburbia tends to be extremely functional and not have the same social or community dynamics.

does work/life balance exist?

Reading the NYTimes over my Puffins (yes, I failed at staving off that addiction), I noticed this article: In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop. The article is painfully sensationalist and fails to really highlight the core issue regarding blog culture: bloggers do it cuz they wanna and cuz they lurve it. By and large, blogging is part of geek culture. Just like those who code, bloggers go late into the night doing their thing out of passion. Personally, my health improved when I switched from coding to blogging. I no longer down 2 2-liter bottles of Mt. Dew every day. I now have a gym membership and visit semi-often. And if you think that I’m pale now…

Underneath the sensationalism, there’s a core point here: those who are passionate about what they do do it to extremes. And when there’s the perception of a race (even if it’s self-imposed), it’s far too easy to take the extremes over the edge. I certainly spent my 20s running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying not to miss a single thing. It wasn’t for my blog per say – it was for “research.” I had to know everything the moment that it happened and I followed web developments like a hawk. My blog turned into the space where I spewed all of my pent-up energy out.

I can’t help but wonder if all of this is leading us down a dangerous path. The young and highly motivated turn into self-competing workaholics, often fueled by stimulants – legal (e.g., coffee), illegal (e.g., cocaine), and prescription (e.g., Provigil). Older folks and those who want to “have a life” look at this insanity with horror and back quietly away trying not to startled the hopped up beasts.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t playing into professional culture more broadly. Increasingly, only those bent on workaholism are valued as employees. Those who don’t push it to extremes are disregarded as lazy in many industries. There is pressure to work 24/7 and there are plenty of folks who take this seriously, even if it’s not in their best interests let alone the rest of society’s. I get so ravingly mad at my (primarily male) colleagues who work 14 hour days even though they have small children that they never see. It’s one thing to be a workaholic as a single 20-something; it’s another thing to be a workaholic as a parent. I get to see the flipside of that one – teens starved for attention, desperate to please in the hopes of being given attention and validation.

The problem is that the corporate world values workaholism. Those who do pull away from 24/7 lifestyles “because they’re getting older” find that there is huge ageism in many sectors of American business. If you can’t work 24/7, you aren’t getting that promotion. Fuck your kids, fuck your family, fuck your life. That ain’t so good for any of us and it seems like a recipe for disaster. It’s one thing to get paid many millions of dollars as a sports star, knowing that you’ll burn out by the end of your 20s and can then “retire.” It’s another thing to get paid an upper middle class wage only to burn out with no savings.

Of course, I’m saying this from the POV of a workaholic who is trying to ween her way off of that lifestyle. Or rather, is hoping to ween her way off of that lifestyle once the dissertation is over. And who realizes that she’s said that at every stage like an addict – I’ll do it when XYZ. But still, I can’t help but wonder – is it possible to really be in the flow and have work/life balance? Or will I find that, at the end of the day, I have to walk away from my work culture to have a life?


Due to my (::gasp::) graduation, I will not be able to attend Berkman@10, but YOU SHOULD. Berkman is the fabulous Center for Internet and Society at Harvard where I’m a fellow. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary (wow, everyone’s turning 10) with a 2-day conference (May 15, 16) called THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET and a bunch of lead-up events. Speakers at the conference include Jonathan Zittrain, Jimmy Wales, John Palfrey, Esther Dyson, Yochai Benkler, and lots more. There will be breakouts and plenty of opportunity to meet and socialize. The agenda is here. You gotsta register.

I am uber jealous of those of you who get to attend. If it weren’t for graduation and family-ness, I would definitely be there. But family trumps.