Monthly Archives: October 2005

“You are bidding on a mistake”

“You are bidding on a mistake” is the beginning of the description for the auction of these leather pants on eBay. The description goes on to explain how this man came to make the mistake of buying these pants (involves a girl) and why you should buy these pants (because you’re into Queen, a rock star, gay, a biker or a Frenchman). There’s nothing better to make you smile than to read someone’s creative approach to trying to sell their crap.

The question/answers are particularly hysterical (and offensive):

Q: I’m confused, is Donna Karan a rock star or a transvestite?
A: It’s a very fine line, really.

playful visualization

Yesterday, Martin Wattenberggave a talk at Berkeley about his work. I’ve heard him talk before but never about the Baby Name Wizard’s Name Voyager. After launching it, bloggers picked it up and spread it like a meme around the web. Martin decided to surf the thousands of blogs talking about it and found that people documented their exploration. In terms of user studies, this is *fantabulous*. All of a sudden, you have thousands of people testing the system in their own homes, for their own purposes and reporting on it in the process of sharing the toy. What is super cool is how people play with the system, collaboratively trying to find interesting data (think Googlewhacking). These are the kinds of things that you can never really test in a laboratory, but are the essence of people’s engagement with interesting systems.

People often talk about visualizations having no value, but it is times like this when i want to balk. What does it mean that people want to play with data? What does it mean to support play instead of pure information access? Of course, this is part of the argument that Jeff and i made in our Vizster paper for InfoVis. Martin just confirmed it and took it to the next level. Well, actually bloggers took it to the next level and made data visible to Martin.

The work-centered mentality of HCI kills me… it’s always about the task, about productivity, about goals. Whenever i balk at activity theory mentality and talk about play, people tell me that play is a productive task with goals. Gah! No it is not! Play is about exploration, curiosity, fun, alternate realities, culture, identity… What if we make visualization about play?

Recently, i’ve also become completely addicted to the Information Aesthetics blog – post after post of beautiful data visualization. I realize that i want to play with those systems, even when i don’t care about the data.

And what about when we learn to play through visualization? Martin talked about Thinking Machine 4 which visualizes how the computer is thinking about chess. I actually don’t know how to play chess but i sat and played with that applet for quite some time before i realized i should be doing other things. Could that system teach me strategy, teach me to play by letting me see the game from a different dimension?

::sigh:: Whenever i see Martin’s work or the work of Fernanda Viegas, i long to be making visualizations again. There’s nothing more magical than watching data take flight and they make it look so elegant and beautiful. If only it didn’t involve programming…

fucked up blog mash up

Upon doing an ego search in Technorati, i came across a disturbing blog: Dominos Pizza. One entry begins with “I talked on the phone today (why yes, I do still use analog communication media‚Ķ) with danah boyd.” At first, i was like no you didn’t. And then i was like, wait, i know that statement. It comes from a post on mamamusings. But it’s not the whole post. And then i started searching for parts of the rest of the entry and figured out that it’s a mash up of different blog entries from different places. No citations, no references. All just out of place. There’s no clear link spamming going on (although there are some strange linkings). There is though a statement about why Dominos Pizza is the best (which makes me cringe since i’ve been boycotting them for 8 years running given that the CEO funds violent anti-abortion organizations).

So what gives? Any other sleuth out there have a good sense of what this blog is about? Weird weird weird.

remix is active consumption not production (when media becomes culture, part 2)

After great comments and good conversations, i want to take a second stab at explaining the shift i was asking for wrt copyright and remix. My argument is that we stop thinking of remix as production, but as active consumption. Remix happens as a bi-product of consumption. What we’re remixing is culture and the active consumption of culture is part of identity development and living as a social creature in society.

Think about clothing consumption. Few people buy all of the items on the mannequin. You buy different pieces and mix and mash them. You might even decide to alter them by adding patches, by dying them, by cutting them up. You make the clothing yours. And then you share your consumption with the world by parading on the streets. In this way, you make the clothing tell your story. (tx Kevin Bjorke)

Think about IKEA consumption. Isn’t it great that they lay out entire rooms for you to look at? Do any of you have rooms that are exactly like the ones in IKEA? You take furniture, you mix and mash it up until it suits you. You may paint it, you may add a different bedspread, you’ll add your own books. You then invite your friends over to show them what you’ve done.

Are you expected to consume clothing or IKEA exactly as prescribed? No. These items are made to be personalized, made to be altered to meet your needs.

So what is fan fiction? I take a story and i alter it to tell my story. What is hip hop remix? I take a bunch of different sounds and put them together in a way not prescribed by the mannequin.

From clothing to songs, we consume and we connect it to our lives. We’ve always done this with media. We’ve made collages out of magazines, we’ve put together pieces of songs in a new sequence for our friends. Of course, now, the cultural bits that we consume are more accessible Lego blocks. It’s possible to play with them in new ways. And there are so many more choices that we can be really creative with that play. We can consume culture in new ways and what we shit out in that process actually gets to be digested and mixed together with other bits of culture that we consumed.

There’s a problem though and that has to do with distribution. When i parade around the public square in my remix of the Gap and Nike (well,…), i am sharing my remix with the world. Yet, there’s nothing persistent or searchable about it. What happens when my friends snap a photo of me? They are making the remix more permanent but, still, no one from those megacorps sees what i’ve done. What happens when my friends sell that picture to the tabloids for a bazillion dollars because Britney and her new baby are also in the photo? And they are also wearing a different remix of various megabrands? I wasn’t remixing clothing for distribution. Of course, even that does happen. Ever seen pictures of celebrities in magazines where it says the top was made by Ralph Lauren and the skirt was made by Versace or whatever?

When Jonah Peretti sent his conversation with Nike to a few friends, was he distributing it? What about when it got forwarded to millions of people and got him spots on TV? In digital world, our intentions and the potential results might not be the same. You might be speaking to six people in your blog. It might feel like the town square but what happens when millions of people apparate there like it’s a Quidditch match? Only witches know this instant appearance of beyond imaginable audiences with some of them under invisibility cloaks. Yet, online, we’re living like witches. Is it distribution when we’re performing to beyond imaginable publics and lots of people are taking pictures?

What about when we’re intending to share to our friends just like we’ve always done? Why do corporate interests get to tell us that our sharing with our friends is now bad even though we’ve ALWAYS done it? Is this only because they get to be the voyeur in the room? Who gave them that right? Sure, it’s a new public, but yuck. I can’t imagine growing up with a RIAA rep perched in my school bathroom.

A huge part of the identity process is to consume culture, mix it and personalize it, and share that with our friends because it has identity implications. We even share in public so that we can get parents to scrunch up their noses. Just because technology puts the elephant in every room imaginable, why do we have to accept their dictation of how we should consume their products? Why can’t we consume for identity, for culture, for life? Why can’t we recognize that remixes are active consumption where we’ve made culture personal and for our friends? We live in a world where accidental distribution is always possible, where everyone has the potential to be a celebrity in public – everyone wants to copy them. That’s weird. But that doesn’t mean that the acts we’re doing aren’t what we’ve always done. We just have different technologies now but the practice hasn’t changed.

san francisco housing market

Driving from Mission Dolores to Noe on Sunday, i saw over a dozen different “Open House” signs for houses for sale. On one corner, a block from the park, there was literally an open house sign on each corner. Baroo? Walking around on Monday, i saw a bunch of For Sale signs. And then today, two more popped up on my way to work. What on earth is going on? It’s October, not May. I’ve never seen so many For Sale signs in this city, let alone a bazillion in my shi-shi neighborhood.

Now, i don’t know shit about housing markets except that San Francisco’s is terrifying and that it costs a lot more to buy than to rent on a monthly basis, even if you can get a 20% downpayment together.

Are things actually erupting? I always thought the bubble conversation was bullshit. But what is going on? Why are there soooo many houses for sale?

somewhere in-between the ALA and Google is harmony

As far back as i can remember, i’ve found utter joy in being able to understand opposing points of view. Most of the time, this is useful in being a mediator between two warring individuals or groups; i used to wonder if should become a shrink. But, this week, i had the fortunate opportunity to hear two institutions talk past each other: American Library Association (Michael Gorman) and Google (Sergey Brin).

Let me back up… I was invited to Keynote at the ALA’s Library and Information Technology Association national conference. At first, i was befuddled – why me? And then, when i looked at the other keynotes, i knew i was in trouble. I was sandwiched between someone speaking about “how librarians can still vanquish Googlezon and win back our rightful place as the guardians of the world’s knowledge and all that is good” and Michael Gorman (the President of the ALA who upset quite a few people with his essay on “those blog people”). Oh shit. So, i prepared and delivered a call-to-arms-esque talk. By and large, i think it went over well. Some people were upset that i was critical of members of the community as an outsider; others were ecstatic that i was challenging the status quo. The biggest disagreement was over whether or not Google, as a corporate entity, can really do the same kind of work as librarians. I argued that money always biases and limits but librarians are more indebted to their funders than Google is to theirs. Still, i understand their point and frustration, which i tried to make clear in my talk and in answering questions afterwards.

After my talk, Michael Gorman of the ALA gave his keynote. OMG, i wanted to die. At some point, he started talking about the Tower of Babel and how we need to return humanity to a common language. So much of his idea of librarianship is focused on control and power. He talked about how Google returned terrible results that no one wanted because it was all so random. Librarians know how to give you value. Gah.

And then, today, Sergey Brin of Google appeared in my Search class as a surprise guest (webcast will be posted). I realized i had never heard him talk except for when i was working for the company and then, he could say whatever he wanted. In public, he was clearly trying to negotiate what he was and was not allowed to say. He made quite a few in the audience twitch over their response to China. Still, i understand (although don’t always agree with) the stance that some in China is better than none. He really rattled some feathers though with his response to the semantic web, tagging and librarianship. He took the techno-centric point of view that is so Google. Tagging inverts the relationship between man and machine. Tagging is only of interest and valuable if machines do it. Technology is just as good as experts and it’s a waste of the expert’s time to bother trying. (A good quote from this section was “Experiments like Esperanto have failed.”) One of my professors was really outraged by all of this – i thought his head was going to blow off. God it was painful. Will Google ever understand that culture has value? I guess not so long as technodeterminism is profitable. Gah.

So in less than a week, i got to see the most stubborn and power-hungry sides of two institutions who see no value in the other. And yet, so many of those in the trenches want to build bridges because we know that there are important lessons to learn. Yet, there are issues of prestige, power and money. The Google boys would definitely rather re-invent the field than learn from the librarians. The old skool librarians would rather stick to their ways than acknowledge that there are reasons why search companies have reached the mainstream. I understand where both side is coming from but their stubbornness and lack of foresight is excruciating. I find myself wanting to shake them both.

Somewhere in-between the ALA and Google there is harmony, but i wonder if they’ll ever be able to find it. Right now, i’m so thankful to be at a school of information that revels in the possibilities of technology and a search company that understands the culture has value. If i had to deal with the top of the pyramid at either the ALA or Google, i’d want to shoot myself on a daily basis. Instead, i want to circumvent both in order to innovate.