Monthly Archives: February 2008

LiveJournal Advisory Board

I have exciting news. I’ve decided to join the advisory board of LiveJournal. It’s been brewing for a while, but it became official today. (Today seems to be the day for announcing things that have been brewing for a while…)

Anyone who has been following my work for a while knows that I heart LiveJournal with a passion. I’ve been on LJ in one form or another since 1999/2000 and it’s still the only community that I check in with daily for personal purposes. While I love LJ personally, I also deeply respect its history professionally. From its earliest years, LJ was home to many thriving subcultures: geeks, playa obsessed freaks, queers, goths, fans, camgirls, and even post-structural feminist cultural studies scholars. Because I’ve identified with or dated members of each of these subcultures, I’ve ended up back at LJ time and time again. Of course, LJ is much more than its subcultures. LJ is also home to teenagers, Russian activists, literary aficionados, knitters, and many many more. Like the community systems of the early web, LJ brings together communities around shared passions. Like contemporary social network sites, LJ serves as a hangout space for friends. Combined, LJ is one of the most powerful tools for people to gather, share, communicate, connect, and chill.

As much as I love LiveJournal, it has not been without drama. From the early days of camgirls to the fights between SixApart and fanfic folk, the various LJ communities have been active in defining what LJ should be about and what community identity looks like. The cultures that flourish inside LJ are vibrant, but often happily underground. Part of what makes LJ the ideal home for this is that LJ has some of the best tools for communicating and negotiating audience (think privacy features). When SixApart bought LJ back in 2005, I wrote a panicked essay called “Turmoil in Blogland” (published in Salon). I was worried that the well-intentioned folks at SixApart meant well, but didn’t understand what the cultures of LJ looked like. While they didn’t do that bad by LJ, their fights with the community over monetization and censorship showed that they were in over their heads. Not surprisingly, each incident incited a revolt by passionate LJers determined to stand up for what they believe. Each time, I couldn’t help grinning. I do love subcultural passion. At the same time, the last round of fanfic revolts saddened me. I understand why there are many who want to up and leave LJ, but I also feel as though much will be lost if they do. Given that LJ is not a psycho corporation and that I think most people on the inside wanna do what’s right, I kept wishing that LJ and its subcultural participants would find a way to resolve their issues.

Then, in December, I learned that SixApart was selling LiveJournal to the Russian company SUP. I have to admit that I panicked a bit. I knew that SUP had been pretty good to the Russian continent (having been running it for over a year), but I didn’t think they knew diddly squat about the communities that I loved dearly. I was also terrified of some logistics wrt the acquisition; Russia’s not exactly known for being a liberal nation state. Within days of the sale, one of the SUP founders (Andrew Paulson) contacted me. He had read my concerned blog post as well as my old essay on LJ. He asked if we could meet to discuss the future of LJ. He wanted to know if I had questions that he might be able to address and advice that might help in guiding the transition. We met and the one-hour meeting turned into four, at which point I had to bail out. Our conversation was intense. We debated some issues, educated each other on others. We found commonalities and talked about how we might resolve some of our disagreements. Above all, what struck me was that he was very willing to listen and open to ideas that would help LJ. We talked about how to handle different communities’ needs and how to make sure that activists, outcasts, and rabble rousers would feel safe. In the end, he asked if I would join the advisory board to help guide SUP and LJ in the right direction.

As the advisory board started coming together, I got even more excited. Brad Fitzpatrick, Esther Dyson, Lawrence Lessig… These are all people that I love and trust, that I feel confident will work to protect community interests. SUP has also decided that LiveJournal shall have two positions on the advisory board set aside for user representatives that will be elected by the community (more info on that coming later). To top things off, Jason Shellen will be leading the U.S. LJ product team. (Jason and I worked very closely together at Blogger/Google and I know that I can trust him to be community-minded.) In other words, lots of folks I respect and lots of opportunity for meaningful connections between users and the company.

The mandate of the LJ advisory board is as follows:

  • An international group of informed and trusted thought leaders from the online community, who will advise the management and Board of Directors of LiveJournal Inc in the operation and development of the LiveJournal platform;
  • Charged to meet, discuss, and post their position on the issues that are important to the community. The board will likely discuss a broad range of topics: freedom of speech, privacy, legality, policy, and security, to name only a few;
  • Charged to provide guidance to LiveJournal, Inc. management and the Board of Directors on new issues and controversies as they arise;
  • Charged to speak to and for the users, offering them a voice not only in LiveJournal, Inc., but also on LiveJournal’s role in the world;
  • Charged to oversee ongoing charitable work which the LiveJournal, Inc. Board of Directors supports.

Personally, I wanted to join the advisory board to help bridge gaps between the communities and SUP/LJ (the company). With help from the various communities, I hope that I can represent the passionate users out there. While I want to be able to advise the company to do the right thing, I also know that there will be times when compromises are necessary. My hope is that I can also help the company find the best compromises possible as well as help folks understand how decisions were made. Transparency is critical. Personally, I’m looking forward to the challenge. I believe in LiveJournal, I believe in the users. I want to see LJ be a safe home for those who have inhabited it for so long. New landlords are always a bit daunting, but I do think that these new landlords are well-intentioned and I deeply respect that they’re wanting to connect to the tenants and bring people in to serve as liaisons.

As much as change is always a bit nerve wracking (especially when it comes to community sites), I’m actually looking forward to this transition. I think that SUP gets that fucking with the thriving communities that are living inside LJ is downright stupid. At the same time, I respect that they want to figure out how to grow LJ in ways that don’t negatively affect the current active population. There are lots of issues to be addressed and innovation to be done, but I think that this can be done in a fashion that is beneficial to all stakeholders (including and especially active users). Given the opportunity to help, I just had to say yes.

My private LJ is going to remain private, but I decided to make a new public LJ as well: I’m not sure what all I will use this for, but I will definitely post things relevant to LJ there and be open to communicating with anyone who wants to talk.


The Internet Safety Technical Task Force

Folks who have been following the online safety debates know that the Attorneys General and MySpace agreed to work together and with other relevant social actors to develop a Joint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking Safety. Not surprisingly, they wanted a “neutral” party to lead this endeavor. Guess what? John Palfrey (executive director of the Berkman Center), Dena Sacco (former federal prosecutor in child exploitation cases) and I (the lovable author here) have agreed to co-direct the “Internet Safety Technical Task Force.” Our mandate is to develop recommendations for approaching online safety. The Task Force will bring together a variety of different organizations with different stakes to work out the best approach. Some of the tech companies involved include: MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, Bebo, AOL, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, Linden Lab, Loopt, AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. The Task Force also includes the Attorneys General, organizations dedicated to online safety or children’s safety, and various vendors.

For more info, Berkman issued a press release and the NYTimes offers more info on their site.

Those who know me are probably thinking WTF? It’s true – both online safety issues and anything involving politics tend to agitate me. At the same time, I actually think that I can make a difference by trying to help these different groups find common ground and come up with a solution that will work for them while not further disintegrating the rights and freedoms of youth. As a youth advocate, I feel that I need to not shirk away from these types of things, but get involved so as to make certain that youth’s voices are heard by those trying desperately to protect them. This is not to say that I don’t believe in child safety – oh boy do I ever – but that I also believe that safety efforts can and should be executed in a non-opressive manner. This is what prompted me to agree to co-direct this endeavor with two amazing legal scholars who understand youth issues from complementary points of views. It should be fun, or at least an educational roller coaster. No doubt you’ll hear more about it as we proceed.

For a better sense of my research as it relates to issues of online safety, check out the video/audio/transcript of a panel that I was on last spring with Michele Ybarra, David Finkelhor, and Amanda Lenhart: Just the Facts about Online Youth Victimization (sponsored by the Internet Caucus)

Where HCI comes from (and where it might go)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about HCI (human-computer interaction) and my relationship to that field. I’ve been kinda frustrated with HCI. The name HCI implies that the field is about people’s relationship with machines and the interaction paradigms and designs that enable more efficient or enjoyable connections between the two. Many argue that this is the crux of my research. I’ve been resistant to this because I believe that I study human-human interaction that happens to have a mediated component to it.

This week, a new book appeared in my mailbox: HCI Remixed: Reflections on Works That Have Influenced the HCI Community (eds. Thomas Erickson and David McDonald). This book helped remind me that human-human interaction was part of HCI, even if the field seems not to emphasize that these days.

This book gave me all sorts of smiles. First, I’m a sucker for books of essays where I know half of the authors and drool with respect over the other half. Second, I love books that trace histories that I read long ago while offering fresh perspective and new contextualization. Third, I like books that challenge me to rethink my position on something. Through the perspective of contemporary HCI scholars, this book examines some of the core literature that is at the foundation of HCI and reflects on its relevance today. In walking down this memory lane, I was reminded of the many facets of HCI. There’s the HCI that’s about interfaces. There’s the HCI that’s about development processes, foundational to contemporary industry practice. There’s the HCI that’s about taking computation into the wild while also making it ubiquitous or invisible. There’s the HCI that’s about supporting collaboration and groups. All of these HCIs are in the history of HCI and it’s fun to read these eminent and emergent scholars reflect on the work done in all of these areas. This book made me long for the days when I felt like HCI was my home because it highlights a history that is still relevant to me. (Of course, some of what they discuss – Everett Rogers and Jane Jacobs, for example – goes beyond HCI.)

While this book has unbelievable breadth, my frustration with contemporary HCI often stems from my feeling that it has narrowed its focus over the years. While experimental psychology has been fully embraced by the field, many HCI scholars reject qualitative social science as irrelevant to HCI. There are plenty who embrace it, but the experimental psych approach dominates the conversations and work that does not follow the normative formula tends to not get published. Personally, I’m wary of most publications that make broad claims based on user studies with n=6 CS grad students. (While there are sound reasons for this methodology in certain subfields of psych, most of how it gets executed in HCI scholarship makes my toes curl.) As HCI tries to become a field in its own right, I feel increasingly alienated by it. I stopped going to CHI a few years ago because it no longer felt like my home (and the cost was way prohibitive). I stopped reviewing this year because I felt as though my criticisms were with the methodological approach of the field and thus I was doing a disservice to CHI.

Yet, HCI and its sister CSCW really were the beginnings of thinking about how people communicate in computer-mediated environments and it’s nice to see that history recounted. It’s nice to be reminded that qualitative work really was valued. Much of that seems to have been forgotten in an era of scholarship that requires user tests and design implications to be considered valid. What happened to work that focused on the interaction between humans and computers in the wild? Personally, I love work that analyzes how mega collective action by inhabitants of a system result in behaviors never predicted by the designers. This, unfortunately, doesn’t fit neatly into the build/test/explain cycle that dominates the field; thus, it tends to get published elsewhere. I hear things are changing and HCI is evolving in new ways, especially now that iSchools are starting to engage with the topic. Perhaps this book will remind more folks where HCI came from and open new doors for where it might go.

The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet

When I was last in DC, I had lunch with Daniel Solove and we were talking about book publishing. He had been thinking of making his book downloadable under Creative Commons and I was like DO IT DO IT! This is the kind of book that is sooo relevant so many different audiences who would never hear about it through traditional advertising. My thought is that if it were available online, it could whet folks appetite before buying it (cuz printing it out is painful and reading it online is not wonderful either and your Kindle doesn’t support PDFs). Introducing…

The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet

This book examines the darker side of personal expression and communication online, looking at some of the social costs of what I’m always rambling on about as “persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences.” Our reputation is one of our greatest assets. What happens when our own acts or the acts of others sully that? What role does the technology play in enabling or stopping that? How should the law modernize its approach to privacy and slander to address the networked world?

While this book is written by a professor, it’s written in extremely accessible manner and should be devoured by parents, marketers, technologists, teachers, HR professionals, policy makers, and anyone else who might have a stake in the world of reputation. I also found excerpts helpful for students who are trying to make sense of the costs of their practices. Oh, and it’s a fun read.

If you hate reading from the screen, just go and buy the book. The author and his publisher will thank you.

(Oh, and go Yale University Press! You’re batting well in the CC/open-access publishing baseball game!)

one company, ten brands: lessons from retail for tech companies

Lots of folks are unaware that multiple brands are owned by the same company (e.g., the same company owns Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy). Consumer activists often complain that this practice is deceptive because it tricks consumers into believing that there are big distinctions between brands when, often, the differences are minimal. Personally, while I’d love to see more consumer brand awareness, but I think that brand distinctions play an important role. I just wish that the tech industry would figure this out.

I’m a relatively educated consumer and I’m also one of the most brand-loyal customers out there. When it comes to food and personal care products, many of my brand decisions come down to smell and taste, even when these are completely manufactured in a lab in New Jersey to differentiate soaps, toothpastes, and other products that are chemically identical. I buy All laundry detergent and not other Unilever brands (Surf, Wisk) or P&G brands (Tide, Gain, Cheer) simply because it smells better. When it comes to clothes, fit trumps everything.

In other words, my purchasing decisions are heavily affected by “interface.” (Politics and convenience too…) When a company changes the interface, I get cranky. I’m still cranky with my favorite pretzel brand for eliminating the air bubbles in their pretzels that allowed for more salt to build up. The reason that I’m committed to most consumer brands is not because I love the company. For many products, I’m not even influenced by the lifestyle being sold. I simply love the interface. Luckily, most retail companies get that their interface matters and when they futz with it, they create a separate brand or segment the primary brand into “Original” and “New with XYZ.” In the world of retail, a brand represents its interface. There are interfaces I like, those that I don’t, and those that I’m completely ambivalent about. But the interface often matters a whole lot more than the “features.”

Why do technology companies often fail to understand branding the way retail folks do? Many think that they can change the interface at whim to spice-up their product. They approach user retention as user lock-in, rather than user satisfaction and commitment. They try to shove everyone into the same interface in a one-size-fits-all paradigm that tends to fit few. Why??

Unfortunately, I don’t think that many companies are aware of the limitations of their brands. When they’re flying high, their brands are invincible and extending it to a wide array of products seems natural. Yet, over time, tech companies’ brands get entrenched. Certain users identify with it; others don’t. New products using that brand enter into the market with both cachet and baggage. Yet, tech companies tend to hold onto their brands for dear life and assume users will forget. Foolish.

We all know that youth talk about certain products as “sooo last year.” This tends to cover a genre rather than a brand. Yet, teens also have plenty to say about the brands themselves. Yahoo! and AOL, for example, are for old people. When I asked why they use Yahoo! Mail and AOL Instant Messaging if they’re for old people, they responded by telling me that their parents made those accounts for them. Furthermore, email is for communicating with old people and AIM is “so middle school” and both are losing ground to SNS and SMS. While Microsoft is viewed in equally lame light amongst youth I spoke with, it’s at least valued as a brand for doing work. Yet, even youth who use MSN messenger think that is for old people. Why shouldn’t they? When I logged in just now, the main visual was a woman with white hair sitting on a hospital bed with the caption “10 Vital Questions to Ask Your Doctor.”

Take a look at all of the major portals attempting to reach universal audiences. Now imagine yourself as a teen. Why would you even visit them? Even if you were the rare teen who cared about Autos, Careers & Jobs, Dating & Personals, Finance & Money, Health & Fitness, or Real Estate, one click in and you know that this content is not targeted at you. Even the sites that allow you to “personalize” your modules rarely let you get rid of these or make them relevant to you. To make matters worse, now that these companies are heading towards mobile, they are taking these one-size-fits-all interfaces and cluttering up the phones. Ugg! Why?

I would like to offer two bits of advice to all of the major tech companies out there: 1) Start sub-branding; and 2) Start doing real personalization.

If you’re creating a new product, launch it with a new brand. Put your flagship brand on the bottom of the page, letting people know that this is backed by you – this is not about deception. Advertise it alongside your flagship brand if you think that’ll gain you traction. But let the new product develop a life of its own and not get flattened by a universal brand. Some products should be niche, especially those targeted at youth; while youth are happy to use well-established tools, they also like to distinguish their practices from those of adults and mature into new brands. In other words, they aren’t going to fall to your lock-in for very long. If you’re buying a well-established brand, don’t flatten it, especially if it’s loved by youth. Kudos to Google wrt YouTube; boo to Yahoo! wrt Launch. Even at the coarse demographic level, people are different; don’t treat them as a universal bunch, even if your back-end serves up the same thing to different interfaces.

Personalization is more than skinning and moving modules around. Give me a blank slate and let me add modules that might be relevant to me. Alternatively, make some good initial guesses based on what you know about me and let me modify them from the getgo. Help me find the modules that are most likely to appeal to me – you already have a lot of data on what it is that I do; use it for something that helps me. This is particularly important if there are going to be a bazillion Apps or Gadgets or Widgets out there because I don’t want to comb through the crud. A targeted interface is just as important as a targeted ad.

Above all, understand that no brand is universally loved and one size does not fit all. Most of us look like idiots in XXL shirts and we don’t want our technology interfaces to be XXL. People like brands that fit them like a glove. The tech industry serves up ads this way; why doesn’t it get this when it comes to their own brand? Technology is well positioned to create sub-brands and personalize those brands from there. It’s high time for the tech industry to grow up and start doing so.

no conferences for me… no sxsw, no etech… wah.

No one seems to believe that I’m not going to SXSW or Etech or CHI or any other tech conference this spring. I was hoping to be far enough along in my dissertation to stop by each for a day or so, but it’s not going to happen. Trust me, I really really really wanna. But I’m really really really not going to any tech conferences this spring. That said, you should. Everyone else that I know is going and it’s giving me an achy breaky heart to think about all of the fun that I will miss while I continue to fester in my PJs writing my dissertation. Please, do go, listen to amazing talks, play werewolf, and ask the goddesses of late night partying to support me in finishing my dissertation so that I can join you in the fall.

(I will still be attending the iSchool conference because my committee will be there.)

Trade: Brilliant film about sex trafficking

Unrelated to my research, I recently met a teen activist from a local high school. She runs a student group called “Students Against Human Trafficking.” Tonight, her group put together a screening of the 2007 film Trade at a local movie theater, followed by a discussion with the producer.

Now, I watch a lot of film and I pay attention to what’s coming out that deals with serious matters, but I was completely unaware of this film. And yet, it was stunning. Heartbreaking, moving, jawdropping. Unfortunately, the film was only released in 25 cities, was not advertised, and was pulled two weeks after release so most people who should see it didn’t. Gosh darn it, I hate when the studios get cagey about serious films and fail to actually promote them like they should. Anyhow, the film is now on DVD and I want to encourage everyone to see it. It’s haunting, but definitely worth it. And it will definitely make you think.

“Trade” depicts the global dynamic of sex trafficking, focusing on the role that American demand plays in the perpetuation of this insidious business. The film centers on the story of a young Mexican boy who is on the edge of becoming a thug himself when his younger sister is abducted and trafficked, eventually to be sold through an Internet sex slave auction. Through luck, he ends up running into a cop (Kevin Kline) who is trying to make sense of this business and reluctantly agrees to help him find his sister. Weaving together the stories of people who are abducted or experience the emotional devastation of sex trafficking, this film is a brilliant although disturbing portrait of a real life criminal business. An absolutely must-see. Haunting, yet important.

If you’d prefer a more serious approach to this horrific topic, I also recommend checking out the PBS documentary on Lives For Sale. (My cousin-in-law was involved in the production of this piece.) This film steps back to think about the dark side of illegal immigration and the black market trade in human beings.

Who clicks on ads? (Revisited with data)

Two months ago, I ruffled some feathers with a post called Who clicks on ads? And what might this mean? Lacking any good public research, I pointed to a blog post by an AOL Global Advertising Strategy guy talking about research they did on AOL ad clickers. The report was by no means generalizable to all ad clickers, but it made a significant point: ad clickers are not representative of the population at large. Still, there were folks that were annoyed that I wasn’t pointing to public data, especially when I continued on to make my own hypotheses about who these heavy clickers are.

This week, in a study called “Natural Born Clickers,” Starcom USA, Tacoda, and comScore found that “the 6% of the online population accounting for most of the click-throughs skews toward male Internet users ages 25 to 44 with household income under $40,000.” [see news brief; anyone have the full report?] “The study also found that their heavy clicking did not reflect high spending levels offline. They were also more likely to visit auction, gambling and career sites. The findings suggest that high click-through rates don’t necessarily boost branding campaigns.” In other words, “the click is dead.”

This study finds that the age and gender of heavy clickers differs from what the AOL report found. (This probably says more about AOL users than anything else.) Yet, their findings also support (but do not confirm) a portion of my initial hypothesis that heavy clickers are:

  • More representative of lower income households than the average user.
  • Less educated than the average user (or from less-educated environments in the case of minors).
  • More likely to live outside of the major metro regions.
  • More likely to be using SNSs to meet new people than the average user (who is more likely to be using SNSs to maintain connections).

Folks tend not to like to hear that heavy clickers skew towards lower income levels, but I still believe this to be true. (For the record, 2006 median U.S. household income was $48,201.) Also, I should note that the population who uses SNSs to meet new people most likely skew male and 25-44, although not exclusively.

Hitwise also came out with new data this week: Yahoo search draws a younger audience, but Google users are more likely to spend more online. What I find particularly intriguing about their report is this graph:

Now, I don’t know what all of these labels mean, but terms like “Affluent Suburbia” and “Upscale America” lead me to believe that the Hitwise bubbles are saying that people who spend lots of money offline are also the most likely to spend more than $500 offline.

Now, if you put these two reports together, you get a funny image of what’s going on. Wealthier users are more likely to spend money online, but they are less likely to click on ads. Poorer users are more likely to click on ads, but not likely to spend money online except in a few verticals. Wouldn’t this then mean that Google is more likely to get the eyeballs of those likely to spend money, but statistically less likely to make money off of their clicks? This would seem to conflict with the TechCrunch post that suggests that the Hitwise data proves why Yahoo is in deep doo-doo. Given that both Yahoo and Google search generate revenue through click-throughs and not impressions, wouldn’t these two reports conflict with TechCrunch’s assessment?

traductions de moi

A while back, Noel Burch kindly translated my 2006 AAAS talk on youth and MySpace into French for French Review Mediamorphoses (directed by Laurence Allard and Olivier Blondeau). More recently, Tilly Bayard-Richard translated my Pearson talk on information access and my Knowledge Tree article on public and private into French. In both cases, they approached me to translate these articles because they thought they should be made more widely accessible. I couldn’t be more supportive of this effort. Both acts of kindness have totally taken me aback and I’m tremendously grateful of their time and effort. I want to share these translations in case there are other French readers who might appreciate them.

From time to time, I stumble across blog posts of mine that have been translated, but I do not know of any other translations of my articles. If anyone knows of any, could you send them my way? I would like to make them available through my page of papers.

Also, if you happen to speak multiple languages and feel as though someone could benefit from a translation, please go right ahead and translate any of my articles or talks; I’ll happily post it and credit you. While some folks balk at being translated, I’m all for it if it can help others get access to ideas.