Category Archives: digitalness

safe havens for hate speech are irresponsible

I love Kathy Sierra. I think that her work is fantastic and well-needed throughout the tech community. So when i heard that she’s getting death threats, i wanted to vomit.

The brief story is that three prominent bloggers got annoyed at another female blogger for not permitting mean-spirited comments in her blog. They created a site called as well as a spin-off. These blogs encouraged people to say terrible things about others and it spun out of control. The content by the sites’ creators (again, prominent bloggers) was completely unacceptable – misogynistic, racist, and horrid speech. Their words were bordering on hate speech so it’s not that surprising that anonymous commenters took it one step forward.

There’s nothing illegal about what the prominent bloggers did, but i think it is unethical at every level. This is not an issue of censorship, but an issue of social responsibility. What does it mean when the most prominent bloggers are encouraging speech that divides, particularly that which divides along the lines of race and gender? What kind of standard does that set? How can anyone support their practices, even as a “joke”? I believe in moral responsibility and key to that is a level of social respect, even for those with whom you disagree. Without social solidarity, the moral fabric of society erodes. When you allow room for intolerance, you breed hate.

This is not just an abstraction for me. When i was in college, i was the recipient of unbearable hate-motivated speech, forcing me to leave Brown for a period of time. In the computer science department, there was an anonymous forum called “rumor.” It was the space for everything from critiques of professors to offending links to descriptions of how some women should be raped. It was disgusting. The speech from rumor spread beyond the anonymous forum; i received blackmail phone calls. My students received notices that they were not wanted (these were minority students and it was clearly racially targeted). Then, one day, i came in to find that my private emails about a lawsuit were posted to the forum. I was accused of having left them around but after a series of investigations, we learned that /dev/kmem was world writable on a machine in one of the labs and that root su-ed to my account on that machine. We learned who was logged into the machine before root, but there was no way to guarantee that this was the person who took my files.

The police (and various members of my department) asked me to pursue legal action. I declined because i realized that the cost for each email stolen was 30 years and i did not feel confident that i would ever know for sure who really was behind that machine. The person logged in was a friend of my boyfriend’s and i just didn’t want to go down that path. It didn’t matter. Everyone in the department blamed me, telling me that i deserved it. People speaking with me in mind (during the time in which i had left) asked for the destruction of rumor; i was accused of censorship. Truth was i never thought that rumor should be destroyed technically. I believed that it showed a failure in the department, proof of the destruction of social solidarity, proof of the intolerance that was bred. I believed that it was a failure on the part of all who participated and allowed that forum to breed. In other words, i didn’t want a technical solution – i wanted social responsibility. I never got it.

That incident had long-lasting effects. There were classes that i could not take because of it. I was not allowed to hold positions in the department because of it. Many people did not respect me. I remember sitting outside a TA room listening to two of the friends of who i suspected discuss my exam. They were shocked that i had aced it; they assumed that i had some guy do my homework for me. I remember going home and crying for hours.

I will never forget the descriptions of how me and my friends were to be raped. And Kathy will never forget the descriptions of how she was to be harmed. That’s what it means to be terrorized. How can we live in a community that permits that? How can we allow spaces like that to foster under the guise of “free speech”? We have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to help generate spaces that breed tolerance, to speak out in support of those around us, and to bite our tongues rather than spit hatred when we’re frustrated. The web is persistent. We bitch about what young people write on the web but how dare we promote it.

My hope is that this incident, as it spreads its way across the web, will make people think twice about the racist, sexist, homophobic, hate-filled, mocking, and otherwise cruel speech that they make space for. I’m all for deleting mean-spirited commentary; i’ve done it time and time again on my blog. I think that we have a responsibility to do our best to make the web a safe space so that we can make society a better place.

musing on making things real

“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.” — Hannah Arendt

Have you ever found yourself not saying something that is on your mind because you’re afraid that if you say it, it will become real? This is a really interesting conundrum in the context of blogging because it has to do with the ways in which public performances make ideas real. Arendt argues that one of the primary roles of the public is to make things real. People seek out witnesses to validate their emotions, ideas, actions, or mere existence. Our stories become real when we have other people to share them with, when other people saw and experienced what we experienced. Having no access to public life can be maddening (literally) because everything might as well be a fable with no witnesses to validate what took place. Ah, Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Internet has allowed us to take the most “intimate” thoughts and ideas and perform them in a public before witnesses. This makes real every neurosis and stupid act – stuff that might simply have slipped away before. It makes it possible to be heard. But at the same time, when you know you’re going to be heard, you have to think twice. Do you really want that fleeting thought to be that real, to be that present for collective memory?

I was going through some notes i took when interviewing bloggers and teens about the things that they did to try to erase relationships that once existed. They went through a series of public and private erasures. De-Friend on every site imaginable. Erase all blog entries and profile posts professing love. Change from “in a relationship” to single. Erase from address book and block on the buddy list. Erase all SMSes. Erase all emails. Erase all comments. Burn all letters. The goal of course is “out of sight, out of mind” but the problem with the entwined nature of technology is that it doesn’t work out this way. People stumble across their exes on others’ profiles, in their friends’ comments. They pine away, obsessively checking their ex’s blog/MySpace to see if there’s any sign of misery that will make them feel better because even if they know better than to track them down in person, they can’t resist the anonymous stalking online, even if it prolongs the hurt.

Relationships are funny things because while they are extremely intimate, they are also quite public. Going back to the horrid holiday of pink confetti, it’s interesting to think about how relationships are to be performed in public through romantic dinners, PDA (even holding hands), and simple physical proximity. People want to be seen to be in an intimate relationship – no matter how rough that relationship is in the backstage, there’s a desire to make the frontstage look all rosy. Yet, when it ends, the desire to erase all is confounded by the public performance of it. Sure, Amy can erase all of the “I (heart) Kevin” comments on her profile but the effects of a public performance of a relationship can outlive the documentation of it. And the publicness of each person means ongoing heartache and reminder. This, in many ways, is the flipside of being able to continue friendships after one moves or goes away to college. Relationships continue even when one wishes they wouldn’t.

I can’t help but wonder about the “realness” constructed by networked publics. How does persistence of some performances screw with this? How does the intertwined nature of things not allow for forgetting? How do people respond by refusing to acknowledge aspects of themselves in networked publics? Why is it that some people desperately want to make real the most sordid “intimate” details?

Enough musing… back to work…

spatial nature of MySpace

Over on Networked Publics, Kazys Vernelis asked Is MySpace a Place? I wrote a comment in response that others might find interesting. (And perhaps prompt folks like Anne to put me in my place.)

I would argue that MySpace is a ‘place’ in that it’s a locatable site that people “go to” and it has structural walls regulated through being logged in, being inside the domain, etc. But i would argue that this is not that important. Instead, i would focus on how MySpace is an ‘imagined space’ (stretching Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’) where the space is framed by the perceived rituals, norms and acts that constitute MySpace participation. [I would also argue that MySpace is a ‘medium’ in a McLuhan sense because of its role in ‘extending man’ into the virtual for social engagement. In this way, participation might destroy the platial nature of MySpace by letting people participate in imagined communities where MySpace is simply a channel through which communication and performance occur. But it does not destroy the spatiality invoked.]

I think things get confused by bringing Habermas into the fold because his definition of spatiality is rooted in the public sphere which is entirely framed by discursive engagement. He sees identity as constructed in private such that the public sphere is the gathering of private individuals for the purpose of verbalized communication. Nancy Fraser is useful in this way because she argues that a core component of publics is the way they allow individuals to negotiate identity. Pulling in Goffman in response to Fraser, spatiality is constructed by shared situationalism through which impression management can take place.

This is where i end up talking about ‘digital publics’ because the nature of public life in a new networked age relies on architectural properties not normally present in (unmediated) social life – persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences. While we can turn to celebrity culture and mass media’s role in collapsing contexts (Meyrowitz) to get a grasp on what’s going on, negotiating these types of publics is new for most people. Digital publics are tricky because they rely on a networked structure, not a group structure dictated by audience or location. The same turn that complicates digital publics complicates issues of spatiality. In short, what are the boundaries? This is why i’d argue that it’s an ‘imagined space’ instead of a space as we normally conceptualize it.

[How terribly am i misreading theoretical ideas of space and place?]

Mac mini for the masses

I’ve decided that the Mac mini shall be bought by Mac fetishists for the people in their lives for whom they provide all technical support. This includes parents, grandparents, siblings, bosses. etc.

For this to work effectively, Mac must include one key application when they release Tiger: SOLITAIRE.

google suggest and traces

“What’s the value of Google Suggest?” This is a question that keeps coming up. The title certainly implies that the service is to help suggest queries based on other people’s queries. Frankly, this is not why i find the service compelling. When we walk around physical space, we leave traces of our activities, marks on the floor that let others know people have been here. As much as we may despise graffiti, we all get a little bit of pleasure out of reading the markings in the stalls. We may not follow footprints in the snow and sand, but we love seeing the path they take. There are no visible markings in digi-space, even though we know people have been there before.

What i see as the most valuable aspect of Google Suggest is the tracings – the reminder that thousands of other people are searching Google, looking for things of interest to them. There is an appeal to our voyeuristic tendencies, a visibility to our actions that we feel are normally so isolated. There’s a sociable quality to our searches, a feeling of participation in society. This is why Google Suggest is fascinating to me.

Please note: i know nothing of Google’s purpose wrt this application. This is all my own personal opinion on the matter.

Cobot and Data that Matters

[From OM]

In Implicit or creepy?, David is dead-on and i would like to expound on this.

First, if you aren’t familiar with the lessons of Cobot, you should be. Cobot was a nice friendly little bot that sat in LambdaMOO, collecting data for its masters. Members of the MOO were bothered by this and felt that Cobot should give back to the community it was observing, like any good social scientist. So it did. You could ask Cobot anything about the social patterns going on and the data it was collecting. People started asking ego-centric questions: “Who do i talk to the most?” and such. And then, people started asking who other people talked to the most. Trouble emerged from there. All of a sudden, human jealousy reared its head. People were irate that those who they spoke to the most did not speak to them the most. What did this say about reciprocal value? Gah!

Cobot’s willingness to provide social data created a social rupture because it was evaluating data, not its meaning. Yet, people who were accessing the data were deriving meaning. They were using coarse data about social relationships to imply something much deeper. Sound familiar?

I talk to Phil from the corner deli more frequently than my best friend or my mother simply because of proximity. Yet, they play a much more central emotional role in my life than Phil. Quantity and quality are often not correlated. Yet, if some system were to rank my relations and Phil came out above my mom, damn straight she’d be pissed.

The way that systems and users of systems interpret our data often affects how we interact with them. When Viegas and i were visualizing email data, we often joked that our systems motivated you to write more messages to the friends who had strong emotional connection but apparently not frequent email connection simply so that they played a more visible role.

In the case of David’s metadata, this is particularly true. How many of us can truly list our favorite books? We know that this will be publicly displayed. What we list is a performance where we try to select titles that convey something meaningful about us for the viewer. We count on that audience, on that interpretation in selecting our titles. We are performing for that human audience to interpret, not the system. Yet, if the system starts interpreting our data, we may shift our scope of audience. But then what is it that either the system or the humans are interpreting? Are they capturing essence? What happens when the system re-projects its interpretations back to a human audience? How do we then deal with this doubly-mediated projection of self to a human audience?

It is not simply creepy, it’s outright destabilizing.

Happy Birthday Internet

The Internet turns 35 today. I have the fortunate position of being the youngest speaker to present at the Birthday Party. I spoke about what it meant to grown up with the Internet being a given and what it is that youth are doing with the tool today.

It’s amazing to sit in a room full of people who completely revolutionized my life and those of my peers and of the generations to come. Being here has reminded me of how much we have taken this technology for granted. The stories have been beautiful, full of the chaotic process of creation, including crashes.

Happy birthday Internet… we’re glad you’re alive and well.