Category Archives: social software

Harassment by Q&A: Initial Thoughts on

(This was written for the Digital Media and Learning Project.)

Questions-and-answers have played a central role in digital bonding since the early days of Usenet.  Teenagers have consistently co-opted quizzes and surveys and personality tests to talk about themselves with those around them.  They’ve hosted guest books and posted bulletins to create spaces for questions and answers.  But when teens started adopting this winter, a darker side of this practice emerged.  While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.  More startlingly, teens are answering self-humiliating questions and posting their answers to a publicly visible page that is commonly associated with their real name.  Why?  What’s going on?

When I first got online in high school, I found email chain messages entertaining.  I fondly remember receiving surveys about my friends’ favorite movies, most embarrassing moments, and food peculiarities. The task was to erase the content written by my friend, fill in my own content, send it to my friend and forward it to 10 more friends.  With every new genre of social media, surveys and quizzes keep coming back as popular ways to get to know the people around you. Some of the basics have gotten baked into the average profile, especially favorites that can help guide behavioral marketing.

Most quizzes and surveys and personality tests and other similar activities are pretty mundane.  Coke or Pepsi?  Which Star Wars character are you?  Etc.  But there have always been more risque versions of this.  I will never forget the first time I encountered the Purity Test and was absolutely horrified at the mere notion of having sex with someone who was dead.  I remember questionnaires meant to reveal crushes and illicit practices.  (Of course, only recently, it was popular among my 30-something peers to fill out Facebook surveys listing high school crushes and illegal acts committed during childhood…)

There’s something fascinating to people of all ages about answering questions about themselves.  I rely on this human tendency when I interview people about themselves. In such a role, I’m also acutely aware of the power that I have.  I can ask people very intimate or emotionally damaging questions and, most likely, they will answer my questions.  But, as a researcher, I have an ethical responsibility to be conscious of what I ask and how it will affect someone.  This is not the same logic that teenagers use when asking their peers questions.  And this is precisely why words may be as deadly as sticks and stones.

What is is a very simple question-answer service that launched in November 2009.  Create an account and you’ll get a public profile where questions you answer are posted in reverse chronological order.  Anyone can ask questions of anyone else – anonymously or attached to their name/account.  (Recently, the site has started allowing participants to mandate that questioners are logged in.)  Participants receive the questions in their inbox and can choose what to answer.  It’s a straightforward service and you can think of all sorts of reasonable uses for it.  An expert can answer questions about a subject matter.  A celebrity can answer questions about themselves.  A company can answer questions from the public.  This service was created by Formstack, a company dedicated to creating extensible online forms, like surveys, contact forms, event registrations, etc.  So a question-answer service was a natural extension.  To popularize, they hooked it up to Facebook so that participants could spread new answers to, and invite questions from, their network.

Somewhere along the line, teenagers found Formspring.  I’m not quite sure how this happened but the service has taken off like wildfire among the teen and tween set.  And so I’ve been lurking about trying to make sense of it.  A good chunk of it is relatively mundane and I’ve found all sorts of teen profiles with questions like “What is the best pop?” and “What’s the furthest you’ve ever traveled?”  Some of what is posted is nonsensical or not written as a question with “hi” and “…” being examples.  These questions and non-questions are sometimes posted anonymously, but often, there’s a username attached to them and clearly the participants know each other and are using it as a conversational medium or a place to get to know each other better.

Social banter isn’t what makes Formspring particularly interesting or controversial.  There are also plenty of anonymous sexual innuendos like “you’re cute” or “will you go out with me” questions, followed by “who is this?” as the answer.  There are also many more explicit versions of this, with some bordering on sexual harassment.  There are also anonymous posts that ring of bullying or harassment, from the relatively painless “you’re fat” to the more crass “fuck you slut.”  Finally, there are the ones that invite the participant to talk about a third party, often by full name (e.g., “don’t you hate Kristen?”).  Now, keep in mind that only questions that are answered are posted and participants have a choice in what they decide to answer.  So when you see crass questions followed by answers, the participant chose to answer the question and post it.  I don’t even want to imagine the questions that they receive and don’t answer…

Early Observations

Many questions need to be raised about this medium.  Who are the authors of these messages?  Why are teens answering them?  And why are such crass questions common across the Formsprings of teens from extremely different backgrounds and locations? While I cannot answer these questions, I feel the need to share my observations.

It seems like teen girls are much more likely than boys to be maintaining Formspring profiles.  Some of the mean-spirited anonymous questions appear to come from girls, but many also appear to come from boys.  The questions are usually short and poorly written; the answers are equally short and poorly written.  (Compare this to the adults using Formspring who write grammatically sound questions and respond with mini-essays.)  The answers that girls give to crass questions are usually written in a standoffish manner.

Example 1:

Q: “fagget!”
A: “you spelt faggot wrong … idiot.”

Example 2:

Q: “I’d rape you so hard.  You’re fucking hot”
A: “Gross on the first part.  Sanks on the second part I think?”

Some of the answers to anonymous questions also suggest that the respondent knows who wrote the question and, in my initial conversations, I found that many teens think that they know generally who is asking them questions.

Concerned Parents, Difficult Issues

So here’s my hypothesis…Teen girls engaged in responding to crass questions are using Formspring to prove that they’re tough to their peers.  Teen boys and girls are throwing curve balls at their peers to see how much they can handle, primarily using mean-spirited and sexualized language.  While staying tough is clearly part of the game, it’s also clear from my informants that the harassment is playing a psychological toll.  I’ve talked to numerous parents who are shocked by how their children’s peers are using this site and in most cases, knowledgeable parents demand that their children delete their profiles at once.  One parent told me the story of her daughter’s friend who didn’t want to take her profile down because it would “look weak.”  This girl and her mother got into a huge fight over Formspring because the girl didn’t want to let on that she cared about what people were saying about her on the site.  I can’t help but think about my own teen years and my attempts to look unfazed by swirling rumors while throwing up in the bathroom when no one was looking.

Formspring was not designed as a place for harassment, but some teens have clearly leveraged it to do precisely that, while others are using it to continue the long history of quizzes and surveys.  Why the different practices?  I’m not at all surprised that semi-anonymity results in people asking crass questions, but why are teens responding publicly for all of their peers to see?  What is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?  And what is it about the way we’ve raised our children that makes it acceptable to actively humiliate and provoke?  Most likely, these two are interrelated.  While I’m sure that there are teens who are solely the object of cruel questioning, I strongly suspect that many respondents are also questioners.  Bullying is often cyclical and follows a pattern of escalation; I doubt that what we’re seeing on Formspring is much different.  How has the ethos of “suck it up, kid” and “fight back” become so commonplace amongst our youth while parents purportedly want to curtail bullying?

As I observe what’s unfolding on Formspring and begin talking to those enmeshed in it, I have more questions than answers.  But given how fast this phenomenon is taking off, I believe that we must start thinking through the implications sooner rather than later.

(Thank you to those parents out there who have pushed me to address this topic).

Image Credit: “Locker” by John Steven Fernandez

when research is de-contextualized

This week has been filled with news stories that make me sigh. Since everyone keeps asking me about them, I feel the need to comment. Scratch that, rant.

Let’s start with the Economist’s Primates on Facebook. This article is framed around Robin Dunbar’s classic work published in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Dunbar argued for a parallel between humans gossiping and monkeys grooming. He found that there appeared to be a cap of how many people one could maintain in one’s network. This “Dunbar number” never referred to how many people you could possibly know, but how many people you could actively “groom.” Your contacts on Facebook are not equivalent to the people you groom. These can contain close and dear friends, but it can also be used as a rolodex for ties you don’t actively maintain.

The bigger issue is that performed network ties (“Friends”) are NOT the same as the personal networks that sociologists and anthropologists have historically measured and theorized about. Comparing them is futile at best and dangerous at worst. The Economist article mixes apples and oranges, creating a sense that the networks people maintain are the same that they perform through the public articulation of contacts. Marlow’s work is extremely interesting, but the framing of this piece is problematic. One of the reasons that I wrote Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 back in the day was to highlight that Friends and friends are different. I think that we need to keep remembering this.

And then there’s the discussion of Lady Greenfield’s claims that social network sites are “infantilising” the human mind. She made a speech to the House of Lords to encourage people to research her hypothesis. There is NO EVIDENCE to prove her claims. Listening to her talk, it is very clear to me that she has no idea how social network sites work. She bemoans users’ practice of collecting friends on social media, saying that no one _really_ has that many friends. She claims that today’s youth are spending more time with social network sites than any previous generation spent with TV or rock-n-roll (with no evidence to back that claim). She clearly doesn’t understand how people are using these, how they are being integrated into people’s lives. Nor does she have evidence for her claims. But the press has picked up her call to action as a formal report, often juxtaposing it with the MacArthur Digital Youth Report as a counterpoint. I find this deeply frustrating because I think that the fears of how the brain are being reworked are driven by a misunderstanding of youth engagement with social media.

That said, I think that there’s something to be said for how today’s youth are thinking differently than their parent’s generation. But I don’t think that it’s simply “caused” by new technologies. I think that we’re living in a society that has different priorities and I think that multi-tasking is more deeply prioritized than sustained attention by professional circles today. I think that we are being trained to be “creative” thinkers rather than productive doers and I think that this means that we are encouraged to draw connections between new things. I think that we are living in an environment that is structurally divided and that sociality is increasingly mediated. But I don’t think that the technology is to blame. I would argue that we’re addicted to our friends, not the computer. When the computer lets us get access to our friends, we look like we’re addicted to the computer. I think that a lot of the claims that are being made about the technology have more to do with systemic factors in today’s lifestyle. And I think that we do ourselves a disservice when we focus on the technology instead of the larger systemic picture.

Anyhow, I’m disappointed that the coverage of social media continues to be so sensational. Le sigh.


Italian Translation of this blog post:

Quando si decontestualizza la ricerca

traduzione di Luisa Doplicher, revisione di Isabella Zani

Questa settimana sono uscite moltissime notizie di quelle che fanno sospirare ohimè. E visto che tutti continuano a chiedermi cosa ne penso, mi sa che devo proprio dire la mia. Leviamoci questo sfizio, partiamo con la tirata.

Cominciamo con l’articolo dell’Economist intitolato Primates on Facebook [in inglese], basato sull’ormai classico scritto di Robin Dunbar ne La nascita del linguaggio e la babele delle lingue. Dunbar tracciava un parallelismo tra gli esseri umani che spettegolano e le scimmie che si spulciano a vicenda, affermando che a quanto pare esiste un limite al numero di persone che si riescono a mantenere nella propria rete di amicizie. Questo «numero di Dunbar» non si riferiva mai al numero di persone che è possibile conoscere, ma a quelle che si riescono effettivamente a «spulciare». I nostri contatti su Facebook non corrispondono alle persone che spulciamo: possono includere amici intimi e persone care, ma Facebook si può anche usare come agenda di contatti che di fatto non coltiviamo.

Il punto centrale è che i legami stretti sui social network (gli Amici) NON coincidono con le cerchie di amicizie personali storicamente oggetto di misure e teorie sociologiche e antropologiche. Confrontarli è inutile nel migliore dei casi, dannoso nel peggiore. L’articolo dell’Economist mette insieme pere e mele, dando l’impressione che coltivare una cerchia di amicizie personali sia identico al crearsene una tramite la pubblica gestione di contatti. Il lavoro di Marlow è interessantissimo, ma la base teorica di quell’articolo è discutibile. Uno dei motivi per cui tempo fa ho scritto Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 [in inglese], era proprio sottolineare che gli Amici sono diversi dagli amici: bisogna continuare a ricordarselo.

E poi c’è la discussione sulle tesi di Lady Greenfield, secondo la quale i social network “infantilizzano” la mente umana [in inglese]. La baronessa ha tenuto un discorso alla Camera dei Lord per incoraggiare studi della sua ipotesi: ma non c’è ALCUNA PROVA che corrobori le sue affermazioni. Ad ascoltare il suo discorso, mi sembra chiarissimo che Lady Greenfield non ha alcuna idea del funzionamento dei social media: deplora l’abitudine di collezionare amici in quel contesto, dicendo che nessuno in realtà ha così tanti amici, e sostiene che oggi i giovani passano più tempo sui social network di quanto ne passassero le generazioni precedenti davanti alla tv o a sentire musica rock (senza citare prove a sostegno di quest’affermazione). È chiaro che non capisce come la gente usi i social network, come questi vengano integrati nella vita delle persone: e non fornisce prove di quanto sostiene. Però la stampa ha preso la sua chiamata alle armi per una relazione formale, accostandola spesso al MacArthur Digital Youth Report [in inglese] nel ruolo di altra campana. Cosa che trovo molto irritante, perché mi sembra che i timori di lavaggio del cervello siano guidati da un equivoco rispetto al modo in cui i giovani interagiscono con i social media.

Detto questo, penso ci sia davvero una grossa differenza tra il modo di pensare dei giovani di oggi e quello dei loro genitori: ma non credo che le nuove tecnologie ne siano la causa. Credo che la società in cui viviamo abbia priorità diverse e che al giorno d’oggi l’ambiente lavorativo metta molta più enfasi sul multi-tasking che sull’attenzione prolungata. Penso ci preparino a diventare pensatori «creativi» invece di esecutori produttivi; e secondo me vuol dire che ci incoraggiano a tracciare collegamenti fra cose nuove. Credo che viviamo in un sistema dalla struttura frammentata e che l’interazione sociale sia sempre più mediata. Ma non penso che la colpa sia della tecnologia. Direi che noi siamo dipendenti dai nostri amici, non dal computer; solo che quando lo usiamo come mezzo per raggiungere gli amici, pare che siamo dipendenti dal computer. Credo che molte tesi riguardanti le nuove tecnologie siano molto più legate a fattori intrinseci allo stile di vita odierno; e credo non giovi a nessuno concentrarsi sulla tecnologia anziché allargare lo studio al complesso di questi fattori intrinseci.

Comunque, il sensazionalismo con cui i mezzi di informazione continuano a trattare i social media è proprio deludente. Ohimì ohimè.

“Significance of Social Software” in BlogTalks Reloaded

Last fall, i spoke at BlogTalk Reloaded. They’ve turned a bunch of our talks into full papers packaged and published as a book titled: BlogTalks Reloaded. My piece is The Significance of Social Software. I look at the culture surrounding, technology of, and practices embedded in social software. It was a fun keynote and it’s a fun piece in print so i hope you enjoy!

The Significance of Social Software

Twitter questions (curiosity is killing me…)

Last night, i pinged a handful of friends to ask them about their Twittering. And… of course… since they’re bloggers, they started blogging my questions and their answers. So, of course, i realized that i should just probably blog my questions for any and all to respond because i am a curious little critter.

I’m not sure what i’ll do with others’ thoughts yet – it may turn into a blog entry or an essay or one of those terrifyingly academic articles that i write. Consider this to be exploratory where i poke around to understand some of the dynamics. No one has to answer all of the questions, but any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

First, the practical question. Can i quote you?
[ ] Yes, and you *must* use my real name.
[ ] Yes, but please use a pseudonym and don’t use any identifying information.
[ ] No, please just use this for your own weird thoughts.

1. Why do you use Twitter? What do you like/dislike about it?

2. Who do you think is reading your Tweets? Is this the audience you want? Why/why not? Tell me anything you think of relating to the audience for your Tweets.

3. How do you read others’ Tweets? Do you read all of them? Who do you read/not read and why? Do you know them all?

4. What content do you think is appropriate for a Tweet? What is inappropriate? Have you ever found yourself wanting to Tweet and then deciding against it? Why?

5. Are your Tweets public? Why/why not? How do you feel about people you don’t know coming across them? What about people you do know?

6. What do i need to know about why Twitter is/is not working for you or your friends?

about those walled gardens

In the tech circles in which i run, the term “walled gardens” evokes a scrunching of the face if not outright spitting. I shouldn’t be surprised by this because these are the same folks who preach the transparent society as the panacea. But i couldn’t help myself from thinking that this immediate revulsion is obfuscating the issue… so i thought i’d muse a bit on walled gardens.

Walled gardens are inevitably built out of corporate greed – a company wants to lock in your data so that you can’t move between services and leave them in the dust. They make money off of your eyeballs. They make money off of your data. (In return, they often provide you with “free” services.) You put blood, sweat, and tears – or at least a little bit of time – into providing them with valuable data and you can’t get it out when you decide you’ve had enough. If this were the full story, _of course_ walled gardens look foul to the core.

The term “walled garden” implies that there is something beautiful being surrounded by walls. The underlying assumption is that walls are inherently bad. Yet, walls have certain value. For example, i’m very appreciative of walls when i’m having sex. I like to keep my intimate acts intimate and part of that has to do with the construction of barriers that prevent others from accessing me visually and audibly. I’m not so thrilled about tearing down all of the walls in meatspace. Walls are what allow us to construct a notion of “private” and, even more importantly, contextualized publics. Walls help contain the social norms so that you know how to act properly within their confines, whether you’re at a pub or in a classroom.

One of the challenges online is that there really aren’t walls. What walls did exist came tumbling down with the introduction of search. Woosh – one quick query and the walls that separated comp.lang.perl from came crashing down. Before search (a.k.a. Deja), there were pseudo digital walls. Sure, Usenet was public but you had to know where the door was to enter the conversation. Furthermore, you had to care to enter. There are lots of public and commercial places i pass by every day that i don’t bother entering. But, “for the good of all humankind”, search came to pave the roads and Arthur Dent couldn’t stop the digital bulldozer.

We’re living with the complications of no walls online. Determining context is really really hard. Is your boss really addressing you when he puts his pic up on Does your daughter take your presence into consideration when she crafts her MySpace? No doubt it’s public, but it’s not like any public that we’re used to in meatspace.

For a long time, one of the accidental blessings of walled gardens was that they kept out search bots as part of their selfish data retention plan. This meant that there were no traces left behind of people’s participation in walled gardens when they opted out – no caches of previous profiles, no records of a once-embarassing profile. Much to my chagrin, many of the largest social network sites (MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, etc.) have begun welcoming the bots. This makes me wonder… are they really walled gardens any longer? It sounds more like chain linked fences to me. Or maybe a fishbowl with a little plastic castle.

What does it mean when the supposed walled gardens begin allowing external sites to cache their content?

[tangent] And what on earth does it mean that MySpace blocks the Internet Archive in its robots.txt but allows anyone else? It’s like they half-realize that posterity might be problematic for profiles, but fail to realize that caches of the major search engines are just as freaky. Of course, to top it off, their terms say that you may not use scripts on the site – isn’t a bot a script? The terms also say that participating in MySpace does not give them a license to distribute your content outside of MySpace – isn’t a Google cache of your profile exactly that? [end tangent]

Can we really call these sites walled gardens if the walls are see-through? I mean, if a search bot can grab your content for cache, what’s really stopping you from doing so? Most tech folks would say that they are walled gardens because there are no tools to support easy export. Given that thousands of sites have popped up to provide codes for you to turn your MySpace profile into a dizzy display of animated daisies with rainbow hearts fluttering from the top (while inserting phishing scripts), why wouldn’t there be copy/pastable code to let you export/save/transfer your content? Perhaps people don’t actually want to do this. Perhaps the obsessive personal ownership of one’s content is nothing more than a fantasy of the techno-elite (and the businessmen who haven’t yet managed to lock you in to their brainchild). I mean, if you’re producing content into a context, do you really want to transfer it wholesale? I certainly don’t want my MySpace profile displayed on LinkedIn (even if there are no nude photos there).

For all of this rambling, perhaps i should just summarize into three points:

  • If walls have value in meatspace, why are they inherently bad in mediated environments? I would argue that walls provide context and allow us to have some control over the distribution of our expressions. Walls should be appreciated, even if they are near impossible to construct.
  • If robots can run around grabbing the content of supposed walled gardens, are they really walled? It seems to me that the tizzy around walled gardens fails to recognize that those most interested in caching the data (::cough:: Google) can do precisely that. And those most interested does not seem to include the content producers.
  • If the walls come crashing down, what are we actually losing? Walls provide context, context is critical for individuals to properly express themselves in a socially appropriate way. I fear that our loss of walls is resulting in a very confused public space with far more visibility than anyone can actually handle.

Basically, i don’t think that walled gardens are all that bad. I think that they actually provide a certain level of protection for those toiling in the mud. The problem is that i think that we’ve torn down the walls of the supposed walled gardens and replaced them with chain links or glass. Maybe even one-way glass. And i’m not sure that this is such a good thing. ::sigh::

So, what am i missing? What don’t i understand about walled gardens?

December social software events

Yo young researchers! UNC is hosting a Social Software Symposium December 8-9. I unfortunately cannot go to this but i would strongly strongly encourage all researchers in the field to do so. This is mostly for researcher types but industry folks are welcome with special permission. It will be absolutely fab and Fred Stutzman rocks.

That said, i will be attending Le Web 3 in Paris the following week (December 11-12) after a (desperately needed) vacation getaway. I would be ecstatic if folks would come join me in Paris for some great social software conversing right before the holidays. (I certainly plan on doing some Christmas shopping between the sessions in addition to eating some yummy yummy food.) For all of you Americans, this is a great opportunity to think about social software beyond the norms of the US and there are some great speakers from North America, Europe and Israel attending. And besides, PARIS! (Did i mention Paris???)

number games and social software

Over the last month, i’ve been driving Mimi’s Hybrid on and off. One of my favorite things about the Hybrid is that it tells you how many MPG you’re averaging over time. I find myself driving around town trying to maximize that number, getting uber excited when it goes up and super sad when it goes down. It reminds me of when i used to try to maximize my miles per hour when going from Boston to New York only this is more environmental. Yet, it’s not the environment that i’m concerning myself with – it’s all about number games in the same way that people obsess over every pound on the scale or the calories in every bite.

Then i was thinking about Tantek and Jason raving about Consumating. I love the fact that it’s a lot of cool geeky people but i can never get over the lameness that i feel when i log in and look at my score. And yet, i can’t be bothered to answer the questions that make me feel all uncomfortable in the hopes that someone will like my answers and rate me higher. It’s a catch-22 for me. Yet, i totally understand why Tantek and Jason and others absolutely love it and why they go back for more.

And then i was thinking about the people on Yahoo! Answers who spend hours every day answering questions to get high ranks. It’s very similar to Consumating only it’s not all embarassing because it’s not really about you – it’s about the answers. There’s no real gain from getting points but still, it’s like a mouse in a cage determined to do well just cuz they can.

This all reminds me of a scene in some movie. I can’t recall what movie it was but it was about how you just want to be the best at *something*, anything… to have something to point at and say look, i’m #1! The validation, the proof of greatness! Even if that something is problematic attention getting like being the #1 serial killer. (Was it Bowling for Columbine?)

I started wondering about these number games… They’re all over social software – Neopets, friends on social network sites, blog visitors, etc. Who is motivated by what number games? Who is demotivated? Does it make a difference if the number game is about the group vs. the individual, about one’s self directly vs. about some abstract capability?

Are there some number games that work better than others in attracting a broader audience? I’m thinking about Orkut here… if the game is to get as many Brazillians on the site as possible, you only need a few obsessives to be the rallying forces; everyone else is part of the number game simply by signing up. So there are tons competing in the number games but only a few invested.

Does anyone know anything about how these number games work as incentives?

from architecture to urban planning: technology development in a networked age

Last week, i had drinks with Ian Rogers and Kareem Mayan and we were talking about shifts in the development of technology. Although all of us have made these arguments before in different forms, we hit upon a set of metaphors that i feel the need to highlight.

Complete with references to engineering, technology development was originally seen as a type of formalized production. You design, build and ship products. And then they’re out in the wild, removed from the production cycle until you make Version 2. Of course, it didn’t take long for people to realize that when they shipped flaws, they didn’t need to do a recall. Instead, they could just ship free updates in the form of Version 1.1.

As the world went web-a-rific, companies held onto the ship-final-products mentality in its stodgy archaic form. Until the forever-in-beta hit. I, for one, *love* the persistent beta. It signals that the system is continuously updating, never fully baked and meant to be organic. This is the way that it should be.

Web development is fundamentally different than packaged software. Because it is the web, there’s no vast distance between producers and consumers. Distribution channels cross space and time (much to the chagrin of most old skool industries). Particularly when it comes to social software, producers can live inside their creations, directly interact with those using the system, and evolve the system alongside the practices that are emerging. In fact, not only *can* they, they’re stupid to do anything else.

The same revolution has happened in writing. Sure, we still ship books but what does it mean to have the author have direct interaction with the reader like they do in blogging? It’s almost as though someone revived the author from the dead [1]. And maybe turned hir into a kind of peculiar looking Frankenstein who realizes that things aren’t quite right in interpretation-land but can’t make them right no matter what. Regardless, with the author able to directly connect to the reader, one must wonder how the process changes. For example, how is the audience imagined when its presence is persistent?

I’m reminded of a book by Stewart Brand – How Building Learn. In it, Brand talks about how buildings evolve over time based on their use and the aging that takes place. A building is not just the end-result of the designer, but co-constructed by the designer, nature, and the inhabitant over time. When i started thinking about technology as architecture, i realized the significance of that book. We cannot think about technologies as finalized products, but as evolving architectures. This should affect the design process at the getgo, but it also highlights the differences between physical and digital architectures. What would it mean if 92 million people were living in the house simultaneously with different expectations for what colors the walls should be painted? What would it mean if the architect was living inside the house and fighting with the family about the intention of the mantel?

The networked nature of web technologies brings the architect into the living room of the house, but the question still remains: what is the responsibility of a live-in architect? Coming in as an authority on the house does no good – in that way, the architect should still be dead. But should the architect just be a glorified fixer-upper/plumber/electrician? Should the architect support the aging of the house to allow it to become eccentric? Should the architect build new additions for the curious tenants? What should the architect be doing? One might think that the architect should just leave the place alone… but is this how digital sites evolve? Do they just need plumbers and electricians? Perhaps the architect is not just an architect but also an urban planner… It is not just the house that is of concern, but the entire city. How the city evolves depends on a whole variety of forces that are constantly in flux. Negotiating this large-scale system is daunting – the house seems so much more manageable. But 92 million people never lived in a single house together.

[1] Note to Barthes scholars: i’m being snippy here. I realize that the author’s authority should still be contested, that multiple interpretations are still valid, and that the author is still a product of social forces. I also realize that even as i’m writing this blogpost, its reading will be out of my control, but the reality is that i’ll still – as author – get all huffy and puffy and try to be understood. Damnit.

Cluster Effects and Browser Support (IE-only social software is idiotic)

The number one justification i get for Internet Explorer-only support is that 90% of the population uses it. Let’s assume that to be true (even though only 52% of this blog’s readers use IE5 or 6). This argument rests on two assumptions:

1) An individual uses IE (and ONLY IE) on all computers that they use.
2) The only browser that matters is the individual’s browser.

When users cannot use an application as they move between work and home computers, between personal and school computers, etc., they get disincentivized. Yet, that’s a minor problem compared to #2. When it comes to social software, i’m not just concerned with what browser i use, but with what browser my friends use. I may not be concerned directly, but i need them to play along too to get validated and to make it fun. I don’t want to invest time and energy into making profiles or blogs that my friends can’t access for functional reasons, especially if there are alternatives that everyone can access.

You need cluster effects for social software to work. I need to be able to convince my most exploratory friends to try it with me and i need them to get super excited about it. Once i get them going, then i can convince the rest of my friends to follow along. If i can’t convince them, then i quickly lose interest and stop trying to convince everyone else in my social world. Not only does this make it hard for me to play along, it makes it hard for my close friends that i turned on to play along. Because if i lose interest, why should they keep spreading it to their friends? Etc.

For entertainment, let’s play a probabilities games… Let’s assume an even distribution of IE use (which is not true) and random friend connections. Let’s assume the average teen has 40 AIM buddies (low), but that only 10 really matter. In other words, 10 specific people are a critical baseline for my desire to become an active participant. (Note: the self-motivation to try it about early adopters does not take into consideration whether or not my friends will play along.) There’s a 34.9% (.9^10) probability that all of my close crucial friends are on IE. Let’s say that i’m in that important 35%. For it to take hold, all of my friends need to participate and pass on the enthusiasm virally. The probability that all of my important 10 friends are also in that critical 35% is… TERRIBLE (assuming random friendship connections). As network effects take hold and interest spirals, there will be critical nodes who simply don’t participate for structural reasons. That is bad bad bad for significant growth and sustainability.

Of course, in reality, browser use is not evenly distributed, friendship networks are not random and it’s not clear exactly how many crucial people one needs to participate. (Translation: the probability game was for kicks – a real analysis would require modeling network spreads and calculating stickiness.) There are likely to be quite a few IE-only clusters, but there are also likely to be quite a few clusters where crucial nodes use Firefox/Safari. (There are also likely to be a few where there are other browsers, but frankly, these are typically the geek networks that most mainstream developers are happy to write off.)

The important thing is that when you think about browser-access, you cannot simply think in terms of “90% market” because there’s a decent probability that many of those 90% have critical connections to people who are in the 10%. You need to think in terms of clusters, not individuals, because it is clusters that will make your application work. People participate when all of their friends can.

Corporations force this through regulation software, but this is not how consumer markets work. Launching a beta of AIM Pages on IE-only is foolish at best. Sure, a lot of people will try it, but if their friends can’t play, they won’t really get into it. Meaningful activity won’t spread unless entire clusters can play along. (Trying it out by creating an account is not the same as being active.)

Getting social applications going requires a baseline…. That baseline is that everyone can play along so that there’s no structural barrier to network spread. This is why mobile shit is so hard to get off the ground. This is why getting people to download applications for social interaction is such a barrier to participation. Replicating this problem on the Internet is foolish at best. It doesn’t matter if you’re launching in beta – first impressions really do matter. If you’re targeting an audience that’s IE-only (like corporations), go for it. But if you’re trying to go after a mainstream, younger audience, you’re being idiotic if you think you can get away with not supporting Firefox or Safari. (And besides, if you’re AOL, what on earth are you doing supporting Microsoft hegemony?)

Update: Apparently, AIM Pages is supposed to support Firefox, although i was unable to really do much and i have not bothered going back nor have i had time to file a proper bug report list. Folks in the comments have had better luck. My points about IE-only still stand, although they apparently should not be directed at AIM Pages. Of course, it cannot be a good thing that i found the site so broken and buggy that i believed it did not work in Firefox at all…

anti-social networks legislation

Earlier, i spoke about how the MySpace panic was likely to cause legislation proposals. Today, Congressperson Fitzpatrick proposed legislation to amend the Communications Act of 1934 “to require recipients of universal service support for schools and libraries to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms.” This legislation broadly defines social network sites as anything that includes a Profile plus an ability to communicate with strangers. It covers social networking sites, chatrooms, bulletin boards. Obviously, the target is MySpace but most of our industry would be affected. Blogger, Flickr, Odeo, LiveJournal, Xanga, Neopets, MySpace, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo! Groups, MSN Spaces, YouTube, eBaumsworld, Slashdot. It would affect Wikipedia if there wasn’t a special clause for non-commercial sites. Because many news sites (NYTimes, CNN, the Post) allow people to login and create profiles and comment, it might affect them too.

Because it affects both libraries and schools, it will dramatically increase the digital divide. Poor youth only gain access to these sites through libraries and schools(1). With this ban, poor youth will have no access to the cultural artifacts of their day. Furthermore, because libraries won’t be able to maintain separate 18+ and minor computers, this legislation will affect everyone who uses libraries, including adults (2).

This legislation is horrifying and culturally damaging. Please, all of you invested in social technologies, do something to make this stop.

Update: (1) – in looking into what American youth were not using MySpace, i found that it was not nearly as popular in rural communities as in suburban and urban environments. In discussion with other researchers, i found that a lot of poor kids only have access to the Internet through school and public settings (libraries, Internet cafes in cities). While urban libraries have not been blocking MySpace, many rural libraries (and schools) have been blocking the site. Even though the teens have heard that it’s really cool, they haven’t been able to join because of the filters.

(2) Few libraries have enough computers to make 18+ rooms which means that it has to happen on a per-access level. The way that libraries currently ban sites is through filters that work across the entire library. It is possible that there could be logins for all library users, but this would eliminate anonymous/private web access and most librarians seem to oppose this approach. Implementations that would block minors but not adults are much more onerous on libraries, although theoretically not impossible, just unlikely.

Final note: This legislation will not protect minors, but it will continue to erode their (and our) freedoms. There are so many amazing things that teens do with social technologies. To lose all of this because of the culture of fear is terrifying to me. I found out about my alma mater talking to strangers online in the 90s. I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have confidence in myself and had so many engaging conversations. Sure, i found some sketchy people too, but i learned to ignore them just as i learned to ignore the guys who whistled and honked from their cars when i walked to the movie theater with my best friend. We need to give youth the knowledge to know the risks of their actions, the structures to be able to come to us when something goes wrong and the opportunity to grow up and connect to their peers. Eliminating cultural artifacts because we don’t understand them does not make our lives any safer, but it does obliterate so many positive interactions.