After reading the Nardi and Herring papers on blogging, I talked to three “bloggers” in order to evaluate their analyses and the typologies they outlined. All of the interviewees are friends of mine in their late twenties and early thirties who maintain or have maintained blogs. I have changed their names to protect their privacy.
Listen to the soundtrack for this post while reading.
Nerve totally fails to support dating for me because I am utterly turned off by the way people are forced to present themselves. Last great book I read, favorite on-screen sex scene, the five items I can’t live without… while these questions are ostensibly designed to allow people to express something about themselves, they are really all about giving off expressions, to use Goffman’s terms. In other words, nobody in their right mind is going to truthfully write about the last book they actually thought was great. No, they’re going to carefully select the book that projects the right image, the right balance of cool and smart… it’s the same process people go through when they’re having a party and they have to decide which books to put away and which to leave out on the coffeetable.
The problem with Nerve and sites like it is that they make this fairly standard process of image maintenance utterly transparent. Moreover, there is no feedback (which is crucial to Goffman’s theories) so the really pretentious fucks can’t even realize how stupid they look. It takes me about two minutes to get so embarrased for these people that I have to close the browser. (Still, the pics aren’t bad).
I think the main problem is that these sites consist solely of conventional signals, to use Donath’s term. Conventional signals, unlike assessment signals, can be faked. If I see someone reading The Blood Oranges on a train, I may be intrigued. Assuming I can observe them actually reading the book, I can assess something about their interests. But if I see it listed on a Nerve profile, I don’t know if they just saw the movie and are trying to cop some sexy intellectual cred. In fact, I assume that this is the case, because I know that their profile is a conscious attempt to impress me, unlike the impressions given by a stranger on the train, which may be equally contrived, yet which I can convince myself are unintended.
Thanks to Gen Kanai, I was able to join Gree, the new Japanese-language social networking service, and see how it compares to some of the more well-known English-language social networking services. In this analysis I will compare it to Orkut.
Apropos of nearly everything I’m currently studying in my class on information organizations and social software, The Sims is developing a new “relationships system” that tries to simulate the dynamics of real-world social networks:
The new Relationships system, now in preliminary internal testing, tracks positive and negative interactions between players over time. As positive relationships are built, you will gain friends. Much as in The Sims, you will need to pay at least a little attention to your friends to keep the relationship strong. To make an enemy, you will need to undertake a pattern of negative interactions (most of which require the target to accept them) to build that negative relationship. The end result is a friendship web that actually reflects your social activity, and not some abstract measure of how many times you have chosen the “make friend” or “make enemy” interactions.
The system has a detailed set of rules determining how daily interactions determine relationship scores. It is far more nuanced than anything the YASNSs have come up with. For example, you cannot just declare someone to be a friend—your friends are the people you interact positively with on a regular basis. Similarly, neglected relationships decay over time, so unmaintained social networks will eventually collapse. Most interestingly, relationships are two-way, so just because I am your friend doesn’t mean you are mine.
There are still issues, of course. For example, in the last paragraph I wanted to write, “Just because I consider myself to be your friend doesn’t mean you consider me to be your friend.” But there is no “considering” going on here at all. Unlike in the real world, in The Sims relationship strength is externally determined and objectively measurable, like gravity. The system revels in its explicitness, with a special UI for displaying “friendship webs.” And they couldn’t resist giving it a competitive edge:
In addition to the most liked Sim list (the most incoming friendships, or lifetime relationship scores at or above the “friend” level), we will also show the friendliest Sim (the most outgoing friendships, or lifetime relationship scores at or above the “friend” level), the most infamous (the most incoming enemies, or lifetime relationship scores at or below the “enemy” level) and the meanest Sim (the most outgoing enemies, or lifetime relationship scores at or below the “enemy” level).
That seems like a horrible idea. I imagine a ton of annoying avatars hugging everyone in sight to boost their scores on the friendship boards.
I also would take issue with the idea that [more time spent together] necessarily equals [stronger friendship]. Sometimes I hardly see the people I consider to be my best friends (especially during the latter half of the semester). But it’s great to see that game designers are putting so much thought into this stuff. Some cool job opportunities there for sociologists…
Just wanted to post a note to let any GSI-types out there know that I am postponing posting Assignment #3 until I can wrangle an invitation to gree.jp, the new Japanese social networking service. Frankly, I’m bored to tears of Friendster, Tribe, Orkut, and LinkedIn. I’d really like to do a cross-cultural comparison of social networking sites, thus my interest in gree.jp. An invite should come through sometime this weekend.
Update, 4/20/04: I’ve posted a comparison of Gree and Orkut.
I really don’t buy Nakamura’s claim that Asianness is particularly restricted or contained within the world of the MUD. I think that fantasy gamers are choosing to embrace a variety of tired stereotypes, just as they always do, and some of those stereotypes happen to be Asian. I bet you that if Nakamura took time to logon to LambdaMOO as a nuanced, non-stereotyped Asian character, she’d be treated fine in the MUD, and people probably wouldn’t make much of an issue of her race.
While I agree with Carolyn that most MUD characters are stereotyped, I think she is missing the point that Ms. Nakamura is trying to make. While wizards and swordsmen may be convential Anglo-Saxon types, I doubt that other MUDders attach a set of assumptions about wizardlyness or swordsmanship to a profile marked as Anglo-Saxon. Yet doesn’t seem unlikely that a profile marked as Japanese may be seen as erotic, zen-like, or inscrutable. Or more in keeping with recent trends, kitschy or kinky.
Carolyn is correct that Japan is awash in kitsch, but she seems to forget (as most white Americans do) that Japan != Japanese America. I would guess that Lisa Nakamura grew up in the latter, and is no more enamored of samurai and geisha than I am of cowboys and or Carolyn is of cheerleaders. Our stereotypes about Japanese culture circumscribe the roles which Japanese-Americans can take on. I suspect that this is really what Ms. Nakamura is taking issue with. She must either hide part of her identity or take on a set of characteristics totally alien to her.
I also have to take issue with Carolyn’s statement that “It’s the Japanese themselves who promote the samurai and geisha stereotypes.” Who are “the Japanese”? Certainly the rich old men who control the Japanese media love the myths of the steely samurai and the lovely geisha, just as our American rich old men love the myths of the cowboy and Mom baking apple pie. National stereotypes are sustained in curious and complex ways, and we shouldn’t saddle an entire population with them, even though they may originate in their own culture.
Finally, I should point out that this sort of sterotyping cuts both ways. In a Japanese MUD, a profile marked as “American female” would undoubtedly have “Amazonian nymphomaniac” attached. The same old men who promote the Japanese national myths are generally only exposed to American women through pornography, strip clubs, and hostess bars, so you can imagine the sterotypes they’ve developed… let’s just say that Carolyn’s observation that “non-small white girls in the far east are simply not appreciated as sexual objects” definitely does not hold in Japan. As many American women who work in Japan find out to their dismay, these sterotypes tend to suppress attempts to play other roles like “boss.”
I came across two interesting experiments involving location metadata and media today.
First, scientists Roberto Cipolla and Duncan Robertson at the University of Cambridge are building a system for inferring location from image content:
Roberto Cipolla and Duncan Robertson have developed a program that can match a photograph of a building to a database of images. The database contains a three-dimensional representation of the real-life street, so the software can work out where the user is standing to within one metre.
Their project is the inverse of the Mobile Media Metadata project, which aims to infer image content from contextual metadata (including location). It is interesting to consider how the technologies might work together: taking a picture of a building tells the system where you are (South Hall). Knowing where you are tells the system what you are doing there (attending class), from which it can infer who the people in the picture are (your classmates)…
Second, artists Pall Thayer, Sara Kolster, and Pete Gomes are playing with the concept of geocinema, using open-source tools to superimpose GPS coordinates on video on real-time. Cool, but how much more interesting would it be if they could:
- convert those coordinates to higher-level semantic location metadata (”the place I passed out last night”), and
- use that metadata not just for superimposing on the video but as input for determining the structure of the video narrative?
I’m glad to announce that I’ve joined a new group blog focused on tracking the tools, processes and ideas being used to decentralize media production and distribution. My fellow bloggers are a brilliant and visionary bunch, and I’m honored to be the West Coast correspondent (I think they’re all in NYC).
Reading “Tinysex and Gender Trouble” from Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen reminded me of a friend of a friend who likes to make what he calls “Friendster honeypots.” A honeypot is a something engineered to attract; it usually refers to servers set up to attract hackers, but in this case it is Friendster profiles (usually female) set up to attract pathetic losers. Like “virtual cross-dressing” in MUDs, changing your gender on Friendster is technically simple. Take a few Google image searches, several fake email addresses, a flair for composing flirty profiles, and bang, you’ve got a steady flow of friend requests and gut-busting emails. No word yet on the psychological repercussions of this sort of behavior…
In Behavior in Public Places Erving Goffman notes that individuals in society are expected to exhibit “presence” in social situations, which he defines as a “controlled alertness” and awareness of one’s facial expression and appearance to others. Yet, as he points out, there are certain contexts (the train platform at rush hour) in which these expectations are dropped, and it is OK to appear alienated from those around you.
I wonder if technologies like personal stereos, cell phones, PDAs and laptops are widening the contexts in which it is OK not to exhibit presence. This would seem to be part of the appeal of the iPod (or Walkman for that matter): liberation from the duty of acknowledging those around you…