Obligatory Google Buzz post

Cross-posted to the Air-l list.

In a discussion about Google Buzz, surveillance and privacy, Christian Fuchs said:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently remarked about Internet privacy: “If
you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you should
not be doing it in the first place”, which points towards a lack of
understanding of the online surveillance threat and privacy issues.

[He really did: see here]

Absolutely, and there is something more to this jaw-droppingly blasé statement as well. I don’t think it’s only a result of Google’s desire to facilitate and track and cross-aggregate everything everyone does on the internet ever (which is clearly the manifest destiny of Google, and several others).

We also had this today in the WSJ:

After taking steps to stem the public backlash against its social-networking service Buzz, Google Inc. is planning further updates and considering changing how it tests new Buzz features.
Google product manager Todd Jackson said in an interview Monday that the number of people initially uncomfortable with the service underscored that the company’s approach of testing Buzz among its employees hasn’t been sufficient.”

“Getting feedback from 20,000 Googlers isn’t quite the same as letting Gmail users play with Buzz in the wild,” Mr. Jackson said. “We needed to launch to the public and get feedback from users.”


(Thanks to Michael Zimmer for tweeting the link)

As various commenters have pointed out elsewhere, Google’s apparent “lack of understanding” of the threats to privacy has an identity politics as well. At least in my head (and tell me if I’m crazy), the ideal, undifferentiated internet user says: “I mean, I live my life online and it’s fine. I don’t care who knows which Starbucks I’m using my Blackberry at or which of my business contacts I compare Geek 2.0 conferences with or what Business 2.0 book I’m buying.” All very obvious – the assumed, unrecognised privilege that goes with a certain class position, geographically myopic worldview despite the desire for global colonisation, and so on.

But this assumption of a universal ‘we’; the complete carelessness about the idea that public exposure can do harm; the shrugging off of the social complexity of social media, and so on, also have a gender politics.  In some of the *critique* of Googlebookspacetube, so does a similar shrugging off of the messy mix of pleasure, affinity, and risk of social media participation; and indeed the insistent bracketing off of concrete lived experiences, so we can get at the main game: Economics. The World. History. Everything.

But back to Buzz. Most obviously, as the widely circulated (but now password-protected) “Fuck You, Google” blog post on the Fugitivus blog so clearly demonstrated, even in the affluent West, if you have ever had a stalker, an abusive ex- or current partner, or live in a community/family where it might not be safe to be outed as gay, there are plenty of things you might not want people to know you’re saying or doing. It doesn’t mean you “should stop doing them” – or saying them – on the Internet.

What would a social media platform look like if it listened carefully from the beginning to what users are actually doing with the platform –  collectively constructing a wide and often overlapping range of uses, communities, etc., including a nuanced set of publicity/privacy settings. What if the provider provided the tools to do that, and didn’t come crashing in in the middle of the night to redesign everything and randomly release ‘features’ that have no obvious relationship to the practices of users? 

To finish by returning to the subject of business if not capital-E Economics:

I understand that there is actually no business case for blanket privacy in the free-to-use, advertising-supported business model that drives Google, Facebook, and Twitter (indirectly), but I’m not sure there isn’t a business model (where “business model” might or might not include a profit motive) that could work quite well and treat user communities with more respect – including respect for the knowledge and expertise they have developed through their work as users. I still think Flickr had it more or less right in some ways (especially in the areas of privacy settings and community governance) – but theirs is a Freemium business model (where you have a choice of a fairly full-featured free account, or a paid ‘power’ account).

I genuinely mean this as a devil’s advocate question: given the helplessness of users in a free-to-use model, are we better off as customers than we are as users? How might we ask to be addressed as citizens as well, or instead?

large and in charge

This is not the parody I was looking for, but at least this very obviously calculated-to-provoke-youtube-responses fan ‘ad’ features women. I’m proudly reading very much against the grain here, but as much as I love cheap and nasty, the PS3 is way, way, sexier. Go Karaoke:

Yeah, like the young people say, we don’t need feminism anymore, right? And beyond gender, is this what ‘play’ has been reduced to? Jesus.

YouTubeFanBoyFanVideo prediction: PC and PS3 fall in love.

new book: ham radio’s technical culture

Ham Radio’s Technical Culture, by Kristen Haring, is a new book out on MIT Press, found via Anne’s del.icio.us links.
From the blurb/summary:

Ham radio required solitary tinkering with sophisticated electronics equipment, often isolated from domestic activities in a “radio shack,” yet the hobby thrived on fraternal interaction. Conversations on the air grew into friendships, and hams gathered in clubs or met informally for “eyeball contacts.” Within this community, hobbyists developed distinct values and practices with regard to radio, creating a particular “technical culture.”

Sounds familiar in the light of hacker culture, open source, social software, and so on ad infinitum, no?

Without wanting to just impose patterns derived from contemporary culture onto history, I’ve been very interested lately in the way that emergent amateur cultures of (cultural) production have been articulated with technological change in a whole heap of contexts. I’m also increasingly interested in the articulation of the hacker ethic (or, the ‘tinkering’ discussed by Haring in the book) with masculinity. Looking through the gender+tech lens, it’s interesting to compare the history of ham radio and the personal computer with the domestication of, say, the gramophone or my old favourite, the camera. So this is one for next year – oops, I mean post-phd this year. It’s started already and slowly grinding into gear.

Happy New Year, by the way!

more on the ‘get a mac’ ads and stereotypes

In response to a bit of discussion going on about the ads reinforcing stereotypes, mainly started by Jill, who kindly linked to my last post on the topic:

The Mac is one sort of instantly recognisable, vaguely urban, effortlessly cool white American guy, the PC is another, deeply unattractive, old economy nerd sort of (much whiter) American guy. Yes, because they’re stock characters, they’re ‘stereotypes’, and so is the supermodel in the ‘better’ results’ ad.

My issue was more basic than that, but also more problematic, if that makes sense. It’s simply that at this level of communication, when a human body is made to represent a global brand community via the process of standing in for the whole computer system associated with that brand (including its design and its ‘thingness’, its GUI, its applications, its users and its cultural meanings), that body has to be white and male.

Jill says:

If you were in any doubt that men are the default and women the aberration (or, on occasion, the creation or possession of men as in this ad), you might want to note how men’s naked bodies are “human anatomy” while women’s naked bodies are “female anatomy”

But in the specific context of the ‘get a mac ads’ it’s not just ‘by default’, it’s not really possible any other way, except in first year communication studies ‘commutation test‘ posters. That’s the first thing. The second thing is what kind of female and ‘non-white’ bodies can appear at all, and what kinds of technologies they get to be* when they do appear.

It’s all so obvious and completely expected and even making comments about it makes me feel like I’m writing a first-year communication studies essay, but that’s why I wondered if, instead of being just crap, it’s ‘really’ super-clever and an invitation to parody? Otherwise I’m just depressed.

*In fact the supermodel only gets to be ‘content‘ anyway, whereas at least the cute young Japanese woman got to be a fun little digital camera. We could say the counselor (sic) is a particular construction of ‘mediation’ where communication is disarticulated from ‘technology’ altogether, but that’s going way too far, even for an eager undergraduate essay.

See also how to dress like a mac.

my computer is just like me (not)

Just in case I was too subtle last time about the race and gender politics of the personification of technology in the ‘Get a Mac’ ads, here are two new ones (one, two). I’m speechless. Thanks Anne.

There are about a bazillion spoofs of these ads, of course – in fact, they positively beg to be parodied (as in, on purpose). Has anyone seen any good/funny/clever videos that do a good job of taking on the cultural politics? I mean something other than the ubiquitous geeky hilarity of introducing a Linux character and/or having the computers be secretly gay and in love with each other? I am so not allowed to be trawling YouTube all day, so recommendations would be most welcome.

the gendered act of reading

There is much to enjoy at Kristine Steenbergh’s blog Earmarks in Early Modern Culture, but today I especially noticed the gender of reading (lots of great images, too). It draws out in longhand what Jeanette Winterson sketches in breathtaking shorthand for Marylin, reading Ulysses in the sun. But I wonder how this other image of Marilyn reading (the same book?) works – are we still spying on a “moment of mind”? Or is it just the frisson of “brains + boobs” – Marilyn is so immersed that she is unaware of the camera, allowing the voyeur access to her cleavage?


Dana Boyd is getting behind BlogHer – “a network for women bloggers to draw on for exposure, education, and community.” As well as organising a day-long conference on July 30, 2005, through establishing an online hub, BlogHer is “initiating an opportunity for greater visibility, learning and success for individual women bloggers and for the community of bloggers as a whole.” An interesting idea, and the excitement around it is totally infectious. Here’s the announcement:

Where are the women bloggers? We’re right here. . . www.blogher.org

BlogHer Conference ’05 to be held July 30, 2005, TechMart Meeting Center, Santa Clara, CA

This flagship event is open to all bloggers�including men and beginners�interested in enhancing their online exposure, learning the latest best practices in blogging, networking with other bloggers, and specifically cultivating the female blogging community.

BlogHer Conference ’05 will provide an open, inclusive forum to:

1. Discuss the role of women within the larger blog community
2. Examine the developing (and debatable) code of blogging ethics
3. Discover how blogging is shrinking the world and amplifying the voices of women worldwide

In addition, educational tracks will be available focusing on:

1. Best technology practices, newbie to advanced: how to use technology and tools to achieve text, photo, audio and video blogging goals
2. Best industry-specific practices: Why are journalists, marketers, lawyers, academics, technologists and many more blogging? And how do you find the ones you’re interested in?
3. The rights and the responsibilities of the blogger

BlogHer Conference ’05 will be the first of its kind, an opportunity for the female blogging community to meet in person. It will set the agenda for future BlogHer networking and enhance women’s influence in the blog community.

The event will include onsite mixers and informal meet-ups for attendees seeking to network in their areas of interest. BlogHer will even set aside a “Room of Your Own” to enable attendees to form impromptu sessions. A pre-event mixer will be held in close proximity to the conference site the evening before. Also, BlogHer will designate space for vendor demonstrations, where bloggers can explore which solutions work best for their needs.

For more information on BlogHer Conference ’05, including lodging options and registration information, visit BlogHer online: www.blogher.org

…and more good academic obituaries

Anne kindly forwarded me this piece posted by Pam Sykes to nettime:

Much of what Andrea Dworkin had to say made me profoundly uncomfortable. For that, and for her courage in continuing to say it, she has my gratitude and my respect. She also had a deep understanding of and respect for the power of words — still and always our primary medium of intellectual exchange, most especially in this space. The currency of words is so profoundly debased in political life & in much of the media that it’s especially important to rememember that:

“…words matter. Words can be used to educate, to clarify, to inform, to illuminate. Words can also be used to intimidate, to threaten, to insult, to coerce, to incite hatred, to encourage ignorance. Words can make us better or worse people, more compassionate or more prejudiced, more generous or more cruel. Words matter because words significantly determine what we know and what we do. Words change us or keep us the same. Women, deprived of words, are deprived of life. Women, deprived of a forum for words, are deprived of the power necessary to ensure both survival and well-being.”

“The Power of Words, 1978”

Good to see something useful coming off a mailing list…thanks Anne.

More Bad Academic Obituaries

I just heard that Andrea Dworkin has died. Having had a bit to do with both the academic study of pornography and feminism, I’m not a big fan [of her books, that is]. But I think it’s pretty obvious that we can expect a rash of highly suspect obituaries about her, as we saw with poor old Derrida last year. Despite the obvious attempt at giving her a fair go in this one from the Guardian, note the uneven passion in the alternate descriptions:

For her admirers, Ms Dworkin was a visionary. For her critics (mostly male) she was a tiresome scold, a man-hater and an undisguised advocate of censorship.

Update: this is better (the Guardian again); Susie Bright, who actually knows what she’s talking about, remembers Dworkin and discusses her contribution to feminism with warmth and elegance at her own journal.

geekgrrls misbehaving

misbehaving.net is a new group weblog on women and technology – regular posters include danah boyd, Caterina Fake, Meg Hourihan, Liz Lawley, Dorothea Salo,
Halley Suitt, Gina Trapani, and Jill Walker. Recent post titles: “simulating women”, “social construction of technology”, and “libraries, tech and gender”. Despite the common interest in tech stuff, the writing is all very human and asks all the right questions.