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What Came Before Social Media?

February 7, 2014

(or, Social Media circa 1994)

(or, Happy 20th Birthday, My Home Page!)

Thanks to the rigorous use of backups, I’ve just noticed that it is the twentieth anniversary of my personal home page. In the spirit of commemoration, I’ve uploaded the original version (c. 1994). For reasons I don’t remember now, I named it “booger.html.” A screenshot:

booger.html screenshot

I stumbled upon this file while looking through my backups for something else. I also found all kinds of other interesting stuff. For example, I found my personal list of “hotlinks” (as we called them then).

It’s very hard to reconstruct what the Web was like then. The Internet Archive had not begun operation yet. All of my old links to things are now dead, but it’s still interesting to try to remember how we were social with computers. Yes, there were “social media.” I’ll explain:

  • Apparently I was in a Webring.
  • I found my PGP Public Key. (No idea where the private key is.) I made my PGP public key available so people could send me a PGP encrypted message at any time. However, in ten years no one ever sent me a PGP encrypted message. But I was ready. (Take that NSA.) As long as I could find my PGP private key and remember the password from ten years ago, that is.
  • My preferred search engine was Web Crawler.
  • Later in the year I was very excited about Hot Wired, the first commercial magazine on the Web (an online version of Wired Magazine). It had its own URL then, which still works:  Everything was prefaced with “hot” back then. That is a hotlink to HotWired.
  • I spent a lot of time doing ytalk with my friends. Screenshot (found on the Internet — not mine):


  • I exhorted people to look me up on whois and to “finger me.” I regularly updated my .plan and .project files, which were status updates. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg basically ripped off the finger protocol from 1971, then added a facility to help Harvard men look at Harvard women (the “Facebook”) and “poke” them. Great job. Here’s an example finger query (not mine, found on the Web):

finger protocol

A lot of being on the Web in 1994 seems to be about just being on the Web at all. For instance:

  • I used the HotDog Web Editor for my HTML. Apparently because the logo was so cool. (I don’t think I used it for my first Web page – booger.html though because the HTML is terrible.)


  • I appear to have been on an obsessive search for new “icons.” I bookmarked a bunch of icon sharing sites, all now defunct.
  • I was very interested in how to interlace GIFs.
  • Does anyone else remember Carlos’s Forms Tutorial at NCSA? I spent a huge amount of time there and looking at the CGI documentation on a server named hoohoo (the link is a capture from 1996). I spent so much time on it that I memorized the URL, and we didn’t believe in short URLs then. UIUC loomed large in my imagination purely because of its Web stuff. Little did I know I would go on to work there and genuflect at the monument to the Web Browser every single day.

The ephemera above remind me that the Web was so exciting that a friend went to the DMV and got the California personalized license plate “IDOWWW“. I thought this might be the coolest thing anyone had ever done. In fact, I still think it is.

It’s hard to believe twenty years have passed since booger.html. I want to keep the nostalgia going. Does anyone else remember anything about social media in 1994?

Reddit, Mathematically the Anti-Facebook (+ other thoughts on algorithmic culture)

January 29, 2014

(or, Are We Social Insects?)

I worried that my last blog post was too short and intellectually ineffectual. But given the positive feedback I’ve received, my true calling may be to write top ten lists of other people’s ideas, based on conferences I attend. So here is another list like that.

These are my notes from my attendance at “Algorithmic Culture,” an event in the University of Michigan’s Digital Currents program. It featured a lecture by the amazing Ted Striphas. These notes also reflect discussion after the talk that included Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Mark Ackerman, John Cheney-Lippold and other people I didn’t write down.

Ted has made his work on historicizing the emergence of an “algorithmic culture” (Alex Galloway‘s term) available widely already, so my role here is really just to point at it and say: “Look!” (Then applaud.)

If you’re not familiar with this general topic area (“algorithmic culture”) see Tarleton Gillespie’s recent introduction The Relevance of Algorithms and then maybe my own writing posse’s Re-Centering the Algorithm. OK here we go:

Eight Questions About Algorithms and Culture

  1. Are algorithms centralizing? Algorithms, born from ideas of decentralized control and cybernetics, were once seen as basically anti-hierarchical. Fifty years ago we searched for algorithms in nature and found them decentralized — today engineers write them and we find them centralizing.
  2. OR, are algorithms fundamentally democratic? Even if Google and Facebook have centralized the logic, they claim “democracy!” because we provide the data. YouTube has no need of kings. The LOLcats and fail videos are there by our collective will.
  3. Many of today’s ideas about algorithms and culture can be traced to earlier ideas about social insects. Entomology once noted that termites “failed to evolve” because their algorithms, based on biology, were too inflexible. How do our algorithms work? Too inflexible? (and does this mean we are social insects?)
  4. The specific word “algorithm” is a recent phenomenon, but the idea behind it is not new. (Consider: plan, recipe, procedure, script, program, function, …) But do we think about these ideas differently now? If so, maybe it is who looks at them and where they look. In early algorithmic thinking people were the logic and housed the procedure. Now computers house the procedure and people are the operands.
  5. Can “algorithmic culture” be countercultural? Fred Turner and John Markoff have traced the links between the counterculture and computing. Striphas argued that counterculture-like influences on what would become modern computing came much earlier than the 60s: consider the influence of WWII and The Holocaust. For example, Talcott Parsons saw culture through the lens of anti-authoritarianism. He also saw culture as the opposite of state power. Is culture fundamentally anti-state? This also leads me to ask: Is everything always actually about Hitler in the end?
  6. Today, the computer science definition of “algorithm” is similar to anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture in 1970s — that is, a recipe, plan, etc. Why is this? Is this significant?
  7. Is Reddit the conceptual anti-Facebook? Reddit publicly discloses the algorithm that it uses to sort itself. There have been calls for Facebook algorithm transparency on normative grounds. What are the consequences of Reddit’s disclosure, if any? As Reddit’s algorithm is not driven by Facebook’s business model, does that mean these two social media platform sorting algorithms are mathematically (or more properly, procedurally) opposed?
  8. Are algorithms fundamentally about homeostasis? (That’s the idea, prevalent in cybernetics and 1950s social science, that the systems being described are stable.) In other words, when algorithms are used today is there an implicit drive toward stability, equilibrium, or some other similar implied goal or similar standard of beauty for a system?

Whew, I’m done. What a great event!

I’m skeptical about that last point (algorithms = homeostasis) but the question reminds me of “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts,” part 2 of the 2011 BBC documentary/insane-music-video by Adam Curtis titled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. It is a favorite of mine. Although I think many of the implied claims are not true, it’s worth watching for the soundtrack and jump cuts alone.

It’s all about cybernetics and homeostasis. I’ll conclude with it… “THIS IS A STORY ABOUT THE RISE OF THE MACHINES”:

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace 2 from SACPOP on Vimeo.


Some of us also had an interesting side conversation about what job would be the “least algorithmic.” Presumably something that was not repeatable — it differs each time it is performed. Some form of performance art? This conversation led us to think that everything is actually algorithmic.

Are there feminist data? (+ other questions)

January 23, 2014

Here’s a quick post containing eight ideas that made it into my notes from today’s “Feminism, Technology, and the BodyFemTechNet dialogue at the University of Michigan. It featured  Alondra Nelson, Jessie Daniels, Lisa Nakamura, Sidonie Smith, Carrie Rentschler, Sharon Irish, and a bunch of other people I didn’t write down. What a crew!

Eight Ideas About Feminism, Technology, and the Body:


1. Early ads for the Internet wouldn’t work today. We no longer aspire to leave our bodies behind. Or we can no longer imagine it.  Remember this ad?  (c. 1997)



2. If we’ve theorized the Internet and the body, what about social media and the body?

3. Is  the selfie inherently anti-feminist?

4. Are there “feminist data?” What are they?

5. “Just add women and stir” won’t work — mixing women and tech together is not in itself progressive. (cf. bell hooks)

6. Whatever happened to the emancipatory cyborg? (Haraway) Is a woman’s body still a trap?

7. Don’t forget where all this comes from. Facebook was born in a sexist moment. It was meant to make Harvard women available to the male gaze.

8. Forget the MOOC, it’s time for the DOCC.(*)

(* – Distributed Online Collaborative Course)

Lectio Precursoria: Interpersonal Boundary Regulation in the Context of Social Network Services

January 8, 2014

Interpersonal boundary regulation constitutes of the efforts needed to make the world work, that is, for people to achieve contextually desirable degrees of social interaction and to build and sustain their relations with others and with the self. In my dissertation, I examined the topic in the context of social network services. 

I defended the work last week at University of Helsinki, with Assistant Professor Lorraine Kisselburgh from Purdue University as my opponent. Below, you can find an adapted version of the talk, lectio precursoria, that I gave as a part of the public examination. If you are curious to take a look at the dissertation itself, a digital version is freely available online.

Madam Opponent, Madam Custos, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the last decade, social network services have grown to play important roles in the everyday life of millions of people. While this new year is only about to begin, chances are many of you have already visited a social network service, such as Facebook, during its first days. Most likely even earlier today. And, to be honest, I would not be surprised if some of you accessed one during this talk, too.

Read more…

MSR FUSE Labs 2014 internships in the Seattle area

December 7, 2013

FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research is seeking interns for 2014. For these positions, we are looking for graduate students from Computer Science, Information Science, Design, Media Studies, Social Science, and other fields with a focus on social computing and social media.

FUSE Labs is a research and development lab at Microsoft Research focused on the design, study, and development of socio-technical systems. We are a uniquely multidisciplinary team where you have the opportunity to work with developers, designers, and other researchers interested in building systems and studying them critically. Our goals are to contribute to the academic community as well as to invent the next generation of social technologies. Some of the topics that are currently of interest for FUSE Labs are civic media, creative collaboration, informal learning, communities of interest, hyperlocal media, information visualization, and machine learning applied to social data. That said, we are open to a diversity of methodologies.

Read more…

#YoSoy132, a year later

December 2, 2013

Last year, Gilad Lotan and I spent some time analyzing the #YoSoy132 protests in Mexico using data from Twitter. Several articles and even books about #YoSoy132 have come out since. For example, De Mauleón wrote an excellent piece for Nexos (in Spanish) that resembled some of our own analysis.  Sadly, Gilad and I got busy and abandoned the project, but after this recent conversation, we decided to dig out our notes and post them here in the event that they might be useful for others.

The rise and fall of the “Mexican Spring” 

Exactly a year ago, in December 2012, the newly elected Mexican President Peña Nieto took office amid violent protests. As early as May 2012, a number of massive student protests against the then candidate Peña gained a lot of attention on social media, both inside and outside Mexico. The Occupy movement and the international press called these protests the Mexican Spring for its similarities with other “hashtagged” protests. In our analysis, we only focused on the first few months of the protests. Today, #YoSoy132 is only a shadow of what it was, but during the election it was able to accomplish several important victories, including the organization of an online presidential debate (broadcast on YouTube), and the introduction of the issue of media monopolies and media bias to the forefront of the political discussion.

We focused on the origin and spread of the #YoSoy132 student protests by lookign at Twitter trending topics, follower connections, and the content of the tweets. We found that despite the common assumption that the movement appeared “out of the blue,” after an incident involving a candidate’s visit to a university, we can actually trace the movement’s gestation to several months before the trigger incident. Additionally, we found that despite the attempts to link the movement to traditional political groups, i.e. a political party, the movement actually activated typically disconnected groups of people across the political and class spectrum.

Poster in support of #YoSoy132 posted on the Occupy website

Read more…

Journal articles that change how you think

November 19, 2013

Today I was running a seminar at the MIT Center for Civic Media on the journal article as form: its affordances and limitations. We talked about the shifts in how academics reach audiences, as well as the economic, political and institutional forces that surround journal publishing. Out of curiosity, I asked on Twitter about people’s favourite journal articles – what were the ones that changed your thinking? It became such a great list that I wanted to share it with everyone, in case you also find some gems you haven’t read before. As for me, I’d have to say a very influential one is Paolo Virno’s “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus.” It’s in Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (1996): 189-210;  or you can read it online here.

Read more…


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