Expecting? Intimate life and human-machine interaction

I am deeply interested in human-machine interaction in intimate life and how this results in a new sort of human-machine intimacy. Today I stumbled upon the new Facebook feature which allows users to add “I’m expecting” under the family members section, announcing a pregnancy to others. This shows up under ‘family members’ on the profile page and  allows a space for a name (optional), and a drop down menu that lists “Expected:child” among the list of other possible family relations (by adding this, one can also ‘friend’ the unborn child). While announcing a pregnancy on a social media site is nothing surprising – it’s a great way to tell a lot of people all at one time – I think there is something more worth examining here – how new and expecting parents relate to their infants via mediated forms.

An increasing number of sites now handle the most intimate aspects of our lives. This includes romantic love, which I have written on in the past, but also parent-child relationships. In these ways, New Media continues finding ways in which to rationalize emotional work. The “I’m expecting” feature on Facebook not only announces the pregnancy, but it provides the parents new ways in which to think about the child. Beyond simply bringing parents together in a community, this feature adds the unborn child to the family before it comes into the world. As much as the saying “It’s not official until it’s on Facebook” can be argued to be true, in this sense giving the child an identity on one’s page gives it identity and membership into the family before it is born. Similarly, applications on blogs and Facebook pages also count down to the due date of the child, updating mother and friends along the way of what the baby is doing or experiencing based on gestational age – can he see yet? Does she have fingers and toes yet? One friend of mine kept a public blog, with each entry written to her daughter, before her daughter was born. Another friend of mine created a Facebook page for her infant and wrote on it as if writing from the infant’s perspective, while also sharing photos. An interesting New York Times piece (which I need to find and link here!!) discussed the online identities of children – including online identities that develop before the child is able to communicate online for him/herself.

What leads people to seek to bond with their infants and unborn children in these ways? What does this tell us about human-machine interactions in the age of New Media? While I don’t believe the social aspects and sharing aspects of such behaviors should be overlooked, what interests me is the bonding aspect of new media when it is used in this way. Not only does the public/social simultaneously exist as an intimate interaction in this context – a seeming contradiction in itself – but these human machine interactions also make visible the new ways of knowing (to borrow from Sherry Turkle’s terminology here) that are made possible through new media: new ways of knowing ourselves and knew ways of relating intimately with others. Many of these actions are about establishing the personhood of the new baby – either as a member of the family, or in the case of the parents blogging from the perspective of their infant, establishing the infant as someone with thoughts and opinions to share – albeit the thoughts as they are interpreted by the parents. Through these mediated forms, parents are finding new ways to connect with their not-yet-born children. In this sense, I see this as another example of machines being integrated and accepted in the aspects of human life that once seemed least likely to be mediated – family life and parent-child bonding. This is only one way in which we can seek to understand an increasingly cybernetic society and the new desires that will emerge with it.

Designing for Social Norms (or How Not to Create Angry Mobs)

In his seminal book “Code”, Larry Lessig argued that social systems are regulated by four forces: 1) the market; 2) the law; 3) social norms; and 4) architecture or code. In thinking about social media systems, plenty of folks think about monetization. Likewise, as issues like privacy pop up, we regularly see legal regulation become a factor. And, of course, folks are always thinking about what the code enables or not. But it’s depressing to me how few people think about the power of social norms. In fact, social norms are usually only thought of as a regulatory process when things go terribly wrong. And then they’re out of control and reactionary and confusing to everyone around. We’ve seen this with privacy issues and we’re seeing this with the “real name” policy debates. As I read through the discussion that I provoked on this issue, I couldn’t help but think that we need a more critical conversation about the importance of designing with social norms in mind.

Good UX designers know that they have the power to shape certain kinds of social practices by how they design systems. And engineers often fail to give UX folks credit for the important work that they do. But designing the system itself is only a fraction of the design challenge when thinking about what unfolds. Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.

How a new social media system rolls out is of critical importance. Your understanding of a particular networked system will be heavily shaped by the people who introduce you to that system. When a system unfolds slowly, there’s room for the social norms to slowly bake, for people to work out what the norms should be. When a system unfolds quickly, there’s a whole lot of chaos in terms of social norms. Whenever a network system unfolds, there are inevitably competing norms that arise from people who are disconnected to one another. (I can’t tell you how much I loved watching Friendster when the gay men, Burners, and bloggers were oblivious to one another.) Yet, the faster things move, the faster those collisions occur, and the more confusing it is for the norms to settle.

The “real name” culture on Facebook didn’t unfold because of the “real name” policy. It unfolded because the norms were set by early adopters and most people saw that and reacted accordingly. Likewise, the handle culture on MySpace unfolded because people saw what others did and reproduced those norms. When social dynamics are allowed to unfold organically, social norms are a stronger regulatory force than any formalized policy. At that point, you can often formalize the dominant social norms without too much pushback, particularly if you leave wiggle room. Yet, when you start with a heavy-handed regulatory policy that is not driven by social norms – as Google Plus did – the backlash is intense.

Think back to Friendster for a moment… Remember Fakester? (I wrote about them here.) Friendster spent ridiculous amounts of time playing whack-a-mole, killing off “fake” accounts and pissing off some of the most influential of its userbase. The “Fakester genocide” prompted an amazing number of people to leave Friendster and head over to MySpace, most notably bands, all because they didn’t want to be configured by the company. The notion of Fakesters died down on MySpace, but the most central practice – the ability for groups (bands) to have recognizable representations – ended up being the most central feature of MySpace.

People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.

Ironically, most people who were adopting Google Plus early on were using their real names, out of habit, out of understanding how they thought the service should work. A few weren’t. Most of those who weren’t were using a recognizable pseudonym, not even trying to trick anyone. Going after them was just plain stupid. It was an act of force and people felt disempowered. And they got pissed. And at this point, it’s no longer about whether or not the “real names” policy was a good idea in the first place; it’s now an act of oppression. Google Plus would’ve been ten bazillion times better off had they subtly encouraged the policy without making a big deal out of it, had they chosen to only enforce it in the most egregious situations. But now they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either have to stick with their policy and deal with the angry mob or let go of their policy as a peace offering in the hopes that the anger will calm down. It didn’t have to be this way though and it wouldn’t have been had they thought more about encouraging the practices they wanted through design rather than through force.

Of course there’s a legitimate reason to want to encourage civil behavior online. And of course trolls wreak serious havoc on a social media system. But a “real names” policy doesn’t stop an unrepentant troll; it’s just another hurdle that the troll will love mounting. In my work with teens, I see textual abuse (“bullying”) every day among people who know exactly who each other is on Facebook. The identities of many trolls are known. But that doesn’t solve the problem. What matters is how the social situation is configured, the norms about what’s appropriate, and the mechanisms by which people can regulate them (through social shaming and/or technical intervention). A culture where people can build reputation through their online presence (whether “real” names or pseudonyms) goes a long way in combating trolls (although it is by no means a fullproof solution). But you don’t get that culture by force; you get it by encouraging the creation of healthy social norms.

Companies that build systems that people use have power. But they have to be very very very careful about how they assert that power. It’s really easy to come in and try to configure the user through force. It’s a lot harder to work diligently to design and build the ecosystem in which healthy norms emerge. Yet, the latter is of critical importance to the creation of a healthy community. Cuz you can’t get to a healthy community through force.

“Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power

Everyone’s abuzz with the “nymwars,” mostly in response to Google Plus’ decision to enforce its “real names” policy. At first, Google Plus went on a deleting spree, killing off accounts that violated its policy. When the community reacted with outrage, Google Plus leaders tried to calm the anger by detailing their “new and improved” mechanism to enforce “real names” (without killing off accounts). This only sparked increased discussion about the value of pseudonymity. Dozens of blog posts have popped up with people expressing their support for pseudonymity and explaining their reasons. One of the posts, by Kirrily “Skud” Robert included a list of explanations that came from people she polled, including:

  • “I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.”
  • “I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.”
  • “I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.”
  • “I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
  • “As a former victim of stalking that impacted my family I’ve used [my nickname] online for about 7 years.”
  • “[this name] is a pseudonym I use to protect myself. My web site can be rather controversial and it has been used against me once.”
  • “I started using [this name] to have at least a little layer of anonymity between me and people who act inappropriately/criminally. I think the “real names” policy hurts women in particular.
  • “I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.”
  • “I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for a google+ page. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.”
  • “We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.”
  • “This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.”
  • “I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.”

You’ll notice a theme here…

Another site has popped up called “My Name Is Me” where people vocalize their support for pseudonyms. What’s most striking is the list of people who are affected by “real names” policies, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.

Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where “real names” policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

What’s funny to me is that people also don’t seem to understand the history of Facebook’s “real names” culture. When early adopters (first the elite college students…) embraced Facebook, it was a trusted community. They gave the name that they used in the context of college or high school or the corporation that they were a part of. They used the name that fit into the network that they joined Facebook with. The names they used weren’t necessarily their legal names; plenty of people chose Bill instead of William. But they were, for all intents and purposes, “real.” As the site grew larger, people had to grapple with new crowds being present and discomfort emerged over the norms. But the norms were set and people kept signing up and giving the name that they were most commonly known by. By the time celebrities kicked in, Facebook wasn’t demanding that Lady Gaga call herself Stefani Germanotta, but of course, she had a “fan page” and was separate in the eyes of the crowd. Meanwhile, what many folks failed to notice is that countless black and Latino youth signed up to Facebook using handles. Most people don’t notice what black and Latino youth do online. Likewise, people from outside of the US started signing up to Facebook and using alternate names. Again, no one noticed because names transliterated from Arabic or Malaysian or containing phrases in Portuguese weren’t particularly visible to the real name enforcers. Real names are by no means universal on Facebook, but it’s the importance of real names is a myth that Facebook likes to shill out. And, for the most part, privileged white Americans use their real name on Facebook. So it “looks” right.

Then along comes Google Plus, thinking that it can just dictate a “real names” policy. Only, they made a huge mistake. They allowed the tech crowd to join within 48 hours of launching. The thing about the tech crowd is that it has a long history of nicks and handles and pseudonyms. And this crowd got to define the early social norms of the site, rather than being socialized into the norms set up by trusting college students who had joined a site that they thought was college-only. This was not a recipe for “real name” norm setting. Quite the opposite. Worse for Google… Tech folks are VERY happy to speak LOUDLY when they’re pissed off. So while countless black and Latino folks have been using nicks all over Facebook (just like they did on MySpace btw), they never loudly challenged Facebook’s policy. There was more of a “live and let live” approach to this. Not so lucky for Google and its name-bending community. Folks are now PISSED OFF.

Personally, I’m ecstatic to see this much outrage. And I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names (and is a whole lot more complicated than boiling it down to being about anonymity, as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg foolishly did).

What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.

Likewise, the issue of reputation must be turned on its head when thinking about marginalized people. Folks point to the issue of people using pseudonyms to obscure their identity and, in theory, “protect” their reputation. The assumption baked into this is that the observer is qualified to actually assess someone’s reputation. All too often, and especially with marginalized people, the observer takes someone out of context and judges them inappropriately based on what they get online. Let me explain this in a concrete example that many of you have heard before. Years ago, I received a phone call from an Ivy League college admissions officer who wanted to accept a young black man from South Central in LA into their college; the student had written an application about how he wanted to leave behind the gang-ridden community he came from, but the admissions officers had found his MySpace which was filled with gang insignia. The question that was asked of me was “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” Knowing that community, I was fairly certain that he was being honest with the college; he was also doing what it took to keep himself alive in his community. If he had used a pseudonym, the college wouldn’t have been able to get data out of context about him and inappropriately judge him. But they didn’t. They thought that their frame mattered most. I really hope that he got into that school.

There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.

Thus, from my perspective, enforcing “real names” policies in online spaces is an abuse of power.

Dissertation to book proposal: Four rules of thumb

We had an informative discussion with Margy from MIT Press today who was kind enough to talk with us about scholarly publishing from the perspective of an academic press. She was generous with her time (and with her back – she lugged some heavy books into the meeting for show and tell) and one list she shared with us is probably of general interest to some of the people who read this blog.

Jessa asked her for the top three things someone should NOT do when submitting a book proposal based on their dissertation and Margy did her one better and had four recommendations.

From dissertation to book proposal: Four rules of thumb


  1. Do not use the word “dissertation” anywhere in your proposal.
  2. Honestly describe the audience for your book. Avoid saying that it will both advance a scholarly field and appeal to a general audience. Generally speaking, the book is either going to be a trade book with a wide appeal or it is going to be a professional book that will have a narrower appeal but make a rigorous scholarly contribution.
  3. Be clear about how your book fits into the existing scholarly literature about your topic. Give examples of books that your book will be like.
  4. Read the proposal guidelines carefully. Different presses have similar though not identical requirements. Follow the guidelines (e.g. MIT Press guidelines). They exist for a reason.

Setting Norms

We have a mailing list set up for current and former members of the SMC, where some very productive conversations take place. Recently, danah asked for recommendations for academic work about how social norms are created and maintained (preferably involving technology, but not necessarily). “Norms” are the behaviors and standards considered acceptable by a particular social group.

We know that norms get established around certain technologies, which gets complicated when different groups using those technologies have different norms of use. Here’s a quick example. On MySpace, “thanks for the add” graphics were common. When a new person added you, it was expected that you would go to their profile and thank them for adding you. E.g. this beauteous graphic:

tacky animated glitter gif reading thanks for the add

In other social groups, this was considered beyond tacky and irritating. The cacophony of images and sounds on MySpace contributed to people fleeing to Facebook, where “thanks for the add” graphics have never caught on, and posting random images on people’s walls isn’t done much at all. We can assume that many of the same fervent “thanks for the add” graphics enthusiasts are on Facebook today, but haven’t re-established the practice.

So how do these norms get established? Danah’s question brought up some interesting literature. Here’s a sample, with brief snippets of why they were recommended:

Social Norms Suggested Reading
in alphabetical order

Elijah Anderson’s Place on the Corner. [Google Books Preview]
From Amazon: “a study of street corner life at a local barroom/liquor store located in the ghetto on Chicago’s South Side. Anderson returned night after night, month after month, to gain a deeper understanding of the people he met, vividly depicting how they created—and recreated—their local stratification system.”

Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986).
“Presents a comprehensive theory of human motivation and action from a social-cognitive perspective. This insightful text addresses the prominent roles played by cognitive, vicarious, self-regulatory, and self-reflective processes in psychosocial functioning; emphasizes reciprocal causation through the interplay of cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors; and systematically applies the basic principles of this theory to personal and social change.”

Christina Bicchieri studies social norms. Her book, The Grammar of Society: the Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (Cambridge University Press, 2006), covers “how norms may emerge and become stable, why an established norm may suddenly be abandoned, how is it possible that inefficient or unpopular norms survive, and what motivates people to obey norms. In order to answer some of these questions, I have combined evolutionary and game-theoretic tools with models of decision making drawn from cognitive and social psychology. For example, I use my theory of context-dependent preferences to build more realistic evolutionary models of the emergence of pro-social norms of fairness and reciprocity.”

Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice [Google Books Preview]
Covers “how the practical concerns of daily life condition the transmission and functioning of social or cultural forms.” Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, “the set of socially learnt dispositions, skills and ways of acting, that are often taken for granted, and which are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life” [definition shamefully taken from Wikipedia] is generally very useful. Two other books that I’ve read that take up Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and elaborate on it are Phillipe Bourgois’ “In Search of Respect” [Google Books Preview] (an ethnography of a crack house, basically) and Lois Wacquant’s “Body and Soul” (a boxing gym) [Bootleg version found on Scribd].

Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological. [Summary notes]
It’s a very difficult read, but he talks in detail about how the “normal” and the “deviant” (pathological– he’s focused on medicine & biology) are constructed through the production of knowledge.

Harold Garfinkel’s “Studies in Ethnomethodology” (a 1967 classic). [Google Books Preview]
Several of us are big fans of this work, which focuses on how people produce shared senses of reality (norms, etc.). How do we understand what is “common sense”? How are social norms reinforced? Christian Sandvig wrote a great post on this blog a few days ago where he talked about Garfinkel’s “breaching experiments.” Christian and colleagues have come up with a series of “social media breaching experiments”, or experimenting to figure out what’s taken for granted or expected on different services like Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration [Wikipedia page]. Outlined in “The Constitution of Society,” [Google Books Preview]
Giddens tries to work out the relationship between macro/micro or “structure and agency.” Society is reproduced through repeated micro-actions by individuals.

Kulick, D. and Schieffelin, B. (2007). “Language Socialization.” In A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, ed. Alessandro Duranti. Malden, MA: 349-368. [PDF]
This is great work on how social practices are “framed, keyed, and constituted through speech and other expressive resources” (from Bambi Scheiffelin’s “Acquisition of Cultural Practice” syllabus– I was lucky enough to take a class with her at NYU).

Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation [Google Books Preview]
From this approach, norms exist in the social practices that people learn as they come to participate in a community of practitioners. (Note: I don’t think you can finish graduate school without being assigned this book at some point. It comes up all the time in discussions about learning, teaching, norms, socialization, practice, etc.)

Elinor Ochs. Ochs is a linguistic anthropologist in a similar tradition as Bambi Schieffelin and Don Kulick’s piece above.
A nice recent sample of her work is “The Cultural Structuring of Mealtime Socialization “[PDF link] which looks at how shared mealtimes are used to socialize children. She has a great book with Lisa Capps, “Constructing Panic“, which looks at how one woman continually re-constitutes her identity as an agoraphobe. Links to many of Och’s publications are available at her website.

Ev Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations [Google Book Preview]
The classic B-school book on how new ideas are created & spread through society. Includes a lot of solid Comm theory and popularized the term “early adopter.”

Lucy Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication [Google Books Preview]
Suchman writes, “By situated actions I mean simply actions taken in the context of particular, concrete circumstances.”

Ann Swidler (1986) “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review, 51(2), 273-286.[PDF link found through Google]
Abstract:

Culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a repertoire or “tool kit” of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct “strategies of action.” Two models of cultural influence are developed, for settled and unsettled cultural periods. In settled periods, culture independently influences action, but only by providing resources from which people can construct diverse lines of action. In unsettled cultural periods, explicit ideologies directly govern action, but structural opportunities for action determine which among competing ideologies survive in the long run. This alternative view of culture offers new opportunities for systematic, differentiated arguments about culture’s causal role in shaping action.

Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal [Google Books preview link]. In 1999, Warner argued that establishing gay marriage as the major issue for queer activists risked shaming and pathologizing certain types of sexual behavior while reifying others.

Zerubavel’s “Social Mindscapes: An Introduction to Cognitive Sociology” [Google Books preview link]

Zerubavel illuminates the social foundation of mental actions such as perceiving, attending, classifying, remembering, assigning meaning, and reckoning the time. What takes place inside our heads, he reminds us, is deeply affected by our social environments, which are typically groups that are larger than the individual yet considerably smaller than the human race. Thus, we develop a nonuniversal software for thinking as Americans or Chinese, lawyers or teachers, Catholics or Jews, Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers. Zerubavel explores the fascinating ways in which thought communities carve up and classify reality, assign meanings, and perceive things, “defamiliarizing” in the process many taken-for-granted assumptions.

What did we forget?