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.

Hello from new RA at MSR

I’d like to introduce myself as a new RA at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. I’ll be around for the next year, and hopefully interesting posts and updates will accompany that. I’ve also added a link to my *new* blog in the sidebar (no posts yet but stay tuned!). Hopefully I’ll be using that space to share whatt interests me in the world of media, and especially social media. A bit about myself professionally: I just finished my MA at New York University’s department of Media, Culture, and Communication. My research interests focus primarily on the ways in which new media redefine intimacy, sexuality, and cultural understandings of the body – particularly in the context of an increasingly rationalized society in which we find ourselves moving closer to a world of Cyborg Citizenship (to borrow from Donna Haraway!). My thesis, entitled Mediated Matchmaking: The Romancing of Second Selves was born out of an interest in the intimate, online worlds we create, and why we create them. What leads us to examine personality as a measurable trait? Why do we believe that matching can be optimized through the use of algorithms? How does this speak to new understandings of human-machine interaction and, in turn, human-machine intimacy? These are the questions at the heart of my work. I mean to approach these topics with an open mind and boundless curiosity – not to criticize, not to condem, but also not to condone. I want to understand what I see happening around me, among my peers, in my culture, in my WORLD. When I tell people what I am interested in researching, I often am asked questions about whether or not online dating is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The truth is that I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think it is an answerable question. I am not critical of online dating (which I prefer to refer to as mediated matchmaking) because I myself have used it and have found it appealing for its unique attributes: optimal matching, a searchable database of other singles, control over my own self-image. Despite having been a user of such sites, I am also fully aware of the micropolitics at play in the various sites: the complexity of the relationships users have with the machine. All of these experiences have lead me on a quest to find out more about social life in the age of the internet: an age in which our interactions with machines are as important as our interactions with others. These are the reasons I am thrilled to be here at MSR, surrounded by people who find themselves asking the same questions, asking questions I never would have thought of on my own, approaching all of these topics from different angles, and entering into conversations with each other and with classic theorists to come closer to understanding the world in which we are living. I’m happy to be here, happy to meet all of you, and looking forward to an exciting year!