Identity, amplification, and ownership on the Internet

Here’s what was important this week…

Facebook now allows you to choose a “custom” gender option and fill in your own gender on your profile–to a point. Rather than being a free-text field, Facebook instead offers options which autocomplete. Slate went through the effort of tabulating all 58 of them. Facebook is likely avoiding a free-text field because it wants to avoid trolling, but more likely they want to maintain the purity of their data about users.

One issue with Facebook (and in my opinion, this could be extended to many other social networks) is that it requires code switching. Code switching, typically associated with race and ethnicity, is even featured in an NPR blog devoted to the topic, which is introduced with this article. As the first essay mentioned, “Facebook’s design—really, the design of public and semi-private virtual interaction spaces on the web—is starting to feel like it’s reached its past-due date.” While I think there is a future for social media, the act and necessity of code switching is a tiring one.

As more media show up, we’re finding different ways to interact on each one and access different groups through our social media channels–ideally, we’d only need to code switch if we app switched. Personally, I’ve found my Facebook interactions have transformed since I started using the service–I primarily interact with a few specific friends on their walls/timelines, engage more broadly with a few Facebook groups, and the content that I share most broadly (primarily links) still excludes some friends.

Code switching and social media also calls attention to the more limited self-presentations that we share widely. In times of scandal or trauma, however, these limited self-presentations can be exploitatively elevated as a reflection of a person’s true character. I wrote about this some time ago, after the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt that followed.

Often manifesting itself as a method of assimilation, code switching can be tiring to the point of emotional labor. Anil Dash, a prominent technologist, goes so far as to recommend code switching as a way for people (like women) who are underrepresented in the technology field to succeed. As he acknowledges, “even if a candidate can navigate this formidable set of obstacles, they might well end up in a career that’s unfulfilling, marginalized within the companies they’d worked so hard to join. The simple reason why? These candidates speak a different language.” His solution sparked some controversy, as it seems to suggest that women and racial and ethnic minorities voluntarily perform this emotional labor to be successful in the tech industry, and he acknowledges that at the end of his post after receiving feedback on Twitter.

When women and minorities “speak a different language”, that means they often aren’t well-represented at tech industry conferences, among others. In an essay for the new publication Model View CultureAlexis Finch discusses ways for organizers of conferences dominated by white men to amplify the voices of these underrepresented groups. Anil Dash spent the last year attempting to do just that, very consciously. He chose to only retweet women, and shared the results of his experiment. I took advantage of a tool mentioned in his essay, Twee-Q, to find out how well I do with my retweeting habits on Twitter, and the results weren’t nearly as good as I was hoping they’d be. I discovered I had a twee-q of 6, with 30 retweets of men and 18 retweets of women.

Something I really love about Twitter is that it makes everything seem more accessible. (It’s an illusion, because Twitter has 241 million active users (as of this month), a mere 3.4% of the global population.) However, it has allowed me to tap into the thoughts, streams, and articles that other people are reading. I feel like I can get to know the people that write the articles that I read all day, and sometimes you can converse with them. I’m lucky enough to be interested in a topic that has a disproportionate amount of writers and academics on Twitter. For me, Twitter lowers the interaction boundary implicitly set by other forms of communication media–Facebook is typically reserved for friends, email is often overcrowded, professional, and feels like you’re flinging a missive into the abyss. Twitter, on the other hand, you can mention that you’re looking forward to reading someone’s book and get a chapter recommendation, or that you loved a talk they gave and they just might reply, or sometimes you’ll post an article and a quote, and the author will thank you.

I suppose it’s one of those things that if you put a lot into it, you may get a lot out of it. Of course, your ambition for success might be far greater than the skills that you possess. One of the traps that I fall into often (especially following the people on Twitter that I do) is comparing my blog posts against the ideas of 30 year old researchers with PhDs, or people with even more experience in the field. However, as Ira Glass reminds us, almost everyone struggles with this gap between skills and ambition. Someone named Daniel created a short film with this key message, and it really is great.

As we become further entrenched in using tools owned by others (which we don’t pay to use), it’s important to assess ownership, and the growing blur between what is private and what is public. As Anil Dash discusses in his lecture “The Web We Lost” it wasn’t always that way, nor does it need to be in the future. If you prefer reading, he’s also published essays the cover the same topics, beginning with a discussion of public space that is provided by private entities, most infamously Zucotti Park, “home” of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He goes on to discuss how the web used to be--the web we lost–and how it can be rebuilt. It’s a long talk, but I really do recommend it as he’s actually good at speaking and the lecture is very well-structured.

As an expansion on his discussion of privately owned public space, San Francisco is now infamous for the shuttle buses that many Silicon Valley-based companies provide to their employees. As this comic at The Nib points out, this system has a lot of benefits, but also leads to some questions, such as–is building ones own private network really better than investing in an existing public one? Wired goes further, noting that “In the years to come, it will be vital for people who care about cities to not only understand them — but communicate about them in ways we can all understand.”

Further on the topic of technology and ownership, Apple’s released a new operating system last October that it called Mavericks. However, as Stewart Sinclair discusses, “The very nature of Mavericks — open, wild, unpredictable — is ostensibly in direct opposition with the technological environment Apple cultivates in its operating systems. Techies call it the walled garden; to stick with surf metaphors, we might rather term it Apple’s private beach.” On the topic of private beaches, some private areas may not be as private as you might think.

Technology can also upend ownership and privacy, as two academics demonstrated when they combined publicly available satellite imagery with Google Street View to map all the swimming pools in an area of Los Angeles. As described by Joseph Lee, one of the researchers, ““It’s an art and mapmaking project that tries to highlight the growing issue of data privacy in our increasingly digitized and inner-connected world."” Privacy by obscurity is no longer possible.

As always, if you have any suggestions, feedback, or reactions, leave me a comment! This week’s newsletter was pretty tech-heavy (and pretty Anil Dash-heavy) but thank you for reading.