Repersonalizing Digital Communications: Against Standardizing and Interfering Mediations

Back in 2013 I wrote a blog post reacting to Cristina Vanko’s project to handwrite her text messages for one week. At the time, I focused on how Cristina introduced slowness into a digital communication that often operates as a conversation due to the immediacy and frequency of responses. Since 2013, texting has grown more popular and instant messaging has woven its way into our work environments as well. Reinvoking that slowness stays relevant, but careful notification settings can help recapture it as well. 

What I want to focus on is the way that her project repersonalizes the digital medium of communication, adding her handwriting and therefore more of her personality into the messages that she sends. I thought of this project again while watching a talk from Jonathan Zong for the Before and Beyond Typography Online Conference. In his talk, he points out that “writing is a form of identity representation”, with handwriting being “highly individualized and expressive”, while “in contrast, digital writing makes everyone’s writing look the same. People’s communications are filtered through the standardized letterforms of a font.” 

His project that he discusses in part of that talk, Biometric Sans, “elongates letterforms in response to the typing speed of the individual”, thus providing another way to reembody personality into digitally-mediated communications. He describes the font as “a gesture toward the reembodiment of typography, the reintroduction of the hand in digital writing.” It’s an explicit repersonalization of a digitally-mediated communication, in much the same way Cristina Vanko chose to handwrite her text messages to do the same. Both projects seek to repersonalize, and thereby rehumanize, the somewhat coldly standardized digital communication formats that we rely on. 

Without resorting to larger projects, we find other ways to repersonalize our digital communications: sharing stickers (I’m rather fond of Rejoinders), crafting new expressions (lol) and words, and even sending voice responses (at times accidentally) in text messages. In this way we can poke at the boundaries of the digital communication methods sanitized by standardized fonts for all users.

While Jonathan stayed rather focused on the typography mediation of digital communication due to the topic of the conference, I want to expand this notion of repersonalizing the digital communication methods. Fonts are not the only mechanism by which digital communications can be mediated and standardized—the tools that we use to create the text displayed by the fonts do just as much (if not more). 

The tools that mediate and standardize our text in other ways are, of course, automatic correction, predictive text, and the software keyboards themselves.

Apple is frustratingly subtle about automatic correction (autocorrect), oftentimes changing a perfectly legitimate word that you’ve typed into a word with a completely different meaning. It’s likely that autocorrect is attempting to “accelerate” your communications by guessing what you’re trying to type. This guess, mediating your input to alter the output, often interferes with your desired meaning. When this interfering mediation fails (which is often), you’re instead slowed down, forced to identify that your intended input has been unintentionally transformed, fix it, perhaps fix it again, and only then send your message.

Google, meanwhile, more often preemptively mediates your text. Predictive text in Google Mail “helps” you by suggesting commonly-typed words or responses.

Screenshot of Google Mail draft, with the text Here are some suggestions about what I might be typing next.  Do you want to go to the store? Maybe to the movies? What about to the mall?  What do you listen to? Sofi Tukker? What other DJs do you have? Where "have?" is a predictive suggestion and not actually typed.

This is another form of interference (in my mind), distracting you from what you’re actually trying to communicate and instead inserting you into a conflict with the software, fighting a standardized communication suggestion while you seek to express your point (and your personality) with a clear communication. Often, it can be distractingly bland or comical.

Screenshot of google mail smart responses, showing one that says "Thank you, I will do that." another that says "thank you!" and a third that says "Will do, thank you!" In Google Mail, this focus on standardized predictive responses also further perpetuates the notion of email as a “task to be completed” rather than an opportunity to interact, communicate, or share something of yourself with someone else. 

Software keyboards themselves also serve to mediate and effectively standardize digital communications. For me personally, I dislike software keyboards because I’m unable to touchtype on them (Frustrated, I tweeted about this in January). Lacking any hardware feedback or orientation, I frequently have to stare at the keyboard while I’m typing. I’m less able to focus on what I’m trying to say because I’m busy focusing on how to literally type it. This forced slowness, introducing a max speed at which you can communicate your thoughts, effectively forces you to rely on software-enabled shortcuts such as autocorrect, predictive text, or actual programmed shortcuts (such as replacing “omw” with “On my way!”), rather than being able to write or type at the speed of your thoughts (or close to it). Because of this limitation, I often choose to write out more abstract considerations or ideas longhand, or reluctantly open my computer, so that I have the privilege of a direct input-to-output translation without any or extensive software mediation. 

In a talk last June at the SF Public Library, Tom Mullaney discussed the mediation of software keyboards in depth, pointing out that software keyboards (or IMEs as he referred to them) do not serve as mechanical interpreters of what we type, but rather use input methods to transcribe text, and that those input methods can adapt to be more efficient. He used the term “hypography” to talk about the practice of writing when your input does not directly match the output. For example, when you use a programmed shortcut like omw, but also when you seek to type a character that isn’t represented on a key, such as ö, or if you’re typing in a language that uses a non-latin alphabet, a specific sequence of keystrokes to represent a fully-formed character in written text. Your input maps to an output, rather than the output matching the input. 

These inputs are often standardized, allowing you to learn the shortcuts over time and serving the purpose of accelerating your communications, but in the case of autocorrect or predictive text, they’re frequently suffering from new iterations—new words or phrases that interferingly mediate and change a slip up into a skip up, encourage you to respond to an email with a bland “Great, thanks!” or attempt to anticipate the entire rest of your sentence after you’ve only written a few words. Because I also have a German keyboard configured, my predictive text will occasionally “correct” an English typo into a German word, or overcapitalize generic English nouns by mistakenly applying German language rules. 

All of these interfering and distracting mediations that accelerate and decelerate our digital communications, alongside our ongoing efforts to repersonalize those communications, has me wondering: What do we lose when our digital communications are accelerated by expectations of instantaneous responses? What do we lose when they’re decelerated by interfering mediations of autocorrect? What do we lose when our communications are standardized by fonts, predictive text, and suggested responses?

Libraries, Digital Advertising, and the Machine Zone

Librarians are an underused, underpaid, and underestimated legion. And one librarian in particular is frustrated by e-book lending. Not just the fact that libraries have to maintain waitlists for access to a digital file, but also that the barriers to checking out an ebook are unnecessarily high. As she puts it,

“Teaching people about having technology serve them includes helping them learn to assess and evaluate risk for themselves.”

In her view,

“Information workers need to be willing to step up and be more honest about how technology really works and not silently carry water for bad systems. People trust us to tell them the truth.”

That seems like the least that can be expected by library patrons.

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Torture, Ownership, and Privacy

The Senate Intelligence Committee released hundreds of pages (soon available as a book) detailing acts of torture committed by the CIA.

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Quantified Health and Software Apps

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant last night, about how MyFitnessPal doesn’t give me much helpful data:

While it’s called MyFitnessPal, it doesn’t feel much like a pal, and feels more like a diet app than a fitness app:

It’s like a friend congratulating you for eating a lot of whole wheat, but making a face because the egg you ate has a lot of cholesterol in it, even if it’s the only egg you’ve eaten that week.

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Software, Sharing, and Music

Here’s what was important this week…

Software is everywhere lately. My boyfriend asked me what I thought the next big website would be (after the success of Google, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and I realized it’s just as likely (if not more likely) to be a software application rather than a website. Paul Ford took some time to enshrine some works of software in a “software canon” — Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Pacman, the Unix operating system, and eMacs (which I’d never heard of until this essay came out).

Software has had a noticeable effect on our day to day lives (especially those with smartphones), but it’s also had a huge impact on music and the way it’s created, recorded, and produced. Fact Magazine went through 14 works of software that shaped modern music (electronic music started way earlier than I thought). One of those software applications is Auto-Tune, and the Sounding Out! blog happened to post about the history of Auto-Tune.

 

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Journalism, Networks, and Grief

Here’s what was important this week….

Felix Salmon, a formers Reuters journalist, wrote a screed about why publishing news with the readers in mind is more valuable than breaking news.

As he puts it, “when journalists start caring about scoops and exclusives, that’s a clear sign that they’re publishing mainly for the benefit of other journalists, rather than for their readers. “

Even more clearly, and something that I can relate to easily, is the idea that:

“Readers come first, and all decent publications have their own readership: they shouldn’t be so meek as to assume that their readers will have invariably found the same news elsewhere, just because someone else’s version arrived a little earlier.”

When you spend most of your time on the Internet surrounded by, to borrow his phrase, media navel-gazers who lives on Twitter, everything starts to seem like unimportant, old news. But thankfully, when you talk to others outside of that arena, it is easy to remember that news that seems everywhere and overdone in one circle could be totally absent in another.

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Masculinity, AIM, Ads, and Cops

Here’s what was important this week…

I treated myself to ice cream last night (from the freezer, not a lonely ice cream shop date with myself) and it was delicious. While I gained weight from starting an office job after college, I still have the privilege of avoiding most body policing placed on women.

However, men suffer their own share of body policing. In Hollywood, this manifests itself as an obsession with fit bodies, and fitness. Mens Journal examines the issue, speaking mostly to trainers and talking about the pressure for actors to get “fit” in order to land coveted roles. It’s so important to the industry that:

“There are dozens of hormone-replacement clinics in and around Hollywood, and their business is booming. But there are significant risks: Hormone therapy accelerates all cell growth, whether healthy or malignant, and can encourage existing cancers, especially prostate cancers, to metastasize at terrifying rates. Testosterone supplements can lower sperm counts. For many, the risk is worth it.”

Fitness is just one aspect of a narrow set of masculinity standards imposed on men. For many men, high school is one of the more painful places that these standards are enforced. Well-documented in this great book by sociologist C.J. Pascoe, an essay in The Walrus gets to the heart of many of the standards. A new sex ed program in some Canadian schools works on teaching these high school boys not only aspects about sex that are often glossed over in traditional sex ed courses, it also focuses on relationships, gender identity and expression, and explores these things in a safe space. Importantly,

“Teaching young men to trust, communicate, negotiate, and empathize does not undermine or threaten their manliness. It expands their humanity. It reclaims men’s possibilities.”

Something else that helps men reclaim their possibilities is by supporting women, becoming advocates for them in the workplace, being feminists… Shanley, a writer on diversity in tech, wrote an essay about what men can do to help women if they are in a position of power (in her case, speaking directly to white men in tech). It’s a bit profanity-laden and not completely generalizable, but makes some great points.

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Identity on the Internet

Anonymity is valuable to the structure of the Internet, but as the identity of a person becomes fluid, the reputations and identifiability of someone’s online presence becomes increasingly valuable. While jobs rely on user-submitted references, as do academic applications, many also turn to your social media presence or to your search results to gauge reputation. Privacy by obscurity, as records are digitized and indexed, is no longer as viable. But, there is no consistent form of identification across the web. Each service relies on its own username as identifier, with character limits abound, and your ability to hold the same username across services relies on both the uniqueness of your username as well as the date you joined the online service. But are usernames outdated? A self-selected identifier, varying from service to service and format to format? As Mat Honan puts it, ““One of the best things about the online world is how it lets us be whoever we want to be. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice that just because someone else got there first.”

The advantage of a username is that, at least within a service, it “refers unambiguously to a particular person”. That works fine if you know the username of the person, but often you may only know their name. Luckily, with services like Facebook, a person’s unique identifier is their name, provided they haven’t pseudonymized it. Once you have connected with that person, you expect (within the relevant online service) when you type in their name, you will be returned with precisely the person you were expecting to find. The difficulty with this system is finding out the username of another person, and confirming that the person with their name online is really the person you’re looking for.

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Bitcoin, Security, and Photography

nananananananananananana BITCOINNNN

I had to talk about it eventually, and Thursday’s news was a good impetus. Newsweek had a big “scoop” potentially unmasking the founder of Bitcoin. The magazine saved this story for the cover of their return-to-print issue. The story features stalking masquerading as investigative journalism, as the author tracked down this man through national records, then tracked his interests to a model train forum, where she emailed him purporting to be interested in trains, then began asking about Bitcoin (at which point he stopped responding).
Then she tracked down his home and family members, and interviewed them extensively about the man and itcoin. She finally paid him a visit at his home, and instead of answering the door he called the cops. This surprised her. Read the article in full, if you’d like to know more about the lengths some people will go to find people who don’t want to be found (and who haven’t done anything wrong).(After some sushi and a car chase the man himself claims he is not involved with Bitcoin).

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