Academic Pointillism

January 23, 2013

A Feminist Woman’s Experience of the Frontpage: Why Reddit > Digg

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 10:56 pm

Introduction

In 2007, I wrote a paper for my 3rd year Women’s Studies class called “Why Are There So Few Women On Digg?” The paper outlined some of my observations about how Digg was a systematically unwelcoming place for women (and other minorities). It also drew on the writings of Clay Shirky and others to make some suggestions about how Digg could change in order to be more welcoming to diversity.

After the class, I opened this WordPress account and posted it online, and shared it on Digg. It didn’t really go anywhere at the time, but a little while later (a few days, iirc) my heart lept into my throat to see my post rocketing up the front page! Top user, mrbabyman, had re-shared the link and guaranteed it a moment of frontpage glory. Now that Digg is gone, I can’t remember how many ‘diggs’ it got, but it was more than 1337 (because I still have the screenshot at that!). The reaction was better than I was expecting. Keep in mind… this was 6 years ago, shortly after Kathy Sierra was receiving death threats for daring to be a woman in technology. I only had a few links-back to my post that rolled their eyes and called me a stupid feminist. Sadly at the time, I missed this awesome link-back from Ryan Block with a great screenshot and analysis of perhaps some of the reasons why…

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was out for dinner with my now husband (boyfriend in 2007) to celebrate our anniversary when my phone lit up with notifications of comments on something else I had written in 2007 – part of my final paper in Women’s Studies. It had made it to the front page of Reddit, a TIL titled “TIL that Married With…Children was a reactionary TV show meant to contrast The Cosby Show; whereas The Cosbys were the first affluent black loving family on TV, the Bundy’s were the first who were all white, poor and hated each other. In fact, the working title was originally “Not The Cosbys”.

My experience of these two front pages was very different. When my article arrive at Digg, I had pre-braced myself for the worst. I had already turned off commenting, and I ensured there was no trackable information about my identity related to the post or my Digg account. The comments no the Digg post, although not as negative as I was bracing for, had enough ‘made me a sandwich’ and dismissive anti-feminist reaction to confirm my instinct that Digg was not in a place where understanding why being actively antagonistic to women and other minorities was a bad thing.

The morning after my other post so randomly ended up on Reddit, I scoured the comments looking for a similar reaction. More than 45,000 people had visited the site in the last 24 hours, and there were thousands of comments, but I couldn’t find one that was reacting against the ideas of the content of my post. Admittedly, I didn’t delve into comments that were so far nested or buried that they were ‘hidden’, but the immediate reaction was partially people who were reacting to the title (aka didn’t read the actual post), but it was also partially engaged, thoughtful dissections of race, class & gender. I was impressed, and it got me thinking: what has changed since 2007? What is different between Digg & Reddit?

To be honest, since this experience I have properly started using Reddit (although I actually joined for the first time just a few months ago…). I was curious to see if this was a one off, or if I stuck around for a bit I would experience the same feeling of being fed up with the content and comments that ultimately led me to stop checking Digg (long after I wrote that essay…!).

I have been excited and impressed to see the depth of thought and the level of respect with which the communities on Reddit handle things. I know that there are deep, dark parts of Reddit that will completely ruin my perception of this, but things that make the generic frontpage, and things that are generally getting posted do not reflect this. The front-page customization feature is also pretty wicked, although I do recall Digg did kind of have a similar thing to this as well, although it was much more rigid and I think came after 2007.

My instinct is, as I will discuss more below, is that while these articles are very different there are many ways that Reddit is a better place for women than Digg, and a lot of them reflect the initial recommendations I made on my Digg essay back in 2007.

What I initially called for as a way of making space for women

1. Create a better, more inclusive space

Then, and now, I rejected the idea that this should mean creating a separate a woman only space, but I did note that there were parts of the web that claimed more equal gender balance despite being academic or intellectual or technology-focused spaces, and that there might be something structural to them that was different to change this. Ultimately this wasn’t my preferred choice, as Digg was a good idea. Reddit, as it turns out, might be exactly what I couldn’t even dream of at the time…

2. Recruit more women

Well this one turned out maybe to be a bad assumption… as this infographic from mediabistro claims Reddit is still 74% male, although this one only two months later on royal.pingdom.com claims closer to 65%.

I am planning to post this in the TwoXChromosome subreddit, where I assume those numbers would be skewed in the other direction. Perhaps this is an interesting point, that although it makes the inclusionist in me cringe, maybe creating a space that is women-focused to stand together and find each other in a male-dominated space is, still, important. (Take that, post-feminist believers!)

Also, as I pointed out back then:

[This] also assumes that women will perpetuate sexism, racism and homophobia less than men, which may well not be the case.

3. Fight back strategically

In this, I called on a number of strategies for doing this, the first being  ‘picking your battles.’ Here is a quote I originally included in my article:

“Attitudes toward women have improved dramatically just in my lifetime, but still the world has too many misogynists, and the Web has given them a microphone that lets them turn up the volume on their quavering selves, their self-righteous fury, their self-loathing expressed as hatred of women. And yet, mostly, women on the Web just have to ignore it. If you show it bothers you, you’ve given them pleasure. Life is too short to think about… trolls” (2007). [Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007.]

I noted that ‘blocking’ users was one way of ensuring people who are jerks no longer get your time of day without giving them the satisfaction of seeing their trolling be validated.

I also suggested seeking out like-minded users to help draw attention to posts or comments that were particularly lacking in thoughtful deconstruction and intersectional thinking, rather than be defeated because your one downvote would do nothing. In a way, I can see already that Reddit is much better at discoverability of like-mindedness than Digg ever was! I have already ‘friended’ a few people because I could see that they ‘upvoted’ my comments and that we had similar interests. Subreddits help with this, too, as I can focus in on some incredibly rich and specific topics while still keeping the front page pretty generic.

4. Increase accountability

This is one that is frequently discussed as a barrier to online interactions: a disconnection that leads to mean and hateful comments that many people would never say in real life, or to someone’s face.

I originally wrote:

In a community as large as digg it is difficult to foster the connection between people that exists in face to face interaction, but there are core users that have more influence than casual members. [Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007.] As with the bloggers who rejected the code of conduct recently suggested by O’Reilly and Wales I am hesitant to advocate censorship. …. Shirky argues that there has to be some sort of agreed upon set of rules or code of conduct in place in large groups in order to protect themselves from self-destructing due to their size (2003). This has to be a collective decision as well as a personal one, but until some sort of internal standard for behaviour is in place there is little impetus for members to think about how their comment contributes to the larger discussion.

I think Reddit “karma” is a brilliant way of tackling this problem! The very notion of Karma is an eloquent solution to solve the diffused sense of community across a large and fragmented online space. I often ponder if sites like Youtube that are known for their horrid comments might benefit from a similar mechanism?

5. Change the structure of Digg

Although this portion is largely moot since Reddit =/= Digg, I did noted at the time that there was only one woman listed as working for Digg. I do note that if the avatars of the Reddit Team are anything to go on, the gender balance in the Reddit team is much closer to 50/50 than the former Digg team and that alone may account for some of the differences.

So what else is different?

The topic is admittedly less controversial

OK, so I will admit it. My instinct tells me there is a lot different between these two posts. In the Digg post, I was outwardly challenging the Digg community, and calling them out — and no one has an easy time not going to a defensive place when being called out, however gently and constructively I tried to frame things in my essay!

In the OP on Reddit, there was nothing necessarily to flag it as a piece of Feminist writing, and that may have meant it flew under the radar of any anti-feminist activist out there. As I said above, it’s entirely possible that if this post had ened up on the front page of Digg with the same title even 6 years ago, it might have received the same reaction. But… maybe not?

Also: my overall post on the second essay was actually all about changing feminism to be more inclusive towards men, and recognizing that there hasn’t been the same opening up of men’s roles as there has been of women’s roles, which may be leading to some social discomfort and discord that’s actually exacerbating issues that modern women face when trying to ‘do it all.’ Although I reference that I feel this way in my digg essay, it’s buried in the middle of a rather long paragraph so I don’t expect that it changed the perception of many peoples stereotypes of feminism anyhow.

There are more women as faces of the tech industry than there were in 2007

Mainstream news seems to have embraced, at least in part, female technology journalists (see: this huffington post article about 28 women in tech to follow on twitter). I am also frequently inspired by watching the women who are so prominently feature on the Twit Network, which I consume regularly. Although Leo openly admits that he wishes he had more women, and that sometimes things can get a bit bawdy, I love having the voices of women so often included in his podcasts. For example, Gina Trapani is one of the regulars on This Week in Google, offering her fantastic perspective as a coder and technology enthusiast. I am inspired by this openly queer woman who is not afraid to be smart and opinionated, but also feminine! It’s examples like this that I think help to shift stereotypes about the tech sector being male dominated by some kind of biological difference, for both men & women. I know it has helped me to feel more confident in speaking up as a geek, and I feel like I am less being seen as the ‘anomalous female who actually knows what she’s talking about when it comes to technology’ and more respected as a peer.

Geek is Chic

Geek culture is much, much more mainstream now, which may mean that the audience that uses Reddit is also much broader. (I can attest that the front page of Reddit is bigger than the front page of Digg! I received 4x as much traffic on my site with the more recent post, despite not making it as “high up” and with the ability for some users to filter out TIL in their front page.)

Now, I love geek boys (hell, I married one!) and I recognize the fact that man geek men have experience significant hate from women in the past because of their geek status that is particularly emasculating (even if I don’t respect the fact it often leads to lashing out at all women…). So this shift in demographic may be a piece of the picture.

It’s just better on the internet in general now

I believe this is true. I can’t remember the last time I found myself in a place where I didn’t feel like my voice was valued specifically because I was a woman. I also see lots of awesome mainstream geek men making comments about gender… which may (See: my favourite xkcd comic evar).

Feminism isn’t a dirty word anymore (questionmark…?)

Well, I hope so! That being said…

Thanks for reading, discussing, sharing, & mostly for being respectful

I’m being brave this time, guys.I’m trusting the Reddit community.

I’m leaving discussion open on this post.

I’m only midly freaking out that someone might connect this Reddit account to my real life and decide to make my life a living hell (although strangely, I feel safer and more in control of this than I would have 2007… thanks to TECHNOLOGY! #unlisted #digitalvoicemailforwardingservice #privacycontrolgranularity #whoisprivacy).

I’m looking forward to the comments on Reddit!

September 2, 2011

Twitter for Beginners

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 10:26 am
Tags: , ,

Been thinking a lot about the learning curve twitter…

I’m sure things like this already exist but I just feel like writing my own. I am NOT an expert by any stretch, and I’m trying to keep things to the very basics – there are a lot of people out there who talk in more detail about strategies for using twitter effectively but there is a lot of ‘mileage may vary’ aspects to that and I feel like most people find their own way of tweeting that feels right for them if they can understand the basics.

Twitter is super-useful for people who want to network, read what other people in their area of interest are doing and can say what they have to say in 140 characters or less. If you are not sure if Twitter is for you, guru of the social web Guy Kawasaki has this fabulous infographic flowchart.

What is super cool about Twitter (in comparison to Facebook or even Google +) is that the platform is so simple, and pretty open, so users started to use it in really interesting ways that spread like crazy and have now become everyday features of the platform.

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Vocabulary

There are some basic terms that you need to know if want to speak the lingo of twitter. Thankfully, not too many!

Stream

this is on your ‘home’ screen where you will see the list of all of the tweets by people you follow with the most recent at the top. The more people you follow, the faster this stream will fill up.

RT (retweet)

this is the method of repeating what someone else has said to your own network. It is a way of spreading a good tweet around. Sometimes people will RT spontaneously, other times the tweet will be about an event or important piece of information and will include the words “please RT!” to encourage sharing.

Sometimes you see it done in the “old” style where the letters RT are included to mark the start of the other persons words.

@user123: RT @JenArrr I love twitter, it’s so simple yet so powerful!

These days if you are using twitter online or one of the official desktop or mobile applications you are more likely to see it show up in your stream as if someone you are not following posted to your ‘stream’ but if you look carefully you will see a little note that says “retweeted by @whoever”

# (hashtag)

this was originally started as a way of helping people to follow conversations on a topic, for example #apple for things about apple computers. It is added on to your tweet, usually at the end unless the word itself appears in your tweet.

@user123: So excited to get my new #iPad. Any suggestions for applications to buy in the appstore? #apple

Since then, the use of hashtags has exploded. It’s not an exact science (you could hashtag anything if you wanted to) but mostly it is used as described above to be a way of following many people who you may or may not follow who are discussing something.

Probably one of the most interesting things that has evolved out of hashtags is using the airport codes to mark things that are related to a city. For example #nyc or #sfo.

@user123: Hosting a big street festival this Saturday as a fundraiser for AIDS and HIV Research. Follow me for more info #nyc

When big events happen, several hashtags may be used to follow one thing but over time one tends to become the most ‘popular.’Sometimes people putting on conferences or events will create a hashtag to help people who are there to connect, for example #ted2011 for the Ted conference 2011 (or whatever).

Sometimes, a hash tag may be used to make a joke, or make it clear that your tweet is a joke or not serious.

@user123: Oh man, I’m out of my favourite espresso beans and I forgot to pick some up last night!  #firstworldproblems

@ (at) – also called ‘mentions’

The @ symbol is the way of sending a (sort of) public message to someone else on twitter. This can be a way of engaging in conversation, or directing others towards another user to follow.

@user123: Hey @pmharper please restore funding to @matchintcentre they do amazing work.

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Features

These are ways that twitter have built in some feature to help users sort through the copious amounts of data they are seeing.

Lists

When you follow a user (or not) you can add them to a list. There are various ways to do this depending on if you are using the web, a mobile application or a “third party” application (not designed by twitter, but using the information on twitter with a different user interface).

Lists and their names are public and can be followed by other people. Lists can be a useful way to find other similar people to follow. For example, if you are interested in topics about social media and you find someone whose tweets you like you can see what lists they are included in and see if there might be other people on that list who you want to follow.

I also find lists useful because I might not be able to check twitter every day all day and after a certain point there is just way too much information to catch up on unless it’s your full-time job. If you make some lists of the people whose tweets you absolutely don’t want to miss then once things start to get out of hand, if you just want to do a quick check you can make sure not to miss things. This probably only applies once you get past the level of newbie, but keeping it in mind is probably not a bad thing.

Who to follow

This feature shows you users who are similar to other users you follow. This can be really useful sometimes, but other times I find it’s a bit too broad than how I use twitter – which is to tweet and get news about a very specific topic. A more average user might find this more interesting and useful!

Private messages

There is a part of twitter that is Not public, and that is your direct messages section. You can only have private back & forth conversation with people who follow you, which is different from @ replies which can go to anyone.

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Contrivances

These are ways that people ‘hack’ twitter or are using it in interesting ways. I can only think of a few right now, but I’m sure more will come to me and I will try to update.

.@

Remember how above I talked about @ conversations being mostly public? This is a (somewhat?) recent change in how twitter works. If you reply to a tweet someone else write, it puts their twitter handle at the top.

@JenArrr: Ahhhh… friday afternoon beer in the sunshine is a great invention

@user123: @JenArrr I agree! What are you drinking today?

In this example, only people who follow both @user123 and @JenArrr will see @user123′s reply.

However, if you put something in front of the username, the tweet shifts from being more ‘private’ to being seen by everyone that follows you.

@JenArrr: Hi @user123 I’m drinking a fantastic Hop Circle IPA from @phillipsbeer 

This can be as simple (or short) as putting a . in front of the @ symbol

@user123: .@JenArrr I love @phillipsbeer but the Slipstream is my favourite

URL Shorteners

Because you only have 140 characters, trying to share a link can sometimes be a challenge, especially if it is very long or complicated. Several different platforms emerged to fix this including bit.ly and tinyurl.com (the two most popular). The idea is they take your link, shrink down. When you click that link, it is re-directed to the main link automatically.

@user123: Check out this great blog by @JenArrr http://bit.ly/qlqJRS

This has been both a blessing and a curse. The curse part is that spammers quickly used it to trick people into clicking links that are malicious. The bottom line is: if it says “HAHAHA look at this picture of you” or “check out bikini babes on the beach” or you think it’s suspicious don’t click it. If you accidentally did and don’t know what to do, the first step is to change your password.

Twitter has recently added in a feature that will automatically shrink URLs with their own twitter version. It is supposed to help stop malware, but lots of people still use the other ones.

#ff

This is a way of suggesting who you think should get followed. Sometimes you might do several people, sometimes just one. It’s a warm & fuzzy gesture if you think someone is cool. You can reciprocate if you want to!

@user123: #ff to some awesome nerds @JenArrr @wilw @feliciaday

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Social Norms

Reciprocation

If someone follow you, it’s only polite to consider following them back. You don’t have to, but it can be a nice way of respectfully saying thank you for them thinking you have something interesting to say. That being said, some people will follow people with the sole purpose of getting followed back and boosting their numbers. This isn’t really cool and is really a form of spamming.

Thankfulness

When someone does something nice for you on twitter, it is expected that you thank them for it! If they RT your tweet, follow you, suggest you for a #ff or give you some useful information it is nice to thank them for it. Obviously you don’t have to.

Authenticity

Do your best to be yourself online. Like I said, there are a lot of people who say things like “oh it’s rude if you don’t do this” or “you should do this because it gets you more attention” but if it isn’t something that feels right to you or how you would interact in another social situation, then don’t feel like you have to. People will respect you being quiet a lot more than if you are doing things that clearly don’t fit with who you are or feel fake.

December 17, 2008

Merry nerdy Christmas!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 3:33 pm
Tags: , ,

I finally took picture of our nerdy, nerdy Star Wars Christmas tree. The “ornaments” are a set of keychains. Bonus “glow-in-the-dark” Vader is, of course, our Angel.

Star wars tree

May 22, 2008

Not a Pretty Girl: My Fem(me)inist Manifesto

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 3:47 pm

Although I created this blog to talk about geeky topics, I’m slowly coming to realize that my geekiness and my feminism are pretty closely linked, and I find myself geeking out about feminist stuff as much as I lend my social analysis to aspects of geek culture. So I will attempt to find a kind of balance between the two, but still maintain my desire to think critically (or “academically”) about topics I post about. I have a few future posts milling in the back of my mind, namely one on the construction of geeks/nerds in the media (including portrayals of geeks in video games, which I find intriguing). Anyhow.

This manifesto was originally written/inspired by a women’s studies class I took in my second year. The course was largely instrumental in shaping my gender identity today. I grew up in a household where body image and spending time/energy/money on appearance were not highly valued. Prior to taking this course I often felt like I was betraying my feminist self when I dressed up, or put on make up, even though it was something I secretly enjoyed. I think this comes from stereotypes of feminists that are portrayed in the media – hairy legged, beauty-shunning butch women. Even though I had been identifying as a feminist since my early teens, and studying women’s rights since high school, I had never read feminist work that wasn’t critical of all things traditionally feminine. Even though feminism is largely about choice, I couldn’t quite articulate that I wasn’t blindly accepting things about myself that were “normal” – I was making an active choice.

There were two texts from this course that were instrumental in changing the way I felt and talked about being a woman, and that helped me identify as both “femme” and “sex positive.” The first was a collection of essays titled Brazen Femme (Brushwood Rose, C. & Camilleri A. (Ed.), Brazen Femme (pp. 11-14). Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.), and the second a single essay called “Straight with a Twist” ( Thomas, C. (2000). Straight with a Twist. In “Straight with a Twist: Queer Theory and the Subject of Heterosexuality” (pp. 11-44). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press Inc.)

The construction of gender and sexual identity offered in both “Straight with a Twist” and Brazen Femme is framed as a way in which everyday personal practice is a political.  They both inhabit “queer” spaces; not necessarily queer defined as gayness, but “despecified queerness” defined as principles of opposition to hegemonic normality.  Although I would never have identified as “queer” or even “femme” before reading Brazen Femme, I found myself identifying with the self-description of femme women.  Initially, my “straight guilt” made me feel uncomfortable. What business did I, a heterosexual female, have to be reading a queer book and wanting so badly to claim myself a femme?  I remember feeling such relief when I discovered in class that I was hardly the only one, nor was I usurping my privilege by feeling that way.

I think I found in Brazen Femme the same “at last!” that Thomas describes in his article.  It was a moment of ‘aha’ in which my own sense of not quite fitting in to the neat categories of “straight” and “feminine” (or the overlap between the two) was recognized and named in the words of another.  For so long I had struggled to define myself outside of “normal,” describing myself as ‘just me,’ because if there was no neat category to fit into I was a going to be a category all by myself.  I claimed my sexual identity as ‘straight by not narrow’ in the same way that Thomas says “straight with a twist,” struggling to find a way to explain that while I straight-identify, it is a deliberate choice, not one of blind heteronormativity.  But in that ‘aha’ moment there as internal paradox– why, after so long fighting against categorization, do I find such pleasure in claiming the label of femme as my own?

The meaning behind the subtitle, “queering femininity,” is explained in the introduction to Brazen Femme.  Their desire was to collect works that described femme without confining it to “one tidy package.”  This goes back to finding an answer to the question of the internal irony in finding comfort in self-identifying as femme.  This is the very intention of femmeininity in the first place.  Inhabiting the space of femme is the multiple, if not limitless, forms of identity that Thomas describes as the deliberate ambiguation of identity categories.  This is the beauty of the label, and I think part of the reason I feel comfortable with claiming it as my own.  As illustrated throughout Brazen Femme, there is no stereotypical “type” of femme, no one way to inhabit the label that is “more femme” than the others.  It is a queer femininity, a simultaneous acknowledgment and celebration of what sets you apart from other people and a demand not to be defined monolithically. A deliberate step into what Judith Butler would call “working the weakness” in the category of femininity by deliberately working against the idealizations that are presented by hegemonic discourses about what “real” femininity looks like.
Femme offers me a chance to embrace some of the contradictions within myself as acceptable rather than signs of an inability to commit to “resistance to regimes of the normal.”  I recognized in the stories in Brazen Femme the practices I’ve been engaging in for years.  The deliberate construction/articulation of my appearance and my gender identity as a political act, a performance, an “essential irony” and a way to cause “trouble” ala the work of Butler.  I crave an identity “in flux and in motion, … constantly being reinvented,” mapping onto my body the persona of “goth” one day and dressing all in white the next, enjoying the feeling of unconformity to any one social niche, enjoying the confusion of those around my as I watch with my double gaze as people struggle to categorize me.  Reveling in the fact that what you see is not what you get but at the same time recognizing that appearance is fluid and doesn’t even begin to describe the internal complications of being femme, nor does fluidity of expression necessarily equate to “fakeness” or inconsistency. I think Elizabeth Ruth cleverly explains this in her piece “Quantum Femme” by saying “[s]he’s been many people in many places but somehow always the same.”

The space where my fem(me)ininity and my feminism cross is often complicated.  It took a long time and a lot of internal conflict for me to accept that my feminism and my submissive tendencies could inhabit the same identity without reconciling one to the other.  It also took a lot of strength as a feminist to “come out” as a submissive.  I think that strength came from my femme identity, from my understanding that contradictions and difference aren’t necessarily wrong, and from years of practice at not culling the urge to do something that I enjoy simply because it doesn’t fall under the regimes of “normal” or “acceptable.”  Perhaps this comes from my own preference for “queer masculinities” (or at least, men who resist hegemonic masculinity as much as I resist hegemonic femininity) but the viewpoint presented by feminism that to lie beneath a man and enjoy it was to subjectify myself in some way to being unequal and oppressed seem to me inherently problematic.  Being on top didn’t seem to prove anything at all and brief escapades in doing it sideways caused me to further question ways in which “feminist” and “sex” could intersect while still remaining a pleasurable activity.  In my relationships I have never (and will never) settle for being treated as any less capable than I am, regardless of who is on top during sex, and in that I think I can claim fem(me)ininity.

I have had this conversation with other feminists, trying to explain to them that as a straight woman I can engage in sex, even bondage, without that equating to being an oppressed subject position.  They expressed feelings of fear of heterosexual sex, hatred of the inequality they saw inherent in the act of penetration, and that saddens me.  To be fair and honest, although I am not a stranger to gendered sexual violence, I have been very privileged to have incredibly open, understanding and caring lovers, and in that sense my ability to comprehend fear of masculinity is diminished, and I recognize that.  Still, to me those sentiments, feeling disempowered by how your gender plays out in your relationships and as though your gender and sexuality are a trap without any escape, are the antithesis of femme sexuality.  To me those statements inhabit a paradigm I cannot fathom.  I have never seen boys as a threat, although beating them at what they were best at (whether that be violent video games, running fast or monkey bars [while wearing a dress]) and fighting back when they tried to push me around was often a source of personal pride in my gender.  I think the way those women spoke about their experience with their gender and sexualities articulate for me the work that I see still remaining for feminism in order for gender equality to permeate beyond the level of a social movement action and into the level of individual effects.

The space where being femme (as a gender performance) and feminism (as a political practice) intersect feel more comfortable for me after reading Brazen Femme.  The act of dressing up and thus “buying into” society’s idea of beautiful always seemed to me to conflict with the ideals of feminism.  It has been noted that in the lesbian community there is not a lot of space for ‘girls’ to be sexy and I think this spills over into the feminist movement as a whole.

To me, being femme means being identifying with Ani DiFranco when she sings “I am not a pretty girl, that is not what I do…” because being beautiful isn’t something done for the pleasure of others (male or otherwise) and recognizing that while makeup is fun and tall shoes are sexy, they’re all nothing more than a pretty lie.  Dressing in typically “feminine” ways does not equate to being “feminized” in a negative way. I would argue that femme is a necessary building block on the road to constructing gender equality; without models for ways to inhabit femininity that don’t equate to marginalization there is no hope for a rearticulation and inhibition of the hegemonic dominance of femininity.
The issue of accepting your right to pleasure as a given, as a right of being a femme, is a major part of my femme identity.  Both Thomas and Brazen Femme advocated loving queerly, whether that relationship be heterosexual or homosexual or otherwise, not accepting heteronormativity even in heterosexual relationships.  Thomas argues that heteronormativity is inherently “anti-sexual” because the point of heterosexual relationships is reproduction, and suggests that in this sense anyone who enjoys sex for the sake of sex is “queering” their sexuality– a statement I find more powerful as I grow older in both age and my relationship and am starting to have to reiterate my choice not to have children more and more frequently.

In this sense fem(me) is a queer identity in that it embraces sex positive ideals.  It’s difficult to reconcile the spaces where the feminine agency of sex intersects with heteronormativity.  Women who initiate or solicit sex and sexual attention are marked as “sluts” or any of the dozens of other words that describe errant female sexuality.  The line between slut, femme and whore is often blurry and (as the author Kathyrn Payne notes) “the social sanctions are damn near the same.” Even within my own relationships I can’t initiate sex too often without somewhat deprecating eye rolling at my “insatiability.”  The implications of this are interesting from an objective perspective– if I was the masculine subject position in my relationship my behaviour would never be questioned.  In the subtext of the comments, underneath the teasing about my rampant libido, I am ever conscious of not trying to imply that my partner’s masculinity is unable to fulfill my expectations.  Rather, I am coming to realize that the masculine “ideal” of rampant sexuality is as highly constructed as the fact that, as a woman, I am not supposed to enjoy or initiate sex.  The restrictions of rigid gender identities clearly has implications not just for femmes, but also for their partners.

The day I was femme in public for the first time since I “came out” was pretty fantastic.  Stomping through puddles in my Big Black Boots with my rainbow knee socks, my short skirt and a suggestive slogan on my tshirt, I sang in my head to myself as I walked “I am a woman, but that is not all…” and I have never felt more empowered as a girl than I did in that moment.  It didn’t matter who was looking (at the hairy legs poking out between where the socks ended and my skirt began) or who judged me because of how I looked (slut/freak/queer/whore) because in that moment I was femme, and enjoying the multiple categories and inconstancies inherent in that moment.

Since that time I have inhabited my femme-ness much more comfortably, although in some ways the lack of tension has created a problematic relaxed attitude to de-construction of femininity and as a result I have become less femme and more stereotypically feminine. I’m wearing makeup regularly and donning a skirt more often than not. Partly, this is a reaction to the joining the fairly mainstream workforce. My job is pretty boundary challenging enough that when I’m not trying to dress to impress teh people with teh power, I’m trying to blend in – not cause trouble.  A lot has changed in that time in my personal life, too – I have moved in with my boyfriend, and I am still trying to reconcile feminism and my desire for marriage (but that’s a whole other essay!). As we both move up and on in our careers, I feel myself becoming more privileged, and moving closer to the “centre” in a way that is painful for the part of me that wants to live life with a femme-like philosophy of challenging and questioning every choice.

Part of the reason I wanted to post this essay was to re-visit my statement of my femme identity and reconnect my sense of self to that time. I need to remember that how I dress in the morning and having the choice to wear make up (or not) is part of a daily political practice. I may be girlier than ever, and reveling in it, but that doesn’t change the vision of femininity that I am fighting for. I’m still a brazen femme!

Femme

October 2, 2007

Crossposting

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 9:36 am

motbanner.jpg

I have created a secondary page, Married on Television, as a resting place for my undergrad thesis project. It was pretty long and benefitted by being split up a bit, so having its own page makes sense.

Here’s an excerpt from the intro that explains it most succinctly.

Through the use of clips from I Love Lucy (1951-1957), Bewitched (1964-1972), All in the Family (1971-1979), Married With Children (1987-1997), Roseanne (1988-1997) and Desperate Housewives (2004-2007) this project aims to deconstruct the media’s construction of gender roles in marriage in pre-feminist and ‘post’-feminist contexts. My hope is to simultaneously document the gradual shift of socially acceptable roles for women from housewives and mothers into the workforce and the static portrayals of men as breadwinners and familial protectors. My intention is to demonstrate that feminism’s failure to deconstruct masculinity and femininity has resulted in a failure to achieve equality to the detriment of both men and women.

thanks for checking it out!

April 17, 2007

Why are there so few women on digg?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 12:17 am

Introduction
I joined digg a year or so ago after my boyfriend kept calling me over to look at interesting things he had dugg. Even before I became a member I realized that as a woman, I was perceived as part of a minority on digg. Kevin and Alex frequently complained about the lack of female diggers on diggnation, and comments and stories occasionally would mention the lack of women. At first I started to wonder where the other intelligent, geeky girls were, but after the site opened up to more than just technology news I haven’t noticed an increase in female digg users. Now, I would like to acknowledge first off that there is a chance that I am mistaken in thinking this. Since there is no place within digg profiles to designate gender, and most user icons are gender-neutral, there could very well be a larger number of women diggers than anyone recognizes. It is also a fallacy to assume that I can assume that my readings of digg and diggnation will be the same as other women’s, or even that women aren’t participating in digging up stories and comments that contribute to the overall context of digg that I am viewing as hostile to women. Women also may be deliberately hiding their identities in hopes of flying under the radar and fitting in, lest they become targets of negative personal attention themselves. This appears to be a more common practice for women online than many realize. [1]

I know that I probably will come under attack just for posting this, because I know what I have to say will make many people uncomfortable. The fact that I’m citing feminist sources will probably be considered relevant by many of you, although before I get branded as ‘just another angry feminist’ I would like to make clear that the feminism I advocate takes the point of view that in the Western world these days men have less freedom of choice under the patriarchal system than (most) women, as least when it comes to choosing where to work, whether to have children or not, and how they want to dress. I also recognize that there are many men, as well as women, out there who don’t participate in digg in the ways I am talking about. I have included a discussion of strategies that might be useful to help make digg a more inclusive environment, and I hope that they will be useful for other digg users who are as frustrated as I am about this.

What I want to talk about:

Interested in reading more about this topic? Visit the “take back the blog” blogswarm.
Read comments on digg.com.

Why I Feel This is Important
I am bringing this up for several reasons. The first is that there seems to be this general understanding that there are more men than women on digg, but never have I seen an explanation of why that might be. Since this is something that is complained about by users, I assume that they would prefer it if this were to change. I assume this because being ‘cliquey’ and excluding women doesn’t seem like a principle that a geek-culture community like digg would be proud of, especially since so many geeks know what it feels like to be harassed by their peers. [2]

There appears to be this myth that because there are no cues to race, gender and social status the web is an equal playing field for everyone to interact on an equal playing field. [3]. The dark side of this anonymity seems to be becoming clearer lately, and there seems to be something of a movement within the online community to work towards having civil interactions. Recently O’Reilly and Jim Wales, creator of wikipedia.org, have worked together to create a code of conduct that they hope will increase civility in the ‘blogosphere.’ [4] Clay Shirky writes about the patterns that emerge in social networking sites in a paper that he originally gave at the O’Reilly “Emerging Technology” conference in 2003. In this paper he draws on the work of psychologist W.R. Bion and talks about how groups tend to be their own worst enemy when it comes to interacting online, and offers several historical examples of how online communities have failed due to a lack of ability to self-regulate against “trolling” and inappropriate comments. [5] He advocates that this is something that must be accepted, because history shows that if it is not, large socially driven sites are doomed to failure.

Secondly, although this is highly contested, digg theoretically works on the principle of democracy. All users have the ability to submit stories, vote on which stories they are interested in by ‘digging’ them up, and digging up or down comments that they agree or disagree with. This is linked to the “architecture of participation” that O’Reillydefines as an essential part of Web 2.0. Also connected to this is the idea that the more people that contribute to the website the better, both in terms of software and the ability to harness the collective intelligence of users. If these are principles that digg is being founded on, I want to question how they are failing if there are women who are being excluded from digg.

All of this adds up to the fact that this “social” news that is being produced is really only part of the picture because women are being excluded from contributing the process in fairly insidious ways. I call them ‘insidious’ because I do not believe that there are a group of male diggers who are posting comments that are deliberately and consciously constructing this environment. Instead, this is part of a larger system of informal mechanisms that are operating subtly to create an environment that is hostile to women. [6] It is my hope that by pointing out some of my observations, and offering some potential solutions diggers might be inspired to engage with the topic and put our collective brainpower together towards finding a solution that works for everyone.

History
First of all, is acknowledging digg’s history as a website dedicated to tech news. The unfortunate truth seems to be that there are fewer of us geek girls than there are geek boys. This reflects the larger picture of the technologically inclined. The average reader of Wired, a technology magazine, is male, 39, a college graduate and makes over 80,000 a year [7]. Although I would expect that the users of an online forum such as digg is probably younger, this profile appears to reflect a similar class and gender profile. Although there have been increased numbers of women enrolling in other traditionally male-dominated fields like science and engineering, the numbers of women enrolling in computers science programs have actually been on the decline. This is suggested as like being due to the and high level of involvement and competition that careers in the technology industry demand, which doesn’t necessarily fit with the lifestyle choices that many women would prefer. [8]

Which stories get promoted
As a side effect of having such a male-biased population to begin with, stories that get promoted frequently tend to have a male bias to them as well. For example, here are the top stories from the previous week as of Friday,
March 16, 2007:

  • pick images and it will tell you about yourself (cool)
  • Advice to Young Men from an Old Man

  • Pictures of the Craziest Urinals From Around the World

  • The best feature of Vista that you never knew about!

  • Most realistic CG render

  • (pic) A cartoon illustration of digg & other social media site

  • The “300″ Workout

  • Picture: maybe they should have blurred something out? [LAPTOP]

  • A boyfriend’s public revenge on cheating girlfriend

  • Best Slashdot comment ever

  • Ever Wondered who the RIAA really are?

  • Show your support for topless women!

  • Screencaps of Fox news lies

  • Google: we will anonymize our server logs!

Although some of the stories dugg on that list are gender neutral, especially if the technology-related stories are considered in this category, however there are quite a few stories that reflect a masculine world view. This isn’t to say that those stories weren’t interesting, nor would I assume that women wouldn’t be interested in some of the stories that appear to be manly—I myself dugg up the craziest urinals story, for example. However, I am arguing that the lack of female diggers leads to stories that might get promoted if digg was gender-balance never making it to the front page. This might be resulting in women who casually browse the site never signing up for an account, or women who have previously signed up becoming disinterested, because they don’t see stories they are interested in making it to the front page.

Sexist, Racist and Homophobic comments
Despite a recent article on businessweek.com claiming that interactions on digg are “surprisingly civil” this does not seem to always be the case. Stories that make it to the front page that have a wider base of appeal also tend to be stories that are more controversial, and tend to attract comments that are vehemently entrenched in one side of the issue. Although some people might consider the mac vs. pc debates to be something of a geek version of ‘ethnic’ war, and admittedly the discussions in those threads can get pretty heated, there is a big different between the types of insults that pass between windows users and mac users and the type of language that is used against women, gay men and people of colour, especially those who are of middle-eastern origin. I have read stories that have a large number of sexist, racist and/or homophobic comments that are dugg up far higher than the comments that challenge the comments or the story as sexist (etc). While sexist stories may silence some users, racist and homophobic stories increase that number further. Users who may fit into multiple categories, such as lesbian women, gay men of colour, or lesbian women of colour may feel even more excluded from digg.

Two somewhat recent stories show how sexism and homophobia are functioning simultaneously. In one story, titled “Lesbian accuses innocent stranger of rape to win back lover” from the Daily Mail, UK got 1600+ diggs. The comment “Does it really matter so much that she’s a lesbian?” got +79 diggs compared to the comment below it “They should put that cunt in the chair. What a fucking bitch.” which got +154 diggs. Many comments slurred her using the word “dyke” and called her for her to be raped and/or killed. Regardless of the morality of the women’s actions, her sexuality has no bearing on the story other than giving rise to “lesbian=man hating” comments. The story also reinforces the idea that women are lying when they claim they have been raped. The lives of women who have been ruined by being raped by men are completely ignored in virtue of this one extreme example. The anger directed towards this woman was quite extreme, and very violent.

In comparison, a story about a man whose two attempts to drug his date’s drink were foiled by a waitress received 1900+ diggs, but comments were much less hateful; far fewer comments suggested that he be raped or killed, and a number people contested the fact that he should be punished beyond prison, which is interesting since all kinds of extra punishment (including rape) went virtually uncontested in the rape-accusation story. Very few people contested his 6 month sentence, but many people contested 18 month sentence of the woman who made the false accusation in the previously discussed story. Although I don’t deny that both crimes are horrific, nor do I want to deny the fact that the man who was falsely accused did suffer because of it, the crime of falsely accusing someone of rape seems to be seem by the digg population as a far greater crime than actually trying to rape someone. Although we don’t know what the man who attempted to drug his date’s intentions were the fact that he had multiple methods with which to drug her suggests that he was pretty serious, and the potential power he had to ruin his intended victim’s life is exponential in comparison to the effect a false accusation of rape.

Violent comments against women on the internet has been a hot topic lately. A female tech blogger, Kathy Sierra, received death threats and went to the police, prompting Joan Walsh, the editor of salon.com to post about her own observations of violent comments directed towards herself and other women writers at salon.com in an article titled “Men who hate women on the Web.” Walsh discusses how for a long time she pretended as if misogynistic attacks by men against women online wasn’t a problem, and how she told her female coworkers that they simply needed thicker skins in order to deal with it. She says that she hesitated for a long time to speak up because she didn’t want to sensationalize, or overstate the problem, but that she has noticed a pattern in which she and her colleges received letters from men who responded to their writing not with constructive criticism, but in ways that demeaned the women sexually, morally, and through the use of childish nicknames as well as comments about how they are “ugly and wrinkly” in order to delegitimized what they have to say. [9] Despite the “thick skins” that many women do have, it does not take long for these types of comments to add up to the point where it becomes a turn off, and as a result turning digg off.

Objectification of women’s bodies
Since geek culture is predominantly male-dominated, it is not surprising that sites like digg feature quasi-pornographic images on the front page, or that geek conventions feature booths with bikini-clad babes pushing products and computer games that even have female characters generally sexualize the hell out of them. [10] Reverting to “sex talk” in groups is also one of the patterns that Bion identified in his study of groups. [11] I am not arguing that praising women for their brains and beauty are a bad thing, but I am arguing against the unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies that diggers frequently perpetuate. This may not be surprising, but when the smart women start to go elsewhere because of a blatant objectification of ‘style’ over ‘substance’ maybe there needs to be some room for some reflection on why this might be, and if fantasy women are worth driving the real ones away.

Pictures of women get posted on digg quite frequently, many of them are of celebrities, and quite a number combine sexy women with computers, or feature intelligent and beautiful women. This is a step up from the dichotomy played out in the media, such as the television show “Beauty and the Geek,” in which the men are smart and the women are vivacious and scantily clad women on digg who are not smart and sexy are cruelly judged. [12] In the anthology “She’s Such a Geek!” Annalee Newitz, a technology and science writer whose work has appeared in Wired and New Scientist (just to name a few) talks about her articles appearing on slashdot.org, and how her appearance mattered more to those who commented than the value of what she had to say. [13] I see the same thing frequently reflected in the comments on digg. If a story or article has an accompanying picture of a woman that does not fit into a very “hollywood”-ized beauty ideal she is often torn apart in the comments. Even the bodies of celebrities are criticized by diggers, and although sometimes it is a critique of the beauty myth itself often it is a critique of their beauty, such as a recent digg article that featured a list of celebrities who are only hot “from the neck down.” Although female diggers themselves are not being judged in those comments, they may be opting out of contributing to the idea that any woman who doesn’t conform to an idealized, virtually unattainable standard beauty is worthless.

To cite another example of how cutting down women based on their looks might turn women off of digg I would like to cite a recent episode of diggnation. During the fan letters section Kevin and Alex showed a letter from a male user posing with two of his friends and a diggnation poster they made for their dorm room. After some general chatter about how they should do a diggnation tour so they could fuck all the college women, they proceeded to comment that they would both “take” the one on the right (ie not the one on the left), which they found to be so hilarious that Kevin nearly threw up from laughing so hard. I hear Kevin and Alex claim that they love their female fans, and just the week before I heard them say that guys should hang onto smart, geeky women because they’re hard to come by, but now I wonder if they only mean “hot” women? The episode made me wonder if the female diggnation fans who are self-conscious about the way they look will be brave enough to risk be judged in the way that woman was, simply because she wasn’t Kevin and Alex’s idea of beautiful. The fact that she is probably a smart, capable, geeky young woman who was very likely watching what they said about her didn’t seem to matter.

Possible Solutions
The internet facilitates an ease to commenting on news stories that has never existed before. In the past, when readers wanted to respond to something they had read they had to put time and energy into finding the supplies they needed to write the letter. The letters were also filtered through an editor before being published, so not only did angry or violent comments make it past that filter, but readers were encouraged to think about how to write comments that were thoughtful, constructive criticism so that they would be printed. Online technology is also evolving at an increasingly rapid pace, due to decreasing overhead costs.

I would like to be clear that these are suggestions for possible solutions; I am not advocating that all of these solutions, or even any of them, are viable. I present them in the hope that they will be discussed by the community, and if found wanting, that new and better solutions will be created.

Create a better, more inclusive space: I put this solution first because I’m not sure what it might look like. I am hesitant to suggest to create an alternate social news website that is female-dominated because this does not seem to solve the problem of creating an inclusive site. The website helium.com, claims to have a much more even ratio of men to women. Helium is a web-based article publishing site that pays users for their content, and is something of a blend between wikipedia, in that the content is created by users, and digg, because users vote on which content they prefer. Unlike digg, however, there is no ability for users to comment on articles. This may contribute to a safer space for women because they are protected from being the recipients of comments that make them uncomfortable. While this is a good strategy for minimizing the negative experience of women who publish on the web, it does nothing to challenge the underlying causes of the problem in the first place. It also doesn’t protect women in all cases, for example some of the comments and threats made about Kathy Sierra were made on blogs other than her own that allowed comments. [16] Ultimately I like digg, and there are many wonderful aspects of it that work just fine, so trying to rethink digg seems to be a better solution than trying to recreate a new and better space.

Recruit more women: To some extent this is a number game. Women make up approximately 50% of all web users. [17] If there was a more balanced gender divide on digg, perhaps there would be a shift in the hostile climate that I have been describing. However, this is making a large number of assumptions. This is assuming that women want to come to digg in the first place, that it has something to offer them, and fits with the way they want to access the web. [18] It also assumes that women will perpetuate sexism, racism and homophobia less than men, which may well not be the case. It is likely, however, that having more women participating in digg would decrease the tolerance for discussing women in ways that does violence to women’s autonomy and self-respect.

Fight back strategically: There are a number of ways that the current system could be better used by diggers to combat behaviour they find offensive. The first and most important point is to pick your battles. Walsh wrote in her editorial:

“Attitudes toward women have improved dramatically just in my lifetime, but still the world has too many misogynists, and the Web has given them a microphone that lets them turn up the volume on their quavering selves, their self-righteous fury, their self-loathing expressed as hatred of women. And yet, mostly, women on the Web just have to ignore it. If you show it bothers you, you’ve given them pleasure. Life is too short to think about… trolls” (2007). [19]

This method can be effective for dealing with trolls. Although the ability to digg comments up and down is useful for filtering out the conversation to make it more readable, when it comes to trolls I suggest that the most effective strategy is to use the “block users” feature to block them, thus not even giving them the satisfaction of being dugg down. [20] There are cases in digg history when this has proven to be an effective strategy to stop users who spam or behave in generally disruptive ways. There is no use in wasting a well thought out response with someone who is only interested in provoking a reaction.

Another strategy is to fight the urge to walk away in defeat when comments on a topic offend. Often by the time I come to a story comments that make me angry have already been dugg up to the point where it feels like my one digg down will make no difference. This is counterproductive. It is important that the ‘democratic’ aspects of digg are leveraged by everyone on digg to an equal extent if the site is going to reflect the opinion of those who read it. As Walsh advocates, thicker skins are needed to get beyond this type of knee-jerk reaction. It is important that the ‘democratic’ aspects of digg are used to their full potential by everyone on digg to an equal extent if the site is going to reflect the opinions of those who read it.

It would also be effective if like-minded diggers made more of an effort to network themselves through the ‘friend’ feature in order that stories that may be interesting to a subset of digg users have a better chance of making it to the front page. If you see a user make a comment that you strongly agree with on a topic, consider adding them as a friend so that you can join them in other similar discussions in the future. In addition to this, once these networks have been established it would be easier to leverage the power of digg to promote stories that are of similar interest to you in the future. As numerous front page articles have discussed in the past, most of the stories make it to the front page now are as a result of a set of users who use exactly this tactic.

Increase accountability: The implications of being able to converse anonymously include feeling freed from stereotypes, allowing for increased sharing of information that would otherwise not be discussed. It also causes reduced feelings of accountability, allowing people to be free to express their personalities in ways they don’t in face to face interaction. [21] In a community as large as digg it is difficult to foster the connection between people that exists in face to face interaction, but there are core users that have more influence than casual members.[22] As with the bloggers who rejected the code of conduct recently suggested by O’Reilly and Wales I am hesitant to advocate censorship. I agree with O’Reilly and Wales that we shouldn’t say things online that we wouldn’t say offline. I don’t assume that everyone will have the same opinion, or that we shouldn’t argue, but I think that users of digg should make an effort to encourage their fellow users to behave respectfully, because this will only contribute to a better community for everyone. Shirky argues that there has to be some sort of agreed upon set of rules or code of conduct in place in large groups in order to protect themselves from self-destructing due to their size (2003). This has to be a collective decision as well as a personal one, but until some sort of internal standard for behaviour is in place there is little impetus for members to think about how their comment contributes to the larger discussion. [23]

Change the structure of digg: As Shirky discusses in his paper, it is impossible to abstract the social aspect from the creation of the technologies that host the interaction, and although I don’t discount the fact that the digg team has clearly have put a lot of work into creating the algorithms that drive digg at the moment, perhaps this is an aspect that has been overlooked. [24] Although digg is currently primarily moderated by users, Jay Adelson, digg’s co-founder, admits that newer moderation tools are in the works to help deal with the problem of “flaming trolls” [25]. If the digg team is concerned about how comments by users may be creating a hostile environment for other users it is highly likely that they will have to change their algorithms and create new and creative moderation tools in order to combat this. Once again, I am not advocating censorship, but better tools for diggers to use to make digg a more inclusive community.

I would also like to reflect that currently there is only one women working for digg, and she is listed as the “digg ambassador,” although further reading of her job description hasn’t enlightened me about what exactly that might entail. I would suggest that perhaps a digg team that was more diverse might aid in thinking about the ways that the structure of digg is currently allowing racism, homophobia and sexism to be so pervasive. This seems to be supported by research done by the Stanford Graduate School of Business which reports that start-up companies that have women involved in their inception predicts how woman-friendly these companies will be in the future. [26]

Footnotes:
[1] Jaffe, J. Michael, Yough-Eum Lee, Li-Ning Huang and Hayg Oshagan. 1999. “Gender Identification, Interdependence, and Pseudonyms in CMC: Language Patterns in an Electronic Conference.” The Infor imation Society 15:221-234.
[2] Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[3] Postmes, Tom and Russell Spears. 2002. “Behavior Online: Does Anonymous Computer Communication Reduce Gender Inequality?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(8):1073-1083
[4] Stone, Brad. 2007. “A Call for Manners in the Nasty World of Blogs.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/technology/09blog.html).
[5] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[6] Hercus, Cheryl. 2004. “Up against It: Opposition and Control” pp. 81-108 in Stepping Out of Line. New York, NY: Routledge.
[7] Hawthorne, Susan. 1999. “Connectivity: Cultural Practices of the Powerful or Subversion from the Margins?” Pp. 119-133 in Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity. Hawthorne, S. and R. Klein, eds. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press Pty Lt.
[8] Hughes, Donna M. 2003. “Changing a Masculinist Culture: Women in Science, Engineering and Technology” pp. 393-400 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
[9] Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[10] Hughes, Donna M. 2003. “Changing a Masculinist Culture: Women in Science, Engineering and Technology” pp. 393-400 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press and Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[11] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[12] Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[13] Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[14] Hercus, Cheryl. 2004. “Up against It: Opposition and Control” pp. 81-108 in Stepping Out of Line. New York, NY: Routledge and Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[15] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[16] Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[17] Richards, Amy and Marianne Schnall. 2003. “Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net” pp. 517-525 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
[18] Richards, Amy and Marianne Schnall. 2003. “Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net” pp. 517-525 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
[19] Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[20] Holahan, Catherine. 2007. “Cleaning Messy Message Boars.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/apr2007/tc20070406_101803.htm).
[21] Jaffe, J. Michael, Yough-Eum Lee, Li-Ning Huang and Hayg Oshagan. 1999. “Gender Identification, Interdependence, and Pseudonyms in CMC: Language Patterns in an Electronic Conference.” The Infor imation Society 15:221-234.
[22] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[23] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[24] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[25] Holahan, Catherine. 2007. “Cleaning Messy Message Boars.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/apr2007/tc20070406_101803.htm).
[26] Lee, Shireen. 2004. “The New Girls Network: Women, Technology and Feminism” pp. 84-104 in The Fire This TIme. Labaton, V. and D.L Martin, eds. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

March 16, 2007

What is “hacking”?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 6:41 pm

We live in an era where computers are widely accepted as a part of life, and where some knowledge about the Internet and using computers is increasingly common. Hackers represent a subculture that has developed along with the integration of computers into society, starting with the original MIT members who coined the term hack to mean “an appropriate application of ingenuity” (Phil Agre quoted in “The Meaning of ‘Hack’” 2003) and evolving to today when hacking has become synonymous with the fight for freedom of information and open-source software projects.

To define one hacker subculture is too simplistic, especially given the long history of hacking dating from its origins in the ‘60s and ‘70s, however as an outsider I will admit to generalizing about hackers in this article because I lack an insider understanding that is necessary to make those distinctions. To come to a basic understanding what defines a hacker it is important to make a distinction between the media’s construction of hackers and the way they hackers define themselves. The media depicts hackers as destructive, malicious people whose goals are to disrupt and demolish. Individuals whose sole purpose is to cause damage and cause trouble are referred to by hackers as “crackers” and hackers experience deep frustration that crackers are confused by the media to be the same as “hackers” (“How To Become A Hacker” 2001). ‘True’ hackers make a very deep distinction between themselves and crackers, and show no patience for crackers they encounter. Hackers much prefer to use their skills to solve problems and create new programs than to cause damage to others or to steal information and property. One hacker put it this way: “[m]any hackers — myself included — have stepped over the arbitrary line that the government has drawn separating legal from illegal. But that’s not a requirement of hacking. It just happens to be a common side effect. For most hackers, the intent is not to vandalize, break laws, or terrorize. It’s to learn and explore” (Ibid quoted in “the hacker criminal” 2001).

Comparing traditional hacker ethics to the ethics found in the current hacker culture reveals that changes have clearly been necessary in order to distinguish themselves from the media perception of what “a hacker” is (“Hacker culture(s): New hacker ethics” 2000, “Hacker culture(s): Traditional hacker ethics” 2000). In the Jargon File, the open-source, public dictionary of hacker terminology, a hack is described both as as “an appropriate application of ingenuity” and a practical joke; a true hack always involves a level of cleverness, as well as admiration for the way in which the hack was executed. One example of this would be how the staff at Motorola hacked a Xerox program to point out to Xerox the seriousness of a security vulnerability. It is important to note here that the Motorola staff notified Xerox on several occasions about the issue, but it received no attention. Eventually the Motorola staff took action and created two virus-like programs called “Friar Tuck” and “Robin Hood.” The programs exploited flaws in the system by by instructing the system to behave in strange ways that got the immediate attention of the Xerox staff. When the Xerox staff attempted to destroy the program called “Robin Hood,” the following words flashed across the screen:
!X id1
id1: Friar Tuck… I am under attack! Pray save me!
id1: Off (aborted)
id2: Fear not, friend Robin! I shall rout the Sheriff
of Nottingham’s men!
id1: Thank you, my good fellow! (“The Meaning of ‘Hack’” 2003).
This example illustrates perfectly the difference between a hack and a crack. Hacker ethics defined the boundaries within which the Motorola team worked (“Hacker Culture(s): New hacker ethics” 2000). They were curiously exploring when they encountered the security hole, but even when they were exploiting the problem, they upheld the hacker imperative of “above all else, do no harm” and inflicted no damage to the system itself. This is one of the main arguments used by hackers to support the idea of open-source software. Because the Motorola team executed the hack, the Xerox team was able to build a safer system to protect their information (“Hacker Culture(s): Dimensions” 2000).

The slang or jargon used by hackers, although based mostly on English, is influenced by computer languages and includes many adaptations made to accommodate text based communication. Language is a central element to hacker culture, both because communication is essential for sharing information and because it serves as a way of marking themselves as hackers (ie not crackers). The way in which hackers have taken English and adapted it, appending new rules and words gathered from the sources around them, is a logical extension of their drive for problem solving an ingenuity. Interestingly, although these changes to language originally occurred while in text based mediums, they are often reclaimed by hackers when talking to each other in real life. For example, instead of exhaling loudly or groaning to express frustration, the word “sigh” or “groan” might be spoken aloud instead (“Spoken inarticulations” 2003). While their use of programming languages may influence new words and uses of language, it also restricts the way in which they use contemporary english grammar rules. For example, hackers rarely use double negatives or ambiguous sentence structure (“Hacker speech style” 2003). Other adaptations to english include “doubling” verbs, such as “boy, what a bagbiter! Chomp chomp!” (“Verb Doubling” 2003) and using sound-alike slang, often in a way that reveals a “hidden” truth, for example “Internet Explorer” becomes “Internet Exploiter” (“Soundalike Slang” 2003).
An important element of hacker language is the deliberate use of puns and other wordplay. These appear to be both an acting out of the hacker ethos of cleverness for cleverness sake, but also as a way to mark oneself as a hacker to other hackers (“Hacker speech style” 2003). An example of this is described by one of the contributors to the Jargon File when describing the tendency to adopt the programming language convention of adding “P” to a sentence to denote a question. While at lunch, one hacker turned to other hackers at the table and asked “split -p soup?” meaning “would you like to split this large bowl of soup with me?” (“The -P Convention” 2003).

Although there is no conventional political orientation typically found amongst hackers (“Politics” 2003) there is certainly an understanding of politics as central to what it means to be a hacker. Hacking has occasionally been used in conventionally political ways to hack institutions that are acting in ways that run contrary to the values of the hacker (“Hacker Culture(s): Dimensions” 2003), but the ethics of hacking are inherently infused with politics. Central to the hacker identity is the fight for freedom of access to information and public creation of knowledge bases. Much of the politics involved in being a hacker revolves around this central theme. The hacker community in present day is virtually synonymous with the community that strives toward developing open-source software, non-profit software that is developed through the process of posting the code publicly where anyone can adapt it in order to create more efficient programs (“The Open Source Definitions Version 1.9” 2005). It is important to note that this is a recent shift, and that historically most hackers were writing closed-source software (“How To Become A Hacker” 2001). This evolution is logical when you consider that even in its origins, hacking involved seeking out ways to solve problems. Solving problems multiple times by multiple people is a waste of time and energy for individuals, and from this basis the open-source software concept was born. (“How To Become A Hacker” 2001).

Another traditional hacker ethic, the mistrust of authority because authority substitutes power for information, has also evolved along with the integration of the Internet and computers into everyday life (“Hacker culture(s): Traditional hacker ethics” 2000). Current hacker culture strives to fight against what it dubs “cyber-tyranny,” or the attempt of governments and those in authority to control access to information (“Hacker culture(s): New hacker ethics” 2000). One such hacker project that illustrates the politics behind this is “Operation Clambake,” in which hackers distributed the book of Scientology, a piece of writing traditionally kept closely guarded by the church that was moved into the public domain after a US court trial. The purpose of this was declared by the initiator of the project as a way to reveal that the church was hiding behind copyright laws in order to deceive the public about “the true nature of Scientology” (Andreas Heldal-Lund quoted in “Hacker culture(s): Traditional hacker ethics” 2000).
Hacker culture also moves into the political by redefining the values that individuals within the community should be valued by. In his online article about “How To Become A Hacker,” Eric S. Raymond (2001), a well known activist in the open-source community as well as the individual currently in charge of the Jargon File, discusses how acceptance into the culture of hacking is very unlike traditional Western culture in that your status within the community is based upon what knowledge and information you contribute. Ideas of equality are also inherent in the culture of hacking (“Hacker Culture(s): Traditional hacker ethics” 2000), and as the Jargon File notes, while this may be a function of communication largely through a text-based medium, it also points out that many hackers are connected to communities of science fiction and artificial intelligence which have more inclusive narratives of personhood than is found in Western society (“Gender and Ethnicity” 2003).

Compared to many subcultures of the present day, hacker subculture is much more overtly political than most. Present day hacker culture has a rigid and explicit definition of what behaviours are acceptable and what behaviours are not, and although they may move outside of what governments defines as legal, hackers cohere strongly to the internal set of morals and values laid out by their culture. The depth and strength of hacker subculture is exemplified in the sheer amount of unique language and language use they lay claim to and by their ability to evolve along with computers and societal understanding of computers while still retaining a core set of political aims and cultural imperatives.

Works cited
“Chapter 7. Hacker speech style.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/speech-style.html).
“Gender and Ethnicity.” The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/demographics.html).
“Hacker Culture(s): Dimensions.” 2000. Jonas Löwgren. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://webzone.k3.mah.se/k3jolo/HackerCultures/dimensions.htm).
“Hacker culture(s): New hacker ethics.” 2000. Jonas Löwgren. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://webzone.k3.mah.se/k3jolo/HackerCultures/newethics.htm).
“Hacker culture(s): Traditional hacker ethics.” 2000. Jonas Löwgren. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://webzone.k3.mah.se/k3jolo/HackerCultures/tradethics.htm).
“How To Become A Hacker.” 2001. Eric S. Raymond. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (“http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html”).
“Politics.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/politics.htm).
“Soundalike Slang.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/soundalike-slang.html).
“Spoken inarticulations.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/inarticulations.html).
“the hacker criminal.” 2001. John Harris Stevenson. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.tranquileye.com/hackerculture/approaches/approaches03.html).
“The Meaning of ‘Hack’.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/meaning-of-hack.html).
“The Open Source Definition Version 1.9.” 2005. The Open Source Initiative. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php).
“The -P Convention.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/p-convention.html).
“Verb Doubling.” 2003. The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.4.7. Retrieved October 23, 2005. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/verb-doubling.html).

Plagarism is BAD and WRONG. Anyone found using any part of this essay without permission will be promptly keel hauled.

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