19 Mar 2009, 12:19pm
social networks twitter
by jordan

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From anonymity to exhibitionism: whither Twitter?

It’s funny how, once upon a time, people both valued and mocked anonymity on the internet — most users picked a “handle” or an online moniker, and avoided sharing their real names or identifying details, while it was joked that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (or an adult man pretending to be a teenage girl, as was often imagined). Facebook has gone some way towards undermining that convention, encouraging users to use their full names, and making it easy for people you once knew (say, in high school) to find you. And though not required, plenty of people put their real names on Twitter — including numerous well-known people and celebrities, from actors and musicians to social media authors (I tend to assume that anyone famous with thousands of followers is probably who they say they are — but who knows?).

Microblogging as superficial exhibitionism

Twitter, in its increasing popularity and visibility, is generating some anxiety as well. A teaser for new animated series “Supernews” describes Twitter users as exhibitionists who have only superficial online friendships, and who confuse microblogging with real social connections (“if they were _really_ your friends, wouldn’t they call you personally to see how you’re doing?”). It’s entertainingly short-sighted to imply that a phone call is more intimate than an online interaction, when not so long ago, people were anxious about the social consequences of telephones replacing in-person communication.

The future of Twitter

At the other end of the spectrum, Nova Spivack voices concerns about the widespread adoption of Twitter, a service which as yet doesn’t offer much in the way of filtering. Twitter, in its relative simplicity, can be used in many different ways by its participants — and whom you follow determines the kind of conversation you’ll experience (Howard Rheingold, for example, advocates “sampling” from the Twitter stream, not trying to stay constantly up-to-date). Spivack describes the various ways in which Twitter is subject to possible overload — users who post too often, but have little to say, spammers who hijack hashtags (twitter content tags marked with a # sign) and @replies, and an excess of notifications, from news updates to your own desktop apps. Twitter for now remains a relatively even space for communication, in which the biggest distinction between famous or popular accounts is their number of followers. The downside of this lies in the equal access Twitter provides for spammers, advertisers, and other potentially unwanted content providers. Spivack concludes that some form of filtering will be necessary to preserve Twitter’s usefulness, ideally through some kind of metadata to allow ranking by popularity, credibility, content type, provider type, and so forth (assuming these are straightforward to implement, that is!).

'The Theory of Twitter Overload' by raster on flickr, some rights reserved For my part, I’m always most fascinated by the unintended uses of sites like Twitter, and the creative ways users appropriate online services and technologies. While Twitter may be risking its longterm viability, as Spivack suggests, its very simplicity permits users to innovate and generate new applications its creators never envisioned.

13 Feb 2009, 1:18pm
feminism media & technology
by jordan

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women and video games

my friend and fellow grad student Morgan Romine was featured on Fast Company earlier this month, blogging on “Why Women Should Play Video Games.” Here’s an exerpt:

I realize that gaming is still a decidedly male-dominated pastime and industry, and I understand that mainstream culture is still deeply influenced by the notion that games are only for the stereotypical antisocial, tech-nerdy, teenage male. But I’ve been advocating games for years now, and playing them for longer, so I’m impatient for the change in popular perception that I’m sure is waiting right around the corner.

13 Feb 2009, 1:06pm
media & technology
by jordan

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netbooks: lowering the bar to entry

reading various tech blogs and discussion boards lately, i’ve been following some of the debate around “netbooks,” small, underpowered laptops that cost much less than full-sized ones. so-called netbooks aim to meet basic internet and computing needs (email, web surfing, some wordprocessing) in a superportable form, such as Acer’s Aspire One, the ASUS Eee PC, the Dell Mini 10, or the MSI Wind. some netbooks seem to be more like glorified handhelds — cramped keyboards, small screens, and limited processing power (many run on Intel’s Atom chip), but long battery life — and they have been touted for precisely these features. in theory, netbooks are poised to fill a niche between smartphones and full-sized laptops, offering an inexpensive, internet-capable device with the benefits of both — perfect for traveling or taking to a coffeeshop.

one purported use of the netbook is as a secondary computer, an ultralight portable for an affluent consumer who already owns a larger, more valuable, and full-featured machine. for such users, a netbook can offer a disposable, affordable alternative for their “mobile lifestyle,” presuming, of course, a particular kind of mobile, middle-class, professional consumer (not coincidentally, the targeted demographic for many shiny new tech devices). but unlike an iPhone or a Blackberry, which remain expensive devices with pricey data services, a netbook is priced low relative to that of full-sized laptops. low-end PC notebooks in the same range ($300-600) are inevitably bulky, heavy, and impractical for taking on the go.

still, netbooks’ inadequacies have been criticized by Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington, who contends that their popularity will be limited: “Netbooks are designed to appeal to two very different markets – the price sensitive and the size sensitive. The two are really mutually exclusive.” Arrington makes a good point, but at the same time, there are shifts in how people are using technology which will make netbooks more appealing. personal computers have become primarily networked devices, for messaging, web browsing, streaming music and video, and so on, where an earlier generation of computers were seen as “productivity” tools. WiFi and wireless data networks make it possible to connect to the internet from almost anywhere — on campuses, in coffeeshops, at the airport. while smartphones have greatly improved their capacity to access the internet and social media services, they remain expensive compared to mobile phones without data plans, and are only used by a minority.

what’s more, computers, like cell phones, have become highly personalized items — for those as can afford it. no longer primarily a shared family or classroom device, laptops conform to a modern Western ideal of possessive individualism — a sense of personhood as singular and individual, One Laptop Per Child. netbooks, precisely by virtue of their affordability, promise to make available the always-on, interconnected world of social networking sites, cloud computing, and streaming media to a wide audience. as personal computers go, they offer a highly portable, technologically sufficient device that provides access to popular media and services, in a market saturated by products overpowered for many everyday uses. moreover, the coming popularity of off-site “cloud” computing may make netbooks even more viable.

still, i suspect the netbook naysayers are correct in their dismay with netbooks’ constrained capacities, and that most people won’t prefer to have an undersized, underpowered device as their main computer. but for a growing generation of students, young people, and others of limited means, netbooks may offer the most cost-effective way of participating in a digitized, networked world of personal portable devices, regardless of preference. netbooks offer the promise of improving access to new media for many, but this comes at the cost of better performing, more expensive computers. technology use will remain marked by its economically and socially uneven terrain.

7 Feb 2009, 5:35pm
media & technology research
by jordan

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recent projects

i’ve been continuing to think about questions of mobility, spatial scales, and technology, particularly in terms of how our ideas about mobility often influence what kind of new media are developed and marketed. most recently, i proposed a small project funded by Intel as part of collaborative effort between Intel’s People and Practices group and UC Irvine. there are a whole number of interesting projects as part of the initiative, which you can read more about on the PAPR blog.

in addition, i’ve returned to blogging for Smart Mobs, so keep an eye out for me there.

25 Sep 2008, 2:41pm
media & technology youth
by jordan

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whose mobility?

with this summer’s iPhone 3G from Apple and Google’s latest unveiling of the G1 smartphone, mobility seems to be the current communications tech buzzword, especially for so-called social media. having just acquired a new iPhone myself, i admit i’m pretty excited by its possibilities — continuous data, location-based services, and a superslick interface that may indicate the future of touch-based interfaces. i’ve been especially impressed by the free applications offered by established social media sites, like Facebook, MySpace, Last.fm, and Twitter. where internet services have tended to focus on web-based applications, the iPhone redirects usage back to standalone apps which implement their own framework while drawing on networked content.

i find myself updating my Facebook and checking my Myspace messages more often, as the iPhone apps are often quicker and cleaner than their web-based counterparts, and more fun to use. i’m titillated (and a little creeped out) by how Yelp and Google Maps can now figure out where i am, and deliver data specific to my location. i’m beginning to envision how devices like the iPhone and G1 might allow for more constant engagement and interactivity with peers — as long as, of course, they also own the pricey equipment and pay for the data subscription (not to mention having a working wireless network, which neither AT&T nor T-Mobile consistently provide).

this brings me to my current question concerning increasing mobility — whose mobility is at stake here? the “digital divide” between technological haves and have-nots may not be a foreign concept in tech circles, but it’s not one that has been very well addressed either, as it’s often chalked up to socio-economic inequities that must be solved separately. certainly it’s not surprising that tricked-out web-capable smartphones are mostly available to consumers in the upper social strata (with devices starting at $179 and combined voice/data plans running $55/month and up). moreover, social and geographic mobility have often been the purview of the middle (and upper middle) classes, those who are more likely to leave home for college, take jobs in different cities, and establish themselves far away from their extended families.

migration, of course, is a reality for many working-class people in the US and abroad, whose ability to earn a living is often tied to the movement of global capital. the demands of the global market tend to drive mass labor migrations, as people must move to find jobs that can support them and their families — often living far from home and working abroad illegally (from migrant Mexican and Central American laborers in the US, to domestic workers in Europe and the Gulf states who come from South Asia, the Phillipines, and elsewhere). mobility per se may not be limited to those with greater resources, but voluntary mobility is still a privilege.

yet by contrast, mobile communications technologies have precisely been adopted in places where more extensive infrastructure may not exist. in the US, for instance, mobile phones were adopted first by younger users, partly because they’re less likely to have their own landline (or own a home), and also because cell phone carriers began offering pre-paid plans that made phones accessible to those without steady incomes (the Pew Internet Project has some interesting reports on cell phone and internet use among different American demographics, though their methodology is limited to phone interviews, and they appear to conflate race with regional ethnic identity). outside the industrialized world, furthermore, mobile phones increasingly provide communications access to low-income regions and neighborhoods where landlines are simply unavailable. according to this article on MobileActive.org, for example, Brazilians living in favelas (slums) have taken up cell phone use, as have low-income youth in South Africa. free incoming calls and text messaging make mobile phones useable where landlines aren’t, and encourage different ways of engaging with mobile technologies. according to Jeffrey Juris’ review, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, shows how mobile phones in Jamaica allow low-income users to intensify their social networks in beneficial ways.

what’s clear is that mobile technologies are used differently by different groups, often in ways not intended or imagined by marketers or tech companies. marginalized populations are probably less likely to be targeted by companies like Apple or Google, but at the same time, new technologies do present novel possibilities for social interaction at multiple social strata. text messaging, as the New York Times anxiously warned last week, is on the rise, often over and against voice calls, while improved handheld devices might actually provide web access to those who can’t afford more expensive computer equipment (though Apple and Google for now are both assuming their devices will be paired with a home computer and broadband connection). mobility may turn out to mean more than just the latest toys for those of us who can afford them, and perhaps suggests an emerging way to think about and analyze new patterns in technology practice.

8 Feb 2008, 11:17pm
by jordan

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brass is the new… black?

retrofuturism has been gaining, well, steam lately, notably in the form of steampunk, a literary-genre-turned-nascent-subculture, which imagines a Victorian future that never was, of steampower, dirigibles, and brass gears. as a genre of science fiction, of course, steampunk is not new (from jules verne and jean-pierre jeunet to william gibson and neal stephenson, and most recently, the movie version of The Golden Compass), but it seems to be finding increasing articulation in tinkering/diy projects, installation art, and fashion. kinetic steamworks in oakland have made viable steampowered works of imaginative art like the Neverwas Haul and the Steampunk Treehouse, while various tinkerers have posted online about their steampunk-themed diy projects. legions of former cyber clubkids and gothic lolitas appear to be taking up steam fashion, from pinstriped corsets with pocketwatch pockets (a one-off from Morua Designs) and kneehigh punk rock granny boots, to ruffled collars and cuffs from designers like Steamtrunk Couture.

all of which fits in nicely with the profusion of circus-freak perfomance art and vintage aesthetics proliferating on the margins of popular culture in places like new york and california, among others, and lovingly documented on artsy alt culture blog Coilhouse. nothing, however, sounds the death knell of a new subculture more than well-meaning bougie media attention:

Steampunk Brings Victorian Flair to the 21st Century

i’m enough of a bob siegel fan-girl to find the coverage entertaining, but i find suspect the theory that steampunk is somehow a response to the impersonal mass-produced consumerism of the information age.

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