Recent articles on women and the internet

A couple of links of interest:
Helen Lewis on routine abuse of women and feminists on the internet

And Xeni Jardin on the women who invented the internet

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Is Android’s Iris racist, pro-rape, and anti-abortion?

We’re a little late on this story, but it’s worth a look. What happens when user-generated content gets an authoritative platform? Neutral point of view may have its problems, but it does provide a standard that the question-and-answer search engine ChaCha doesn’t apparently meet. It may have been an interesting political intervention on the part of ChaCha’s writers (rightwing or otherwise) to contribute “answers” to questions of opinion. But ostensibly, these tendentious ChaCha “answers”—appearing on Android’s Iris (its version of Siri)—had been edited and vetted. See NewsyTech video coverage here.

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Julian Dibbell and Online Communities

Author and journalist Julian Dibbell examines the often-tenuous division between digital life and “reality” in his work on technology and online communities. His most recent book Play Money: Or How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot delves into the real-world economy of virtual gaming, following the lives of poorly paid, “unskilled” laborers who are employed to amass vast quantities of “virtual loot” online. His work often focuses on issues of entry, access, and membership in online communities and how behavior is monitored within those communities.

In an early article, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Dibbell tells a tale of crime and punishment within the interactive multi-user dimension (MUD) world LambdaMOO. Users of LambdaMOO created online personas who were able to interact with each other by entering commands into a scrolling line of narrated text. The “crime” Dibbell explores in his article occurred when a rogue user, Mr. Bungle, created a “voodoo doll” subprogram that assumed control of other users’ characters and caused them to perform unwanted sexual acts with one another online. Dibbell accounts for the way in which these virtual reality transgressions engendered reactions in the real world, writing that Mr. Bungle’s “victims” felt a crime had been committed not against their “physical” bodies, but against their “psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads” (“A Rape in Cyberspace”). Dibbell describes the unwelcome sex enacted online as constituting not “an exchange of fluids,” but more importantly a Foucauldian “exchange of signs.” As he read the testimony of these “victims,” and began to take the severity of the virtual “crime” more seriously, Dibbell writes he was less and less able to take seriously “the tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real that underlies the very notion of freedom of speech.” Indeed, LambdaMOO’s users seemed to reject the distinction between online and offline realities and actions in their collective response to Mr. Bungle’s offense. In a democratic vote, the users of LambdaMOO elected to “toad” Mr. Bungle; that is, to erase all traces of his existence from their MUD world in an act which some users recognized as possessing uncomfortable “conceptual ties” with capital punishment in the offline world.

Dibbell continues to gauge different perspectives regarding the “seriousness” of online play and offense in “Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World.” The article, which was reprinted in 2008’s edition of The Best Technology Writing, focuses on Second Life’s community of “griefers:” renegade, but highly organized teams of “Goons” who systematically destroy or debase the hard-won virtual property of other users by orchestrating virtual explosions or ever-infamous “rains” of dancing, destructive virtual phalluses. When asked to explain the rationale for their actions, one prominent griefer admits, “We do it for the lulz”; that is, for the inherent “amusement in pissing off others.” Dibbell points out that while all users of Second Life are technically playing the same “game,” no consensus exists regarding Second Life’s rulebook or objectives. Griefers may be “playing a different game altogether” from users who invest great emotional energy in their online accomplishments. Dibbell delineates griefers’ goals as pushing users “past the brink of moral outrage toward that rare moment–at once humiliating and enlightening–when they find themselves crying over a computer game.” Like LambdaMOO’s case of cyber-rape, the “crimes” of Second Life’s griefers challenge users to “sort out the consequential from the not-so-much,” and to reassess the rules of behavior that ostensibly distinguish online from offline life.


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Kavita Philip: Piracy and Biopower

Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at UC Irvine Kavita Philip situates her research at the intersection of “science, technology, history, and theory.” Possessing an M. S. in Physics as well as a Ph. D. in Science and Technology Studies, Philip adopts an interdisciplinary methodology in much of her research. Her most recent work focuses on technology’s relationship with a postcolonial worldview and feminist implications for the formation of new technological subjectivities. Her latest book, Tactical Biopolitics, co-edited with Beatriz da Costa, stresses the importance of cross-disciplinary “knowledge-making in the context of resistant practice” (4). The book highlights the ways in which artists, scientists, activists, and theorists use technology to destabilize “basic concepts such as scientific truth, race and gender identity…personal choice, social freedom, and civilizational progress” through experimental discourse (6). Working from a Foucauldian model of biopower, the book examines the strategies and practices of isolated pockets of resistance that act to reorganize and regroup discursive cultural categories.

In “Of Bugs and Rats: Cyber-cleanliness, Cyber-squalor, and the Fantasies of Globalization,” Philip takes up the place of the human body and subjective signifiers such as race, class, and gender within a globalized narrative of modern technology. She argues that the image of technological innovation as belonging to an imagined sterile, flawless, and bodiless universe should be understood “in relation to long-standing western narratives associating figures of horrific materiality with fantasies of the uncontrolled primitive and technological cleansing” (4). Within digital technology’s pure realm of mechanized progress and efficiency, the messy, organic physicality of the human body is figured as a potential contaminant. Philip analyzes the commercial production of microprocessors in hermetically sealed “cleanrooms,” focusing on the elaborate methods human workers must observe in order to avoid introducing any hazardous foreign material into the production chamber. Shrouded in enormous “bunny suits,” the workers themselves are in fact minimally protected from potential toxins harbored by the microprocessors’ raw materials; the suit and the complicated cleansing ritual each worker must perform before entering the production area are designed instead for the protection of the technology (14). Philip further argues that the “bunny suits” act to suppress bodily signifiers such as race and gender: not in the interest of a “progressive social policy, but in the interest of eliminating every troublesome aspect of the body” (18). In the material world, these “troublesome aspects of the body” are ultimately impossible to disaggregate from the body itself. This specter of abject imperfection thus contributes to an understanding of one’s subjective position and ability to affect change within the global economy of technology.

Philip continues an examination of subjective autonomy and authorship in the digital realm in “What is a Technological Author? The Pirate Function and Intellectual Property.” She confronts what she poses as a specifically “western” anxiety regarding online knowledge-sharing and intellectual copyright laws: a belief that “the very technologies that appear to embody post-Enlightenment modernity and progress seem to facilitate the destruction of western civilization by those who ‘hate our values and freedoms’” (201). In the United States, this anxiety has popularly produced a two-sided view of online piracy: “good” piracy refers to an artistic or culturally creative process by which users “transform” publicly available content new and potentially progressive forms, whereas “bad” piracy (often dubbed “Asian piracy”) pertains to the unaltered copying and distribution of original content deemed “inexcusable…because of its flouting of…the laws of the free market” (211-2).

Philip rejects this binary vision of “good” and “bad” piracy, which she argues serves to perpetuate a colonial worldview. The particular brand of “creativity” lauded by proponents of “good” piracy is fundamentally “depend[ent] on bandwidth” and essentially excludes individuals in less-developed regions who may depend on the workings of “bad” piracy in order to gain access to the global economy of technology (214). What is central for Philip is the question of who is practically capable of speaking “as an author” through technological “creativity” if we envision authorship as emerging “as an attribute of autonomous subjects” (207). Within a western conception of piracy, she argues, only “certain kinds of difference are permitted in the enforcement of legal equality,” and the “difference” associated with “not-yet” fully “mature” former colonies is not accepted (216). She argues for the recognition that the “aims” and “tactics” which motivate an individual’s subjective relationship with technology are specific to one’s “geo/cultural/political location,” and that these “aims” and “tactics” in the West have been particularly molded by a colonial power narrative.


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Suicide and Mediated Aggression towards Queer Youth

An article from the New Yorker this Monday takes a comprehensive look at the September suicide of gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. The article further details the ensuing court case against Tyler’s roommate who had Tweeted about using his computer to spy on Tyler while the latter was with a lover in the days before the suicide. Pulling from danah boyd’s work on online privacy and teen bullying, the article considers the social and structural obstacles to both identifying and combating pervasive computer-mediated aggression against queer youth.

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Zach Blas and Queer Technologies

Zach Blas situates himself at the intersection of queer art and new media activism, mobilizing academic and popular discourse through prolific publications and projects such as Queer Technologies. Now a doctoral student specializing in Literature, Information Science & Information Studies, Visual Studies, and Women’s Studies at Duke University, Blas received his MFA in Design & Media Arts from UCLA in 2008. He is currently at work on an exhibition entitled Trans Technology: Circuits of Culture, Self, and Belonging to be featured in Rutgers University’s Momentum: Women/Art/Technology project in 2013. Most recently, Blas co-organized Duke’s Marxism and New Media Conference and served as moderator for the conference’s panel on Queerness a few weeks ago.

Central to Blas’s work is a reaction against the idea that new media, being “new,” is intrinsically liberating in nature. New media’s very existence does not inherently subvert established channels of power, he argues. While Associate Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies at the University of Maryland Katrien Jacobs has posited the seemingly reasonable view that new media’s networked communities allow for the production of commodities (specifically pornography) in a “‘somewhat less stiff and bureaucratic’ manner” than previous models of labor and production allowed, Blas rebuffs this position in a response post. He maintains that the subversive potential of new media does not emanate from the specific technologies as such, but rather depends on the political motivations for which the technologies are mobilized. For Blas, focusing on the relative “degree” of bureaucracy visible in newer versus older technologies is not productive. He writes that “subversive” networked communities may themselves be agents of a different brand of “stiffness,” and that hailing them as harbingers of liberation from a capitalist “matrix” obscures valuable inquiry into the nebulous operations of power within new media interactions. He emphasizes the ways in which bodily pleasure and sexual desire still bind consumers to the ultimately profit-driven production of netporn, and advocates instead the cultivation of a “radical networked sex praxis” that works to sever the link between sexual desire and the capitalist “matrix.” This conviction serves as the motivating telos behind Blas’s Queer Technologies.

In his 2006 essay “What Is Queer Technology?,” Blas declines to the impose any cohesive “ontological” guidelines on what specific uses of new media may be interpreted as queer (3). He argues that such definitional closure is “antithetical” to a diffuse and potent queerness (3). Instead, he highlights the importance of disparately-realized, but consciously directed artistic iterations of queer “process” (4). In Blas’s vision of “process,” the “product” is not distinct from the “process” as such; that is to say, queer “process” and artistic “product” are often indistinguishable and are equally imbricated in what Blas presents as a conscious subverting of established institutions such as capitalism and heteronormativity (4). Queer Technologies, an organization born out of Blas’s Master’s work, creates “critical applications, tools, and situations for queer technological agency, interventions, and social formation.” Queer Technologies products, which include a “technical manifesto that outlines the ‘how-to’ of queer networked activism” and a “queer programming anti-language,” have been exhibited in galleries around the world and are also periodically “shop-dropped” in consumer electronics stores such as Target and Best Buy. The organization, which strives to “automate perverse possibilities” works to destabilize normative societal patterns by disseminating “virally” through different strata of the population.

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Online Multitasking and Tween Social Development

This week, a study conducted by Stanford University published results indicating that “tweenage” (8-12 year-old) girls who spend considerable time electronically multitasking (IMing, watching Youtube videos, posting on Facebook or MySpace) disproportionately suffer impediments to their social and emotional development. Girls who multitask on computers more frequently were shown to have lower self-esteem and feel more alienated from their peers. Interestingly, the same study found that the putative negative effects of excessive electronic multitasking can be ameliorated by increased face-to-face communication. Researcher Clifford Nass explains the benefits of in-person conversations by stressing the importance of learning to “interpret [others’] emotions” by their facial cues. He notes this brand of social insight is difficult to develop if one’s time is largely spent cycling between different screens on a computer. The study suggests that offscreen social interactions form a critical base for the development of the kind of  healthy online social “literacy” C.J. Pascoe and danah boyd emphasize in their research.

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Labor, Digital Media, and Sexuality in the Work of Stephanie Rothenberg

Artist Stephanie Rothenberg consistently highlights the tenuous relationship between the human body and its mediated representation(s) through new computer technologies by creating interactive projects that often borrow their forms from existing “virtual world” programs like Second Life. Rothenberg, who holds her MFA from the Department of Film, Video and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, identifies herself equally as an artist and as a “cultural anthropologist” concerned with interrogating “our interpersonal relationship to technology and its broader socio-political implications.” Rothenberg’s social consciousness manifests itself not only through her own artwork, but through her relationship with the non-profit organization REV-, which she co-founded in 2009. Drawing its name from a collection of powerful “rev-” words such as revolution, reveal, and irreverent, the New York-based organization aims to combine an aesthetic understanding of what constitutes “compelling design” with a commitment to those social justice issues that may lack public recognition in order to effect meaningful change. REV- projects include moves to inform domestic workers and their employers about the contents of the recently passed New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, efforts to protect food vendors from legal victimization, and Rothenberg’s own exploration of rights within the online global “workplace” entitled Best Practices in Banana Time. The ongoing project takes the form of a multi-part interactive talk show hosted by Rothenberg’s Second Life virtual alias who interviews Second Life guests working the same job in Second Life as they do in their offline lives. Interviewees include doctors, architects, and, surprisingly often, sex workers.

Rothenberg’s Second Life interviews with sex workers contribute to the exploration of the intersections of offline labor and digital media within an ongoing project more directly pertinent to the Social Media Project, Laborers of Love. Laborers of Love is an interactive and individualized pornography site that operates on a model of global “crowdsourcing.” Rothenberg’s home site offers the Wikipedia definition of crowdsourcing as “taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call.” Thus, Laborers of Love operates as follows: users input specific details regarding their sexual fantasies into a form on the website (including descriptions of characters, setting, relative pace of the encounter, and preference for levels of “weirdness” or “spiciness”) and then pay a specified fee. The information is then sent to a site managed by the crowdsourcing application Mechanical Turk (owned by where everyday people around the world can view the fantasy request, work to create it, and indicate an in-progress status on the site. These anonymous individuals provide images and video inspired by the request to Laborers of Love, which uses a digital mashup program to create a “montage/Dada-esque video” and then delivers the final product to the original user. Because the site facilitates creative sexual collaboration between “anybody,” Laborers of Love destabilizes the definition of “sex worker” within a digitalized global economy. The project additionally complicates traditional notions of bodily intimacy and pleasure by mediating its users’ previously private fantasies through the internet. The site furnishes an end result that is both the direct product of a user’s fantasy and simultaneously unfamiliar to that user in its specific content and its disjointed, erratic video format.

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C. J. Pascoe: Social Literacy and Mediated Authenticity

C.J. Pascoe’s research, like danah boyd’s, frames teens’ usage of digital and new media as developing a critical brand social “literacy” which complicates traditional models of youth affiliation, creativity, and intimacy (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 118). Now Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado College, Pascoe’s doctoral study on masculinity and sexuality in high school, Dude, You’re a Fag, won the American Education Research Association’s Outstanding Book Award in 2008. Her newest project, co-authoring a book entitled Anas, Mias, and Wannas: Identity and Community in a Pro-Ana Subculture, examines the formation of an isolated but “thriving” and overwhelmingly female pro-eating disorder community through online discussion groups. In “‘You’re Just Another Fatty:’ Creating a Pro-Ana Subculture Online,” an article outlining her research for UC Berkeley’s Digital Youth Project, Pascoe interprets the groups’ users compulsive posting of bodily data in the form of photographs or frequently updated vital statistics onto the sites’ otherwise disembodied and potentially anonymous forum format as a fraught performance of physical “authenticity” motivated by separating “hard core” or “committed” anorexics from “[un]disciplined…wannarexics.” Pascoe identifies the anorexic/wannarexic distinction as the primary axis of inclusion and exclusion within these sites, and notes a hypothetically anonymous user’s credibility hinges fundamentally on bodily evidence of “authentic” anorexic commitment. She reflects on the discussion group format’s dual potential for extending communication and a sense of community between isolated and marginalized individuals, while simultaneously exerting a normative influence on these individual’s means of self-identification and contesting their “right” to claim the “Ana” label.

The importance of perceived authenticity manifests itself differently in Pascoe’s “‘You Have Another World to Create:’ Teens and Online Hangouts,” a brief study of role-playing sites. Rather than fashioning characters who directly mirror the realities of their offline lives, the study’s teens often create characters who respond to familiar challenges in ways which may not be possible outside the context of the site. One teen Pascoe interviews channels her frustration with the conventional gendered expectations of her offline social setting into crafting new adventures for an online character who, while female, “seek[s] her fortune in the wider world” by spending her daylight hours as a man. The site’s administrators, who must approve new characters before allowing them to interact with others online, lauded the “authenticity” and “relatability” of her character. Though she does not cross-dress or attempt to pass as male in her offline life, this teen uses new media as a creative outlet to draft possible means of overcoming dissatisfaction with her own “authentic” lived experience.

In her chapter in Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Pascoe further examines the way teens have incorporated new technologies such as mobile phones, IM services, and social network sites as integral to their intimate relationships and not as peripheral or exterior to their offline lives. The new media Pascoe focuses on  complicates expectations of mutual “monitoring, privacy, and vulnerability” within a relationship (118). While teens may spend less time “monitoring” their intimate relations in person, new media like cell phones contribute to the expectation one’s boyfriend or girlfriend should be “always-on” and capable of maintaining “constant (if passive) contact” (120). Because of the possibility of a near-constant stream of communication between teens, some intimate relationships may enjoy a level of privacy outside the awareness of others (often, and notably, beyond parents’ knowledge). At the same time, social pressure to make relationships “Facebook official” by posting images and publicly exchanging romantic messages may place couples under greater scrutiny and infringe upon their senses of privacy. This exposure may make teens feel vulnerable, yet the asynchronous nature of Wall posts, texts, and IM technologies alleviates some of the pressure teens may feel when approaching a potential love interest in person. Because teens are not expected to respond to messages as immediately as they would to a spoken remark, they may feel less vulnerable to social blunders and may expend energy typing a carefully composed response nevertheless designed to appear casual and offhand. Pascoe argues that teens learning to navigate new media and incorporate them into their intimate relationships are acquiring a new type of social literacy, much as danah boyd highlights the centrality of social network sites in developing “peer-to-peer sociality.” Like boyd, Pascoe maintains that future research into youths’ use of new media and social media should not be “[guided] by adult anxieties” (121) which focus on intimacy and “teen sexuality as out of control and dangerous,” but rather endeavor to better understand this social literacy in order to provide “more nuanced forms of guidance” in the place of “blanket prohibitions” to facilitate the transition from youth to adulthood (147).

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Co-Sponsored Event Next Week

On Monday, November 28 the Social Media Project will be co-sponsoring an event with the Contemporary Art Workshop. Two artists who work with social media and sexuality, Eijane Janet Lin and Michael Sirianni, will be presenting their work. The Contemporary Art Workshop meets in Cochrane-Woods Art Center, room 156, at 5pm on Mondays.

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