Archive for the ‘identity’ Category

Context and Power

Charles Platt, guest-blogging at BoingBoing, shared the following:

The picture above is of me, finishing my shift at the world’s largest retailer. How did I move from being a senior writer at Wired magazine to an entry-level position in a company that is reviled by almost all living journalists?

It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

Charles Platt, like the vast majority of WalMart’s management – senior corporate headquarters, store-located, everything – is a white man. Perhaps this difference between himself and Ehrenreich crossed his mind and he chose to ignore it, or maybe it never came up. But to point out the very obvious: white men have a massively disproportionate about of power in the United States. Whites generally have the lower rate of unemployment and higher rate of compensation; white men have higher rates of compensation and lower rates of unemployment than white women. Non-Hispanic white men comprise ~34% of the U.S. population and the era of Obama notwithstanding, continue to control the vast, vast majority of U.S. wealth, political, cultural, [FILL IN THE BLANK] power.

Platt isn’t a racist for not acknowledging these issues, nor a misogynist, nor do I claim any particular valor for foregrounding my white male privilege. It’s a marker of how ingrained and powerful that privilege is that an intelligent guy like Platt – a man who’s made his bread as writer and cultural observer for going on 40 years – could be quite so blind to it. The most revealing turn of phrase in his account is when Platt acknowledges that “Somehow [Ehrenreich’s] book didn’t ring true to me.” Well of course it didn’t – that’s kind of the point. It’s not about Platt – it’s about the two-thirds of the population (more, when you take into account class distinctions) that aren’t Platt and don’t have his built-in racial and/or gender advatages.

More in-depth treatment of other issues of race and achievement later this week, but this kind of set me off.

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This morning has been chock-a-block full of exciting and hopeful news on the K-12 education front.

First, I was excited to hear “controversial” Chancellor of Schools for Washington, D.C. on the Diane Rehm Show (you can listen to the whole hour there). Suffice to say, the moribund state of the DC schools demanded some kind of radical action, and Rhee has been undaunted in moving forward in the teeth of sometimes-strong opposition from some elements of the teacher’s union. I’m extraordinarily skeptical of any school “reform” efforts that have as their first priority some sort of union-busting (either de jure or de facto) measures, and that I find much of the school reform movement to be basically a politically-motivated attack on teachers’ unions. That being said, the pathetic performance of DC education and too many shameful actions undertaken or defended by the DC teacher’s union have lost them the benefit of the doubt at least for now. Rhee makes a convincing case for performance pay and against purely experience-based granting of tenure. I wasn’t entirely blown away by Rhee – she made a pretty lazy rhetorical defense of an attack by a cller accusing her of creeping school privitization by noting that she was also getting attacked by charter school advocates. But overall, I remain very excited for the new direction Rhee is charting for DC’s public schools.

Following almost directly on that was President-elect Obama’s announcement of Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education. Steven Levitt is excited and that’s a pretty good indicator as far as I’m concerned:

He is smart as hell and his commitment to the kids is remarkable. If you wanted to start from scratch and build a public servant, Arne would be the end product.

Sounds pretty good! Of course, Secretary of Education is a position that has highly variable levels of influence depending on who’s President, but given Obama’s record at the state and Senate level, combined with having school-age children, and the frequency with which he talks in an impassioned way about education issues (including at today’s presser), it would seem to be the case that Duncan will be pretty well empowered.

Finally, I stumbled across this article at the Washington Post, detailing how my K-12 school system, Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools, is doing away with the “gifted” classification:

The label of gifted, as prized to some parents as a “My Child Is an Honor Student” bumper sticker, is about to be dropped by the Montgomery County school system.

Officials plan to abandon a decades-old policy that sorts second-grade students, like Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches, into those who are gifted (the Star-Belly sort) and those who are not. Several other school systems in the region identify children in the same manner. But Montgomery education leaders have decided that the practice is arbitrary and unfair.

Two-fifths of Montgomery students are considered gifted on the basis of aptitude tests, schoolwork, expert opinion and parents’ wishes. Officials say the approach slights the rest of the students who are not so labeled. White and Asian American students are twice as likely as blacks and Hispanics to be identified as gifted.

The article doesn’t explicitly mention Dweck’s and Steele’s research, but the implications of “gifted” versus non- on theories of self and stereotype threat is hard to ignore. Telling kids that they’re “gifted” leads to entity theories of self, which leads to difficulty later – telling kids that they’re “not gifted” leads to academic disengagement – and kids seeing for themselves the racial and ethnic disparities in gifted classification leads to the formation and reinforcement of pernicious stereotypes about intelligence and academic performance. A change in semantics isn’t going to change all of this, but it’s an absolutely excellent first step.

Though to be fair, this is not the best example:

Montgomery officials say their formula for giftedness is flawed. Nearly three-quarters of students at Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda are labeled gifted, but only 13 percent at Watkins Mill Elementary in less-affluent Montgomery Village are, a curious disparity given that cognitive gifts are supposed to be evenly distributed.

As a proud alumnus of Bannockburn Elementary School, I profess to exactly zero surprise that we have so thoroughly whipped those little slackers from Watkins Mill.

Kidding! Kidding! Doing away with gifted-ness is an excellent thing, no caveats.

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What is Facebook for?

Alice Marwick directed me to an interesting analysis on Facebook’s redesign, which posits that,

Facebook’s new design, as many of us have been noting since the company began testing it months ago, seems to emphasis features also seen in trendy new web services favored by us self-styled “early adopter” types.

Mark Slee of Facebook, in talking about the redesign, says:

The profile is very personal; it’s important to us that everyone have control over their own profile. Along those lines, once you’ve published stories or posted content, you can adjust the size to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting.

And in discussing the redesign with my friend BC yesterday, he noted that the redesign eliminated clutter, and that the news update had eaten the rest of Facebook: no more static pages. Taken together, it’s a clear change in stance for Facebook. Just as they’d re-adjusted to saturation within college campuses by opening it to everyone, they’re now positioning themselves in response to the rise of micro-blogging services like Twitter by centralizing the News Feed in its presentation – trying to corral those users they see spending more time and energy elsewhere.

I think this may be a key misstep by Facebook – because as “hot” as Twitter and similar services are, their actual user bases are still very, very small (a few percent of Facebook’s, even with explosive growth), if amplified by disproportionate representation in early-adopter communities like bloggers. But it’s not a shock that Facebook would be looking for a solution to some problem, at this point in its history: as my colleague Fred Stutzman noted last November, Facebook’s blessing is also its curse:

Ego-centric social network sites all suffer from the “what’s next” problem. You log in, you find your friends, you connect, and then…what? Social networks solve this problem by being situationally relevant. On a college campus, where student real-world social networks are in unprecedented flux, Facebook is a social utility; the sheer amount of social information a student needs to manage as they mature their social networks makes Facebook invaluable.

… What happens when a social network is no longer situationally relevant? Use drops off.

…Try as they might, once ego-centric social networks lose situational relevance, its pretty much impossible for them to retain their status.

…The coolest tools, the best exclusive media – these are only “fingers in the dam” to keep users in non-situationally relevant spaces.

This clarifies the problem. Facebook’s situational relevance for many users after the initial high-use, friend-finding phase – as an ego-centric social network, based on one’s connections to other individuals – either at college or in the post-college working world is not primarily about finding out what your friends are doing. Rather, it’s a low-involvement way of tracking where they are and where they go, and how to keep in touch with them. Ongoing research that Fred and I are conducting shows that even among current college students, the intensity of Facebook use and identification follows the familiar pattern of decline over time, even if it’s not abandoned entirely.

And Facebook is caught in a bind, because, having both accepted venture capital infusions and sold off a sliver to Microsoft, they now have a very particular interest to keep chasing: increased profit growth. For them, this means, exclusively, increased advertising revenues. synedochic has a long, detailed analysis of why this is a bad/hopeless place to be for social media enterprises (which are slightly different than social networking sites, but similar lessons apply here), but long story short: you can’t squeeze blood out of a rock, and chasing increased ad revenue with a user base whose use is already declining is a very self-defeating proposition.

The vast majority of Facebook users are still Digital Natives who’ve never had (high school or) college without also having Facebook. For them, it’s not simply a case of Facebook becoming passé – it’s a matter of their changing social needs, of shifting situational relevance. As they move into different social contexts – college, work, new cities – there may be bursts of activity where they add and approve new friendships, but it won’t be a “place” to spend time in the same way. Having a new Facebook where they can “adjust the size [of items] to promote the things you care about most, and demote the stories you don’t find as interesting” is beside the point if your relevant social reality is mostly taking place elsewhere – indeed, it’s just more things to ignore.

For all the worries about Digital Natives’ social lives moving to endless hours in front of the computer screen, preliminary research is showing very different effects: “a strong association between use of Facebook and… social capital.” Facebook, and social media generally, are a way to connect with friends, but not the place to connect with friends: that still happens mostly IRL, and ultimately it may be the case that after a “Facebook phase” of socially connecting, offline socialization may increase in aggregate over time (though that’s pure speculation on my part, for now). But the bottom line is that already-experienced Facebook users aren’t going to take on the characteristics of techie “early adopters,” and they aren’t going to go back to “hanging out” on Facebook. Redesigning layout to foreground the News Feed won’t change that.

Why are these issues worth such thorough examination? I believe that as especially Digital Natives come of age in a world of networked publics, where increasingly even offline actions are archived or accessible online, it’s important to follow the shape that the infrastructures of these publics take. While ultimately I do not believe that this redesign of Facebook will achieve the desired goal of restoring high usage levels among long-time users, it will, without a doubt, create a very different experience for newer users of Facebook (which has and will retain a central role in the social lives of millions of young people). For them, Facebook will become mostly about watching other people, and seeing what they do. Will they like it? Will it turn them into voyeurs, or make them more susceptible to suggestion and peer pressure? Will they identify more naturally in groups rather than as individuals? As always – more questions on which only time will tell.

(cross-posted at Digital Natives)

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There was a thoughtspurt the other day among several components of my distributed non-me thoughtspace – Fred and Warren Ellis commenting on a Techcrunch post, the Real Paul Jones commenting on Fred’s post and offering his own thoughts – and all of it together, and substantial other peer pressure, convinced me to join Twitter. And start thinking about it.

What I think is this – Fred frames Twitter as a social network service, and I think that’s right, with a particular emphasis on the service: it’s a plugin of sorts for digital identity. But where Fred says, “By locating the network around the profile, we were really locating it around “communication”. In Twitter, the “profile” is our communication, an always-on, interactive wall.” I’m not sure I agree entirely. I think Twitter is, if not exactly a digital ramora, then at least mostly dependent on the silt of our previously-established digital identities. We don’t need to restate our cultural preferences etc. again on Twitter because that’s asked-and-answered and, for most Twitter users (at least at this point) fairly easily accessible in one form or another – via Facebook, a primary blog, etc. But that identity – or an aspect of it – is, as Fred says, continuously reaffirmed via “an always-on, interactive wall.” Twitter is thus an expressive identity affordance in a way that isn’t possible on other channels of communication – SNS too static, IM limited person-to-person, blog limited to a particular set of expectations of the medium/audience demand, etc.

Twitter is definitely a medium-big deal at this point (though I do stick to my story that it only really burst on the scene because the WiFi kept crapping out on the third floor at SXSW Interactive ’07), but still mostly confined to an early-adopter multi-channel communicator population, which (in certain places) online makes it seem like a bigger deal than it is generally. So will it scale – will mobile phones be advertising their integrated Twitter clients in 18 (or 12 [or 9 {or 6}]) months? Maybe. But I don’t think that it’s necessary for the continued viability of Twitter – it could get along just fine as the kind of between-modes expressive affordance for high-use multi-channel communicators that it currently is. And I think that along the same lines, the coming death of Facebook is overstated – more cognitive energy might be directed to Twitter or other channels, but a functional, established, static SNS repository for that particular aspect of digital identity seems a viable long-term gambit. Especially if, as Twitter seems to suggest, new forms of SNS are increasingly not replacements for profile-based services but supplements.

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The Stories We Tell (Redux)

For a short time in my life, I distanced myself from previous sports fandom. Sports are, after all, kind of silly and often rather repetitive. But they drew me back in, for a variety of reasons, but I think the larger meta-reason is described better by King Kaufman today than I’ve ever seen before, as he writes:

We tell and listen to stories because they say things to us. Sometimes they say things about their subjects, sometimes about their tellers. If Leo Durocher didn’t really help himself to Babe Ruth’s watch after helping the drunken slugger into bed one too many times, well, he was a guy who would have done that, wasn’t he? And if the Babe hadn’t knocked the stuffing out of him over it, he would have, right?

And more important, these stories remind us that we know things like this about guys like that. They tie us to all the other baseball stories, and all the people who tell them and listen to them. Details aside, they’re all about the same thing, about being part of a crowd that cares about the same thing. Because you’re not getting past the table of contents if you’re not part of that crowd, the crowd that cares about baseball. [emphasis added]

Sports are, in the end, just another kind of story – but a really good story, one with a template that anyone can understand, that can be told over and over again in nearly infinite variation despite being almost the same. What kind of sport-story you like, and how you relate to it, says a lot about who you are – we all instinctively know this, and so can find trust and camaraderie in being fans of the same teams. There’s a kind of story and relation to the story that goes along with being a baseball fan – a different one that goes with being a soccer fan (in the United States), which is different from being a fútbol fan (everywhere else in the world) – which in turn is a different than being a curling fan (i.e., you’re Canadian, or King Kaufman). And there’s a different story that Yankees fans can relate to versus Mets fans, or Cubs fans versus… anyone; but you find that repeated with slight variations in Manchester United vs. Manchester City fans, or Tottenham Hotspur fans, or Arsenal fans, etc. ad infinitum. We are the stories we tell, but we’re also the stories we receive, and we’re especially the stories we receive together.

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Reading the following passage from this paper brought me back to the lobby of a hostel in Thessaloniki :

Figure 7

The Finnish network in Figure 7 is qualitatively different. It continues the trend observed in the Portuguese network in that it is smaller and looser, but unlike the previous networks, it lacks an apparent center. Rather, each seed journal and its friends constitutes an independent cluster. Moreover, rather than appearing mainly on the margins of the network, English appears in the centers of the clusters, and even in positions bi-directionally bridging between Finnish journals. This pattern is suggestive of a high degree of Finnish-English bilingualism among Finnish Live-Journalers; indeed, most of the English journals in this network appear to be written by Finns. Thus Finns have conversations on LJ in both Finnish and English, but mostly among themselves. [emphasis mine]

It was in that Thessaloniki hostel lobby that I came to a banal-but-then-amazing realization – while watching a Swedish gent chat up a Japanese lass, I consciously realized, perhaps for the first time, that every day there are probably somewhere in the dozens to hundreds of millions of people speaking to each other in English, for whom English is not a first language. And in the years since (that was in 2002), English has since become not only the default international lingua franca (ironically, mostly not in the Western Hemisphere, where Spanish is increasingly dominant as an international language due to its increased penetration Stateside) but basically the default language of business in the EU. Not due to British cultural imperialism, either – just because it’s easier.

Indeed, English instruction starts so early in most Northern European countries that it can hardly be said to be a non-native language. Especially or the Finns and the Swedes, their export-and-knowledge-based economies (Nokia based in Finland, Linux born in Sweden) demand fluency not just in multiple languages but specifically the international language – and language of the Western internet – English [the Sino-Nipponese-Korean corner of the Net is another story entirely].

I often think about what impacts this will have long-term on the English language – the many divergent strands of slang and local dialect that are emerging among non-native English speakers even as American, Canadian and British regionalisms and colloquialisms are drowned in the ongoing homogenization of our national cultures.

Will an international English-language culture emerge? Has it already – is in fact the (Western) Internet just that? Is the emergence of a more-or-less global language a consequence of transnational trade harmonization – an outfall of GATT, NAFTA, EU, etc. – or does it set the stage for them? Or am I just part of an informational elite that makes it seem like there’s increasing internationalization when for most people, there’s not, and English is just the latest in a series of lingua francas for the transnational global elite? I’m not rightly sure, about any of these things. But it’s something, ain’t it?

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Open LifeBits

Terrell has some excellent thoughts on the convergence of all the nodes of identity management. Briefly, he’s talking about,

“…a system that plays by all the rules and ‘just works’ for the simplest of use cases today, and is ready to scale up and handle the use cases of tomorrow. I’m envisioning a wrapper – a specification that defines how data should be held and managed for an individual.”

And I think he’s right that we’re rapidly approaching the point where all the elements will be in place for a workable framework managing the various aspects of our digital lives, seamlessly (which he details very nicely in his post). He ponders,

“Is anyone going to see any value in this OpenLifeBits model besides the geeks among us?”

What this makes me think about is the driver’s license. It’s a pretty basic chunk of modern life, into which it’s integrated in a lot of different ways – air travel, need a DL # for bank acct., buy beer, get into a show, etc.. It’s easily enough procured by most people, but consists in the procedures required to get and maintain it and the materials and capacities it’s composed of, elements that’d be totally obscure to people a generation or two ago. Near-universal access to cars, driving schools, a massive and mostly-legally-mandated insurance system. And then there are the little, useless things – laminated plastic, holograms, magnetic data strip, cheap on-the-spot digital color photograph – that are still kind of amazing. And it all works, basically.

At its heart, it’s fundamentally a technological protocol that over time everyone’s learned how to acquire and use to such an extent that it’s basically invisible. It’s evolved to take over new, strange responsibilities because it was just there do it. And that’s really the model here – just as the driver’s license became the central node of identification as we came to spend more and more of our time on the road, a single digital sign-on/handle/location/whatever will emerge to be our works-well-enough node for digital identity and whatever welded-on functions come after.

All a roundabout way of saying that I think that, yes, people will see value in this, in not having to remember lots of different passwords and also in there being a unitary system for not just management of identification but remediation for identity theft and fraud.

Terrell again says,

“Additionally, the legal questions around ownership of data and the contractual obligations of those you share your information with remain unanswered questions. I have a hunch though that a lot of these types of questions have precedent – just not with the specifics of personal data archives.”

As laid out in two excellent papers by Michael Madison and Matthew Hodge [PDF], this case law here is a mess. There are a lot of possible precedents for all of these questions, and how that unfolds is going to depend on a number of factors like where the initial legal challenges are brought (probably better in the 9th Circuit than the 4th, but even the 9th has issued some infuriating rulings on these issues), when which issues trickle their way up to the Supremes, and what the Court looks like, then. In sum, we probably can’t count on a particularly workable solution emanating from the courts anytime soon.
And so, I think that there’s a role for the state here, not necessarily in being the repository for all this information but in doing what states do best: setting the rules for the functioning of a market. Not even specifying what goes in the wrapper, or what the wrapper’s made of, but in specifying how it functions as a protocol within all of the various other legal and practical structures of everyday life.

Moreover, I think that beginning to address these issues now, before some truly, truly scary and non-user-centric model gains hegemony, is the right move.

What would that look like? The key issues to address as I see them are privacy and property, and they’re very interrelated. I’ll explore this further in the future, but there are a few points that leap out to start:

  • individuals are surrendering their privacy and identity in their digital lives, and aren’t being compensated particularly well for it – surrendering ownership to of these commodotized rights to private actors
  • in those digital lives, in issues not relating to themselves, individuals take a pretty fluid idea of property and ownership – implicitly or explicitly eschewing claims of ownership of private actors over all manner of digital data, who feel in turn not well compensated for their products being freely available online

I’m not suggesting that MP3s are the same as Fourth Amendment rights. The latter are, and ought to be, far more valuable… really a rather amazing understatement, actually. But the patchwork of legal precedents, practice, unequally powerful interested actors and fast-changing technologies leads to strange outcomes. Citizens’ Fourth Amendment protections are violated daily as a matter of basic commerce in our digital lives, with little or nothing in the way of recourse, while record companies are able to receive legal judgments valuing individual digital copies of songs in the thousands of dollars. Something doesn’t add up.

The basic tenets of any solution here will be a framework that above all recognizes the real (both operative and desired) boundaries between private and public – between the digital individual and the sea of other ones and zeros in which they daily swim – while allowing for a seamless navigation of that sea of conversation, commerce and governance. It’s a conversation that needs to happen, and one in which people already have opinions (even if they aren’t clear on the technological particulars). So let’s have it.

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