Archive for March, 2010

Ode to a Smiley T-Shirt, for Ada Lovelace Day

March 24, 2010 2 comments

A couple days ago, I found a box of old T-shirts stashed away in the attic: stored years ago as too nice to throw out, not nice enough to wear. Among them, I found an old classic: a black shirt with a white ASCII smiley, sideways, in Courier. I’m pretty sure I bought it in Cambridge, Mass at Newbury Comics in… oh, probably 1995? When I moved to Atlanta in 1997, it got boxed as too nerdy to wear.

When I found it, I was delighted. I’ve washed it, and plan to wear it proudly. In public. What’s different now, compared to when it was boxed?

I suppose you could say the shirt is different. In 1995, it was cutting edge enough to be hip–in a geek chic sort of way. Then it became mainstream enough to be passé. Now it’s so old it’s retro–back to being geek chic, I think.

But more importantly, I’m different. I’m old enough not to care what people think. My kids are still young enough to not care what people think. My husband thinks my geekiness is endearing. He sometimes gives me that comic smirk that says he’s feeling superior to Ms. Geek, but underneath it is a genuine respect.

You don’t need to be a geek to be a computer scientist any more. Most of my women students are most decidedly NOT geeky at all. I’ve taught quite a few debutante-sorority girl types, with perfect clothes, perfect manners, and a perfect understanding of memory management in C#. The new face of women in computing is, increasingly, as diverse as women anywhere.  This is something to celebrate.

But for those women with smiley T-shirts in their attics–it’s time to dust them off and wear them again. To be a bit geeky, or very geeky, and proud of it. We’ve come far enough–it is time. Happy Ada Lovelace Day.

Categories: gender

Which Social Computing Papers are the New Classics?

March 23, 2010 3 comments

I first started teaching the Georgia Tech graduate class Design of Virtual Communities in 1998 as a special topics class. A couple years later, I applied to make it (now dubbed ‘Design of Online Communities’) a regular class. I made a presentation about why it was worthy of being a class to a faculty meeting, and before voting to approve it, my colleagues asked a few questions. I particularly remember them asking: This is such a new area. Are the readings changing from year to year? Or is there a stable body of knowledge?

At the time, I could say with confidence: the papers worth reading have stayed quite stable! We start off with Wellman and Gulia “Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone,” then we read Ray Oldenburg’s “The Great Good Place”…. There is a core set of readings here that is stable. (You can browse through all the syllabi over the years.)

The online sites have changed quite a bit–almost continually. In 1998, I asked students to check out this site called “ebay,” because most of them hadn’t seen it. We looked at WorldsAway and The Palace. And I had them check out the cool new book recommendation feature on, which used an algorithm developed by a Media Lab spin-off company called Firefly. It’s funny to think that a simple recommendation feature was ever “new”!

But while the sites worth discussing have always changed, the readings mostly haven’t. That is, until now. Slowly, slowly, a few readings that have always seemed fundamental have begun to look crufty and irrelevant. Not all the readings by any means–we will always read Oldenburg and Goffman. But it’s an eye-opener to find yourself in front of class trying to lead a discussion about a paper you’ve always loved and leave yourself a note “remove next year.”

And in their place… well, there are too many candidates, aren’t there? It seems like we’ve taken over not just the ACM CSCW conference, but CHI as well. And that’s not to mention work coming out of Group, WikiSym, and five other high-quality venues. But the fascinating question to ask for any given paper is: will this still be on the syllabus in 2020? How can we tell now which papers are the new big contributions–the new classics?

Of course this is always how science works–you can’t tell what’s important til you have a few years’ perspective. But I think we’re in an unusual time in this field now. Maybe not a real paradigm shift, but certainly not a slow period of “normal science” either.

What are the new classics? Which ones would you bet on? Leave me a comment!

Kids and Copyright

March 18, 2010 8 comments

[Updated with some new info & clarifications.]

A while back I asked Larry Lessig: kids can’t agree to contracts. So isn’t there a problem with sites where kids upload their intellectual property? They can’t agree to the license….

Finally got an answer back from Larry. Here’s my  attempt at a layman’s summary:

  • Kids own intellectual property (IP) they create.
  • Kids can agree to license their IP.
  • Kids can later “disaffirm” any license they enter into, until about one year after they become adults.
    • In California, a special process can be followed to prevent future disaffirmation.

I assume this means that a site could simply later remove the content at the minor’s request, and wouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that others have likely copied that material. (An old joke says, “Taking information off the Internet is like taking pee out of a pool.”)

Andres Monroy-Hernandez (lead developer of the Scratch website) asks an interesting follow-up question: What happens to derivative works in this instance? I imagine you’d have to deal with that on a case-by case basis–and it could get complicated.

I find all this reassuring. I was worried that people posting kids’ content online might somehow be liable for doing so. But if I’m understanding things correctly, it simply means “if they ask you to take it down, take it down.” (Though on the other side of the argument, Steven Hetcher at Vanderbilt argues that contracts between minors and websites that post their content may be “unconscionable” and hence invalid.)

I got interested in kids and copyright because I’m interested in peer production of content, and the learning opportunities  made possible through creating things and sharing them. But from talking with Larry, it struck me that the much bigger issue seems to be the implications that copyright law has for schools. In particular:

  • Schools can’t put student work online without students’ permission, because students own copyright to their own work.
  • A teacher who allows a student to place harmful content about herself online on a school website may be held to have acted negligently. School districts have an affirmative duty to take all reasonable steps to protect their students from foreseeable harm.

Fascinating stuff!

Ecologies of Communications Technologies

March 18, 2010 1 comment

Some time in the mid 90’s, I asked Albert Lin, an MIT undergrad working with me, to please send someone an email. It was just a quick question we needed help with. He hesitated. He looked nervous. After much stalling, he wrote something incredibly formal. I was puzzled. It was, after all, just an email–right?

I talked with him about it later, and figured out what was going on. He and his undergrad friends used Zephyr for informal communication. Zephyr was a kind of instant messaging that worked at MIT before  either the Web or IM clients were invented. Undergrads used it a lot.  Grad students (like me at the time) not so much. Albert was used to using Zephyr almost exclusively, and that made email seem more formal to him–like a business letter.  For me, email felt quite relaxed and informal. Communications technologies form a kind of ecosystem, and your use of any one can affect how you use all the others.

Which brings me to PhD student Sarita Yardi’s tweet from this afternoon:

@yardi: Since switching from private to public on Twitter, I feel FB is more private now, more personal content there. (though nothing is private)

I couldn’t agree more. How you use Twitter changes how you use/feel about Facebook (and vice versa). And email and LinkedIn and IM. Like Sarita, I started off with a private Twitter feed. But after a while, I felt like it just didn’t make sense. Twitter works better public. When I switched my Twitter to public, I started to view my Facebook account as more private. My Facebook status updates are filled with cute things about my kids, what we’re actually doing… my life. My Twitter posts are more professional.

Sarita and I may be in the minority–I think most folks don’t see Twitter and Facebook as so different. PhD student Kurt Luther tweeted yesterday:

@resurgens: Almost identical feeds on FB and Twitter. Few updates/tweets are worth reading twice. Time to stop logging into one — but which?

Even if Kurt wanted to see Facebook and Twitter as different, his friends don’t. The same message shows up in both places. That ‘ecology’ of communications technologies is affected by friends’ uses as well as your own.

I’ve mentioned here before that I currently have two Twitter accounts–one public, one reserved for close (wedding-guest-level) friends. I like this approach in theory. I think it would work if my friends were doing the same thing, using two accounts. In practice, my friends are mostly using Twitter in a more professional fashion. So it feels weird to be posting personal things while they post back interesting news about new technologies. I still post a personal tidbit on my private Twitter account once in a while, but I’ve mostly given it up. The couple friends who have also tried the two-account approach have done the same.

Of course your use of communications technologies may be affected by the chance that your advisor will blog about your tweets…. All part of that ecosystem I guess!

The New Expertise

March 17, 2010 1 comment

Though the old expertise is still there, it’s true that a new kind is emerging. Peer-produced content both compliments professional content and competes with it, to varying degrees in different contexts.  More from my contributions to the PBS Panel:

A great domain to look at these issues is healthcare. Work by folks like Lena Mamykina on online and mobile support for people with diabetes suggests that we need to teach patients to be scientists of their own disease. It doesn’t work to simply go to the doctor and request instructions and follow them. It’s particularly true of diabetes, but is a profound message for healthcare more generally. And beyond healthcare, for life more generally.

The wealth of peer produced information and support is an essential component of helping people make that transition–to help them to take on more agency in their care, their own lives more broadly. But at the same time, the individual does not yet have the tools or training to know how to sort good info from bad.

We are most definitely in the early days. We are left with a design challenge: to develop tools to better support individuals making sense of all the available information and mis-information. To create communities where sense-making is a collaborative effort, and your friends are there to help with the knowledge-building discourse.

Has Expertise Changed?

March 17, 2010 1 comment

I’m having a wonderful time on the PBS online roundtable about the Digital Nation documentary, organized by Douglas Rushkoff. Chatting with danah boyd, Nick Carr, Kevin Kelly, Mark Pesce, Clay Shirky, R.U. Sirius, Sherry Turkle, and Jimmy Wales about paradigm shifts like peer production of content and collaboration online. Our latest topic is on the nature of expertise.

Has expertise changed? Is the rise of amateur production de-valuing expertise?  I argue that it has not. Kevin quipped that, “Proposition: expertise is dead and folk wisdom is all that we have.”  My reply:

Kevin, I love this as a first sortie into the conversation, but my parry is simple: we have the same ‘experts’ we’ve always had!  We’re called ‘academics’ and ‘researchers.’  We have a specially designed credential that designates us as experts (a PhD), and we have the time and mandate to develop our expertise.  I don’t think either the research university system or corporate research laboratories are going away any time soon, and in fact so far they haven’t changed much at all.

In the arts, sure we have amateur movies–but we still have professional films. And that’s not changing.  We have indie games, but we still have blockbuster products by EA and Blizzard. We have easier access to a zillion garage bands, but we still have Lady Gaga and The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

The one field where expertise is changing dramatically is journalism. And that’s frankly scary to me. Bloggers fill some of the void, and in some cases may bring more expertise to the task than professional journalists. But we really do need people with the *time* and *mandate* to do solid investigative reporting, and no amount of tweeting from the scene can replace that. We need a new economic model to support professional journalism.

My counter-proposition: journalism expertise is in crisis, and everything else is nearly unchanged!

The irony of course is that we all are the ‘experts’ talking about whether there’s such a thing any more as ‘experts’!

The TED Brand

March 9, 2010 2 comments

I used to think of a “brand” as stuff like Tide and Coca-cola–the name of a commercial product. About ten years or so ago, a marketing professor talked me into being on a panel about online communities at a business conference, and she patiently explained to me that a brand is “a promise of quality.” I didn’t 100% understand what that meant or appreciate its power til this past Saturday when I spoke at TEDxNYED.

TED is a wildly successful, top-tier annual conference. So successful that they’ve franchised it into “TEDx.” Independent organizers can apply to host an “independently organized TED event.” If they’re successful, they get elaborate instructions/requirements on how to host it–how to work with the media, what the signage should look like, how talks should be organized, etc. Some folks from TED headquarters help out a bit, but it’s basically an independent event. TEDxNYED was organized by a bunch of independent school teachers, mostly from the greater New York area.  In fact, one of my high school teachers–Jeff Weitz of the Horace Mann School–invited me.

Using the TED name, the organizers assembled an all-star cast of speakers. When they invited me, they said “Henry Jenkins and Larry Lessig are speaking,” and I must’ve replied back “yes, I’ll come” in about a microsecond. So in fact did everyone else they invited–the organizers told me they were astonished at the immediate flood of positive responses.  In fact, it caused a bit of a problem because they didn’t balance the first round of invitations as much as they intended. They figured they’d get the first round of yes’s and no’s and then look to fill out ethnic and gender and topic diversity with a second round of invites–but nearly everyone in the first round said yes.

TED is such a strong brand that during the conference, #TEDxNYED was trending on Twitter. Over 5000 people watched on the web live that day. Who knows how many will watch when the video is posted for later viewing. When I sat back down in my seat after my talk, I glanced at my email on my phone. My mailbox was full of “<name> is now following you on Twitter!”   I’ve gotten more than 100 new followers since Saturday.

The TED format is the most un-academic I’ve experienced. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to a conference before where there was absolutely no interaction onstage. 18-minute talks, no questions. No panels. The speakers speak, the audience listens. And as much as the TED liturgy tells everyone that the audience are as important and interesting as the speakers, the format says otherwise.

There are two models of what I experienced this weekend:

1. I went to a small conference organized by some very nice high-school teachers, held in the auditorium of a private high school, with snacks in the gym. The organizers had never done this before, and a few things were rough around the edges, but in the end it worked out great.

2. I went to a world-class, high-profile event.

The power of the TED brand transformed model 1 into model 2. The “promise of quality” that is TED is a force to be reckoned with. And now I think I understand what a “brand” is.

Categories: conferences
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