Category Archives: commentary

Facebook has Always Manipulated Your Emotions


emotion 1

Emotional Contagion is the idea that emotions spread throughout networks. If you are around happy people, you are more likely to be happy. If you are around gloomy people, you are likely to be glum.

The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects.  They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

Public reaction was such that many expressed dismay that Facebook would 1) collect their data without asking and 2) manipulate their emotions.

I’m going to leave aside the ethics of Facebook’s data collection. It hits on an important but blurry issue of informed consent in light of Terms of Use agreements, and deserves a post all its own. Instead, I focus on the emotional manipulation, arguing that Facebook was already manipulating your emotions, and likely in ways far more effectual than algorithmically altering the emotional tenor of your News Feed. (more…)

Yo, it’s communicative capitalism

Yves Klein, IKB 191, 1962. It’s like the “Yo” of painting.


As you may have heard, “Yois a social networking app has distilled social networking into its most elemental form. Basically, you can’t share any content on Yo–no words, no images, no links. All you can do is exchange the same monosyllabic ping, “yo.”

It’s so simple, many find it laughable: what, indeed, is the point? Well, it’s certainly not to communicate content. In the same way that a Yves Klein painting is about the medium of paint (specifically, color), Yo is about social networking. If “content” is traditionally a means to the end of clicks, Yo cuts out this middleman. It’s more efficient than traditional social networking–no content to waste our time, or for a company to waste money producing, transmitting, and supporting.

Yo isn’t a novelty. It’s the quintessence of communicative capitalism. As Jodi Dean defines it, “communicative exchanges, rather than being fundamental to democratic politics”–for example, as the deliberative exchanges among citizens [1]–“are the basic elements of capitalist production” (56). Put differently, communicative exchanges have no “use” value–their message doesn’t matter; rather, they’re just empty exchange value like any other commodity. Thus,


More on games/sexism/representation: a response to a response to a response


Every time I see someone make the argument that representation in fiction isn’t a big issue, and that advocating for diversity is just a waste of time because audiences can identify with anyone, and anyway, trying to include a wide range of backgrounds is just tokenism, I have the overwhelming urge to grab them by the shoulders and hiss, If you really believe that representation doesn’t matter, then why the fuck are you threatened by it? If not seeing yourself depicted in stories has no negative psychological impact – if the breakdown of who we see on screen has no bearing on wider social issues – then what would it matter if nine stories out of ten were suddenly all about queer brown women? - Foz Meadows

So about my last post and related kerfuffle.


Improving the Wearable

Image from Robert Cooke

Image from Robert Cooke

On Monday I posed two related questions:  “Are wearables like Glass relegated to the same fate as Bluetooth earpieces and the Discman, or can they be saved?  Is the entire category irredeemable or have we yet to see the winning execution?” I concluded that most of the problems have to do with the particular executions we’ve seen to date, but it’s also very possible that the very idea of the wearable is predicated on the digital dualist notion that interacting with a smartphone is inherently disruptive to a productive/happy/authentic lifestyle. Lot’s of devices are pitched as “getting out of the way” and only providing a little bit of information that is context specific and quickly (not to mention discreetly) displayed to the user. I contended that the motivation to make devices “invisible” can bring about some unintended consequences; mainly that early adopters experience the exact opposite reaction. Everyone pays attention to your face computer and nothing is getting out of the way at all. (more…)

Indecent Exposure: Breasts as Data, Data as Breasts

Earlier this week, I became aware of an art piece called “x.pose,” which is intended to make a statement about the data exhaust we generate and what large companies may or may not be doing with it. x.pose is a collaboration between two artists, and the first paragraph in a description of it on one of their websites reads as follows:

x.pose is a wearable data-driven sculpture that exposes a person’s skin as a real-time reflection of the data that the wearer is producing. In the physical realm we can deliberately control which portions our bodies are exposed to the world by covering it with clothing. In the digital realm, we have much less control of what personal aspects we share with the services that connect us. In the digital realm we are naked and vulnerable.

First, yes: digital dualism. I’ll set that point aside and come back to it later. Right now, I want to focus in on that first sentence, particularly where it says “exposes a person’s skin.” A person—sure, that could be any of us.[i] The sculpture exposes “skin” belonging to a person, a wearer. Data exposure is like bodily exposure. That’s not gendered, right?

Actually, it’s quite gendered. While x.pose draws attention to some important issues, it also starts from a number of problematic assumptions and reinforces some of the most sexist and patriarchal strains of privacy critique. Just in case you had any doubt, here’s what the piece looks like:

Newsflash: We can’t all wear that.


Wait, do people think I’m a dude? On digital microcelebrity and gender


…but people still address me as Mr. Robin James *sigh*

Women’s expertise is constantly undermined and trivialized. For example, holding pop music in low regard (thinking it can only ever be frivolous, ideologically overdetermined, or sold-out) is one way of trivializing a field in which women, especially black women, have made hugely significant artistic, cultural, and economic impacts.

Women academics, writers, and journalists also face constant challenges to their expertise. There’s the calling someone “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.” microaggression. There’s mistaking someone for staff, or, as is often the case with me, for a student. This latter example is, in my experience, common to face-to-face interactions: every time I can remember having to respond to the “What are you writing your dissertation on?” or “Will you get a Ph.D. after your MA?” question with “Umm, I have tenure” has been IRL.

Tressie Cottom’s new piece “Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? Academic Engagement, Microcelebrity, and Digital Sociology from the Far Left of the Matrix of Domination” breaks down the different ways white women and women of color are discredited when they engage digital publics. Or, put differently, Cottom shows some of the different ways that women’s expertise, epistemic credence, and legitimacy are challenged on digital media.

The tl;dr of Cottom’s report is: White women are sexually harassed. Women of color are treated as frauds. She writes, “whereas white women tend to report a significant number of rape threats when they write publicly, I find that the overwhelming threat issued in my comment section and inbox are threats to my academic credibility.” Rape threats tell white women they’re not allowed to be in academic spaces as experts; rape is about power, and these threats are a way of telling women they’ve overstepped their power. Fraud threats tell WOC that they’re not legitimately allowed to know things, or to affiliate themselves with “legit” academic institutions. This is different than pushing back against someone who oversteps her power; these fraud threats assume that WOC have no “power” (knowledge, affiliation) to assert in the first place.


Animating the Ladies: Ubisoft fundamentally doesn’t get it


Always fun when a game publisher doesn’t appear to know anything about games. Or gamers. Or publishing games. Or making games. Or stories. Or history. Or much of anything pertinent to what it’s actually supposed to be doing.

Yesterday, Ubisoft technical director James Therien commented on the lack of a playable female lead character (and before I continue let me note that I reeeeeeally don’t like how binary/trans-exclusionary this discussion has been) in the co-op play for the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity with the explanation that it’s just too much work to do all those extra lady animations and voices. The Internet, as one might imagine, did not respond well.


(Almost) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Net Neutrality

on-every-internetI was working recently on a short essay about net neutrality and, in the process, ended up writing a much longer piece about net neutrality. My aim in writing that longer piece (below) was twofold: I wanted both to demonstrate that net neutrality isn’t too technical and complicated for normal people to understand, and also to trace out how a trio of closely related issues—net neutrality rules, regulatory classifications, and the push to convert all voice traffic to digital—fit together, as well as what their combination might mean for the so-called “open Internet.”

SPOILER: You need to pressure the FCC to adopt strong net neutrality rules, and then you need to do a bunch of other stuff. Net neutrality isn’t enough, and neither Big Telecom nor Big Digital is talking about the pieces that will have the greatest (and most unequal) impact on Internet users.

Without further ado, here’s my attempt at a guided tour through roughly 18 years of Internet-related regulatory history:


short comment on Facebook as methodologically “more natural”


No doubt of interest to sociologists, Facebook is throwing a sociology pre-conference on its campus ahead of the annual American Sociological Association meetings this fall. When the company is interested in recruiting sociologists and the work we do –research of the social world in all of its complexity– their focus, as shown in the event’s program, is heavily, heavily focused on quantitative demography. Critical, historical, theoretical, ethnographic research makes up a great deal of the sociological discipline, but isn’t the kind of sociology Facebook has ever seemed to be after. Facebook’s focus on quantitative sociology says much about what they take “social” to mean.

My background is in stats, I taught inferential statistics to sociology undergrads for a few years, I dig stats and respect their place in a rich sociological discourse. So, then, I also understand the dangers of statistical sociology done without a heavy dose of qualitative and theoretical work. Facebook and other social media companies have made mistake after mistake with their products that reflect a massive deficit of sociological imagination. The scope of their research should reflect and respect the fact that their products reach the near entirety of the social world. (more…)

Amazing Speculative Tales of Labor! A request for more of them


image by Klaus Burgle

When I was in Madison (Wisconsin) during Memorial Day weekend for WisCon (a long-running feminist science fiction and fantasy conference), I was approached after a panel by a man – Mark Soderstrom – who wanted to talk to me about labor in SFF. Specifically, he wanted to mention a short story of mine that I was talking about on the panel that used the Lattimer Massacre as a backdrop, and to note that while SFF seems perfectly content to deal with robots and elves, it has a history of shying away from any sort of rich or meaningful examination of what literatures of the fantastic can teach us about labor, capital, and social change.