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.

x.pose is a collaboration between two people, Xuedi Chen (who uses feminine pronouns on her website) & Pedro G. C. Oliveira (who appears to be masculine-presenting in photos of x.pose’s construction). Making it was a pretty involved process, so, sure: they only made one—it’s an art project, not a ready-to-wear production run. And since Chen designed the project to explore her own relationship to her data, it makes sense that she and Oliveira would construct x.pose to fit a woman’s body rather than a man’s (as shown, model Heidi Lee). Plus, let’s face it: no one makes a statement piece with the intention that it will be ignored. A transparent women’s top is far more salacious than a transparent men’s top, and the torso cut-outs and strapless design (as well as Lee’s heavy makeup) make it clear that x.pose is supposed to be viewed in a sexual light. Whether in the capitalist economy or the attention economy, sex sells.[ii]

The fact that x.pose was designed by a woman (and for personal reasons), however, does not negate the sexism and slut-shaming of its message. x.pose starts from two explicitly stated assumptions: 1) that we unknowingly expose our data, and 2) that this exposure leaves us naked and vulnerable. Starting from these assumptions, the artists have created a shirt that becomes transparent when the person (woman) wearing it is exposing her data. If viewed in a cultural vacuum, the response is, “So what?” Her data is showing, and so her breasts are showing. Naked is just naked. Who cares?

If we exit the hypothetical cultural vacuum and reenter contemporary U.S. society (both artists live in New York), it becomes obvious: The meaning of x.pose hinges on the meaning of breasts.

Here inside Culture, x.pose becomes intelligible. We know that showing data is “bad” because showing breasts is “bad.” A woman’s nudity is obscene, a danger to society. Even a glimpse of a woman’s body can be a danger to the woman herself, as the grotesque phrase “asking for it” and the repugnant question, “What was she wearing?” remind us. The unsanctioned, visible breast is a harbinger of conflict and backlash: a “wardrobe malfunction” costs more than a half-million dollars and, despite breastfeeding’s protected legal status, women who do so in public are routinely told to “cover up” or to leave public places. The unsanctioned, involuntarily visible breast is the worst one of all: “revenge porn” is a thing[iii], and a photograph of breasts can incite enough abuse to drive a young woman to suicide.

Exposed breasts are bad, and potentially dangerous; exposed data equals exposed breasts; exposed data is bad, and potentially dangerous.

Now we have the “So what”: The shirt becomes transparent to remind the woman wearing it that by spreading her information, she is at best committing indecent exposure and at worst tempting someone to violate her. The shirt also serves to make the woman wearing it an example to everyone around her: check your settings, tug down your hem, button your blouse. Abstinence only, please—or you’re asking for it. Keep your knees (bits?) pressed together, and cover up already. Surely you’re not trying to show your data to everyone, you [insert choice of sexual slur here]. It’s the same tired, victim-blaming, “Shame On You” strain of privacy critique, this time made patently manifest in fetching high-tech couture.

Chen and Oliveira’s description goes on to elaborate,

In today’s data-driven society, individuals carrying smartphones and interacting with social media networks have agreed, often without conscious consideration, to policies that grant service providers explicit rights to harvest and utilize personal data on a massive scale. These include companies like Google and Facebook that offer “free” services for a value exchange of our data.

There currently exists a paradox in our internet culture. As a generation, we are simultaneously obsessed with publicity and privacy. While we publish and post details about our lives online, at the same time we demand the most advanced privacy protection software. An unprecedented degree of potential exposure comes with the current mode of existence.

I have ceded control of my data emissions and Based on my activity logs, Google clearly knows where I am, where I’ve been and possibly even where I’m going. Yet when I wanted a log of my location history, I had to go through numerous steps to “enable” tracking…

By participating in this hyper-connected society while having little to no control of my digital data production, how much of myself do I unknowingly reveal? To what degree does the aggregated metadata collected from me paint an accurate portrait of who I am as a person? What aspects of my individuality are reflected in this portrait?

x.pose is my exploration of these questions. Since I have already ceded control of my data, I wanted to go a step further and broadcast it for anyone and everyone to see.

Again, if you translate this into sex instead of data—which x.pose itself is encouraging us to do—the rhetoric is clearly problematic. Facebook invited you over late at night and, “without conscious consideration,” you said yes; you should have known better. Google offered you a drink and, since it was free, you said yes; you should have known that the drink was spiked with roofies. You went out wearing that short skirt, and then had the nerve to demand that Online respect your boundaries and stop at making out? You got drunk with Google and lost “control,” so of course it had its way with you (and then pretended the next day that nothing had happened). Don’t be so surprised.

The fact that Chen and Oliveira only made a women’s version intensifies x.pose’s slut-shaming aspects and, whether they intended to make a gendered statement or not, x.pose has been read as something for women. For instance: What Chen and Oliveira describe as “a data-driven wearable sculpture” (shown covering the top part of Lee’s body) has alternately been described as “a 3D-printed sculptural boob tube,” an “interactive dress,” a “3-D printed dress,” a “data driven dress,” or a “naked dress” (occasionally, a “bustier” or a “corset“). That’s how othering works: Others are marked, and only Subjects can stand for everyone. Even if Chen and Oliveira intended x.pose to be “political, not sexual,” as one commentator (who calls the piece a dress) wrote, out in the world, x.pose is political and sexual. Lee’s body can only represent women’s bodies—not because that’s how things should be, but because that’s how U.S. culture currently is. Women’s bodies are profoundly sexualized—and in western cultures, Asian women’s bodies are “associated with sex to the point of absurdity.” This is in no way to say that Chen’s concept should not be modeled by someone who shares her race and gender identity. It is to say that, in the U.S. context, x.pose will never not send extra messages about women’s bodies and women’s sexuality.

And still, the problem with x.pose is rooted not in its execution, but in its concept. ALL visibility-shaming comes back to slut-shaming. The slut-shaming would be there even if Chen and Oliveira had made his-and-hers versions of x.pose; even if they had made one and instead fit it to a man; even if they had made one to cover and reveal a gender-indeterminate portion of a body. Like slut-shaming, digital-visibility-shaming denies agency by presuming everyone is a victim (or a future victim), and by condemning those who transgress by proclaiming the intentionality of their choices and actions. Like slut-shaming, digital-visibility-shaming blames victims for any harm that comes to them and, in so doing, deflects attention from the more powerful actors who harmed others in the first place. Rather than confront the state of our society, we blame the people who “allow” themselves to be hurt by its worse elements. We treat people—and especially, women—who are naked, sexual, or visible as “bad” not because of anything they are or do, but because of what other people might do to them. And that needs to change.

To be clear, x.pose does touch on some very important issues. Digital media companies—especially huge ones like Google and Facebook—do have a lot more power than most of their users. They have used both their policies and the design of their platforms in outright attempts to shift social norms, and have done so with a mind-boggling ignorance of how social interaction works. Our very conceptualization of privacy is in flux, and Silicon Valley keeps trying to tell us that that means privacy is dead. A lot of people find Facebook’s constantly shifting privacy settings to be utterly confounding; unless you’re a lawyer, forget about trying to read an actual ToS or privacy policy. Many people cannot “opt out” of these services, whether because their schools and workplaces use Google products or because the high social cost of abstaining from social media isn’t one they can pay. Visibility can absolutely be vulnerability, especially for marginalized Others. This isn’t just about “the digital realm”; there is no such thing. This is our (one) world, and our always-embodied everyday lives.

I care about these things a lot, and I’ve been writing about them on Cyborgology for two years now. But to everyone who comments on these issues, whether in text or in image or in any other format: Please, enough with the shaming and the victim-blaming. We need to get over obsessing over what “we show,” and turn our attention toward who does what to whom. Breasts—whether biological or metaphorical—are not themselves the problem.


Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) gets accused all the time of posting “everything” online. Depending on her mood, she laughs, glares, or rolls her eyes.

Lead photo of x.pose: Image credit Roy Rochlin, from Xuedi Chen’s website.


[i] I’m guilty of this, too, but as I love to tell students: Always Question the Assumptive We. Who is “we,” really? Though further into the description it becomes clear that the project is geared toward social media users (and in particular, smartphone owners), here the unqualified “we” is the one we’ve been taught to read as a nebulous “everyone.” Obviously, this does not apply to everyone. Even aside from the points I’ve made above about choice and intentionality, only 58% of U.S. adults own smartphones. While the formal definition of “everyone” is “every person,” I think the Urban Dictionary definition for “everybody” captures more of what’s going on here: “All people whose existence the speaker deigns to acknowledge. Generally limited to those with similar interests and vocabulary.”

[ii] While, say, men’s underwear models are making headway in the “masculine bodies=sex=sales” department, women’s bodies are sexualized to an extent that allows a woman’s body in-and-of itself to symbolize sex and sexuality. This is particularly true of women’s breasts, which is why so much of the U.S. (to say nothing of Facebook) has a meltdown over public breastfeeding.

[iii] Revenge porn victims are predominantly, though not exclusively, women and girls.

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:

scream-net-neutralityThe popular Digital Age mythology holds that, in the beginning, the Geeks created the Internet. And the Internet was without regulation or hierarchy, and the Geeks saw that it was good. Information flowed, ideas multiplied, and innovation was fruitful. Now, greedy Internet service providers (ISPs) have come to take that online utopia away—but such a utopia has never existed. And while fighting back against Big Telecom’s push for deregulation is a start, saving the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) watered-down net neutrality rules is not enough to create the “open Internet” of slogans and fantasies. Much of the net neutrality battle comes down not to principles and ideology, but to Big Telecom and Big Digital fighting each other over power, profit, and control.

At its most basic level, the contemporary idea of “net neutrality” is that your ISP should treat equally all information traversing the network either to or from your device. Your ISP should not privilege some websites by letting you exchange information with their servers more quickly, and nor should it penalize other websites by making your exchanges with their servers more slow (or simply impossible). While your ISP may sometimes make your whole connection slower—particularly if you approach any usage or bandwidth limits—it should not pick and choose which information does or does not get through to you. It should deliver all pieces of information (or “packets”) to you equally, regardless of where they have come from or where they are going. In short, your ISP should be neutral.

In practice, however, your ISP probably is not neutral—and if your ISP is a giant media-telecom conglomerate, there’s a good chance it’s fighting to be even less neutral. Last month, the FCC voted 3-2 to approve its latest proposal for net neutrality rules. That approval means that the public (including corporations) now has until July 15th and September 10th to give feedback before the official vote, which is expected sometime this fall.

Titled, “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet,” the FCC proposal is intensely controversial, and more so for what it leaves open than for what it explicitly permits or proscribes. The two biggest issues are whether the FCC might (re-)reclassify broadband Internet providers as “telecommunications services” instead of “information services”, and also whether the FCC might allow ISPs to charge digital content providers for preferential treatment on the networks the ISPs control. Of equal importance—though the issue has gotten far less attention—is the fact that the 2014 rules are unlikely to apply to wireless (mobile) Internet connections.

If we want to understand what all this means, we have to look back to the Internet’s complicated political, economic, and social histories. But if we want to understand what the state of regulation should be—and why it matters—we need to look not to the Internet that has been, but to the Internet we want in the future. If the Internet we want is, in fact, an open Internet, then we have our work cut out for us—and we must begin by defining, in technology-neutral terms, exactly what we mean by words like “open” and “neutral”. Following that, we need to make some major changes to our federal policies, our state laws, and our local and national network infrastructures.

That should be easy, right?

Network Neutrality
Colloquially, we use the term “Internet” to reference two different (if closely related) things. Sometimes we mean the tangible infrastructure of servers, cables, and wires (as in, “Who broke the Internet?” while waiting for a website to load). Other times, we mean the information we can access via that tangible infrastructure (as in, “Why are there so many cats on the Internet?”). A big part of the fight over net neutrality is that these two pieces, the infrastructure-Internet and the information-Internet, are at odds over the profits and costs of doing digital business.

Until 2002, the FCC considered the information-Internet to be “content” and the infrastructure-Internet to be “carriage.” In practical terms, this meant that the infrastructure-Internet was in the same regulatory category as telephone networks, and so was subject to certain restrictions and obligations. (During the dial-up era, of course, a large part of Internet infrastructure simply was the telephone networks.)

Even subject to regulatory oversight, however, some Internet carriage companies were not behaving like the backbone of a networked nirvana. In fact, it was Tim Wu’s experiences marketing non-neutral network hardware for a Silicon Valley start-up that first led him to write the 2002 memo in which he coined the term “network neutrality.”

Although “net neutrality” is now often used to reference a “level playing field” for data transfer, Wu’s original framing was more modest: he sought to establish both “forbidden and permissible grounds” for traffic discrimination by ISPs, first by laying out principles and then by delving into the legal and technical specifics (as they stood at the time). Generally, “permissible” discrimination pertains to an ISP’s own network, whereas “forbidden” discrimination pertains to networks that connect to an ISP’s network. (What we think of as “the” Internet is, by design, really a decentralized network of many other networks.)

To use the “gaming” example from Wu’s memo, let’s say that ISP, Inc. has congestion on its network because some of its customers are playing a bandwidth-intensive game on GameSite.com. It would be forbidden for ISP, Inc. to block its customers from accessing GameSite.com, because it would unfairly harm GameSite.com’s business. It would be permissible, however, for ISP, Inc. to impose bandwidth limits and to charge its customers extra for raising those limits. (It’s also worth pointing out that ISPs make money by selling bandwidth to their customers; if ISPs can’t cap their customers’ bandwidth, it becomes difficult to sell them any more of it.)

Wu’s rationale for classifying the bandwidth cap as “permissible” was that, if customers elect to stop using GameSite.com rather than start paying ISP, Inc. for more bandwidth, that’s a “market decision” rather than ISP, Inc. imposing its own self-interest on GameSite.com. Importantly, Wu’s 2002 memo seeks to prevent harm to businesses and restrictions on individual ISP customers; it does not consider harm to the content-Internet or to individual people. And while, literally speaking, “discriminate” just means “to differentiate,” Wu’s examples focus primarily on the issue of ISPs restricting traffic in and out of their local networks. The memo does not explicitly address whether ISPs could or should privilege some inter-network traffic, and nor does it address “peering” (or how networks connect to other networks).

By 2004, Wu’s network neutrality memo had found a sympathetic ear in Michael Powell, who at the time was chair of the FCC. Under Powell, the FCC released a 2005 policy statement to “encourage” four “principles” consistent with network neutrality. Powell’s FCC also elected, however, to classify cable Internet under “information services” in 2002, and to reclassify DSL (which runs on telephone wires) under “information services” in 2005. This de facto deregulation of broadband—combined with the toothlessness of a “policy statement” and a permissive attitude toward mergers—set the stage for the litigative melee that surrounds net neutrality today. (It’s worth noting that Powell went on to become President and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.)

Regulation and Litigation
The current fracas began in 2008, when the FCC ordered Comcast to stop blocking BitTorrent traffic on its networks. (BitTorrent is a kind of file-transfer software.) Comcast appealed the order on the basis that, because ISPs are classified as information services rather than telecommunications services, the FCC lacked jurisdictional authority to issue the order in the first place. Comcast won its appeal in 2010, and the FCC responded by formally adopting new rules.

The 2010 rules banned ISPs from blocking or slowing transmission of “lawful” content, but said only that ISP “pay for priority” practices would be “significant cause for concern.” The FCC did not reclassify ISPs as telecommunications services, and stated repeatedly in footnotes that the new rules did not apply to peering agreements between ISPs. Verizon appealed the 2010 rules before they were even in effect, and won its appeal in January of 2014 by using the same classification/jurisdiction argument that Comcast had used before it. At that point, all of Internet culture looked at the FCC, shook its head, and sighed (or screamed), “#doingitwrong.”

Now the FCC is trying again. The 2014 edition of (pseudo-) net neutrality would ban ISPs from blocking access to “lawful” content, but merely comes to the “tentative conclusion” that pay-for-priority practices would be “subject to scrutiny” and banned if they are not “commercially reasonable.” Though the FCC muses aloud about whether to reclassify broadband providers as telecommunications services, it makes no clear move to do so. And while the FCC once again declines to address the issue of peering, this time it points out that paid peering agreements are a great loophole for ISPs to circumvent net neutrality. While the document is just that—a proposal, rather than finalized rules—things are not looking good for the open Internet.

Predictably, no one is happy with the 2014 proposal save current FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. (It’s worth noting that Wheeler is a former President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and a former CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.) Big Telecom—companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable—loves regulation in the form of municipal monopoly support, but protests vociferously whenever the FCC intimates that the Internet is part of its regulatory purview. The net neutrality rules are no exception, though Big Telecom has been careful to keep its tantrum out of network and cable news. (Some have argued that the FCC has no intention of reclassifying, and that the specter of reclassification appears just to give Big Telecom and the far right something to attack.)

On the other hand, Big Digital—companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook (etc), which are the targets that make pay-for-priority (and paid peering) practices so appealing to Big Telecom—has no desire to pay, but knows that no Big Digital company will have a choice once even one of the others signs up for “priority” service. Netflix has come out in favor of extending net neutrality rules to peering agreements as well, largely because Comcast (allegedly) slowed Netflix traffic in order to extract a paid peering agreement earlier this year. When it comes to net neutrality, even Silicon Valley libertarians love regulation and strong government oversight.

Meanwhile, both Big Digital and Smaller Digital maintain that pay-for-priority practices would “stifle innovation, entrepreneurship and free expression” by making it difficult, if not impossible, for start-ups and other new companies to enter the competitive arena. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that throwing out net neutrality rules could lead to (increased) censorship by ISPs, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has come out against both Big Telecom and the FCC. Ordinary people—at least, those who are paying attention (and who care about being able to access sites that aren’t part of Big Digital)—are upset as well.

Infrastructure (This is a Big Deal)
Lurking beneath the surface of the net neutrality debate, however, is another issue: aging network infrastructure. Two of the biggest ISPs, Verizon and AT&T, are former Baby Bells (legacy telephone companies); as such, they are sitting on a lot of old copper telephone wire. While most trunklines (or “arteries” between switching centers) have been upgraded to newer, faster, optical fiber cables, the so-called “last mile” networks—the “capillaries” that connect to individual homes—are overwhelmingly still the same twisted wire networks that Ma Bell installed while building out the public switched telephone network (PSTN) between 1920 and 1970.

The old PSTN networks pose more than a few problems for Verizon and AT&T. They’re not great for Internet service because, even when the wires are in perfect condition, information can’t travel as quickly through copper wire as it can through coaxial cable or optical fiber cable—and the PSTN networks are no longer in perfect condition. Yet telephone service is a public utility, and universal service policies obligate telephone carriers to keep their networks working for all customers. Though AT&T et al are pushing for further deregulation with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC, a group perhaps better known for its private prison profiteering), Big Telecom is not yet entirely off the hook. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Since copper can’t compete with coax or fiber, none of Big Telecom wants to put money into fixing the whole PSTN system just to maintain universal service. Rewiring the entire country with fiber, however, would be tedious and expensive. In recognition of this, the FCC authorized years of surcharges and fees to help offset the cost of upgrading the networks and extending universal service to broadband. In response, Verizon and AT&T did each laid some fiber. Then, they started lobbying to get out of universal service.

This is particularly problematic given that each has stated its intention to discontinue PSTN service and force all customers onto either digital landlines (where broadband is available) or wireless (where broadband is not or is no longer available—which means only wireless Internet access, as well). Less than a decade ago, Big Telecom’s ISP arms tried to block network traffic from “voice over Internet protocol” (VoIP) software, because VoIP competed with Big Telecom’s telephone-carrier arms. Now, citing declining landline subscriptions & the cost of maintaining PSTN networks, AT&T and Verizon are moving instead to join Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and others in offering digital voice services only. Big Telecom has become VoIP’s biggest proponent.

The way Big Telecom imagines it, in the near future, all telephone and Internet traffic alike will be digital. For people who live in dense urban areas (and who can afford a broadband connection), much of this traffic will travel via coaxial cable or, for the lucky few, fiber. (Note that, in a sense, “fiber” is a misnomer; few Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-Verse customers have fiber connections that run all the way to their homes. Most homes still connect to the fiber network via old PSTN lines.) For people who can’t afford home broadband, however, or who live in areas that Big Telecom deems insufficiently profitable to merit installing or maintaining broadband, telephone and Internet traffic will travel via wireless networks like 4G, LTE, or EDGE (where available).

Put it all together and…
Here is where all the nerdy details about infrastructure and net neutrality start to matter—because they determine whether the Internet’s future is looking “bad,” or “worse.” On the worst end of the spectrum, the 2014 net neutrality rules fail. Mergers and deregulation result in three or four huge companies controlling a vast portion of U.S. Internet access. Unchecked either by competition or by the FCC, Big Telecom privileges, discriminates against, or even blocks traffic on local networks, and does so with impunity. Both online and on TV, you see what Big Telecom wants you to see. The conversion of all voice traffic to digital lets Big Telecom abandon the old PSTN networks and provide upgrades only to the most desirable customers while leaving everyone else with inferior, more expensive wireless service. Big Telecom likely argues that, because all voice traffic is now digital, telephone should be a minimally regulated “information service” as well.

On the better end of the spectrum, the 2014 net neutrality rules are adopted—but things are still pretty bad. Mergers and deregulation result in three or four huge companies controlling a vast portion of U.S. Internet access. Thanks to local monopolies, the ALEC legislation, and the advantages of size, Big Telecom is still mostly unchecked by competition. The FCC prohibits Big Telecom from blocking or discriminating against “lawful” traffic, but “pay for priority” practices can easily become traffic discrimination by an inverse approach and another name. (This is analogous to the difference between merchants charging their customers a fee for using credit cards—which is illegal—versus offering customers a discount for using cash, which is allowed.)

Paid peering practices are also still allowed, so Big Telecom is further incentivized to skip upgrading local networks in order to make paid peering agreements more appealing to Big Digital (as happened with Netflix). Meanwhile, Smaller Digital can afford to pay neither for peering nor for priority, and slowly fades away as users stop visiting sites that take too long to load. The conversion of all voice traffic to digital lets Big Telecom abandon the old PSTN networks and provide upgrades only to the most desirable customers while leaving everyone else with inferior, more expensive wireless service. Oh, and, about that: the 2014 FCC proposal “tentatively conclude[s]” that, as in the 2010 net neutrality rules, it’s fine for wireless ISPs to block particular websites or apps. The FCC’s wireless net neutrality is even more diluted than its broadband net neutrality.

Given a choice between the FCC’s net neutrality and no net neutrality, you want net neutrality. But if you care about having an open Internet, net neutrality is just the beginning of what needs to happen.

Tom Wheeler has been widely quoted as saying, “There is one Internet. Not a fast Internet. Not a slow Internet. One Internet.” His statement, however, is neither technically nor socially accurate. Big Digital, Smaller Digital, and other content providers are already stratified by ability to pay for their own Internet connections and for infrastructure (such as servers or hosting services), all of which already impact how quickly or slowly their sites load. Even if the 2014 net neutrality rules are adopted, this speed difference stands to grow larger. End users, too, are already stratified by what kind of access they can afford and by what types of service are available where they live. This stratification is not sociologically neutral: a 2012 study found that men and white people are more likely to have home broadband, while “young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels” are more likely to have mobile Internet access only. If broadband becomes a resource available only in wealthy neighborhoods, these stratifications will intensify.

Certainly “maximum regulation” of Big Telecom would go a long way toward curtailing discriminatory ISP practices. It could also be extended to eliminate paid-peering agreements, to mandate universal broadband service, and to apply net neutrality equally to wireless and broadband ISPs. Municipal fiber would make high-speed Internet access more affordable and more widely available, particularly in urban areas; it would also provide sorely needed competition for Big Telecom (which is why Big Telecom has been so diligent about attempting to block it). These are all important, and necessary, steps.

Thinking Bigger
Internet “openness,” however, is more than a technical or even regulatory problem. Consider the radical idea that Internet openness isn’t just ensuring equitable data transfer over network infrastructure, but creating the conditions of possibility for equitable participation. Is it really an open Internet when women journalists, filmmakers, professors, bloggers, gamers, and others receive rape threats and death threats, sometimes to the point of quitting their jobs or retreating from public life? (See here for even more examples.) When a Black woman gets less harassment on Twitter, and more respect, just by changing her user photo to a picture of a white man? When homophobia leads to death threats against a five-year-old? Pundits love to point out that women (etc) do not have a monopoly on being harassed, or to claim that most death threats are just “idiotic emails,” as if either line of reasoning negates the cumulative chilling effects that follow from pervasive abuse. At some point, we have to start asking whether “protected speech” should be the right to say harassing and abusive things, or the right to speak without being harassed and abused.

What do death threats have to do with net neutrality? Precious little. And that is precisely why, if you want an open Internet, you can’t stop at pressuring the FCC to adopt its proposed net neutrality rules. You can’t stop even when you (someday) get municipal fiber. We won’t have an open Internet until we have an open society.[i]



Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a visiting scholar at the MIT Center for Civic Media, and a PhD student in sociology (among other things), though her views here are her own.

Lead image credit: BrokenCities; other images from here, here, here, here.


[i] It should go without saying that an “open” society is not the same thing as a society in which privacy has been abolished, or in which radical transparency has been forced upon less powerful actors by more powerful actors. If anything, Silicon Valley’s consistent misapplication of radical transparency (it’s supposed to go up a power gradient, not down) has made ours a less open society.

antigone-july2013There’s a song from the musical Avenue Q that famously proclaims, “The Internet is For Porn”—but really, anyone who’s been paying attention to the post-“Web 2.0” era knows that isn’t true.

These days, the Internet is for cats.

Furthermore, I propose this corollary: Smartphones are for documenting cats. Whether through T. gondii or through their unrivaled documentability, cats actually rule the world. Cat people know this, and anyone who’s ever spent time with cats knows that cats know this. Rewrite the song: The Internet is For Cats.

My cat, however, is not a fan of the Internet. antigone-routerIn a way, you can’t blame her; she’s older than the first patent filed with the name “Google Inc.” on it, which makes her somewhere between 75 and 81 in human years. Assuming both live through the end of 2016, she will even be older than my grandmother (and, as I mentioned in my very first post for Cyborgology, my grandmother and the Internet never really clicked). My cat likes the laptime that my computer- and Internet use affords her—Hey. [Pulls on sweatshirt.] Pet me. [Pull, pull.]—and she’s always thought my various laptops, modems, and wireless routers made perfectly fine cat warmers. But the Internet itself? Pfffft.

Yet if she’s getting some incidental perks out of my (stationary) Web use, my cat has no patience for the mobile Web. As in, none. Ever since I broke down and joined the People With Phones That Easily Surf the Web club in mid-2011, I have been insufferable. Not only does my smartphone make terrible sounds in the morning; I also reward its bad behavior by (eventually) picking it up and giving it the full extent of my dim attention—even though everyone knows that my first waking moments are for cat-petting. Hey. [Rubs cheek on phone, purr, purr.] Stop it. [Nudges phone-hand with head, purr, purr.] You’re doing it wrong. Live in the moment. [Rubs cheek on phone, manages to activate touchscreen, feigns cluelessness, purr, purr.] The smartphone is an interloper, a usurper, an unjust recipient of contact with my fingers and palms. The desktop and laptop may be large, vulnerable only through their keyboards, but the smartphone is a less formidable adversary; in fact, it is more like a small glowing rat. The indignity! Die, verminous screen, die.

antigone-uncooperative2As if this affront to her person (and to our long-standing relationship) isn’t enough, I also have the gall to keep pointing that infernal screen-object right at her. Hello, my name is Whitney, and I have a problem: I overdocument my cat. And she hates it. My cat is loathe to have her picture taken; she emphatically turns away from any kind of lens (especially the phone lens), and will not look anywhere near an image-capturing device unless she’s tricked into it. Perhaps it’s that I didn’t acclimate her enough as a kitten; my SLR had been stolen not too long before she came to live with me, and the rare early photos of her were taken on disposable cameras. I eventually got a digital camera, but I used it more for travels and events[i]; around the house, my getting up to get the camera would inevitably trigger movement from the cat and thus ruin the shot.

My smartphone, however, is usually at hand, and it even takes fairly decent snapshots. More than that, my smartphone affords a wide range of cat documentation possibilities: I can save cat photos to my phone as is, or I can do light processing on them right then and there. I can send cat photos to my friends (and to my mom) via email or SMS; I can also post cat photos to Instagram[ii], or sometimes to Facebook. Even better, I can use Snapchat to take snaps of my cat, and then send the snaps to friends and/or post them to my Story and/or save them to my phone[iii]. The cat, however, doesn’t much care whether I’m photographing her or snapping her; she just does not want that thing pointed at her at all. The Commemorative Group Selfie has arguably become an important digital-era gesture of friendship, kinship, or even love, but she won’t do those with me, either. I try pretty regularly, but no: the cat steadfastly resists documentation. Far as she’s concerned, the Internet, digital photographs, and especially smartphones can all go to hell.

In short, my cat would make a great digital dualist[iv]—and yet, she somehow got stuck with me for her human. Awwww.

*       *       *       *      *


I realized last night, however, that my incorrigible Cat Overdocumentation Habit isn’t merely the by-product of a phone full of affordances and a Web that rewards cat pics with attention. Yes, it’s been easier to document my cat ever since I started spending most of my time sitting on a serviceable camera, but something else happened in mid-2011: My cat turned 12. Later, in the fall, a combination of living in only one place (which was rare during my California years) and being well into grad school meant that—for the first time in over a decade—I spent almost all of almost every day working from home, rather than from somewhere else. My cat, in turn, spent almost all of that time either in my lap or somewhere else in my office. And I, in turn again, spent a lot of time thinking about how much I enjoy her company, how much I love her, and how she will only continue to get older…until someday, she won’t. And that someday will probably be sooner, rather than later.

antigone-nightreading2I overdocument my cat because it’s (sort of) easy; because I love her; because she’s pretty and the Internet rewards me with Attention Points™ for doing so. But I also overdocument my cat because I simultaneously accept and dread her mortality. I take too many pictures now because I can, and because I know that, eventually, I won’t be able to take any. I overdocument my cat, and then with each new health scare I really overdocument my cat—as if by preserving so many images of her, I can somehow preserve the creature herself. This time I even cracked and got her on Facebook; though in part my doing so came from a desire to share pictures with everyone who’s cared about her over the years, I think it also came from a lot of thinking about Death in the Time of Social Media. There’s a reason we cling to profiles of the dead; in some small way, dead profiles represent lingering pieces of lives, pieces that will never decompose (even if their host platforms can take them away from us at any moment). A cat’s profile may be less a part of her than a human’s profile is of its person (my cat rarely makes her own status updates, for instance), but it is still something, and right now all the somethings feel better than nothing.

Conventional wisdom is that we take photographs primarily of things we want to remember; Nathan wrote recently about how, in the context of social media, photographs are things more often of communication than of memory (I’ll finish my response to that post any day now, for real). I’m realizing, though, that—at least for me, at least right now—there’s something else going on both with photographs and with why I engage in photography. Yes, I will be glad for these pictures years down the line, even though I will not need them to remember what my cat looked like; yes, oftentimes pictures of my cat get used in my communications, or as communications in their own right. In the back of my mind though, in the place where magical thinking lives, I’m not just trying to share a moment or to freeze a moment in time; I’m actively trying to prevent time’s progression, trying to anchor and pin down the present so that it cannot slide into the future. I’m trying to counter a looming No Longer with the force of an undeniable Has Been, trying to effect metaphysical alchemy through nothing more than two thumbs and a touchscreen. Overdocumenting my cat has become a ritual not just in the sense of being a habit, but also in the sense of trying to perform magic.


I’d say more, but someone’s reminding me that I should pet her—and I will, just as soon as I take (yet another) photo to use at the end of this post. Sorry, love. (See above.)



Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) mostly avoids posting cat photos on Twitter…at least on her public account. Heh.

All photos by the author.

[i] I also took a lot of selfies, because the lens turned around backwards and made it easy—but that was way before they were called “selfies.”

[ii] Before my Instagram account became primarily a way to keep track of the shows I go to, my feed was pretty much 50% travel photos and 50% cat photos. Yeah, it’s like that.

[iii] Yeah, saving your snaps is sort of not in the spirit of Snapchat, but I make an exception for cat photos. Geriatric cat is geriatric.

[iv] For even more digital-dualist cred, my cat is from a shelter right at the base of Cape Cod—though I do not know if she has ever been to the beach.


(Photo credit: John Eckman)
(Photo credit: John Eckman)

If you follow me on Twitter, you almost certainly know of my propensity to livetweet the talks I attend (which is either the best or the worst thing about following me on Twitter, depending on your interests and whether or not you know how to use hashtag muting). In the spirit of Cyborgology‘s new #review feature, which looks at conversations surrounding academic articles, I thought I’d try summarizing my tweets from the talk I attended last night: “Defending an Unowned Internet” at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Defending an Unowned Internet” was a spirited conversation between Yochai Benkler, Ebele Okobi, Bruce Schneier, and Benjamin Wittes, plus moderator Johnathan Zittrain (you can find links to bios for all five participants here). Zittrain opened the panel by suggesting that what, exactly, an “unowned Internet” is was up for debate, and also used Wittes’s blog Lawfare in a cautionary tale: Someone(s) out there really, really doesn’t like Lawfare, which has experienced several outages in recent months as a result of “cyberattacks.” Lawfare‘s hosting service has done everything it can to keep Lawfare up and running, but beyond determining that the attacks are coming from IP addresses in the Netherlands, there isn’t much to be done.

Zittrain, therefore, posed the following question: What if this type of attack on speech meant that, in the future, everyone would move their web content to one of four major web hosting services—say, behemoths like Amazon Web Services—which are harder to overwhelm with DoS or DDoS attacks? Moving most of the Web’s content to the tiny number of service providers with that level of infrastructure might grant better protection from DDoS attacks (and thereby protect free speech), but doing so would in turn grant that tiny number of service providers a good deal of power for censorship and surveillance of their users (and thereby endanger free speech). Now what?

The subsequent debate focused primarily on what should be the state’s relationship to the Web, and less on issues of corporate control. With “net neutrality” fresh on my mind, I’d been hoping to hear more about the latter; I’m more than a bit anxious about defending the Web against large ISPs, and to be honest, I’m personally more wary of Google than I am of state law enforcement apparatuses. [1) I’m just going to sidestep the NSA here for a moment; 2) Privilege check: #race, #class.] All that said, wow: There’s some thorny issues wrapped up in the “state” side of these things that I’d never thought to consider, and that I’m now trying to process out.

“Defending an Unowned Internet” covered a lot of ground in an hour and a half, so I’m going to provide a general summary of what I felt were each panelist’s main points rather than attempt to capture everything; note that I’m following themes here, rather than writing in chronological order (Berkman will post video of the panel here within the next few days). I particularly welcome comments from others who attended the panel, or from the panelists themselves—and I apologize in advance if there’s anything I’ve not captured quite right!


For Benkler, the main issue in play was one of control: Allowing any entity to “own” the Internet gives that entity a measure of influence over the Web that can all too easily be exploited, whether by that entity directly or by the state through that entity. The question we should ask is not whether or not there should be rules, but rather how to balance the degrees of power granted to various actors. Of course, some powers are more worrisome than others: Corporate surveillance might be bad, but to Benkler, state surveillance deserves more of our scrutiny and attention (not least because the state has the ability both to conduct its own surveillance and to demand data collected by corporations).

The most concerning thing about major web service providers is not that they are surveilling us, Benkler said, but that they are reproducing older, less creative modes of media engagement. Netflix, for instance, may be taking the place of broadcast television, but it isn’t really a new way to watch TV; rather, Netflix reinstates an older model of passive media consumption. Corporations might be stifling our creativity, and thereby reducing our inclination to speak, but state surveillance threatens our very ability to speak. Balancing the state’s power over the Web should therefore be our first concern.

Okobi argued in favor of letting the state control policing of the Internet, and in favor of corporations falling in line behind the state—which is something I hadn’t expected from the panel’s only tech company representative. Elected officials, Okobi explained, are at least elected; there is some measure of state accountability to the public. Tech company decision makers, on the other hand, are at best accountable to their shareholders and at worst accountable to no one. Do we really want tech companies deciding for themselves what is good, or right, or just? We get upset when our web service providers comply with NSA requests for information, but according to Okobi, we’re not thinking that through: If corporations don’t respect the authority of the state, then what will keep them in check? Wanting corporations to defy the NSA is asking them to obey the law some of the time, but not all of the time—something Okobi finds “inconsistent.”

Similarly, we might think that we want an unregulated, unpoliced Internet, or that we want email that is encrypted and 100% subpoena-proof, but really we don’t. We want—or at least, we should want—strong enforcement on the Web, and for that enforcement to come from the state. “Community enforcement” might be a nice idea in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work—at least, not in favor of justice. Community enforcement is how we get vigilantism, or how groups that are already more powerful retain the ability to silence others. “Women get voices on the Internet, but what happens to them afterward?” Okobi asked, referencing the vast quantity of rape threats, death threats, and other harassment that women authors collectively receive via the Web on a daily basis. (On a less intense note, I thought of David Banks‘s post about how sites with up- and down-voting end up further silencing marginalized voices.) Similarly, Okobi assured the room that “child pornography is A Thing,” and that yes, we do want the state to prevent its circulation. Though not in favor of recent abuses by the NSA, Okobi stated that the agency’s actions were actually something of a gift in that they had forced the world to recognize that Web-based state surveillance happens “in the ‘good’ countries, too.'” The answer to “bad policing,” however, should be better policing; it should not be “no policing.”

Wittes took this line of reasoning further, and argued that the problem with the modern Web was not too much authority and enforcement, but too little. At first, “as a young, civil libertarian journalist,” he’d seen the FISA court as COINTELPRO all over again. Over time, however, Wittes became “sympathetic” to the rationale behind FISA. He’d spent time in the middle of civil wars, in areas where there was no rule of law—and, based on those experiences, decided that the Rule of Law was actually a pretty good thing. Wittes went so far as to reference Hobbes’s Leviathan, the premise of which is basically two-fold: 1) human nature is pretty nasty, and so in order to coexist as a society, 2) we each give up some of our rights and authority to a sovereign, who/which in turn receives a monopoly on violence and uses that power to save us from ourselves.

By extension then, what Wittes was arguing is that, if left in its unregulated state (or “state of nature”), the Internet would be a pretty nasty place used for all sorts of terrible ends. If we are all to coexist on the Internet, and if the Internet is to be used for positive ends, then we must all give up some of our rights and authority to the state, which will in turn keep these criminal- and undesirable uses of the Internet in check. The idea of granting the state more power over the Web seemed to make a good portion of the room uncomfortable, but Wittes gave an example: How did he know that, right now, the local police department was not battering down his front door and raiding his house? I braced for a “nothing to hide / nothing to fear” argument, but thankfully, that’s not where Wittes took it. He knew the police were not breaking down his front door because “rules forbid it,” and on the off-chance the police were to break down his door unjustly, he knew he had channels of recourse. Wittes’s faith in the justice (“justice”) system screamed of unchecked privilege to me—is there anyone out there who’s not a straight, middle-class white man who genuinely believes the police exist to “serve and protect” him or her?—but there is a valid point in there: If you don’t like the state’s policies, or if the state violates its policies, you can at least in theory do something about it. If you don’t like, say, Google’s policies, or if Google violates its policies, your options are mostly limited to…well…don’t use Google products (which, these days, is easier said than done). What should concern us is not the Internet as a “zone of enforcement,” but the Internet as a “zone of impunity.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 7.04.44 PM

So which is more dangerous, then: a state-of-nature Internet, or a state-controlled Internet? If Wittes was solidly on Team Hobbes, then Schneier was flying colors for Team Rousseau (if without name-checking the philosopher directly). Hobbes would see a greater danger in the state-of-nature Internet, which Wittes likened to a foreign war zone. Rousseau, on the other hand, would see a far lesser danger in the “primitive” Internet, which Schneier argued was really not so bad. The state has only figured out how to police the Internet comparatively recently, Schneier said; up until that point, “We had the unpoliced Internet…and we came out pretty okay.” It’s not that we need the state to protect us from each other on the Web, but that we need the Web to protect ourselves and each other from the state. Similarly, while Wittes and Okobi were more concerned with the crimes that would take place via the Web without strong state enforcement, Schneier was concerned with the crimes that wouldn’t occur if the state had more control over the Web, such as activism and dissident speech. “Being able to break the law is how we improve society,” Schneier said; “That’s how we got gay marriage, for instance,” or the Civil Rights Movement (to name just a few such improvements). “The price of liberty is the possibility of crime.”

Schneier further argued for the value of “the unowned commons,” and for preserving the Internet as such—because ownership grants control. “There are protests you can have outside Harvard Yard that you cannot have inside Harvard Yard,” Schneier pointed out. Although foot traffic can move freely between Harvard Yard and the sidewalk beyond it, these two places are not the same thing; different rules apply in each. The same holds true for the Web: Facebook, for instance, is like Harvard Yard, even though the lack of a giant iron fence around the site makes the distinction between it and the open Web a bit less obvious. A world in which we all thought we were standing on the sidewalk, but were in fact locked inside Harvard Yard, could have dire consequences.

As Zittrain observed, the specter of “conformity” looms large on both sides of this conceptual spectrum. Give the state too much power over the Internet, and it will use that power to squelch its opposition; activists will be targeted, and dissidents silenced. Give corporations too much power over the Internet, on the other hand, and it’s not terribly different from giving too much power to the state (the downside is even less recourse for the public; the upside is that Google doesn’t command an army…yet). Give power over the Internet to no one, however, and existing power structures continue to reproduce themselves: women get death threats, children get exploited, and marginalized Others get further marginalized. Now what?

In the absence of utopia, all imaginable solutions seem untenable. DDoS attacks against blogs, threats against women, and marginalization of Othered authors remind us that, in the words of my friend Daed, “greatest individual liberty and smallest ruleset are totally orthogonal to one another.” Put simply: If we agree that free speech should be protected, we must also acknowledge that free speech cannot exist in a vacuum. Until such time as Utopia has arrived and all social injustice has been ironed out, self-policing will not be an effective way to promote justice on the Web writ large. Accordingly, preserving “free speech” must mean building systems and structures that shield our ability to speak not just from the state, but also from each other.

Seriously though: How do we do that? No one on the panel suggested leaving that matter to corporations; in fact, Schneier warned against it, and Okobi indicated that corporations frankly don’t want the responsibility of having to decide what is “the right thing to do.” That leaves us with the state, which…oh man. Wittes was all for it; Okobi admitted the current version of state enforcement isn’t great, but still felt the state was the best actor to do it; Benkler was concerned about state control, and moreso than he was about corporate control; Schneier all but argued that the state is the worst possible option. Compared to “corporations” and “individuals,” I thought “the state” sounded like the least of all evils—but only until I stopped thinking about some vague concept of “the state” and considered instead the track record of the U.S. government during my lifetime, at which point I was right back where I started.

For Wittes, the enforcement question boiled down to two key questions: 1) “What is the substance of the rules?”; 2) “What are compliance systems, and do you have faith in them?” Wittes—who, recall, had some pretty strong faith in the compliance systems surrounding law enforcement in the U.S.—looked at these questions and was happy leaving control of the Web to the state. As one hashtag participant noted, however, “technologists have WAY more faith in the processes of warrants than us lawyers”; another hashtag participant responded that this is because technologists have less faith in technology than do lawyers. Still another hashtag participant answered Wittes’s questions by saying, “I have very little faith in the compliance systems and I’m not sure about the rules in the first place.” Perhaps I’m too much the cynical sociologist, but for real: If keeping power accountable has become a matter of faith, we are all in some serious trouble.

My conclusion, then, is that the best agency to regulate the Web in accordance with social justice is some agency as-yet unimagined, some option not currently on the table. Corporations won’t design that, and neither will the state; after all, power hates to relinquish power. Looks like the ball is back in individual users’ court after all.


Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) lives in Cambridge, MA, and livetweets from all over the place.

Uncredited images from here and here.


Hello, Cyborgology…it’s been a while. I’ve missed you, but I haven’t quite known what to say. Which is weird, right? Strangely enough, I’ve got half a dozen half-finished posts on my computer—twenty-thousand someodd words of awkward silence waiting to be wrapped up and brought into the world.

Writer’s block happens to the best of us, or so I’m told. What’s been strange for me is looking back and realizing that the last thing I posted was my piece from the beginning of #ir14, the 14th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers. I say “strange” because I had an amazing experience at #ir14, and left it feeling so excited about my field and my work and what I imagine to be possible. And yet, in the two months since, something’s been off. I’ve managed to submit to a couple of important abstracts, and I continued sitting in on a really cool seminar, and I’ve plunged into the work of helping to organize this year’s Theorizing the Web (a conference about which I’m passionate, to say the least). But my words went somewhere, have been gone.

I realized recently, however, that it’s not about some kind of post-#ir14 crash. It’s actually about what happened after.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not great about keeping up with all of my digital communication media (though I am ever-aspiring to do better). As I’ve at least insinuated previously, Facebook is pretty low on my personal Prioritized List of Digital Communication Media. It’s almost a fluke, then, that—back in Cambridge, in the week following #ir14—I happened to check Facebook, and to see a brand new post at the top of my feed that ended up being pretty important.

The post was from an old friend of mine (we’ll call him John), someone I hadn’t seen in probably a decade and with whom I’d only recently gotten back in touch. John was from one of the last batches of friends I made in the pre-“Web 2.0” era, before “social media” had become a widespread thing, before people moved or changed jobs and maintained at least basic “I know where to find you and have a general sense of what you’re up to” connections by default, rather than through deliberate effort. How we came to be back in touch via Facebook is a long and convoluted story, but it ends with rumors of his demise being greatly exaggerated and with me being greatly relieved, and happy, to see that he was alive and doing quite well.

John was posting, however, to ask if anyone had details about a memorial for another friend of ours, someone with whom he’d been quite close during the time that I’d known them both—someone with whom I too had been close, in a weird way, for a time. My first thought was no, it can’t be true; my first gut sense was that it probably was true. I tried to convince myself that, well, maybe this was like when the Cambridge grapevine thought John was dead; John would later say he’d thought the same thing. But I did the thing that one does in 2013 when one hears that perhaps someone has died, which is Google Compulsively. Inside of ten minutes, I was almost certain that our friend’s death was real, neither a misunderstanding nor a misguided joke. One person posting on the Internet about a death could be wrong; two people posting on the Internet about a death could be a prank. A whole community posting about a death is more real than an obituary.

I then did the thing that one does (or at least, that I do) in 2013, when one is alone in one’s apartment and hears that someone has definitely died, which is pour grief into one’s (private) personal Twitter account. It turns out there’s a big difference between when someone important drifts out of your life and when they actually, permanently, biologically die. It turns out that even when you’re used to not seeing someone around anymore, when you’re long-accustomed to knowing them only through second- or third-hand stories, that even knowing there will be no more stories rips you open, creates brand new wounds all its own.

At the same time, I found so many stories in my online searching—old stories, but stories that were new to me. Way back when, in one of the last extended conversations we had so very long ago, my friend had told me about how he’d just then gotten his first email address—and only reluctantly, only because others had made him, only because he was going so far away. He was proud of himself for having held out as long as he did—but in the intervening years, he’d apparently changed his mind about digital communication media. He’d found Twitter, and wow had he been on Twitter. He was on a podcast, one that people listen to, one that did a long tribute to him after he died. I sat at my desk and I listened to that tribute and I laughed, and cried, and cried and cried. His voice sounded the same. He was, in many ways, the way I remembered him; he also said a lot of the same things about Twitter and community that I say about Twitter and community, which I never would have imagined becoming true back in 2002. He told stories I hadn’t heard before, and stories that hadn’t happened then. And the community he left behind told stories, too.

There was so much about that whole experience that I wanted to write about, that I wanted to try to make sense of in a “social media theorist” sort of way. There was how I found out about his death, and how I convinced myself that his death was real; there was how I began to process my grief through long-form Twitter posting, and how digital media had given me a posthumous glimpse of the person he’d become. There was the double context-collapse of his informal memorial: I went with John, a close friend of theirs, and a couple of other people, all of whom had first known my deceased friend from far longer ago than I had; then, at the memorial, we met people our friend had been friends with in the present, many of whom he’d gotten to know through Twitter. One of his present-day close friends even Skyped in to the memorial for a toast. I imagine memorials and funerals are always context-collapsey, that it’s always strange to hear new friends use a new name to toast to someone you’ve loved—but for the friends I was with, the mediation difference seemed to sharpen the pain. The person being talked about was not, in all respects, the person they had known years ago; while part of this was undoubtedly due to time and to context, what my friends kept coming back to was the how of their knowing: that they had gotten to know him exclusively in person[i].

And yet, I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to write about this. Before social media, and especially before I began to study social media in earnest, I would have named my deceased friend—because I believe it is important to honor the dead, and because my friend had such a profound impact on my life (one that I would only realize fully years later, and one which I’m certain he never realized himself). At the same time, I’m too much a social media theorist to write about death in the way that I would as an ordinary person. Social media run on attention economies. To an extent, we all know that; especially as someone who also studies quantification, I can’t un-know that. And so I can’t shake the feeling that, here in 2013, it would be dishonorable to name my friend, to link to his tribute podcast, or even to point to the charitable organization his girlfriend and friends suggested for donations. To link might be to bring more attention to a person who was worth knowing and to a cause that is worth supporting, but to do so could also divert preexisting attention from those things to this blog, to this post, to me. Regardless of my intentions, it would feel opportunistic.

It feels as though there is a certain degree of Very Close that one should be with someone before one steps anywhere near the limelight of their passing, and while I don’t know where the shadows stop and the light begins, I am certain that in that attention is not my place. In a way, new attention is like thermal energy: It flows from where there is more of it to where there is less of it. Were I quite a bit more well known than my friend, then linking would seem appropriate (even though we had long been out of contact): Here, pay attention. Here, help. In 2013, donations of social capital can be made in memoriam, too. Under the circumstances, however, I’ve been at an awkward loss—and unlike when I don’t know whether to send flowers or what to wear to a funeral, I can’t call my mom up to ask about this one. I don’t think any of us know yet. And the questions aren’t going away.

death-representationI’m (finally) writing about this, I think, because it’s happening again. A few hours after my post-holiday flight landed in Boston, I sat down at my desk and just happened to catch a Gchat message from a close friend back in the Bay Area (where I lived for the first four-and-a-half years of grad school). “I’m sorry to tell you this through such an impersonal medium,” she said, meaning not face-to-face. “But I wanted to let you know before you found out through another, even more impersonal medium.” She was telling me that a mutual friend of ours, one of only a handful of people I saw socially during the last months before I moved back to Cambridge, had taken his life sometime that morning.

I have been learning these last few months what it is to express grief-in-the-moment through text. A decade ago, my distant third-person memory of that moment might have been a strange sound that came out of my mouth; now, it is the sound and feeling of my fingers pounding out “WHAT?” and “FUCK” and “no no no no no no no” all in quick succession, <send> as punctuation. And the questions, and their answers. And then even though I knew it must be true if this particular friend said it was true, I checked the Internet to see if it was true. And it was true.

I stayed on Gchat with my friend for a while. I cried. I texted with two people close to me, one of them another friend of the deceased. I poured grief into my (private) personal Twitter account—but this time I did so in context, because half the people that account follows had just lost the same friend. I watched news of his death spread through my stream, watched the shock and anger and sadness and anguish each come rolling as surging waves of words. I fail at keeping up regularly with my social media accounts, and especially at keeping up with my personal Twitter account, so I had to go back and read the last few months of my friend’s partner’s timeline. And then my friend’s timeline. And then, after that, I had a somewhat different picture than I’d gotten over the last 11 months of sporadic when-I-have-time Twitter-checking. And then I realized that the reason he no longer responded when I responded to his tweets was because he had no idea I was talking to him, because he’d stopped following that (private) account[ii].

And then I really, really regretted not sending out an actual text message or email when I visited SF last October, because he and his partner were high on the list of people I’d wanted to see—and I didn’t get to see them. The thing was that I’d felt awkward: I’d moved far away, and had been out of touch but for the occasional @-response or “Like.” Because I’m just Like That, I wasn’t sure if most of my Bay Area friends would want to see me anyway. Yet as I tweeted about how kind my friend and his partner had both always been to me, how they had made me feel welcome and safe at a time and in a place where I rarely felt either (and how much that had meant to me), I suddenly realized how stupid I’d been in not getting in contact with either of them directly when I was in town. And I went back to reading my Twitter stream, where everyone else who’d missed a chance to spend time with him was feeling some version of the same thing. For once it was really hard not to be in the Bay Area, as so many of his other friends gathered to mourn him together, in person. At the same time, being able to gather in the nebulous, intangible living room that is Twitter has been invaluable to me. As I quipped wryly via text yesterday, “If there were gold stars for staring at the wall, petting the cat, and being caught up on Grief Twitter, I’d be downright spangled.”

It’s been a few days now, and my media theorist self is starting to murmur observations. I’m dimly fascinated by the way Twitter has come to figure not just in how I experience some of my communities and personal connections, but how I process my very experiences themselves. I’m fascinated by the unspoken social norms: how none of us named my friend at first (even though many of us have private accounts), and how carefully I weighed saying anything publicly (and did so only after other friends began to do so). I’m remembering that odd moment Friday night when I thought, “Wait, am I doing it wrong?” My initial response was to speak (unidentifiably) of my friend, of his kindness and generosity toward me, and of my shock and sadness that he had died. A large portion of the affected people I follow on that account, however, were speaking in a generalized way to a/the (?) community, messages like, “Hugs to you all.” I wondered if I’d violated a separate social protocol, one of which I hadn’t been aware; I wondered what boundaries the speakers might imagine for the communities they addressed, and whether those boundaries included me or not, whether I was supposed to adopt those norms in the first place. I thought again, too, about a sort of unspoken hierarchy of communication media: While a number of us convened in overlapping, Tweeted parlors, the two members of my inner circle who experienced the same loss got in touch with me though other means (SMS and Gchat), even though we were also talking to each other on Twitter. Even locked-down Personal Twitter has its “front stage” and “back stage.”

Somewhere in the background of my head, I’m wishing now that I’d been to more (any) of the panels at #ir14 on death and grief. I’m sure most of my observations aren’t new, and far more importantly, I wish I had any external sense of what the etiquette norms for Grieving in the Digital Age might be. I know that there are no hard and fast answers, no fail-safe rules; I know that the “rules” will continue to evolve, even on a case-by-case basis. Just over the last four days, I’ve watched a series of stages wash through my personal Twitter stream: Generalized community support and/or declarations of disbelief; Stating that someone has died; Stating who has died, and how; Speaking about my friend, and determining times/places for collective, in-person grieving; Speaking about being at these events, individual requests for assistance, and some affected friends beginning to tweet about other topics; Beginning to organize collective memorial projects and collective support for his family; Beginning to speak publicly—and with new language—about my friend, his life, and his passing.

I still don’t know what to do about attention economies and naming the dead. On the one hand, some of our friends have pulled together to collect donations of both time and funds to help my friend’s partner and infant daughter get through the next few weeks (and in 18 years, college); on the other hand, what belongs front and center is my friend and the family he left behind, not my tangential struggle with what to do in response and what it all means. I’ve ended up helping to collect photos and videos of my friend for his daughter to have as she grows up, because that’s something I can do from 3,000 miles away—and yet, I’m not sure if it’s my place even to do that. I don’t know what the right thing to do is, though I’ll tell you that you can find a link to that website and a link to submit photos of him in my recent (main, public account) tweets (which, since I’ve been quiet lately, will be an unusually straightforward process).

I don’t know what to do, and there is little comfort in knowing that this will be far from my—or anyone’s— last chance to figure it out.


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter twice, primarily as @weboesel.

Images from here and here.

[i] What do you know: It turns out there are actually are contexts in which I have absolutely no desire to start arguing with people about digital dualism. As Sarah Wanenchak in particular has written, sometimes feelings are digital dualist—and that’s just how it is; being based (in part) on a false ideological premise doesn’t make feelings themselves any less real. I believe it is possible to get to know someone closely through digital media, but I also very much understand what my friends were experiencing that afternoon.

[ii] I don’t blame my friend in the least for unfollowing that account; it’s a lot of navel-gazing, and I’m kind of amazed that anyone does follow it.

The words you use to reference that fish matter.
The words you use to reference that fish matter.

This is just a very, very quick post, as I am presently in the thick of #ir14—the 14th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). It’s my first time at IR, and so far I’m really enjoying it. The keynote, preconference workshops, plenaries, and sessions I’ve attended have been great, and the hashtag-stream quality is high (there are some talented livetweeters here, and plenty of hashtag socialization too). Since it’s not a disciplinary conference, everyone is here because they really want to be here—which you can feel in the general atmosphere, and which makes such a difference. From my barely-informed new member perspective, it really does seem as though AoIR has managed to roll a thought-provoking academic conference and a fun reunion party into one four-day long event (which, as a Theorizing the Web committee member, is obviously a project near and dear to my heart).

TL;DR: #ir14, I love you. And I’m bringing attention to the following critique not to be a jerk, but because I think you’re great and I know you—we—can do better. 

When I picked up my conference badge yesterday during the break between preconference workshops, there were two things I noticed about it. The first was that it came pre-printed with my Twitter handle—yay! I love when conferences do that (even if I had to edit mine, because I registered for #ir14 before I changed my Twitter username). The second was that there was a sticker on it, a little cartoon fish. “What’s the sticker for?” I asked the volunteers at the registration table. One of them speculated that it had something to do with meal preferences for the closing banquet (perhaps the fish’s greenness indicated that I’m vegetarian?), and the other said the meaning of the stickers would be explained later. Okay, that’s cool—I like fish.

That afternoon, someone in my second preconference workshop (who is not a first-time attendee) speculated that the stickers would have something to do with some kind of “forced socialization”—though she wasn’t sure what. Some of us joked about different ways to hack the exercise, whatever it might turn out to be.

That's (one of) my fish.
That’s (one of) my fish.

We got our answers in the announcements before Gabriella Coleman’s (awesome) keynote. Somewhere in the crowd at #ir14, each of us would find three others with identical creature stickers on their nametags. In order to encourage conference attendees to mix, mingle, and meet each other, the first set of four to find each other and present themselves to the organizers would be awarded drink tickets as a prize. I’m sure to some people, this was unbearably cheesy and dorky—but as a brand new member, I appreciated the effort to encourage contact between veteran members having a long-awaited reunion moment and less senior members hoping to make new connections. I also appreciated what a silly sticker game signaled (to me) about the overall culture of #ir14: that we are here to be smart, but not to take ourselves Too Seriously; that I should relax, because this is supposed to be fun. Don’t worry about keeping up your perfect professional façade, kid; look! Researchers you admire are marked with cartoon creatures and hunting for drink tickets. (It seemed perfectly in character for a conference that, as it turns out, has a tradition of post-reception karaoke. No, really.)

If I was into the idea of the game, though, why was I feeling so uneasy in the moments after the stickers’ purpose had been revealed? It wasn’t the game, but how the game was explained—specifically, the moment in which we were told to look at our nametags and find the stickers:

“That animal is your spirit animal.”

Screeeeeeeeeeeech, went the vinyl record in my head.

A lot of the room was laughing, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable; I’d been under the impression that “spirit animal” isn’t a term to toss around lightly. Sure, I’ve long seen it used in dumb Internet quizzes and on sarcastic bumper stickers and in flippant everyday speech, but the “spirit animal” concept also holds significant meaning for some Native American cultures and for shamanic religions.  The theme of #ir14 is “Resistance + Appropriation”; shouldn’t we maybe not further the appropriation of marginalized groups’ cultures by appropriating parts of those cultures ourselves?


Unfortunately, the vast majority of attendees tweeting on the #ir14 hashtag took up the term uncritically. “My spirit animal is ________, anyone else?” tweets filled my conference timeline, even throughout the keynote speech. Full disclosure: my own response wasn’t much better; rather than speak up about why using “spirit animal” for this game wasn’t a great idea, I simply used different language to ask around for other green cartoon fishes. I saw exactly one tweet that contested these uses of “spirit animal,” which I’ve pasted in above. (Note: there may have been other tweets highlighting this issue that I missed while livetweeting the keynote; I ran a few searches, but I know Twitter’s search functionality isn’t perfect.)


By the time I got on the wireless at the plenaries this morning, however, the issue had been raised again—this time by two of my Cyborgology colleagues who, though not at #ir14 in person, had been following the conference hashtag and wondered what was going on with use of the term “spirit animal.” I was relieved to see my friends chiming in, and to see the subsequent conversation persist a while on the hashtag: Ok, maybe now we here at #ir14 would return to the issue. The hashtag conversation was taking place during the “Race, Gender, and Information Technologies” plenary; surely there was no way our collective appropriation of “spirit animal” would go unaddressed.

It’s gone almost entirely unaddressed.

I did see a few attendees acknowledge that “spirit animal” had not been an appropriate choice of words; later in the day, one attendee tweeted a link to a good explanation of why “spirit animal” was not the term we should be using to reference our funny nametag-dwelling sticker creatures. But…so far, that’s been it. And to be honest, that saddens me.

It’s tempting to say that maybe this was just a slip, that perhaps the organizer who explained the game unintentionally chose a less-than-appropriate term in the moment of making the announcement (perhaps under the pressure of public speaking); still, that isn’t what it sounded like. And what’s more troubling than one announcement is the fact that so many conference attendees adopted the appropriative language and reproduced it, without stopping to think about the ramifications of doing so. Although I’m thankful that no one has spoken up on the hashtag to defend the use of “spirit animal” at #ir14, I’m also saddened that no one has stepped up to apologize for using it, or to ask people to use a different term.

Say what you will about name badge sticker networking games; to me, the game is quirky and silly in a way that fits with the overall character and culture of #ir14. But choosing the term “spirit animal” to describe the sticker creatures on our name badges was insensitive and inappropriate, and particularly unfortunate given the conference theme. That usage was definitely an act of appropriation, and there has been some initial resistance; I’m still waiting to see what happens next.

AoIR, I have faith in you. We’ve spent the day rejoicing in the gender equity of the #ir14 speaker lineup, and in women’s strong intellectual presence within AoIR generally; we expressed our gratitude and appreciation for a plenary that so explicitly addressed both race and racism online. The social-justice acumen here is obviously well above average. So can we maybe stop and reflect a little about the language we’ve been using for the last ~28 hours? I know the theme is “resistance + appropriation,” but let’s not delve into that by making our conference a case study. I know we can do better.

#qs13 took place in San Francisco's Presidio. Image credit: Whitney Erin Boesel
#qs13 took place in San Francisco’s Presidio. Image credit: Whitney Erin Boesel

It’s almost a week now since I attended the 2013 Quantified Self Global Conference in San Francisco, and I’m still not sure where to begin with my summary of the event itself. Instead of jumping in with an overview, this time I’ll cover my own session—in which what started out as asking how researchers studying Quantified Self could better connect with each other became an (at times) intense debate about what Quantified Self is, what Quantified Self should be, and what role (if any) academic or institutional research and researchers should have within the Quantified Self community.

At QS Global 2013, I led a breakout session with Jakob Eg Larsen titled simply, “QS Researchers.” Jakob and I had proposed similar sessions for the conference, and were happy to work together after an introductory email from the organizers. We were both well aware of the growing academic interest in Quantified Self, and eager to find ways for members of the expanding QS researcher community to network and collaborate with each other. What would be most useful, and what might other researchers be interested in? I’d tried to start a Google Group mailing list following QS Global 2012, but that hadn’t really gotten off the ground; truth be told, I’m already up to my eyeballs in email, and I suspect many others are in the same position. But what about organizing a pre-conference attached to the Quantified Self Conferences, at which people could present their research and simultaneously get feedback both from other professional researchers and from non-researcher members of QS? What about an informal networking event attached to the QS Conferences? How could we involve researchers who were working in this area, but not able to attend either QS Global or QS Europe? (Was anyone present connected to the Quantified Self Research Network we’d heard about?) What about starting a QS-related journal—what might that look like? And how could we ensure that our efforts to connect with each other as researchers remained open and accessible to the rest of the Quantified Self community, rather than turning into an us/them ivory tower situation?

“Come meet scientists and scholars for whom Quantified Self is a research topic,” the description read. “We will continue the conversation that began at last year’s conference, and welcome new participants.” What I wasn’t expecting was that the session not only came back to that conversation, but also returned to some of the questions that came up in my QS Europe 2013 session about who is and isn’t a part of the Quantified Self community—and sparked an at times intense discussion about what the role of academic researchers is and should be within Quantified Self.

Our breakout was in the last set of sessions at QS Global 2013, and Jakob and I were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves expanding the circle of chairs out, out, and then out again as people kept trickling in; eventually, the ring was as wide as the room itself. As we went around with brief introductions (name, any affiliation, and three word description of research interests), I counted 31 people total: 21 men and 10 women; 26 professional researchers (academic, industry, or other) and 5 non-researchers interested in research (one of whom was an organizer of the QS meetup group in his city)[i]. We then posed our questions: I asked what sorts of opportunities or infrastructures people would find useful in terms of exchanging ideas and exploring collaborations, and Jakob asked how a more formalized academic event might be either attached to or integrated into the QS Conferences. For shorthand I labeled these two possible developments “informal” and “formal” on a pair of giant sticky notes, and we opened the discussion.

"QS Researchers" breakout session at #qs13. Image credit: James McCarter
“QS Researchers” breakout session at #qs13. Image credit: James McCarter

And then things went in some directions I hadn’t anticipated.

“It would be nice to maybe bring up the quality of work of people who do QS, and make their work better,” one man said. In summary, a lot of QS projects just didn’t look like Proper Science™ to him—and that wasn’t the only problem. He also suggested that we “document some of these projects, so that people can, you know, not do the same thing over and over again…and god forbid, reference something that happened before.” (A wave of knowing laughter passed through the room: uh-oh.) Another man chimed in talking about the value of citations, and how academics use them to show “an epistemological trail,” thereby establishing the validity of their ideas. Bringing citations into Quantified Self would not only make QS projects more rigorous, but would create the conditions necessary for instituting a system of peer review. He suggested that, next year, the research community should host a breakout session about “why [academics] have conversations the way we have them,” and thereby teach Quantified Self about the value of formal academic systems of knowledge production and dissemination. A third man bemoaned the fact that most QS documentation is in video format, saying, “We don’t want to have to sit and look at a video for 20 minutes. Having something on paper is just much more convenient than that.” Why couldn’t all these people manage to write academic papers instead?

This theme—which I’ll call ‘QS is Bad Science’—came up again and again during our conversation. Put simply, these researchers saw the self-tracking projects of Quantified Self as “science,” but as an inferior kind of science—a homespun, feral science that aspires to produce knowledge for the greater good, but that desperately needs to be educated, disciplined, and restructured in the image of academic/institutional science. A variation on this theme that also came up (although less often) was one I’ll call ‘QS is Great Science’; these researchers felt that n=1 studies have a lot to teach academic/institutional science, if only QSers could learn to speak academic/institutional science’s language so that these beleaguered researchers could have “proof” of what goes on at Quantified Self to bring back for their doubting colleagues. One man in particular pointed out that, for the institution that could turn n=1 into n=“us,” n=1 experiments could revolutionize science by providing an infinite pool of opt-in, unpaid participants for clinical trials. (The implication here: if you harness enthusiasm for n=1 experiments correctly, you can subtract both paying for subject recruitment and paying your research subjects’ time from your study’s budget, and maybe subtract paying for the IRB review, too. In an era of ever-decreasing grant monies, who doesn’t love free labor?)

To me, as a social scientist, this was setting off all sorts of alarm bells—the paternalism alone made me draw connections both to missionaries and to colonialism generally, and that’s never a good thing. (Though it’s bizarre to liken a group of highly privileged, mostly white people to a First Nation, it was clear to me that a number of researchers were viewing Quantified Self either as the “noble savages” who would save starving Science with gifts of barley and corn, or as “savage heathens” who needed new names, new clothes, a new religion, and new jobs serving their “civilized” masters.) This line of discussion also evidenced a profound blindness to the character of Quantified Self itself: in two-and-a-half years, I’ve never once heard a QSer lament not being able to publish their Show&Tell presentation in an academic publication. At the Open Science Summit? Sure. At OSS 2011, there were several conversations about how to get n=1 studies into academic journals—and I do know that there is overlap between QS and OSS. Still, your average QSer isn’t sobbing into her spreadsheets and wishing that she could grapple with arcane citation practices and grueling peer review processes. Quantified Self, at the macro level and on the whole, is not striving for institutional legitimacy. Frankly, QS just doesn’t care.


As often as Quantified Self gets likened to a movement—and as much as quantrepreneurs like to ask, “How can we get more people to track (and in so doing provide us with More Data for our Big Data Whatever)?”—the overall culture of Quantified Self simply is not evangelical. It’s about everyone doing what’s right for him- or her individual self, as she or he defines both “self” and “right.” It’s about adopting what “works” (for you), and ignoring what doesn’t: To thine own self be true. What half the room seemed to be missing, however, is that this principle applies as much to medical advice and to academic research findings as it does to individual Show&Tell presentations. As I noted during my very first QS Researchers breakout session at QS Global 2012, the greater Quantified Self community is open and even welcoming to researchers, but it admits them as equals, not as authorities. This should have been obvious to anyone at QS Global 2013 in particular, as several of the plenaries featured stories of people who had second-guessed their doctors (aka: formal, institutional knowledge), then provided their own second opinions through tracking, and redirected their treatment courses, and ended up the better for it. By now, during the very last session of the conference, why would anyone think that what Quantified Self wants is to become the Mini Me of academic/institutional research?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one picking up on this disjuncture. As the one man who had identified himself as an organizer of a QS meetup group said,

Gary [Wolf] in particular is particularly wedded to the concept that this is a community. The point here is actually not data, not science; it’s people sitting together. In fact, you could knock out the talks, and he’d say the event would still be here, that people would come. He wouldn’t care if they’re small conversations, and if nothing goes on paper—I’m sure you’ve noticed the frustration, “Nothing’s on paper!” and “So informal!” and—that’s consciously done that way, to create this character.”

He went on to reiterate the general sentiment toward researchers that I’d picked up at QS Global 2012:

Unless you want to provoke that kind of reaction—do an immunology experiment—you’ve got to find a way to [organize as academics] that doesn’t set it off. I don’t think you want to run a track at the conference, because that’s fragmenting the conference. If you said, “Let’s come a day early and meet, and then go study these animals,” that’s—I think we’re happy to have you study us, in fact, [the conference organizers] will love it, that’s fine, study us—but don’t try to change what we’re doing because [the conference organizers] have got this formula that they like, and we’re all getting something good out of it.

A woman voiced her opposition to the proposed formalization of Quantified Self by referencing the QS “mission statement.” While I don’t know that Quantified Self has a formal mission statement (at least not in the way my old non-profit job did), her point still stands:

You came to the community of QS, which has a mission statement. And the mission statement is contra to what you want to do. It’s about the peers, and it’s about the individual self. Community. But it’s not about a subgroup that says, “Ok, we want to do something else.”

Another man admitted that, yes, as a scientist, he could see some issues with the methodology in some of the QS Show&Tell talks he’d observed—yet he remained adamant that rigorous scientific methodology wasn’t the point. As he said,

I think that the presentations that I’ve heard in the last day and a half have been from people that had some medical issue, they went to the doctor, the doctors couldn’t solve it, they gave up because they were so pissed off, and [they] tracked something, and then came back and told the story about how they discovered what was really wrong with them. And to sit in a room with a bunch of academics saying, “Oh, no, no, no, you gotta do the scientific process”—that failed to help the person—there’s something fundamentally wrong with this conversation.

He went on to say that, yes, he’d seen a number of Show&Tell presentations that seemed to be of “questionable statistical validity,” but also that he’d noticed the presenters “still found meaning and something from that.” Referencing the Q&A portions of the QS Global 2013 plenaries, he said,

Gary [Wolf’s] questions every time are not about, “Hey, did you know you misinterpreted the p-value of this thing?” They’re about, “Did you find tracking this changed your perception of how you did?” It’s so far removed from every scientific conference that I’ve been to that the suggestion that we should actually have a scientific track is completely absurd […] It’s very frustrating to sit in this room right now and hear the conversation that, “This isn’t meeting my needs to meet my tenure track,” when every single one of us has a professional organization to go present at.

That, of course, was the trick right there: This hadn’t become a conversation about what Quantified Self wants, but about what one particular group of researchers wants from Quantified Self. And while some of those desires boiled down to a combination of ill-informed assumptions and epistemological superiority complexes, other desires to formalize QS were more self-interestedly pragmatic: the QS Conferences are insufficiently formal for most academic departments to provide travel funds (such funds are for “delivering papers” at “academic” conferences only), and there’s not much about participating in a QS Conference that earns points with tenure committees. One woman had a slightly different problem: she had been observing the Quantified Self community for a while, and—since her disciplinary convention mandates that she “give back” to the populations she studies—she wanted to do a presentation about her research. Yet every time she approached the organizers about doing a Show&Tell session, she was stymied by the Show&Tell format’s requirement that she tell a personal story. She didn’t have any personal stories, she just had research findings—and as a result, was having a hard time finding a venue to tell QSers about themselves instead of telling them about herself[ii].

photo 3The larger pro-formalization camp did, however, raise some interesting points. One man talked about watching one particular Show&Tell presenter repeatedly answer the same detailed questions in informal conversation after his talk. Wouldn’t it be better, he asked, if there was some kind of centralized repository where that man could put his detailed explanation—in whatever format—instead of having to explain the details of his project to every interested individual? Others pointed out that some QSers do want to do more rigorous statistical analysis, but didn’t know how to do that. Shouldn’t we help them? One man insisted, “We ARE part of the community,” and made the case for treating researchers as a “special needs population” within Quantified Self—especially because of the different ways researchers “need” to communicate. (I enjoyed this comment for the subtle slight to academic jargon, though I don’t know how many others in the room read it that way.)

Still another pointed out that researchers have knowledge and skills that might be useful to the Quantified Self community, just like so many of the start-ups present were offering tools that might be useful to the Quantified Self community. Why weren’t academic researchers being given the same amount of space and visibility? (No one pointed out that visibility is often a matter of sponsorship, not “fairness.”) While I don’t think the academic community is entitled to anything from Quantified Self, this comment did highlight something I’ve been thinking about a lot since. Quantified Self is growing rapidly, even “blowing up” (as the kids might say); “quantified self,” as a buzzword, has long since left the barn. And as both the hype and the enthusiasm swell, the scene surrounding Quantified Self is more and more looking like a feeding frenzy: tech sharks of all stripes circling, drunk on the scent of data; academics, unhappy with their lot as scavengers, trying to elbow their way to the table[iii].

photo 4Finally, I proposed the following: Back in my pre-grad-school non-profit life, I’d worked at a harm-reduction based human services organization. All of our clients and participants belonged to at least one vulnerable population (if not several), and we were in it for the social justice, so the last thing we wanted to do was come in with a top-down approach and tell our clients and participants what kind of help they needed. Instead, we did needs assessment surveys—studies that asked our clients and participants what kind of help they needed and wanted—and used the results of those studies to plan our programs. What if the research community did a “needs assessment survey” QS-style, in the form of an experiment? What if we did something akin to the QS Conference “office hours,” and sprinkled researchers across a bunch of small tables, and had each person provide a short description of what skills they were offering, and then compared notes after to see which questions had been most common and which sorts of assistance were most in demand? This way we could organize to offer (as volunteers) services and skills that non-researchers in the Quantified Self community are actually interested in, rather than try to implement by force some pre-fabricated notion of what (some) researchers think Quantified Self should be. Someone in the group helpfully named this hypothetical event “Speed Date a Scientist” (which I love), and the idea seemed to go over well. Someone else suggested adding “Speed Date a Data Visualizer” and “Speed Date an Artist” as well (which I also love).

While I’m sure offering scientist speed-dates at QS Global 2014 wouldn’t go far enough for the Formalize QS camp, perhaps it’s a step in a sufficiently similar direction for some of those researchers to want to participate; it would also be a step taken in a way that would be less likely to “provoke an immunological response” from the rest of the Quantified Self community (see also: make the social scientists’ collective skin crawl). After all, what less than half the room seemed to realize was that—subjective entitlement to power notwithstanding—researchers don’t have control within Quantified Self. Researchers don’t have the authority, either as conference organizers (who ultimately determine what the QS Conferences will and will not include) or as “experts.” Quantified Self is about peer-to-peer knowledge transmission, not “expertise”—and while it might be funny (“funny”) to watch a bunch of academic/institutional researchers try to pull rank in a community based on an entirely different epistemic framework, I’d kind of rather not see that happen. (Quantified Self specializes in “soft resistance” [pdf], after all; I imagine the scene rather like watching an attacker (academia) rush at a t’ai chi master (QS), only to end up in an embarrassing heap on the floor as the t’ai chi master steps calmly aside.)

photo 5As Quantified Self grows, attracts more interest, and becomes a (somewhat) more diverse group, so too are the people interested in Quantified Self growing and becoming a (somewhat) more diverse group. This was not lost on the room; by the end of the session, we were wondering if “QS researchers” as a subgroup even made any sense. Some researchers wanted access to QSers’ self-tracking data; some researchers wanted to study the gadgets and technologies; some researchers wanted to study the people and the practices. Some researchers identified as self-trackers, and some researchers did not; moreover, there was no consensus as to what the relationship between “QS researchers” and “Quantified Self, broadly conceived” should actually be. Perhaps there were things we researchers could learn from one another, but we also had what seemed to be some insurmountable intellectual differences. Some of us were offended by the lack of scientific rigor in some Quantified Self projects; others of us were offended by the insistence that “scientific rigor” was even necessarily relevant to Quantified Self. (As one social scientist said, “I feel isolated, because I don’t really identify as a positivist.”)

The 4:00 end time for the session came and went, and we were still talking. At 4:15, with half the break before the closing plenaries now past, I asked if anyone had any closing comments. The last remark came from a man who said,

If I may, I do think that part of this conversation, or a role in this conversation, is a clash between old, conservative, academic thinking, and new, liberal, Quantified Self thinking. So just, maybe as a closure for ourselves, think about, ok, what has happened in the last hour during the conversation, and what was part of our own training as an academic, and what is possible for the future, to take with us?

This seemed (to me) to be a gentle way of asking his fellow academics to Check Your Assumptions—and as a quiet murmur of agreement rolled around the room, it seemed that at least some of us had taken his words to heart. I’m still not certain how “QS researchers” will organize, or how many different forms that organizing will take, or which of those forms will ultimately be “successful” (and as defined by whom). What I do know is that Quantified Self is a “sexy” topic right now, which means there will undoubtedly be more and more of us—and as that happens, it seems likely that “QS researchers” will undergo many (if not most) of the growing pains experienced by Quantified Self as a whole.


Whitney Erin Boesel is a sociology PhD student based in Cambridge, MA. She habitually livetweets her QS Conference experiences as @weboesel—except when she’s presenting, because she’s not quite that good. Yet.

“QS researchers” session note images courtesy of the author.

[i] By comparison, my “QS researchers” breakout session at QS Global 2012 had 28 attendees, and the researchers’ breakfast get-together at QS Europe 2013 had 23 attendees—but while there were some familiar faces, more than half the attendees at this session were people I hadn’t met before.

[ii] I should have asked her why she so badly wanted to do a Show&Tell session instead of a breakout session (which is a format based around a topic or an idea rather than a personal story). I’ve done three breakout sessions now and, while I sometimes think that “don’t speak for others” thing leads me to use too many personal examples, I wouldn’t exactly say that any of my breakout sessions have included personal stories, either. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps she wanted a plenary slot at one of the conferences (which would mean a bigger audience), and those are always Show&Tell format.

[iii] Yeah, fish don’t have elbows. Whatever.

Image credit: Charles O'Rear
Image credit: Charles O’Rear

It’s fall again—that time of year when the days shorten, the air turns crisp (at least in New England), and a young researcher’s mind turns to two things: 1) pumpkin beer, and 2) the Bay Area edition of the annual Quantified Self conference (which now goes by Quantified Self Global).

If that’s not where your mind turns, I guess that’s understandable: pumpkin beer isn’t for everyone, and this is only the second time Quantified Self Global has happened in the fall; QS2011, the very first Quantified Self conference, happened in the spring. Be that as it may, I’ve been thinking about QS13 for a while now, and—since I just realized I get on a plane to California a week from Monday—I thought I’d write about it. More specifically, I’m going to revisit my wrap-up post from Quantified Self Europe 2013 (QSEU13) last May, wander through some musings on individualism and Bay Area culture, consider some recent developments in the Boston QS community, and end with some speculation about what I might find in San Francisco next month.

Habitual readers will recall that I attended QSEU13 last spring in Amsterdam, and that it was a pretty incredible experience. As QS co-founder Gary Wolf indicated in his welcome speech, the Quantified Self Europe conference does feel very different from the Quantified Self Global conference, and the differences I observed were exciting to me. Yet since I’d never been to a QSEU before, I wasn’t sure how much of the difference I was seeing was due to the location (Amsterdam versus the Bay Area) and how much was due to change in the Quantified Self community overall. In particular, I want to revisit two observations I made:

Could it be, I wondered, that quantrepreneur interest in Quantified Self might be starting to wane? Might the very technoutopian neoliberal individualism that’s endemic to the Greater Bay Area—and which, as such, informs both Quantified Self and Silicon Valley start-up culture—actually be working to thwart corporate efforts to commodify self-tracking through the Quantified Self community?


To explain that question, let’s back up and unpack a little. As Fred Turner brilliantly traces out in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, present-day technoutopianism (or digital utopianism) has significant roots in a specific strain of 1960s counterculture that Turner terms new communalism. The New Communalists distrusted traditional institutions and authority, and embraced a frontier mentality (often by taking to ‘the frontier’ itself). When new communalism, the Homebrew Computer Club, and a rising tide of deregulation (to name just a few of many critical factors; see book) all collided up and down the San Francisco Bay in the 1980s, the resultant ideology (unsurprisingly) held that a combination of individuals (unhindered by tradition), private industry (unhindered by government interference), and technological innovation would ultimately be the key to solving the world’s problems. Today, this ideology is a key piece of undergirding for Silicon Valley startup culture (and accordingly, startup culture generally).

It’s no coincidence that both contemporary technoutopian cyberculture and Quantified Self both originated in the Bay Area (if a generation apart), just like it’s no coincidence that Quantified Self founders Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly are both alumni of Wired magazine (a thoroughly neoliberal technoutopian publication to which Barbrook and Cameron cheekily refer as “the monthly bible of the ‘virtual class’”). As illustrated in Wolf’s seminal New York Times essay “The Data-Driven Life,” one of the most classic QS narratives is built on an updated New Communalist chassis: self-motivated individuals use new technologies to gain self-knowledge, become ‘experts of themselves’ (to use Nikolas Rose’s term), and assert both their individuality and their autonomy against mass-market culture and the authority of traditional “experts” like doctors. As Wolf concludes,

Adler’s idea that we can — and should — defend ourselves against the imposed generalities of official knowledge is typical of pioneering self-trackers, and it shows how closely the dream of a quantified self resembles therapeutic ideas of self-actualization, even as its methods are startlingly different. Trackers focused on their health want to ensure that their medical practitioners don’t miss the particulars of their condition; trackers who record their mental states are often trying to find their own way to personal fulfillment amid the seductions of marketing and the errors of common opinion; fitness trackers are trying to tune their training regimes to their own body types and competitive goals, but they are also looking to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to uncover potential they didn’t know they had.

As I’ve stated before in somewhat different terms, the “self” (or, more accurately, the concept of a “self”) is at the core of Quantified Self, moreso than is “quantification”; self-knowledge, self-discovery, self-determination, and self-empowerment (etcetera) are all central to QS culture and the QS ethos. Although both what, exactly, the implied “self” of Quantified Self is—as well as how it comes into being—are highly variable across different QS practices and subgroups, one thing remains remarkably consistent: the implied or imagined “self” of Quantified Self is almost always an individual self, an independent and autonomous self. I believe this emphasis on an independent, autonomous, individual self is in large part responsible both for Quantified Self’s “big tent” policy and for the attendant variety of interests and practices represented at the QS conferences. It is also, however, where things start to get interesting when we consider the quantrepreneurs.

If you don’t know what a “quantrepreneur” is, don’t worry—you’re not alone; I’m regularly surprised by the number of people I encounter who haven’t heard the term before, though those familiar with the QS community usually know which subgroup I mean when I use it. (I wish I could take credit for coining “quantrepreneur,” but I’m reasonably certain I picked it up somewhere along the line at either QSEU13 or QS2012; the term is a portmanteau of “quantified” and “entrepreneur.”) Put simply, a quantrepreneur is someone who turns up somewhere in the Quantified Self milieu because he or she is looking to capitalize on the growing interest in self-tracking, frequently (though certainly not always) via a startup that’s making an app or a device. Although there are plenty of folks within the Quantified Self community who started out as self-trackers, and who later formed companies to market self-tracking tools they’d initially designed for themselves, my sense is that—especially when used pejoratively—the term “quantrepreneur” more often applies to people who attend Quantified Self events solely as company representatives or venture capitalists, or who are marketing tools they did not themselves create (and may not even use). When people were saying that Quantified Self Europe 2013 felt “a lot less startup-y” than the Quantified Self Global conferences, a big part of what they meant was, “I’ve met fewer quantrepreneurs here.”

So why is the individualism of Quantified Self tricky for quantrepreneurs? After all, technoutopian neoliberal individualism brings us both Bay Area startup culture and Quantified Self; both the action of striking out alone to pursue self-knowledge (with some gadgets and some shared knowledge and a community of like-minded others) and the action of striking out alone to start your own company (with some cofounders and some venture capitalists and maybe some employees) are pretty Autonomous Individual™ things to do. So entrepreneurialism and Quantified Self should go hand in hand (or hand in gadget), right? Yet as a quantrepreneur, there’s only so much marketing you can do before your (self-)marketing becomes telling someone else what to do, casting yourself as some kind of authority, or in some other way running afoul of someone else’s individual autonomy. Share your own success story, and QSers will listen; offer an app or a device, and QSers who think it might be useful will probably go out and try it (and, especially if they’re happy with it, tell all their friends). But if you come on too strong in your sales pitch (especially during a Show & Tell session), some QSers will be turned off; try to force anything down anyone else’s throat—especially if you haven’t so much as sampled that Kool-Aid yourself—and you’ll probably just be ignored. People may attend Quantified Self events to share ideas, to problem-solve, to learn from peers, to network, or even to make friends, but no one attends a Quantified Self event to be told what to do. Quantified Self and Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism may be products of similar social forces, but poorly-played quantrepreneurialism is the ‘double negative’ of individualism; it cancels itself out.


Along similar lines, this is why I feel so befuddled every time I encounter people who come to Quantified Self events in order to learn something about how to increase “compliance” among their patients or insurance subscribers. Sometimes these attendees represent startups that want to sell apps or devices to doctors and insurance companies, and sometimes these attendees represent institutional healthcare companies directly (what Clarke et al would call the Biomedical TechnoService Complex, Inc); in either case, such efforts represent what I’ve (somewhat artlessly) decided to call “other-mandated self-tracking.” The question these representatives bring is not “How can I learn _____ about myself, or accomplish _____ in my life, through collecting data about myself,” but rather, “How can I get other people to collect data about themselves, and then use that data to get those people to do what I want them to do?” I get that “quantified self” (lowercase) has become a sexy catchphrase; that “data” and “information” are buzzwords; that throwing new technologies at the surfaces of old problems is hardly limited to Silicon Valley; and that there’s a lot of money going into trying to make institutional healthcare more “efficient” or “cost-effective.” And in a way, if one’s goal is to increase the power of traditional medical authority (increase compliance), it does make sense to study people who often reject that authority (even if they embrace traditionally “medical” technologies and knowledge bases). Yet I don’t see the medical quantrepreneurs asking, “What does the growing interest in (self-directed) self-tracking tell us about how we need to improve institutional healthcare?” Instead, it seems like a classic biomedicalization co-optation move—less reflection, more, “Oooh, apps! They’ve got apps! Can we get apps?”

The underlying logic here seems to be that, if there’s a group of people who are voluntarily doing (self-directed) self-tracking, it should be a piece of cake to extrapolate from that phenomenon into getting the General Populace self-tracking in the service of their physicians and HMOs. That logic, however, utterly fails to grasp the ideological frameworks that inform Quantified Self practices (to say nothing of the degree of societal privilege enjoyed by the average QSer). You can “gamify” apps and “incentivize” patients all you want, and certainly doing so will draw in some patients or insurance subscribers (at least for a time). At the time of writing, however, I remain convinced that attempts to translate the largely self-directed self-tracking practices of Quantified Self into other-mandated self-tracking compliance tools will ultimately prove futile, because such attempts fail to take into account the personal, cultural, and structural reasons that self-directed self-trackers track in the first place. We can argue all day about whether it’s possible to destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools, but I’m reasonably certain that—if you’ve got someone chipping away at your house with a pickaxe—making your own brand of pickaxes and then handing them out to passers-by is not, in fact, going to repair your retaining wall.


To recap: we’ve established what a “quantrepreneur” is, and that the quantrepreneurial presence at Quantified Self Europe 2013 was much less pronounced than at Quantified Self Global 2011 or 2012. We’ve also established that I encountered fewer medical quantrepreneurs at Quantified Self Europe 2013 than I did at Quantified Self Global 2012, and fewer at Quantified Self Global 2012 than I did at Quantified Self Global 2011. What I didn’t know last spring, however, was what percentage of these differences I should ascribe to the “2013-ness” of Quantified Self Europe 2013 (aka, to ongoing change in Quantified Self as the group continues to grow) and what percentage I should ascribe to the “Europe-ness” of Quantified Self Europe 2013 (especially the fact that most of Europe has nationalized healthcare). Both back in May and now, in late September, I’m looking forward to Quantified Self Global 2013 as my next point for large-scale comparison—but some interesting things have happened in the meantime, too.

The first recent development is that I attended an event called “The Quantified Patient” here in Cambridge, and was floored to see not only that medical quantrepreneurialism is alive and well (in fact, it can still pack a couple hundred people into a room), but that in August of 2013, at least one panel of speakers seemed to think they were onto something cutting edge and new with it. Granted, my jaw would have fallen more into my lap and less onto the floor if I’d actually read Boston Quantified Self’s description of the event (instead of simply glancing at the email announcement and thinking, “oh, Quantified Patient, I should probably go to that”), but—as anyone following my Twitter stream that night observed—I spent the evening with my head spinning, and my thumbs flying:

Luckily, I’d attended “The Quantified Patient” with two other social scientists, and so got to spend the ride home debriefing with like-minded folks about my unexpected trip to the Quantified Twilight Zone. It had been a while since I’d encountered straight-up “how do WE get THEM to start tracking,” and—though my observational acuity at Quantified Self Global 2013 will be the better for having had the experience—I definitely hadn’t gone into “The Quantified Patient” ready for the discomfort that comes from lurking among privileged people who are unselfconsciously making disparaging remarks about less powerful others. If I’d somehow managed to attend while dead, I’d have been turning in my grave.

The second recent development is that, as far as I can tell, Boston Quantified Self just underwent a kind of mitosis. A week ago, Boston QS organizer Joshua Kotfila made the following announcement:

It has been an amazing year since I stepped into the role of lead organizer for the Boston Quantified Self group. In that time we have seen the group over double in size, adding 700+ new members. Through the hard work of our dedicated team of organizers we have continued the tradition started by co-founder Gary Wolf and the Bay Area QS group of holding “show&tells” where members can share their personal self-tracking stories, while also creating new event formats to serve the needs of our growing community. With events including our Health & Wellness Innovation Night, The Quantified Patient, Women’s Health event, and our Ideas to Action series we have been able to partner with amazing organizations including IDEO, athenahealth, Withings, Harvard i-lab, Bodymedia, SyncStrength, Neumitra, TeloMe, Segterra, Ovuline, MIT Media Lab, meQuilibrium, Ubiqi Health, RestWise, FitLinxx, Rest Devices, Partners Healthcare, Eliza Corporation, Ginger.io and Endeavour Partners to bring the Boston QS community exciting events featuring world-class speakers and innovators.

Due to this growth and expansion into additional areas of focus I have decided, in collaboration with Gary Wolf the co-founder of Quantified Self, to create the Self-Tracking group. The Self-Tracking group will be the connection point for industry professionals, researchers and users who are part of the emerging self-tracking ecosystem. This will allow the Boston Quantified Self group to remain focused solely on traditional show&tells while the Self-Tracking group focuses on events like the Health & Wellness Innovation NightThe Quantified PatientWomen’s Health event, and our Ideas to Action series.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant—what, exactly, is “the emerging self-tracking ecosystem”? It took a second read-through, but I’m reasonably certain that what just happened is this: quantrepreneurialism has spun off into its own group, a group that is closely related to—but ultimately separate from—the Boston Quantified Self meetup group. Confusingly, this means that “Boston Quantified Self” will be the place where people present their self-tracking projects (which may or may not involve any degree of quantification), while “the Self-Tracking group” will house quantrepreneurial efforts and networking events (which may or may not be about ‘us’ getting ‘them’ to track). I anticipate a fair amount of overlap between the two groups, and that some people will both present their personal self-tracking projects at Boston Quantified Self and promote their tracking-related startups at the Self-Tracking group. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Boston Quantified Self meetups change following this split (if at all), as well as whether Quantified Self meetup groups in other cities end up following suit.

Third, and finally, is a development that’s less directly related to quantrepreneurialism, but of particular interest to me personally: the formation of QSXX (Quantified Self Women’s Meetup, in the Bay Area) last July, and QSXX Boston in response last August. Apparently I’m not the only woman who spends time in the QS milieu, but who can barely imagine presenting her own self-tracking projects; though I’m enough of a sociologist to know that none of us is really as unique as all that, I’m also enough of a squishy human to feel weirdly validated when I discover experiential overlap with others. Although I wasn’t able to attend the first QSXX Boston meeting, I did attend the second one earlier this week—and was fascinated to find that our small group was a little under half “women fairly involved in Quantified Self,” and a little over half “women who have never been to a Quantified Self event”; we had no “regular” QSers at all. I’m told the two QSXX groups will be the topic of a breakout session at Quantified Self Global 2013, and I’m really interested to see how that discussion goes (for a whole host of reasons); I’m also eager to see whether more QSXX groups form in other cities.

(These are small tents, but you get the idea.)
(These are small tents, but you get the idea.)

In conclusion, Quantified Self has a “big tent” policy, and Quantified Self has continued to grow—but it’s starting to look as though the future of Quantified Self might involve buying more tents and starting an encampment, rather than attempting to make the existing tent even bigger. In two cities, QS women are meeting in groups of their own; in at least one city, quantrepreneurs are taking their more overt quantrepreneuriations to a separate stage; I thought the medical quantrepreneurs had gotten bored and wandered away, but apparently they’re still here (and just spending less time with the rest of the group?); every now and again I hear quiet murmurs—and not-so-quiet murmurs, as in my QSEU13 breakout session—of experimental self-trackers who want to split off and escape self-trackers who are “merely” life-logging. Both at Quantified Self Global 2013 and subsequently, I’ll be interested to see whether people who believe Quantified Self is “a movement” have a different take on the Self-Tracking and QSXX groups than do others who see Quantified Self as a group, trend, or hobby; I’m also interested to see whether any kind of stratification develops, either between Quantified Self and its related offshoots, or within Quantified Self itself.


Whitney Erin Boesel tends to livetweet conferences (like #qs13); she sometimes livetweets other things, too, even if she has to make up her own hashtag (like at #qspatient). Share the (mis)adventures by following her: she’s @weboesel.

Silicon Valley film logo from here; tent image from here.

You choose the routes, but Spotify builds the roads.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote on Cyborgology about how I refused to join the Social music service Spotify. A little less than a year ago, I wrote an expanded version of that essay for The New Inquiry (TNI). In between those two essays, a funny thing happened:

Yeah, I joined Spotify.

I swear to you though, it wasn’t my fault (“fault”). Rob Horning (@marginalutility), who was my editor for the piece, had some very reasonable questions about the finer points of Spotify’s privacy settings, and try as I might, I couldn’t answer them by poking around the Spotify website. Getting answers was going to require starting an account and going in there to see what I could and couldn’t change in the settings; there was simply no way around it (other than maybe trying to contact Spotify to ask someone to explain these things to me, but that approach was [perhaps unsurprisingly] far less intuitive; in fact, I only just thought of it now). Besides, Spotify was offering a free one-month trial of their premium service, and….

Yeah, a year later, I’m still on Spotify.

As I wrote in the TNI version of my essay, figuring out Spotify’s culture took some doing. To use vocabulary Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) and I developed a few weeks later, being on Spotify was much more Social—and much less directly social—than I’d expected, and that threw me for a loop. Yet over time I developed a decent sense of what the norms on Spotify are, and found where I could fit comfortably into them; over even more time, where I fit comfortably into those norms started to shift. I wasn’t expecting that, and that’s what I want to explore in this post: how my feelings about being on Spotify have changed during my first year of Spotification.

To recap, here were my objections in the original Cyborgology essay:

  • I didn’t want to depend on my computer, or on mobile Internet access, to listen to music.
  • I doubted my ability to faithfully acquire my own copies of albums I enjoyed, and feared therefore becoming hostage to Spotify (keep paying or lose the ability to hear all that music).
  • I feared I would make playlists and get attached to them, and therefore have my emotions held hostage by Spotify, too.
  • The scrobbling thing freaked me out: I had no desire to perform my listening for others, and later likened scrobbling to “perpetually performing my musical tastes—from the pretentious to the perfectly disgraceful—in some kind of Bourdieusian hell.”

It’s that last point I want to revisit, because believe me: I am as floored as anyone by what some combination of Spotify, documentary vision, and I myself have done to my brain. I sometimes get cranky now when I can’t scrobble, and though as a scholar I understand how this has happened, I still don’t really understand how this has happened. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d be more afraid of losing potential cultural capital (by not sharing my awesome musical tastes) than I am of “losing face” or losing already-accrued cultural capital (by sharing my less-than-awesome musical tastes), but there you have it.

It started out innocently enough, I suppose. I joined Spotify on a 30-day trial of Spotify Premium in September of 2012, in order to determine just how much one can “delink” Spotify from Facebook—fair enough. And then, since I had Spotify, I figured I might as well use it. My original inclination was to disable all of the sharing functions, but Spotify warned me that if I turned off “Spotify Social,” I’d miss out on recommendations from my friends (I’m still not 100% sure what Spotify Social includes beyond the broadcast stream that makes scrobbling possible, but since interacting with my friends was part of Spotify’s sweet, shiny promise, turning off Spotify Social entirely didn’t seem like a good idea). I settled for turning off “share what I listen to on Facebook,” and for turning on “Private Session” every time I used Spotify.

Turning on “Private Session” every time you use Spotify, however, gets really old really quickly. And no, Virginia, that’s not coincidence; that’s affordance! Like any other designed object, Spotify is designed to make its intended uses seem easier and more intuitive; like any other Social website, app, or service, Spotify is designed to make “sharing” information easier and withholding information more difficult. Accordingly, Spotify’s features include not only “frictionless sharing,” but also a nice dose of friction should you choose not to share.

So I started leaving Spotify in public mode, but only when I listened to Spotify radio. I’d noticed that one friend in particular listened to a lot of Spotify radio, and I noticed that I knew this about him because—in the scrolling “Activity” bar where each track each of my friends listened to popped up—it said “using Spotify Radio.” I figured using Spotify Radio publicly was safe, because if I unknowingly listened to something discrediting, it clearly wouldn’t be my doing. It would be Spotify’s fault! I often clicked back into Private Session when I listened to albums, though, and I always clicked into Private Session if I checked out something my friends were listening to (because, as I explained in the TNI essay, checking out my friends’ music without actually talking to them made me feel like a creepy stalker).

unnecessary-spyingBy October, I was also tentatively leaving Spotify in public mode when I investigated things my friends seemed to be listening to a lot. It helped that I was only broadcasting on Spotify, not Facebook; the fact that there was no persistent record of my exact listening habits meant that someone both had to be on Spotify at the same time as I was and had to be looking at their activity bar at the right time, and the odds of that seemed pretty low (especially given that I still lived three time zones behind the vast majority of my Spotifriends). There was also the part when a certain social-media theorist friend not only made fun of me for feeling like a creepy stalker, but also called me “cyberasocial“—and man, them’s fightin’ words. Ok, fine: I’ll “donate my taste to a Generalized Other.” Sometimes. Maybe.

By mid-October, it was time to cancel my Spotify membership to avoid being billed. Something else was going on, though: I was preparing to travel to Reykjavík for Iceland Airwaves 2012. When I’d attended Iceland Airwaves 2010, all I’d had to go on for choosing which bands to see which nights were the one-paragraph descriptions in the official festival guide; now I had a festival guide and Spotify, and something like 60-70% of the bands I thought I might be interested in seeing were on there. I made a playlist called Iceland Airwaves Homework, and—inspired by three other Spotify users I didn’t know who had done something similar—I left the playlist public. I even listened to it publicly, except for when I encountered something awesome that I wanted to hear again right away (5 or 10 or 29834287534687345 times in a row); on those occasions, I went back to Private Session.

Making the Iceland Airwaves Homework playlist exposed me to a lot of really great music (including a bunch of albums I now own on vinyl). But it did something else, too, something almost magical: I got into one particular band (that I really like) months before any of my Serious Music Enthusiast Friends did. For at least three or four of those friends, I was the first person they knew who’d said, “Hey, this is good; you should check it out” (and, yes, I did this by sending files on Spotify). This “firstness” pretty much never happens, and I was maybe a little giddy when January 2013 rolled around and that band was suddenly popping up all over my friends’ listening in the “Activity” bar. Nevermind what anyone else thought; I was awarding myself cultural capital like nobody’s business. I felt so cool! (Look at me, I get to be cool now.)

Even though I didn’t consciously connect that giddy-making feeling of having discovered that I sometimes have Undeniably Good Taste in Music to the fact that I was on Spotify, in retrospect this is probably the moment when Spotify and I cemented our long-term working relationship.

January 2013 became February 2013, and I began the cross-country drive to move back to MA from CA. When I’d done my first cross-country roadtrip (the one that took me to CA from MA over August of 2008), music had played an important role: I’d asked my friends to make me mix CDs for the drive, and I’d meticulously catalogued (by which I mean: scrawled illegibly in my Moleskine while driving) everything I listened to for the entire 5,200 mile journey—date, trip odometer, album artist and title (or mix title and creator), and nearest city or town on my GPS (which, for a couple of albums on the WY day, was simply “I-25,” because no matter how far I zoomed out on the GPS, I couldn’t pull a town into view). For my return home, it seemed as though something similar was in order; yet, most of my close friends were still 3,000 miles away, and that makes it a lot harder to turn up at a going away party with a CD in hand. Instead, I asked people to send me Spotify playlists—and then I did something radical: I turned on “Share my activity and what I listen to on Facebook.” I had two reasons for doing so: first, I thought it might be nice to have my roadtrip music records record themselves this time; second, I thought it might be nice for my friends who had made me playlists to watch me listen my way through them. Obviously I’d turn Facebook sharing back off once I got to Cambridge, but these were special circumstances.

highway-nightThen, on 2 February 2013, something funny happened. A much-anticipated album (which I, personally, had been anticipating with particular intensity) was finally released. A tidal wave of fan enthusiasm crashed the servers selling it, but a friend managed to get a digital copy and put it online so that I, too, could download and listen. I was in the interstate middle of nowhere at the time, but I pulled off the freeway and into a McDonald’s and sat in the parking lot for an hour, eating French fries and positively vibrating with *squeeee*, as—packet by packet—that album trickled into the laptop perched on my dashboard. After what seemed like forever, I imported the complete album into iTunes, and from there got it onto both my phone and my iPod (just for good measure). I hooked up one of those i-devices to my auxiliary port, pulled out of the parking lot, and—as I accelerated to speed on the interstate onramp, heading back into the late-night winter darkness—finally, finally upon finally, got to press “play.”

That opening song was the perfect soundtrack for that moment, and I was so excited to be doing that first listen-through, and I knew that a number of my friends either were or soon would be having their own versions of that moment as I was having mine; even far away from everything and surrounded by nothing, I felt connected, felt a part of some kind of awesome networked collective effervescence. And then I realized:

Nobody knew.

I may have been driving on the interstate, but as far as Spotify was concerned, I’d gone off-roading: these were local files, and local files don’t scrobble.  As I’d written for TNI, “Local files are the second-class citizens of Spotify Nation: You cannot send them to your friends, and you cannot scrobble your local listening habits with them. Social though Spotify may be, you must enjoy your outcast songs alone.” That had been true then, and it was still true now, but it had never mattered to me on a personal level. Four-plus months of using Spotify, however, had augmented my documentary vision: I’d internalized not only the idea that “sharing what I’m listening to in real-time” is a possibility, but also the idea that “sharing what I’m listening to in real-time” is a desirable thing to do. I’d come to understand my listening as something that could be broadcast, and to understand that particular moment as the sort in which my listening should be broadcast, but the “broadcast” option wasn’t available to me—and this sparked a palpable tension, a strange anxiety that made me feel all the more ill-at-ease for feeling it in the first place. I was disquieted because I couldn’t scrobble? Seriously?

Sure, everyone would know I was listening to the album soon enough; I’d pull in somewhere for the night and post about it on Facebook just like a dozen or more people I knew, and I’d discuss my first impressions of the album over SMS, and blah blah blah. But there was a distinct difference, it suddenly seemed, between merely talking about something—even via a persistent medium like Facebook—and actually documenting it. The imagined traces of my would-be scrobbling seemed like photographs for sound: scrobble, or it didn’t happen. Spotify’s affordances made it a Snapchat[i] moment, when what I wanted to be using was Instagram. My thwarted documentary desire condensed like moisture from my breath on the driver’s side window, and ran down in rivulets as a quiet but undeniable agitation.

As I would later say of a similar but less intense moment, what I eventually called “documentary frustration” is like Jurgenson’s “documentary vision” plus Jenny Davis’s (@Jenny_L_Davis) “fear of being missed” [or FoBM] all rolled up into one, combined (of course) with a little tongue-in-cheek metavexation over the fact that I care in the first place. But it’s true: somehow, at some point over those first four months of Spotification, I became the kind of person who’s bothered more by the idea of not being able to broadcast my listening habits (when I want to do so) than by the idea of my listening habits being broadcast (when I don’t want them to be). It’s still true now, and that still strikes me as somewhat strange.

(Instagram moment)
(Instagram moment: my Welcome Home snowpocalypse, February 2013.)

I did turn off broadcasting to Facebook when I arrived in Cambridge, but not for long. Facebook started doing this thing where they make a newsfeed item of it if two or more of your Facebook friends (publicly) listen to the same artist or album on Spotify within a few days of each other, and I kept seeing these items in my newsfeed. Friends who know each other would sometimes listen to the same things, which was unsurprising; friends who don’t know each other would sometimes listen to the same things, which I thought was kind of neat. Sometimes, though, I’d see those newsfeed items (especially the ones that combined friends who don’t know each other), and I’d think, “Hey! I listened to that album too!” …except, again, nobody knew. Hello, FoBM, how are you? I wanted to be included; I wanted people to know. And so I did it: sometime last spring, I turned ‘broadcast to Facebook’ back on.

All spring and all summer, I pretty much only clicked into Private Session for annoying repeat listening or for listening to my “gym sessions and non-leisurely bike riding” playlist. Then, at the end of August, I got a new app to track my biking speed and mileage via GPS, and having to tap and swipe my way through both turning scrobbling off and turning GPS tracking on turned out to be so offputtingly involved (especially when I’m running late) that half the time, I don’t even bother to turn on Private Session for that anymore. I give up: the affordances of Spotify have worn me down. Yes, that playlist is half Good Music and half Guilty Pleasures. Yes, Erasure cozies up to Exitmusic and Lady Gaga hangs out with Lush; at present, shuffle might throw Jawbreaker into Charli XCX into Screen Vinyl Image into Florence + The Machine, and that’s just how it goes. I’ll even tell you that I listened to this one Presents for Sally song on repeat for like half an hour this afternoon, and I listened to this one old James song for longer than that around three in the morning last night. I guess I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with public nudity when it comes to my tastes in music.

To be fair, of course, the underlying attitudinal shift—that I now prioritize potential cultural capital over accrued cultural capital, at least in certain contexts—isn’t just due to Spotify; it also coincides with a series of much larger changes over the past year, changes that have occurred as I’ve started to assume more of a public life. Slowly but surely, I’m acclimating not only to the process of becoming more visible generally, but also to new kinds of visibility; I’ve also learned to see potential social- and cultural capital in a lot more places, and to see my failures to engage with those potentials as “losses.” Academic Twitter, for instance, started out as a lifeline; now I recognize it as something I should be making time for even though I have other sources of intellectual and social support, because it’s an important part not just of my job as a public sociologist, but also of my professional development. This is not, of course, to say that I’ve jumped on the ‘Look At Me’ paradigm of Mandatory Visibility for All bandwagon, because nothing could be further from the truth; it’s important to note that I’ve chosen the contexts in which I’ve become more visible, that I’ve done so more-or-less on my own terms, and that while some of my choices have undoubtedly been influenced by the affordances of the apps that I use, I have not been unaware of those influences. Yeah, I’m not sure how I got here either, but here I am—and in truth, I think I’m on the right track.

As for the rest of my 2012 objections to joining Spotify? I still drive long distances, as well as through places where I don’t have cellular data, and it definitely bugs me when Spotify hangs or gets silently stuck in the middle of a song; that said, I still use it (because even when I have a higher quality copy of an album on my iPod—which I still carry—the iPod doesn’t scrobble). For a while during the spring I tried saving more playlists to my phone (which had never been an object I’d used for music listening before), but my old 16 GB iPhone quickly ran out of space; when that phone disappeared somewhere in the middle of Brooklyn during ASA13 last month, being able to store more music was a secondary reason I shelled out for a 64 GB replacement phone. A year of Spotification has changed how I engage with the affordances of mobile phones.

I’ve done a decent job of acquiring music I’ve fallen in love with through Spotify, mainly by sticking to an informal, “If I find myself clicking into Private Session to listen to something on repeat, and the artist isn’t Ridiculously Famous, it’s time to buy it on vinyl (or pay to download it, failing that)” rule. But I was right: I’m not perfect about it, and some of those playlists have so many random songs by so many random artists that it would really be an epic pain to re-collect them all as local files. Could I eventually pull this off? Probably. Is that really what I want to spend my time on, when I can just keep handing over $10/month and not have to deal with it? Nope. Granted, I’m a PhD student, and as such I’m not exactly rolling in discretionary income; I’m also a PhD student, and as such not exactly rolling in discretionary time. Or rather, I actually have a ton of discretionary time; I just also have a lot of better things to do with it (like do research, and write stuff, and read stuff, and perform my professional identity on Twitter, and go to shows, and spend time with my friends, and text with my friends, and send dumb snaps of my cat and my two goldfish to my friends, and think about maybe unpacking some more of my box forest apartment, and…you get the idea).

This is a very important part of my day.
No really, this is a very important part of my day.

The emotional thing, on the other hand, hasn’t really kicked in. I do have the 2013 roadtrip playlists that other people made for me as gifts, but I could just as well screenshot them to remember the care that went into those gestures. As for the playlists I’ve made myself, I haven’t gotten anywhere near as attached to them as I did to some of the mix tapes and mix CDs I made in the past; it turns out I cling to my Spotify playlists mainly out of pragmatism, because it’d be too annoying to rebuild them. In fact, if I were to quit Spotify today, the playlist I’d miss most isn’t a sappy or sentimental one, but that ‘gym sessions and biking’ one—so much so that I consider the money I pay Spotify every month part of my gym membership, just billed by a different company.

The funniest twist, however, is a bifurcated one. On the one hand, while I haven’t become a Spotivangelist, I’ll admit to being caught a little off-guard when I want to send songs to a music enthusiast friend and that person isn’t on Spotify; “is on Spotify” is apparently something I now assume true of all my music enthusiast friends, whether I’ve ever seen them on Spotify or not. On the other hand, as I write this there is—for the first time in years—a flash drive stuck in one of the USB ports on my computer. It’s full of music, and tomorrow I’ll slip it into a padded envelope and send it on its way.

Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) does not broadcast her music listening activity on Twitter—at least, not usually.

Roundabout image from here; highway at night from here; Instagram image and ridiculous Snapchat image courtesy of author.

[i] Ironically, that last cross-country roadtrip was also when I first fell in love with Snapchat—but that’s a story for another post.

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 4.42.41 PM

One of these days I’ll find something to cite on the topic of Early Internet Adolescence that isn’t my own experience, but here goes: I like to joke that the Internet and I went through puberty at about the same time. As a result, I spent my teenage years on the cusp of being what we now think of as “connected”—I journaled on paper but wrote poetry on computers (also napkins); I wrote letter-length notes during class but sent email during my free periods; in general, I communicated with friends and family (as well as myself) through an array of both analog and digital media. Though sometimes I hung out talking to strangers in AOL chat rooms (especially before I had friends who, like me, didn’t have a curfew), my digitally mediated interactions were a lot like my telephone-mediated interactions in that they occurred primarily with people I already knew from in-person contexts.

Digitally mediated interaction was new and exciting (especially to a shy kid who already fancied herself a writer), but from the very beginning, it was just another piece of the life I was already living. It didn’t make me a new or different person (in contrast, sometimes I felt more free to be myself via email), and nor did my friends interact with me through chat or email in ways that were incongruous with the ways they interacted with me in person. So what were those interactions like, especially as my friends and I tried to navigate the complicated social- and emotional politics of attraction in the context of a small high school? This was back in the pre-SMS era, mind you, so to hear The Today Show’s Matt Lauer tell it last month, I should have been receiving graceful, articulate, hand-written notes from classmates who fancied me, and perhaps responding with notes of my own if the fledgling twitterpation was mutual.

Oddly enough, this is not what I remember happening. 

In fact, I don’t even need to consult those old paper journals to remember that nearly everything about teenage courtship was f’ing awkward, both before and after we all got email at school and had a thrilling new way to flirt. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, I remain convinced that courtship and dating frequently just are awkward, period stop, degree of digital mediation notwithstanding.) Similarly, while it may have been the Web 1.0 era, my teenage courtship experiences were definitely mediated: Even if we forget that physically mediated (or “face-to-face”) interaction is mediated (guess what: it’s mediated!), getting into my first significant relationship was still a highly mediated process. The young man in question called to ask me out in lieu of saying something face-to-face (even though we worked closely together on our high school newspaper, and so saw each other anywhere from five to seven days a week), and that phone call itself was the culmination of a four-person game of telephone that took an entire Sunday afternoon (as two mutual friends spent hours calling each of us and then calling each other to compare notes, until the success of The Phone Call was certain enough for my soon-to-be boyfriend to pick up the phone). The technologically mediated interaction didn’t stop once we became a couple, either: out of the particular obsessive hunger for each other’s company that only teenagers can muster, we talked on the phone most nights and sent long emails back and forth and sometimes talked on AIM in addition to all of that, and we did so for almost a year. And it was still the 1990s.

OMG sexting hysteria
OMG sexting hysteria

Though some insist the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” my adolescent experiences form just one more reason I remain convinced that—if there are indeed large-scale differences between Teen Courtship Now and Teen Courtship Then—these differences are not caused by the advent of any particular form of digital mediation (email, SMS, social networking sites, etc.), and nor are they caused by any particular social practice enacted through digital media (e.g., “sexting”). Instead, in what should be a familiar move by now, I argue that neither digital social technology nor “sexting” has caused “hookup culture” (which is itself a contentious and highly problematic framework), but rather that sexting makes a few larger, much more troubling phenomena more apparent. These phenomena include the following:

  • The fact that some people choose to circulate photo-sexts that were intended to remain private. Forwarding a sext is a failure to understand respect, trust, and boundaries, while the shame and harassment that come to people whose sexts are forwarded are largely problems of sexism. Neither the decision to send a sext, nor the decision to forward a sext, is caused by digital media.
  • The fact that we don’t teach kids (or adults) how to talk openly with each other about sex. Given this, how can we possibly be surprised if kids try to have sexual conversations by imitating movies, song lyrics, or other media they find on the Internet? For many kids (and adults), these are the only examples of sexual language and discourse that they are able to access.
  • The fact that teenagers—of all genders—have sexual agency, and that many teenagers engage in sexual activity of some sort (which I don’t find troubling in and of itself, but a number of other adults sure do). It’s still a mystery how we can so fear teen sexuality, yet simultaneously so intently refuse to acknowledge that teenagers are sexual creatures—it’s almost as if we think that, by refusing to teach teenagers about respectful and responsible sex, we can somehow preserve a naïve pre-sexual innocence that, for most teens, is long gone by the time they’re fighting with iPhone autocorrect about the spelling of slang terms for genitalia.

In case you’re wondering why I’m feeling crotchety about sexting and technological determinism this week, a recent round of Blame It On The Sexts (Yeah, Yeah) got kicked off back in August by NBC—which both ran a segment on The Today Show and posted a corresponding website write-up inspired by Catherine Steiner-Adair’s book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. (Habitual readers will recall that “disconnection” is just one of my favorite cultural criticism tropes.)

LOL fake sexting images
LOL fake sexting images

The TL;DR here is that boys and girls alike are supposedly “victims” of digital technology: Boys want meaningful romantic relationships with girls, but—because they have smartphones, and because they’ve learned about sex and sexuality from online porn—these boys go cluelessly about their attempts to kindle tender romance with SMS communiqués such as, “Well, I want my dick in your mouth?” The girls, on the other hand, are victims because they have to endure such messages, and because they don’t know how to tell boys that “hookup culture” hurts their feelings (NBC here treats “hookup culture” as something caused by “sexting,” even though Concerned Adults™ were going on about hookup culture well before anyone had ever heard the term “sexting”). Notably, if gay and lesbian teens were interviewed for Steiner-Adair’s book, NBC’s coverage makes no mention of that fact; all the teens discussed on The Today Show and in the article are engaged in heterosexual interactions, and presumed to be looking for ongoing sexual-emotional relationships.

Amanda Hess (@amandahess) lays out a great critique of NBC, in which she argues,

It’s great that Steiner-Adair is actually talking to boys, but it doesn’t sound like she fully understands the way that they text. Anyone who thinks that text messages lack nuance has failed to mine the vast emotional potential of the Emoji keyboard; those who believe that Internet porn is more extreme than ever aren’t remembering the bestiality and abuse that punctuated some stag films of the 1970s.

Hess goes on to make the point that—given young women’s greater risk of domestic- and partner violence—if some young women are trading in “real relationships” for “sexting,” this might not be such a bad thing. If sexting does lead to “arm’s length” relationships, then at least young women are less likely to become trapped in those relationships.

Jenny Davis (@Jenny_L_Davis) similarly praises Steiner-Adair for troubling the “boys as sext perpetrators, girls as sext victims” narrative, but argues that Steiner-Adair’s (and NBC’s) move to cast both boys and girls instead as victims of digital technology is both ill conceived and dangerous. As Davis writes,

To be sure, mediated sexual interaction is not always a growth facilitating thing. On the contrary, like all sexual interaction, it can be downright violent.  In this vein, Steiner-Adair talks about girls crying as they recount explicit messages they’ve received, of boys hacking into each other’s accounts and sending girls crude messages about multi-hole penetration, of boys feeling pressured to re-enact the behaviors displayed in pornography. Such things are clearly troublesome. Such things represent a real social problem. Namely, Rape Culture.

The way the article addresses the issue, however, is to decry “hookup culture” with an emphasis on the role of particular technological objects. In doing so, new technologies become the surface level scapegoat, the convenient receptacle for social problems into which parents, commentators, educators, and policy makers can throw their blame, avoiding the mess of a largely imbedded social ill.

As Davis explains, viewing the harms that sometimes follow from sexting as a technology problem (instead of as signals toward much larger problems with sexism, rape culture, and the state of the U.S education system) leads parents and educators to formulate interventions that are not only unrealistic, but also counterproductive.


I’m going to spend the rest of this post trying to shed some light on why we’re so eager to blame digital technology for teen-related problems like “sexting” or, relatedly, “cyberbullying.” I argue that the fixation on digital mediation that characterizes both “sexting” and “cyberbullying” as concepts (as well as their attendant technological determinism) is rooted at least partially in digital dualism, and that digital dualism thereby serves to deflect attention away from some very real social problems. In short: Digital dualism doesn’t cause sexism (or other *-isms), but it does act in concert with sexism by deflecting critical attention away from sexism in action.

In a forthcoming paper, PJ Rey (@pjrey) and I revisit Amanda Todd’s 2012 suicide in order to examine the relationships between contemporary embodiment, augmented reality, and subjectivity. Following Todd’s death, journalists and researchers alike fixated on the “online” elements of Todd’s ordeal—as if the fact that both Todd and the people who tormented her had used digital communication technologies was the most important, interesting, or critical part of Todd’s story. PJ and I argue that the inflated salience of “onlineness,” in both the academic and popular versions of the subsequent frenzy about “cyberbullying,” stems directly from a false conceptual division between “online” and “offline” (in other words, digital dualism). Our related critique of the term “cyberbullying” can readily be extended to the hysteria around “sexting,” both of which repackage complex, multicausal social problems as simple, direct consequences of ‘bad’ technologies:

Todd’s suicide sparked a surge of interest in so-called “cyberbullying,” and yet the term grossly oversimplifies both what an unknown number of people did to Todd (across multiple media, and in multiple contexts) and why those people did such things in the first place. As danah boyd (@zephoria), Nathan Fisk, David A. Banks (@DA_Banks), and others argue, the term “cyberbullying” deflects attention away from harassment and abuse (“-bullying”), and redirects that attention toward digital media (“cyber-”). In so doing, the term “cyberbullying” allows digital media to be framed as causes of such bullying, rather than simply the newest type of mediation through which kids (and adults) are able to harass and abuse one another. “The Internet” and “social media” may be convenient scapegoats, but to focus so intensely on one set of media through which bullying sometimes takes place is to obscure the underlying causes of bullying, which are much larger and much more complicated than just the invention of new technologies like the Web. Such causes include (to name just a few): teens’ lack of positive adult involvement and mentorship; the contemporary conception of childhood as preparation for a competitive adult workforce, and the attendant emphasis on managing, planning, and scheduling children’s lives; a culture of hyper-individualism that rewards mean-spirited attacks, and that values “free speech” more highly than “respect”; sexism, misogyny, and “rape culture”. When we characterize digitally mediated harassment and abuse as “cyberbullying,” we sidestep confronting (or even acknowledging) any and all of these issues.

We would do well to ask: of all the factors that fed into Todd’s death, why did the ensuing public discourse center on “cyberbullying” as most salient? While Todd’s death is sociologically complicated, if we absolutely must boil everything down to a single cause, I argue that our collective finger should point at sexism, not the Internet. Sexism fuels the double standard for men’s and women’s sexuality upon which “[insulting] a woman because she expressed her sexuality in a way that does not conform with patriarchal expectations for women” (in other words, what some feminists have called “slut-shaming”) depends. Without sexism, and without its attendant double standards, an image of a young woman with exposed breasts loses its shame and its effectiveness as blackmail. Without sexism an image of breasts loses most of its power, and so too does the person who wields the image as a weapon. Fixating on digital technology, however, deflects attention not only from the individual humans who threaten, harass, and torment young (and not-so-young) people like Todd, but also from the social forces that enable and even position those individuals to do so. Fixating on digital technology prevents us not only from acknowledging social power vectors like sexism, but from asking who is harmed by—and who benefits from—the degree to which *-isms are entrenched in our social systems and structures.

I can haz sexism?
I can haz sexism?

In short, the fault for Todd’s death lies not in her webcam, but in the adult man who coerced a 13-year-old girl to show her breasts; then surreptitiously saved an image of her breasts; then used that image to blackmail her; then did his damnedest to make sure that everyone who knew her then, and everyone who came to know her subsequently, saw that image of her breasts. The fault for Todd’s death lies not in the Internet, but in everything about our society that enables a photograph of breasts to incite such ruthless, cruel, unceasing persecution. At no point should we think that by smashing a webcam or a router, we’ve somehow smashed patriarchy.

Similarly, if there’s something that bothers us about “sexting” and other courtship behaviors among teens (and it does seem that some people are very, very bothered), we would do well to examine what that really is—and why it really bothers us—rather than the fact that the range of sites where that ‘something’ is visible now includes glowing rectangles stashed in young pockets. If only the “stop staring at the phone” trope would collide with the sexting alarmists, we might finally be able to have a productive conversation about teen sexuality.


Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) cheekily wonders why some readers will blame her—and not her computer or the Internet or whatever else—for the fact that she dropped The P-Word in the post above.

 Lead image from here; blackboard image from here; fake sext from here; cat selfie from here.