(This is not the dive bar in question)

I’ve been thinking a lot over recent weeks about digital media, smartphones, and absence-vs.-presence, all of which was compounded by an interesting experience I had last weekend. On one particular night, 1:00 AM found me in a Lower East Side dive bar playing pinball with a friend from Brooklyn and a friend from D.C.; I was also chatting with a third friend (who was in D.C.) via text message and Snapchat between my pinball turns, and relaying parts of that conversation to our two mutual friends there with me in the bar. More people joined us shortly thereafter, madcap shenanigans ensued and, sometime around stupid o’clock in the morning, I started the drive back to where I was staying.

As I was getting up the next day, I recalled various scenes from the night before. One such scene was from the earlier end of being at the dive bar: Getting to hang out with three people I don’t see often was a nice surprise, and how neat was it that we’d all gotten to hang out together? A few seconds later, however, it hit me that my mental picture of that moment didn’t match my memory of it. What I remembered was being in the dive bar spending time with three friends, but I could only picture two friends lit by the flashing lights of so many pinball machines. I realized that Friend #3 had been so present to me through our digital conversation that my memory had spliced him into the dive bar scene as if he’d been physically co-present, even though he’d been more than 200 miles away.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this. On the one hand, yay: My subconscious isn’t digital dualist? On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said the disjuncture between my story-memory and my picture-memory wasn’t surreal to the point of being a bit disconcerting. Which was more accurate? Don’t think too long on that trick question: both memories are accurate, because there’s more to “presence” than just physical co-presence. People who complain about smartphone users being “absent” inherently recognize this (else they’d be satisfied with the physical presence of that person looking at the phone), but I’ve never felt that “absence” is the right way to think about it. After all, I was neither physically nor psychically absent from the dive bar as I became part of the medium that connected my in-bar friends to our friend who was elsewhere.

So let’s try this: What if, instead of viewing the smartphone user as necessarily absent from the context around her, we view her as fully present in an expanded—dare I say, even augmented—context? Below, I argue that starting from presence rather than absence sheds more light on the range of things we’re actually doing when we check our phones in different social situations, and enables us to see more of the power dynamics in play as well.

(Not people I know)
(Not people I know)

Weirdly (and almost certainly unintentionally), Facebook starts to touch on this point through an eye-rollingly awful series of video commercials for its so-called “apperating system,” Facebook Home. In case you haven’t seen them, the three ads show privileged white people (albeit privileged white people with multiracial casts of friends and/or coworkers) ignoring the people and environments around them in favor of paying attention to the Facebook content displayed on their phones. In the first video, “Airplane,” a man in his 30s postpones turning off his phone before takeoff; in the second video, “Launch Day,” another man in his 30s (or thereabouts) ignores a boring speech from Mark Zuckerberg himself; and in the third video, “Dinner,” a young woman ignores a dull meal with her extended family. Notably, all three characters engage with Facebook mainly by consuming friends’ posts and double-tapping out some likes; only the man in “Launch Day” exchanges any text-based communication, and he does so only briefly. Facebook Home may have chat capabilities (in fact, one of the things that’s supposed to be so great about Facebook Home is that lets users chat from inside non-chat apps), but what the videos emphasize is users interacting in ways that provide the structured, algorithm-friendly data that Facebook likes best.

The (intentional) message couldn’t be more clear: sociality is the dull, boring stuff of obligation, while Sociality is the fun, exciting stuff of individual freedom. The Facebook Home ads combine the best of Silicon Valley “play ethic” with good old technoutopian neoliberalism: traditional social bonds constrain us, but technology liberates us, makes us more independent and self-sufficient, and enables us to express ourselves more fully and freely (because, y’know, radical self-expression is, like, what’s really important and stuff). Taken together, what the three videos actually remind me of most is Burning Man [pdf]: a bunch of privileged (mostly) white people play with gadgets, delight in observing costumed spectacle, and lose themselves in whimsical out-of-context absurdities—Cats on a plane! All-terrain vehicle in the office! Ballerinas on a dinner table!—as a means of temporary escape from the less pleasant and less imaginative “default world” in which they are typically trapped.[i] Default world hurts; Facebook Home can help!

A number of sharp critiques of these ads have already been laid out. Evan Selinger (@EvanSelinger), for instance, argues that the ads both promote selfishness and advance an ethic of social media use that undermines “being genuinely responsive to and responsible for others …[by] maintaining meaningful connections.” A blogger who “still care[s] a lot” about Facebook argues that the ads’ message “foments FOMO” by promoting “tuning out the people around you to see what else is happening that must be more interesting elsewhere.” My favorite observation so far comes from a blogger at SF Weekly, who writes, “What Facebook doesn’t seem to get is that people generally do not love Facebook. They love their families and friends, who all happen to be on Facebook […] But Facebook itself, they mostly just tolerate, when they don’t outright hate it.” I don’t disagree with any of these points. I do, however, see some interesting alternate readings of the ads, which I elaborate below.

It is very, very easy to view the Facebook Home ads through a Turkelean lens—in fact, if you were to tell me that the videos were originally created as short dramatizations of Sherry Turkle’s now-infamous 2012 op-ed, “The Flight From Conversation,” I would believe you (though they’d need more Cape Cod). It’s hard to argue with the fact that the young girl and the two professional men are clearly paying more attention to their devices than to the people around them. They also do seem “absent” from their surroundings, a point emphasized by the fact that the exciting Facebook Home worlds the characters are suddenly immersed in don’t interact much with the physical worlds on which they’re overlaid. Hello, digital dualism! The cats don’t disturb the passengers whose heads they jump onto; Mark Zuckerberg has no idea he nearly got run over by a four-wheeler; the ballerinas on the dinner table don’t knock anything over. Wherever these three people are or have gone, they aren’t in “the real world.”

(The Silhouette is not on Cape Cod)
(The Silhouette is not on Cape Cod)

But there’s a simultaneous anti-digital dualism, anti-IRL Fetish read here, too. What if we take the physical co-presence of all that Facebook content a little less metaphorically, such that the three characters are present (and joined by their friends) rather than “absent” when they take out their phones? It doesn’t fully hold up, of course, in part because much of what comes to life seems not to be the characters’ friends, but the document artifacts of the characters’ friends’ experiences. Still, consider each “like” a character taps out as turn-taking in an ongoing, asynchronous conversation that takes place both with and without words. Consider that, for each character, his or her friends really are present, even though they’re not physically co-present. Suddenly, these three scenes look a lot less like people getting sucked into demonic glowing rectangles that take them away from the real world, and look a lot more like people simply being rude as they fail to manage conversations with several people at once.

If I’m out to dinner with a friend, for instance, and someone I don’t know comes up to the table, cuts me off mid-sentence, and starts a new conversation with my friend as if I’m not right there, that’s profoundly rude. It’s poor form on the part of that stranger who just interrupted, and it’s even more poor form on the part of my friend who went along with it. (At the very least, my friend should pause the stranger and excuse her- or himself from the conversation with me before moving on to a conversation in which I won’t be included.) When a friend starts using their phone in the middle of a physically co-present conversation, it’s pretty much the same thing—save that the affordances of (say) SMS don’t enable text message senders to know if their recipients are out to dinner, so now the onus is entirely on my friend to avoid being a conversational jerk.

When my friend pulls out a phone while I’m talking, it’s not that my friend is suddenly absent; it’s that my friend is shifting their attention from our dinner together to the stranger whom they, in this case, just invited to stop at the table. And yes, doing that mid-conversation is rude—but generally speaking, attention-shifting isn’t always rude. Maybe the stranger came up to chat with my friend while I was in the restroom, then said goodbye when I returned. Or maybe there’s something pressing my friend and the stranger have to talk about, so my friend apologizes, takes care of whatever it is, and then returns to our interaction. Or maybe my friend introduces me, and includes me in the brief conversation that follows. There are all sorts of possibilities, all of which either may or may not be considered rude depending on the people, the contexts, and the expectations involved. For example, people who are incapable of having a sustained, fully co-present conversation drive me insane, but maybe you’re fine with going on three-way dates (you, the Other, their smartphone). Conversely, I have friends who feel that any appearance of a phone in any social group is inappropriate, and who get annoyed with me when I want to snap a quick photo or jot down some pithy quote someone said. Obviously, your mileage will vary. Starting from an assumption of presence, however, allows us to capture difference by asking what each smartphone user is doing and why. If we assume absence, all we have is what those smartphone users are (aka, absent).

(Another LES dive bar)
(Another LES dive bar)

Consider a behavior shown in two out of the three videos, “ignoring someone who is talking to you in favor of staring at your phone.” If we write the young girl and the Facebook developer off as absent, that’s it: they’ve been sucked through the screen, have left behind only hollow flesh-shells that interact with pocket computers instead of with other people. But if we think about presence, we don’t see two people interacting with pocket computers; we see two people interacting with other people through pocket computers, and can ask who becomes present with them through their devices (and to what effect). Since our characters remain present in the scene themselves, we can also ask what they are doing and why they are doing it.

There’s an important difference, for instance, between the scenarios in these two videos and the example I gave of being out to dinner with a friend. It is this: my friend and I are ostensibly equals. If my friend is being a boring conversationalist, I can change the subject; I can choose to listen patiently out of love; I can explain to my friend that I don’t care about [whatever it is]; I can decide to preserve the peace by suffering in silence. If I am a bored developer, however, Mark Zuckerberg is not my equal. I am not free to tell him that he is boring, or to interrupt him, or to leave the meeting. Similarly, I remember being a teenage girl, and one who was epically unenthusiastic about mandatory family dinners at that; believe me when I tell you that teenage girls are not the power-equals of their parents (especially their fathers), and that when they attempt to proceed as if they do have equal power, it does not end particularly well for them.

It’s really easy to look at the Facebook Home ads and see characters who are selfish, inconsiderate jerks. We can look at the two “ignoring people for phone” videos in particular and see characters who fail to meet well-recognized social obligations: From the time we are children, for example, we are taught to pay attention when people are speaking to us, especially when those people are authority figures. We are taught to perform deference to our superiors. White collar underlings are expected to perform emotional labor at the office, and are judged by their demeanor as well as by their work output. We are supposed to be respectful of our family members, especially our elders; young women in particular are expected to be caring, self-sacrificing, and attentive. When others fail to meet these obligations, we are offended; we may even be angry.

When we are angry though, why are we angry? Certainly, sometimes our friends’ rudeness hurts our feelings; we don’t like being made to feel as though we are not important to the people we care about. But there’s something about control going on here, too. We want our friends to be able to control the urge to look at the phone. We want our friends themselves to be bound by our expectations of what listening and paying attention look like. More strikingly, those who have employees or kids want to exercise dominance over their underlings at the office, and over their children at home. When employees or kids fail to perform deference by seeming to listen quietly, it is insubordination; they reject not just their attentional obligations, but also the authority of their supervisors and parents. It may look like thumbs on a screen, but in truth it’s a middle finger raised straight in the face of power. These are recalcitrant workers, and recalcitrant daughters, engaged in micro-sociological acts of rebellion.

(Memphis dive bar)
(Memphis dive bar)

Perhaps sometimes people who ignore physically co-present conversation are just being rude, but—as demonstrated in two out of the three Facebook Home ads—sometimes rudeness is also resistance. When we view smartphone users as present and taking action instead of merely absent, these acts of resistance become more apparent. The bored developer rejects Mark Zuckerberg’s demands that he perform emotional labor at work and appear to be interested and engaged when he is not; he thwarts Zuckerberg’s power that keeps him sitting in that chair. The bored daughter rejects gendered expectations that she perform emotional labor at home by appearing to be a caring “good listener” when she is not; she thwarts the parental power that keeps her sitting at the table. And when I spend my drink-wait staring determinedly at my phone rather than re-acknowledge the guy who keeps touching my arm and laying artless pickup lines on me, I am rejecting his masculine entitlement to my body, my attention, and my time. In my own small way, in a way less violent than the imaginary bar fight in my head, I am thwarting the power of patriarchy. I’m not absent but present, and pissed off on top of it; my friends who are present with me through digital conversation are providing welcome support and diversion.

Here’s the other thing: We were attention-shifting before there were smartphones, and we attention-shift even when our smartphones are still in our pockets. I’ll own the fact that sometimes I don’t pay full attention when people talk to me: sometimes I accidentally space out, sometimes I have a lot on my mind, sometimes I’m too sleep-deprived to focus on much of anything, and sometimes—yes—I’m making the choice to deliberately tune out and wait for someone to please just stop talking. A smartphone in my hand may make it more glaringly (glowingly?) apparent to the person speaking that I’m not giving them my full attention, but I don’t need the smartphone in my hand to create the possibility of inattention. If we view smartphone use as “absence,” it’s too easy to see non-use automatically as presence; yet, we all know the frustration of talking to someone who’s distracted, even without a smartphone in their hand. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have someone’s attention just because the thumbs are still and the eyes are pointed in our general direction.



Whitney Erin Boesel is—squirrel!!—right, on Twitter. You can follow her: she’s @phenatypical.

Bar stool image from here; people playing pinball from here; The Silhouette sign from here; Mars bar from here; pool table in dive bar from here.

[i] The commercials are so like Burning Man that they make as much sense—if not more sense—if you pretend the characters in them are on psychedelic drugs rather than simply looking at their phones. Much as some people report a “contact high” just from being in the Burning Man environment, at least one person who saw “Airplane” at the Facebook Home launch event reportedly asked afterward whether he was still experiencing “real life.”

“Marathon Massacre” by Dan Wasserman, for The Boston Globe

As I write this, it’s 5:00 PM on April 15th, 2013. From my window over Massachusetts Avenue (we call it “Mass Ave”) in Cambridge—which I have open to let in one of the first nice spring days of the year—I can hear waves of sirens from the emergency vehicles that are still moving in response to the two explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line that went off just before 3:00 PM. The Mass Ave bridge between Boston and Cambridge is reportedly closed; large shuttle buses are trying, awkwardly and uncertainly, to make the turn off of Mass Ave onto one of my cross streets. The flags at both Cambridge City Hall and the Cambridge Post Office are still flying high, but I imagine they’ll be at half mast by the time you read this tomorrow. Even tomorrow, this intentional tragedy will still be very recent, very fresh, and very raw.

I’m sad in ways I can’t fully identify or explain, grateful that (so far as I know) everyone I care for here is okay, and—as I said on Twitter—longing for that time in the recent past when all the bombs (“bombs”) in Boston were actually stupid light-up LED pictures of cartoon characters. Somewhere in my disorganized thoughts, I’m also struck by the many ways that both people and institutions are using digital social technologies in response to this attack, and I’m going to try to get a few of those thoughts down here. In particular, I want to focus on the “vine” (short looping video) of one of the explosions that spread throughout my Twitter feed within an hour of the carnage at the finish line.

A vine is up to six seconds of video recorded with an Apple i-device (iPod, iPhone, iPad) using the Vine app, and it replays over and over again on endless repeat. The vine that turned up in my Twitter feed this afternoon shows news footage of the first explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line, as displayed on someone’s TV. One blogger has written that Vine—which, for all the buzz around its release, has until now mostly been ignored—has “[found] its purpose in the Boston Marathon explosion,” but my reaction was quite different. The first thing that I thought of when I saw the Marathon explosion vine was the iconic 9/11 footage of the second plane hitting the second tower, and how that footage was played over and over again in the days that followed September 11, 2001, and how that footage still gets played over and over again now (particularly on 11 September of any given year since). Most of the commentary I’ve read about the seemingly infinite replay of this footage doesn’t think so much replay is a good thing, and I tend to agree.

So now we have this vine of one of the explosions at the Boston Marathon. In it, the explosion happens over and over, again and again. And then again. There’s a flash as the bomb goes off, and the news footage glitches; an orange cloud rises, followed by white smoke; debris flies through the barriers that line Boylston Street; near the barriers, volunteers in bright yellow jackets cringe, cover their ears, and run; a runner falls in the street, struck in the leg by a flying object. Then there’s a flash as the bomb goes off, and the news footage glitches; an orange cloud rises, followed by white smoke; debris flies through the barriers that line Boylston Street; near the barriers, volunteers in bright yellow jackets cringe, cover their ears, and run; a runner falls in the street, struck in the leg by a flying object. Then there’s a flash as the bomb goes off, and the news footage glitches…until a runner falls in the street, struck in the leg by a flying object. And then there’s a flash. And the runner falls. Flash, fall. Flash. Fall. The scene repeats for as long as you choose to watch, and—on other screens, on servers somewhere—for long after you choose to turn away.

Vine app icon

Through Vine, the explosion happens just not on seemingly infinite replay, but on infinite replay. Enabled by a long chain of people, institutions, technologies, and devices—a chain that begins with a news channel, a cameraperson, and a video camera; a chain that culminates with Vine, a Vine user, and a smartphone—the explosion footage now seems to replay “all by itself.” Gone are the days when one had to watch an hour of TV news to see the same tragic explosion replay six times; gone, too, are the more recent days when seeing the same tragic explosion six times meant clicking “replay” five times on YouTube. Seeing this explosion six times takes only a single link click, and less than a minute of one’s time; in an hour, one could watch this explosion happen not just six times, but 600 times. Yet when I think of violent or tragic images replaying over and over on their own, I don’t think, “Oh, sweet, so that’s what Vine is for”; I think of how some people, including some people close to me, have described the flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The looping “vine” image of the explosion spread quickly through Twitter, and got posted on other websites; at least one major news organization incorrectly reported that it was eyewitness footage. (Seriously, LA Times? Even with the “Channel 7” logo at the bottom?) Within mere hours[i] of the explosions themselves, a range of commentators had posts up in which they wrote not so much about the tragedy as about one moving image of the tragedy (for examples, see here, here, or here). On Twitter, others speculated about what the Boston Marathon bombings might mean for Vine as a platform or medium. But seriously, let’s stop and think about this: Some unknown person (or persons) has set off explosive devices at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Those actions have killed three people (so far), and injured well over 100 others. Are a few seconds of looping video really the most noteworthy thing about this incident? Are the explosions themselves even the most noteworthy thing? Or is what matters most the loss of lives, limbs, and blood that someone(s) managed to cause by setting off explosions?

Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry) recently made a compelling argument that the affordances of social media platforms (as well as other things) are dynamic, and are the result not only of how social media platforms are designed to be used, but also of how people use the platforms in practice. Accordingly, if Vine has “a purpose” at all, then its purpose is determined just as much—if not moreso—by how people decide to use it; similarly, how people decide to use it is very much shaped by how people are already using it. Therefore, I say to you now: Think very carefully about whether tragedies belong on Vine, and about whether you should put them there.

Yes, a vine is both easy to make (if you have an i-device) and easy to share, and can circulate readily even among people who don’t use the Vine app. Yes, the fact that someone shot a vine of this news broadcast probably got that explosion footage in front of more people, and in front of more people more quickly, than the television broadcast and subsequent YouTube (etc) videos would have alone. But in shooting a vine of the explosion footage, the person who did so created an easily sharable short story of this afternoon’s events that reduces the tragedy of a violent act down to a bright orange flash. Vine being what it is, this visual short story also does its own work to rapidly become the image of these events that its viewers have seen the greatest number of times (no broadcast network sensationalism required). One might argue that this self-repeating aspect makes Vine a powerful tool for reporting, but just because Vine can be used this way doesn’t mean it should be used this way. And Vine definitely shouldn’t be used this way without careful reflection about what it means to put six violent seconds on infinite (and infinitely circulative) self-repeat.

Photo credit: Associated Press
This image better reflects what I think is most important about the explosions this afternoon. (Photo credit: AP)

If the informal consensus following the Boston Marathon explosions is that, yes, tragedy reporting is the purpose of Vine, then more people will use Vine to record tragedies and disasters when they happen. Our collective documentary vision will shift to include “shoot a vine” as a possible response to tragedies when we see (or even witness) them, as well as to include tragedies among the things we see as “vineable.” Would that be a desirable shift? What would happen if putting tragedies on Vine became commonplace? A milieu of circulating tragedy vines might…um…give some people new empathy for PTSD sufferers? No, probably not. But I’m trying to think of some net positive that might balance out the net negatives of declaring “circulating tragedy footage” to be the purpose of Vine, and so far, I’m not coming up with any.

In the end, the question is not whether Vine has “found its purpose,” but whether we want this to be its purpose—because shaping Vine’s purpose is up to us.


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

[i] Out of respect for the victims of the bombings, and for the people close to them, this post has been set to go live Tuesday morning rather than Monday evening. I’m getting my thoughts down while they’re still fresh, but it doesn’t seem right to advance something that basically boils down to an animated GIF as the most important topic of conversation right now, even on a technology-and-society blog.


If you haven’t yet noticed (you’ve probably noticed), Facebook likes to appropriate features from competing apps and platforms. You can credit the demise of the old “[Name] is…” status update prompt, for instance, to the rise of Twitter. You may also recognize the “share” feature on your friends’ status updates from Tumblr; the place check-ins from Foursquare; the friend “lists” from Google+; the photo albums from Flickr (or any other photo sharing site); the photo filters from Instagram (back before Facebook bought Instagram outright); the vanishing images of Poke (that’s a newer Facebook app, not the older Facebook feature) from Snapchat; the “Music” app from Myspace (new or old); or even the “Work and Education” profile field from LinkedIn. Yes, that’s right: voracious media amoeba that it is, Facebook has even engulfed some of LinkedIn. Icky.

Yet in its seeming quest to digest and regurgitate elements from every digital social technology ever, Facebook most recently appropriated features not from a competing platform or app, but from the pre-Web-2.0 ‘sharing’ stalwart LiveJournal[i]. Remember the “Current Mood” field, and the various “Mood Theme” icons you could use to answer when you weren’t feeling up to free response? If you don’t already, you’ll soon have something similar in a new field on your Facebook status update prompt. Go into that new field and select “feeling,” and you’ll get to answer “How are you feeling?” with one of roughly 200 preset emoji/emotion combinations like it’s 2001 all over again. Your profile will then show something like the image above.

There are some significant differences between LiveJournal’s “Current Mood” field and Facebook’s new “feeling” icons, however, and these differences get at the heart of why—potentially cute/annoying emoji notwithstanding—talking about your emotions with the new Facebook feature is very different from talking about your emotions on LiveJournal.


First, let’s consider the emotional cultures of the two sites. That “Current Mood” feature has been a part of LiveJournal since at least 2000 (which when I started my first account), and the fact that it exists is particularly unremarkable when you stop to consider the name of the platform: LiveJournal. In this sense, the term “journal” denotes “a record of news and events of a personal nature; a diary.” While some users chronicled “personal events” such as what they had for breakfast (I knew one person who really did do that—mainly to make fun of the rest of us), for many users, the “personal” topics we wrote about were things we had feelings about, or were our feelings themselves. The “Current Mood” field at the end of each post was an afterthought, an opportunity to make a joke or add a closing flourish. LiveJournal’s architecture supported more emotive uses of the platform as well, by offering both unstructured long-form posting and incredible privacy controls. By 2002 or 2003, users could mark any given post “private,” “public,” “friends,” or “custom”—where “custom” meant selecting one or more of the 30 sub-lists of friends each user could create for her- or himself. (Note, too, that at no point during my 10 active years on LiveJournal did any of my posts spontaneously change their own privacy settings—now that’s a feature Facebook should absorb!) It also helped that LiveJournal friending is mono-directional; someone can list you as a friend and grant you access to their “friends only” posts, for example, whether or not you list them as a friend and grant them access in return.

Perhaps it was also because I had a long history of private paper journaling when I joined LiveJournal, but to me, LiveJournal always seemed geared toward interiority. It was about talking to myself in a way that was very similar to the way I talked to myself on paper, and then looking at an array of 30 checkboxes to decide whom I wanted to let in (this time). Of course, I don’t mean to imply that there was nothing performative about LiveJournal, or that between my LiveJournals and my paper journals I wrote on exactly the same range of topics, because neither of those things is true. The point is that I never asked myself whether something was an appropriate sentiment for LiveJournal; rather, I asked myself which LiveJournal account I should use, then which subset of friends I should select, then (later, once the feature was introduced) whether I should put the substance of the post behind a cut-tag. The question was never “whether,” only “how.”

Similarly, if in small group conversation one friend expressed discomfort over the openness of something another friend had posted, the response from the group was invariably, “Well, it’s their journal.” Your LiveJournal was unquestionably yours, a forum to be you in a way as open and raw and visceral (or as cryptic and closed and distant, for that matter) as you felt comfortable being. While over time certain norms evolved—such as using a cut-tag with particularly long or emotional posts—at least in my social worlds, LiveJournal was construed as a special, privileged space for self-expression. Even the aesthetic elements of LiveJournal seemed to support this: from a variety of available layout schemes, to customizable field text (my “Current Mood” field never actually said “Current Mood”), to the option to make your own mood theme icons (and free response was always an option, as was leaving the “Current Mood” field blank), it really did feel as though your LiveJournal was your own, to say and to do with as you pleased. Writing too negatively and to openly about other people might get one into social trouble, but so long as post authors wrote about themselves[ii], the onus was on readers to eschew posts (or authors) that made them uncomfortable. Though I’m speaking about the norms that I observed within my own circles, the “express anything / don’t read it if you don’t like it” ethos did and does seem to apply to LiveJournal more broadly—as is perhaps exemplified by some of the more controversial communities (e.g. “pro ana”) that have made homes on the site.


Facebook, on the other hand, has a very different emotional culture. It’s Facebook, for starters: even when one is navel-gazing, one’s face is always pointed out at the exterior world. Your face is—no pun intended—the interface between your interior self (or backstage self, if you prefer) and everything else: you face the day, face the music, face your past and face what’s next. Though our faces are expressive, we’re trained from an early age to (try to) control the expressions our faces make, to filter or even change what we broadcast to others about what’s going on inside of us. Our eyes may be windows to souls, but we also keep stiff upper lips, clench jaws, bite tongues, force smiles, and turn other cheeks (all while grinning and bearing it), because our faces are first and foremost displays we put on for other people. (Oh hey, Goffman: what is it again that we lose when we’ve lost status or credibility with others? Ah, right.) Accordingly, Facebook has never pretended to be the eyes; it has never aspired to be a platform for expressing deep inner truths (“truths”) about the people we are or believe ourselves to be. Journals are for vulnerability and heartfelt confessions; facebooks are for identifying (and judging) strangers or acquaintances based on surface characteristics. A facebook is not a format for free self-expression, nor is it where you lay yourself bare in a quest for self-knowledge or self-discovery; a facebook is where you fit your finished self into the template provided, as seamless and shiny a self as you can create before the publication deadline. Is it surprising, then, if Facebook’s cultural norms seem to frown on sadness and other forms of negativity (no pun intended)?

For instance: Despite both pleas and petitions from some users, one feature Facebook has refused to cannibalize from other social media platforms is the “dislike” button (perhaps YouTube and Reddit, among others, breathe sighs of relief). According to Facebook, having “like” without “dislike” to balance it makes being on the site more fun, but is typing out “this sucks” really more fun than clicking a button? (Ha, ha.) Similarly, just last weekend I overheard a pair of strangers lamenting, “because, you know, you can’t say anything depressing on Facebook.” While this isn’t always true (so-called “cyber-bullies,” for instance, say some really depressing stuff), I do have to admit that 90% of the sad-type posts I see in my own Facebook feed are FYI announcements, usually about the death of a friend, relative, or pet. I see very few posts in which people are openly grieving their lost loved ones, or in which people are being sad (rather than angry) about anything else. I argue that this is due not only to top-down culture engineering from Facebook itself, but also because Facebook has always been a forum for fronting, for creating the “good face” we “put on” for others—which, regardless of one’s chosen gender performance, should probably not have mascara running down its cheeks.

So if interiority has never been Facebook’s forte, and if Facebook has generally preferred that you keep your emo moments opaquely away from its beloved radical transparency, why is Facebook now taking a cue from LiveJournal and letting you proclaim yourself “lost” and “lonely”?


Well, here are my thoughts.

First, do not forget—not for one little instant—that Facebook is a thoroughly Web 2.0 company. It is as Social as they come. On the ‘face’ of it, The Zuck wants you to embrace personal radical transparency and change the world by “sharing” All The Things (except, of course, for everything he doesn’t want you to share: breastfeeding, kissing your same-sex partner, the fact that you don’t like the oil company British Petroleum, or that everyone calls you “Salman” instead of “Ahmed,” to name just a few). But backstage, let’s ‘face’ it: Facebook believes in the information economy. Facebook may not have figured out how, exactly, to monetize all the information it’s collecting, but it’s sold on the premise that more information will someday, somehow, be worth more revenue. Therefore, it wants you (dear user) to do two things: 1) log into the site (which means both viewing ads and giving Facebook information about yourself and your ‘friends’), and 2) cause more of your friends to log into the site (so that they too view ads and give Facebook information about themselves and their ‘friends’).

How do the pre-set emoticon/emotion combinations fit into this? Up until now, negative affect was something Facebook wanted to keep off the site—not just because no one wants to log into Bummerville, but because too much negative affect would discourage sharing. Take that missing “dislike” button, for instance: without it, my status update that all my friends think is stupid just sits there. Maybe that one friend of mine says something snarky, but he’s kind of a jerk anyway, so I don’t think too much about it. If the update doesn’t harvest a whole bunch of “likes,” I don’t take it too personally; I chalk it up to Facebook’s mysterious algorithms, perhaps, or figure I need to try something different next time. The silence is ambiguous: it might be that no one thinks I’m funny (or clever, or smart), but it might also be that no one heard me speak—so I provide more free labor by trying again. Even if I’m still not funny or clever or smart, Facebook rewards me for providing more content by showing my status update to more people, upping the chance someone will say something in response. But introduce a “dislike” button, and suddenly the ambiguity disappears. I made a post, and now it’s clear: my friends DISLIKE it. I’ve done something wrong. I’ve said something stupid, or committed a faux pas; I’ve lost face, and this time, I know it. My instinct is not to post again, but to retreat from the site until my embarrassment passes and I work up the courage to say something else. In my shame, I fail to be a good data serf.


The absence of negative affect, however, creates a huge hole in Facebook’s giant data collection. We all know life-as-lived isn’t an endless stream of “Likes,” LOLs, happy families, awesome parties, and flattering pictures, so clearly there’s a lot that Facebook isn’t capturing about how people actually live. Introducing “Facebook Home” (aka, that thoroughly “meh” Facebook phone) is one new way Facebook is trying to get at all the parts of life it’s missing; introducing the emoticon “feeling” statuses is another. The preset emoticon/emotion combinations bring negative affect into the site in a way that’s far safer than a “dislike” button: when I “dislike” a post, my friend feels bad and doesn’t want to post for a while. When I click “feeling sad,” however, it prompts my friends to interact with me to cheer me up—and interaction is what keeps Facebook running. More interaction means more information. The emoticon statuses, therefore, are actually kind of clever: they take my previously threatening negative affect and repackage it both as more information about me and as a way to fuel the free-labor fires of Facebook’s sharing engine.

But why does the missing affect matter? Surely all kinds of data are still slipping through Facebook’s sneaky like-button rhizomes; why prioritize trying to capture feelings? It’s not just that the idea of tracking feelings is gaining cultural momentum: emotions are the next frontier of targeted marketing. From its beginning, the advertising and marketing industries have known that appealing to people’s emotions generates far more product sales than does appealing to their (imagined) rational-actor-selves; one of the biggest trends in present-day marketing seeks to not just to sell products, but to foster emotional relationships with brands. Consider this alongside the fact that digital data mining makes possible not just targeted advertising but micro-targeted advertising, and there you have it: Facebook wants personal, emotional information because personal, emotional data is the future of marketing and advertising. And right now, getting that kind of information is really hard: automated sentiment analysis fails. We speak in slang and in code, even when we’re speaking ways our peers readily understand; we use irony and sarcasm, which amuses our friends but confounds computers. And that’s just when we’re speaking openly; don’t forget that we also sometimes “vaguebook” and speak in ways that are meant to confuse most people as well [pdf]. Emoticon status updates—and more importantly, the standardized code behind them—spell our feelings out in ways even a computer can read. Just like those “Close Friends” and “Family” lists, the emoticon status updates pre-process your data into nice, easily digestible chunks for Facebook’s algorithms.

Visual self-expression, Snapchat style.
Visual self-expression, Snapchat style.

Of course, Facebook says it presently has no plans to put emotional data into its “social graph,” but there’s a reason that’s what so many of us thought of first, right? If Facebook was merely to offer “a new, more visual way” to express ourselves, they’d have done something like poach Snapchat’s (awesomely ridiculous) MS Paint-like feature. Emoticon status updates aren’t about self-expression; they’re about provision of information. They create a safe, quarantined space for Facebook to corral the negative affect it so desperately wants to access—because it’s not feeling awesome and well-liked that drives people to buy products, it’s feeling anxious, inadequate, lonely, deprived, and afraid. I loathe the phrase, but no one has ever engaged in “retail therapy” to combat his or her unbearable optimism (dislike!). I’m now taking bets on how long it’ll take before I post that I’m “feeling sad” today, see ads for ice cream and Prozac tomorrow, and see ads for weight loss products and dating services next week. (Though as an unmarried woman over 30, this is pretty much what I see anyway when I accidentally encounter Facebook ads—dislike, dislike, dislike!)

But will people actually use these emoticon status updates (other than for database vandalism, which I fully intend to engage in as soon as I have the opportunity)? The early indicators point to “yes.” Giving people a safe, pre-set option to share negative emotions may serve as “tacit permission” to express emotions that weren’t ‘Facebook appropriate’ before; some users may also feel less vulnerable in clicking on a preset “sad” option than they would in typing out the words “I’m feeling sad.” (Our digital words are part of us, after all; perhaps choosing someone else’s pictures and words could feel more safe, and less like “us”?)

I’m personally most interested in seeing if this feature changes the gendering of Facebook as a platform, or whether man-identified and woman-identified users might end up using this feature differently (since men, on the whole, aren’t socialized to be as “share-y” as women are). Might the emoticon status update feature enable some men to start experimenting with being more expressive about their emotions? Could this be Facebook’s big gender justice moment, in which it starts to take on some of the ways existing gendered norms harm men as well as women?  Um…I doubt it. Given that ‘Facebook feminism’ can’t wrap its head around challenging the gendered norms that oppress women, I’m skeptical that it’s even managed to grok the symbolic violence that our culture perpetrates on men and boys when it teaches them about feelings. If there are any gender-based aims on Facebook’s end at all, they’re likely commerce-related: while a common belief is that women do more buying, it’s also true that men still have more income. Tapping more directly into men’s emotions could be a boon for advertisers, especially if those men are either privileged and single (read: high levels of discretionary income) or less practiced with emotional self-awareness (read: easier targets)—or, even better, both things at once.


In closing: yeah, emoticons can be fun. My friends and I have done some ridiculous things with the emoji on our phones, and I loved the weird bouncing ovoid creatures that I had on my LiveJournal. But cute (or annoying) as the new Facebook emoticons might be, they aren’t retro-LiveJournal in spirit. This status update feature isn’t really about being more visually expressive and, while determined users can still use the feature creatively, it doesn’t afford much opportunity for creative self-expression. Instead, Facebook emoticon status updates are about incentivizing you to provide more information and to provoke more interaction. They’re about sanitizing and domesticating your bad mood, your inescapable ennui, and your existential depression into something that can be yoked to the gears of a new Social advertising machine.

But hey: that’s Silicon Valley, right? Facebook can give you emoticons, and encourage you to use them in ways it would like, but you don’t have to play along. You can play by your own rules (see above, repeatedly), or simply refuse to play at all.



NOTE: I’m not cool enough to have the emoticon status updates yet, so special thanks to Nathan Jurgenson for making me some funny examples to use in this post. I’m feeling pretty amused about them, myself.

Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) is on Twitter, where she generally does not use emoji. She still wishes she had a weird ovoid emoticon creature for a pet, though. hungry2

[i] Or Xanga, if you prefer—but I was on LiveJournal, so that’s what I know and am going to focus on here.

[ii] The line between “yourself” and “other people” is obviously a blurry one: we’re social creatures, after all. We do things with each other, we talk to each other, we think about each other, and we cause each other to feel things. At what point does “me talking about my own experiences” start to end, and “me talking about what you said or did” start to begin? My LiveJournal circles never came to any particular consensus about this, but we were all aware that the boundary existed (wherever it was)—and it was one around which we tread delicately, primarily with careful words and judicious use of the “custom” privacy setting.

Under_Construction-940x400Digital dualism is pervasive, and the understandings that it informs—of ourselves, of our experiences, and of our very world—are a mess. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the fact that digital dualism arises from varying sets of flawed assumptions, and was never purposefully assembled as such by the people who embrace it. But guess what? As theorists, we have the opportunity not only to build new frameworks for understanding, but also to assemble those frameworks with both consciousness and intentionality. So with that in mind, what should a theory of augmented reality look like? What would we do differently from digital dualists?

It is of paramount importance that theories of augmented reality acknowledge complexities and differences—whether between materials, media, degrees of access, or subjective experiences—without falling into dualisms. Toward this end, I’ve spent the past few weeks engaged in an activity somewhere between “essay writing” and “a thought experiment” geared around pushing my fellow augmented reality theorists and digital dualism critics (especially, but not exclusively) to strengthen our collective work through clarifying both our language and our theoretical frameworks. In Part I, I identified the three major dualisms of digital dualism: Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Offline/Online. In Part II, I broke all three dualisms apart to argue that none of them are zero-sum, and that furthermore, none of the six terms involved are interchangeable. But saying how a bunch of terms aren’t related is one thing; saying how they are related is another. In this third and final installment, I offer a rough draft of one way we might start to reorganize these terms within an augmented reality framework.

First, let’s get some objectives (alt: “lofty aspirations”) on the table. My thoughts include the following: As a theoretical framework, augmented reality must simultaneously reject binaries yet also articulate connections. It must reject strictly bounded categories generally, and it must recognize that both categories and terminologies are always historically and culturally contingent. It must emphasize that societies and technologies are co-produced, that technologies are not neutral, and that neither the meanings nor the impacts of technologies are intrinsically determined. It must account for complex differences between individuals’ experiences without resorting either to hierarchical ordering or implicit valuation, whether of the experiences themselves or of the people who have them. And it must do all of these things without erasing, ignoring, or neglecting critical issues of power and inequality.

No small task, so good thing this is a collective enterprise.

Intersectionality: Because reality is complicated.
Intersectionality: Because reality is complicated.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been thinking about whether intersectionality might not have something useful to teach us here. The term was initially coined by Kimberle Crenshaw [pdf] and then elaborated by Patricia Hill Collins, both of whom I highly recommend reading directly if you haven’t already. For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll offer a very (very) simplified synopsis: People like to think about stuff in binary terms, and they virtually never do this in a way that presumes two equal categories; rather, one category is privileged while the other category is denigrated (or “othered”). As much as people like thinking in binaries, however, they don’t tend to like thinking about more than one binary at a time. This is problematic just in general, but it is especially problematic when we start talking about identities and experiences of oppression.

For instance: consider the 1976 court case that led Crenshaw to begin theorizing intersectionality [pdf], Degraffenreid v. General Motors. The gist here is that General Motors had been hiring white women to work in administrative positions, and hiring Black men to work in industrial positions, but not hiring Black women at all. A group of Black women sued General Motors under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, alleging that they had been discriminated against on the basis of race and gender—which seems like a no-brainer, right? But incredibly, they lost the case: the US District Court found that, because General Motors had hired (white) women, the company wasn’t discriminating on the basis of gender, and that because General Motors had hired Black people (who were men), the company wasn’t discriminating on the basis of race. This might be one of the Top Ten Most Facepalm-Worthy Rulings of the last 50 years, but that’s seriously how it played out: the court simply refused to wrap its collective head around the fact that neither “women” nor “Black people” is a uniform group with uniform experiences.

Clearly, a new approach to thinking about identity categories—one that could actually handle the complexity of our social world—was in order.

Intersectionality starts by saying that, yes, people tend to think in binaries, and that yes, such binary thinking does have real effects in the world—but intersectionality also states loudly and clearly that boxing people up into binary categories is a gross oversimplification of reality. The experiences of all women, for example, are not interchangeable; moreover, the category “women” is neither determined nor strictly bounded in the first place. The same goes for categories based on race, class, sexual orientation, or type of embodiment (etc.). If we want to understand people’s lived experiences, the best way to go about that is a) to ask them, and then b) not to assume that those people speak for everyone who happens to share membership in one (or even several) of their demographic groups. To use myself as an example: I may be a white cisgender woman, but if you want to know about my experience of being in the world, Ann Coulter (for instance) is probably not the best person to ask.

This image shows various axes of oppression: each runs crosswise across the circle, and points to a privileged attribute (above the center line) and an othered attribute (below the center line). Note that this image does not show these axes intersecting.
This image shows various axes of oppression: each runs crosswise across the circle, and points to a privileged attribute (above the center line) and an othered attribute (below the center line). Note that this image does not show these axes intersecting.

If we can’t understand people’s experiences based on oversimplified binary categories, then what? Intersectionality takes identity variables (such as race, class, sex, gender, embodiment, ability, sexual orientation, and nationality) and treats them not as determined, oppositional binary categories, but as intersecting axes of oppression. These axes of oppression form what Collins calls a matrix of domination, which people both experience and resist at three different levels: the personal level, the community level, and the institutional level. Importantly, intersectionality also rejects hierarchies: “white” is not any better than “not white” just because “white” is privileged along an axis of racial oppression, and oppressions are not additive. To use me again, I’m neither more oppressed than a cisgender white woman rolling in money, nor less oppressed than a transgender Black woman who is homeless; rather, all three of us have different experiences of both privilege and oppression in different contexts. This doesn’t give me the right to think that my experiences of oppression are central or most important—because holy crap, they are not—but critically, it does preempt any debates about which forms of oppression are primary to, or more important than, others. Intersectionality is called what it is for a reason: it refocuses attention from predefined groups (and all the problems with hierarchies and boundaries that those bring with them) to specific intersections of interlocking oppression.

So what’s all this got to do with avoiding or combating digital dualism? Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but no: I am not arguing that digital dualism is exactly the same thing as racism or sexism, or even that it’s equally harmful (though I will take this moment to restate that digital dualism often operates in the service of camouflaging or dismissing racism, sexism, and other *-isms when they manifest in digitally-mediated interaction). One theoretical framework to another, however, intersectionality has a lot to teach augmented reality. Intersectionality does a great job of handling complexity, of rejecting binaries, of recognizing differences within broad categories, of accounting for interrelationships, of valuing varying subjective experiences, of keeping an eye on both power and resistance, and of doing exactly what I argue we must do with augmented reality: acknowledge and highlight differences without falling into dualisms.

now_what.1The question is what an intersectionality-inspired framing of augmented reality would look like. If we use intersectionality’s structural framework to order the concepts associated with augmented reality (and digital dualism critique), what goes where? We’ve got three subtypes of digital dualism identified; might it make sense to think of each occurring on a different level—say the ontological, the experiential, and the moral—the way Collins thinks of people’s experiences of and resistance to domination on the personal, community, and institutional levels? What would happen if we think about people’s experiences of differently mediated interaction not as “more or less real,” but as occurring at the intersections of different affordances? What about conceptualizing presence at the intersections of different awarenesses—eg, I am not “absent,” I am in this moment present at the intersection of a physically co-present party, an SMS-mediated conversation, and ten seconds of a show shared through Snapchat? What other ways are there to build out augmented reality as an analytical framework if we use the structure of intersectionality as a starting point? What other analytical frameworks offer useful inspiration?

I’m particularly interested in the idea of intersecting affordances, especially as might relate to co-affordances (a concept on which I want to elaborate next week); I’m also interested in feedback about the intersectionality/augmented reality combination generally. What do you all think?


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

Under construction image from here; screenshot of MacArthur Maze traffic from Google maps; axes of privilege image from here; “now what” image from here.

Photo credit: Evan Ludes
Photo credit: Evan Ludes

Last week, I started a somewhat ridiculously ambitious post wherein, by way of making a whole bunch of points I’ve been wanting to make anyway, I intended to push us all toward strengthening and clarifying our ideas around both digital dualism and augmented reality. In light of some really excellent work by Jenny Davis (@Jup83), PJ Rey (@pjrey), and Tyler Bickford (@tylerbickford), in addition to some old-fashioned conversation on these topics with PJ and Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson), I’m now going to change course a bit. In this middle installment, I’m going to revisit the three problematic dualisms of digital dualism (Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Offline/Online), take up the two recent major critiques of the digital dualism framework, advance a few provocations in the service of breaking dualisms and promoting clarity, and then finally conclude for this week with a preview of this essay’s final destination.

In Part I, I identified what I see as the three major dualisms of digital dualism: Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Offline/Online. My original intent in doing so was to identify Offline/Online as the defining dualism of digital dualism writ large, mainly because of the three it’s the only true binary, but also because if we as augmented reality theorists focus in on this one, we stand the least chance of unintentionally winding up in ‘the ontological weeds’ when that’s not where we intend to go. (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy tromping around in the ontological weeds—but sometimes it’s time to tromp around in the weeds, and sometimes it’s time to tromp through them to get somewhere else.) On my way to making that point, however, I noticed that I had a triptych of dualisms, and I remembered that Nathan had recently identified three strains of digital dualism, and I thought, “Huh, can I match one dualism per strain of digital dualism?” I’m still not sure the pairings I came up with work exactly, but I do think teasing out the various conceptual fallacies of (and other problems with) digital dualism can be a useful exercise. (If nothing else, disentangling the various problems with digital dualism makes it clear that talking about metaphysics and talking about sociology (for example) are not a zero-sum binary, either: there are more critiques of digital dualism than just these two, and right now all of them are needed!)

Here’s what I’m after with calling attention to the binaries: I don’t believe augmented reality to be a dualist framework, but I readily acknowledge that those of us who espouse it (and/or those of us who call out digital dualism) have not always framed our arguments in ways that have made that fact abundantly clear. At least one thing, however, should be clear from the title of this essay/exercise: whether as a framework for analysis or as a theory of the world, I am arguing that it is imperative for augmented reality to acknowledge differences without falling into dualisms. And indeed, the two most noteworthy critiques recently have been along these lines: one claimed that augmented reality theorists/digital dualism critics fail to see and to honor people’s different experiences, and another claimed that we fail to escape the trap of dualism in our critiques. The first of these is a non-issue, however, and I believe the second can be addressed by starting to put as much work into clarifying and solidifying our own positions as “augmented reality theorists” as we are now putting into clarifying and solidifying theories of digital dualism. It’s one thing to know what we’re against, or to say what isn’t or shouldn’t be; it’s another to be able to say we’re for, what is, or what should be.

YouTube Preview Image

“Things that are not CAN’T BE!!” (Note: audio NSFW)

As you’ve probably heard by now, Nicholas Carr put up a blog post earlier this month in which he basically claimed that we Cyborgologists (well, primarily Nathan, but still) are in active denial of the fact that people experience different forms of interaction in different ways, and are instead advancing the view that a) all forms of interaction are exactly the same, and also b) anyone whose experiences don’t match this view is stupid. But if you’ve ever spent a week or two actually reading Cyborgology, you’ve probably noticed that we spend a lot of time thinking and writing about people’s emotions and experiences as they relate to different forms of interaction. Jenny Davis (@Jup83) and Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry) in particular have done great work here, and what follows is by no means an exhaustive listing. Jenny’s looked at embodiment, at why digital gestures might sometimes feel less meaningful than other kinds of gestures, why the emotional impact of social media isn’t predetermined, why we might feel distressed when cut off from digital interaction, and—importantly—how we can not only come to know but also come to become ourselves through digitally-mediated interaction. Sarah’s considered the possible pain of encountering a past self through social media, why print books can feel more “real” than e-books, and how feelings themselves are real in the first place, as well as produced some really wonderful writing on the subjective experiences of creating digital text. I’ve even taken a few stabs at feelings and subjective experiences myself; I’ve written on how we might feel about the perpetual possibility of being documented, on how social media might affect how we understand friendship or how we feel about our own past selves, and about the complex relationships between technology and subjective experience within the Quantified Self.

tl;dr: Despite being a dedicated bunch of augmented reality theorists, Cyborgology (et al) have no shortage of “feels,” and are in no danger of ignoring that there are subjective differences between forms of experience and interaction. As I argued last week, the problem here is that Carr is treating human experiences as if they are direct correlates with objective reality, whereas we have treated human experiences as real things that don’t necessarily reflect the nature of the world. More succinctly, in the words of Jeremy Antley (@jsantley), we recognize that “perception of the world (epistemology) isn’t necessarily a sure fire way to evaluate the reality of the world (ontology).” Ok: Moving on.

Tyler Bickford’s critique is, as I believe most of us on the blog agree, the more interesting one. Bickford argues that by emphasizing that, “digital and physical are not the same,” for example, we’ve conceded digital/physical as a dualist binary and ourselves failed to escape dualism. His position is basically that we need to throw out these terms in favor of something like “lots of different stuff,” since “digital” and “physical” aren’t especially useful for describing what it is that people do or how they go about doing it. Whether one agrees with Bickford’s assessment of utility or not, the fact remains that it presumes a more narrow range of inquiry than augmented reality theorists have embraced at this point: we spend a lot of time thinking not just about how and why people do things, but also about people’s experiences of being and about the nature of the world itself. Whether the terms are useful therefore depends on what it is one aims to describe or deconstruct: Should one head off into the ontological weeds, for example, one will be hard-pressed to cut a path out without once using the word “digital” or “physical.”

(These are not the ontological weeds.)
(These are not the ontological weeds.)

Overall, however, I suspect Bickford and I probably agree more than we disagree. One issue for which he provides ample illustration (though he never exactly spells it out) is the question of “What are we neglecting or failing to consider when we focus on Digital/Physical as a meaningful distinction?” This is a critically important question, not just for Digital/Physical, but also for any of the digital dualist binaries—indeed, for pretty much any unit of analysis ever.  Bickford and I also agree, for example, that Digital/Physical is one deeply problematic binary; where we diverge is that Bickford is saying, “Throw the terms out,” while I’m arguing (somewhat clumsily, last week) that what we need to do in our own work, as augmented reality theorists, is not to throw out the words or concepts themselves, but rather to trouble their conceptual boundaries and to dismantle the supposed binary relationships between them. To that end, I offer the following provocations for augmented reality theorists, digital dualism critics, Cyborgology community members, and assorted others sympathetic to our ‘agenda’:

Digital Dualisms







To start, let’s read this chart as two vertical columns. We have two sides: Side A (Atoms, Physical, Offline) and Side B (Bits, Digital, Online). For a moment, forget everything you think you know about records: Side B is neither inherently nor objectively any worse (or better) than Side A. The two sides are different, and each may be more or less suited to different situations (perhaps Side B is having a friend over to listen to music, while Side A is inviting a date up to listen to music), but neither one is necessarily superior to the other. (Yes, I’ll be talking some about affordances and co-affordances next week.)

mbvNow that we’ve dispensed with your evaluative impulse, however, let’s pretend that this is a record: the Side A tracks all have some kind of way they fit together, and the Side B tracks all have some kind way they fit together, but neither group of songs is interchangeable. If I play this year’s new My Bloody Valentine album, for instance, “wonder 2” is clearly not the same thing as “in another way”; if I go back almost 50 years and throw on The Velvet Underground & Nico, there’s no way you’re going to confuse “All Tomorrow’s Parties” with “Femme Fatale.” That’s because (on any halfway decent album, at least) the songs are not indistinguishable—and so it is with the terms I’ve put on Side A and Side B of this chart. The Line 1 item on each side (Atoms, Bits) is a material[ii]; it is something that has properties, and that can constitute stuff. The Line 2 item on each side (Physical, Digital) is an adjective, a descriptor; it can be used to characterize objects and interfaces (among many other things) that have varying affordances. The Line 3 item on each side (Offline, Online) is a conceptual term; it says something about how directly connected we think something is to the Web. I’m throwing these distinctions out as suggestions, and I welcome feedback as to what the best way to define each distinction might be. The important point here is that, however we want to make our distinctions, the fact remains that we can’t read either chart-side as if it were a unified category: were we to add down each side, Side A and Side B would each total three, not one.

Now that we’ve broken the chart up vertically along the columns, let’s take a look at breaking it up horizontally along the lines. We have Line 1 (Atoms, Bits), Line 2 (Physical, Digital), and Line 3 (Offline, Online)—and just as neither column adds to one, none of these lines adds to zero. Atoms and Bits are not zero-sum; not-atoms does not automatically mean bits, and not-bits does not automatically mean atoms. Similarly, Physical and Digital are not zero-sum; neither does not-physical necessarily mean digital nor not-digital necessarily mean physical. These are pretty straightforward ideas: metaphor or not, if you use “physical” to mean “not digital” (for instance), you’re further muddying the conceptual waters in the service of digital dualism.

For Line 3, I’m going tweak my position a bit from last time and argue that Offline and Online are not zero-sum either: because neither can escape the influence of the other, and because we can only understand each in terms of the other, I argue that Online and Offline are most accurately conceptualized as a co-produced dialectic rather than as a dualism. My major reservation with the “online” and “offline” terms has been that they too easily lend themselves to the supposition that anything can ever be online-only (therefore free of influence from the offline) or offline-only (therefore free of influence from the online), and that all sorts of nasty problems stem from conceptualizing “online” as somehow separate from the rest of human life and interaction. Both Tyler Bickford (in this post) and Nathan Jurgenson (in an “offline” conversation) have recently made persuasive cases, however, for why Online/Offline is ultimately more useful than it is dangerous, and I’m finding that I reluctantly agree with them. As a result, I’m now thinking about ways to reframe the Online and Offline concepts in ways that would drop the dualism but preserve a way to talk about meaningful distinctions with respect to access and connectivity; proposing Online/Offline as a co-produced dialectic is my first attempt.

RECORDS: analogue media, but still kind of like digital dualist binaries. Sort of.
RECORDS: analog media, but still kind of like digital dualist binaries…sort of.

One of the interesting things about all the work being done to define and clarify digital dualism is that most of this work is being done by people who believe that digital dualism is a fallacy. Though digital dualism itself abounds, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone working to strengthen a theory of digital dualism itself from a digital dualist perspective. This may seem like a no-brainer (as the term was arguably coined in a somewhat pejorative sense), but I think this is an important point: as much as we can’t open a newspaper or click on an op-ed without encountering digital dualism, we encounter it primarily in sets of assumptions. Digital dualism itself is a latent framework, a theory (“theory”) even more ‘half-baked’ than augmented reality, and yet it is utterly pervasive. This means a lot more work for those of us who want to call out digital dualism when we see it: before we can argue against digital dualism, we have to clarify and solidify what “digital dualism” itself actually is.

From a critical theory perspective, this is nothing new: after all, haven’t critics of racism, sexism, ableism, and other *-isms all had to do the same? But from a different theoretical perspective, this does strike me as interesting: a lot of academic theory, even theory that comes with associated *-isms (Marxism, nihilism, existentialism, to name just a few), was first defined mostly by people who espoused those sets of ideas (or at least, those labels) rather than by people who sought to identify those ideas as problematic. So what kind of an *-ism is digital dualism, anyway? Is it more like a theoretical *-ism, or the kind of *-ism at which critical theory takes aim? Should we be putting more effort into figuring out how it works, or calling it out (and calling attention to its harms), or both, or neither?

Next week, in the final installment of this essay cum thought experiment, I intend—in the spirit of Jenny’s categorization of augmented reality theory as queer theory—to further explore augmented reality as synthetic thinking by drawing on intersectionality as a model for what difference without dualism might look like. I’m enjoying this discussion, and look forward to its continuing!


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

 Marijuana field image from here; MBV album art from here; records image from here.

[i] Yes, clearly it’s time for a book. Or at least a Harawasian manifesto.

[ii] I am the first person to admit that I don’t actually know how “safe” it is to argue that bits are a material.

realityAlright, pop quiz: Is there a reality outside of human experiences? Please circle YES or NO.

Chances are you find this question either very silly or very complicated, possibly both. But I argue that this question is actually lurking in the background of much this month’s earlier digital dualism debate, and that giving it some attention straightens a lot of things out—especially the compelling (but ultimately incorrect, I argue) charge that augmented reality is itself a dualist framing.

To illustrate why this question matters, consider the following fictional (but not entirely unlikely) scenario, in which I either am or am not a jerk:

say PJ (@pjrey) and I are working on a paper draft late into the night. I go to read a paragraph PJ’s just added and disagree with how he’s put something, so I add a comment in the margin with my critique. PJ reads my comment and responds that, okay, he can see my point, but he also feels I’ve been unnecessarily harsh in how I’ve made it. I, on the other hand, feel that my phrasing is perfectly reasonable. Recall that it’s late, so we’ve probably been at this for a while and we’re both probably tired; it’s entirely likely both that I’ve been careless with my words and that PJ is feeling more sensitive to critique than usual. But the question remains: have I been a jerk co-author and a bad friend, or haven’t I?

If you believe that human experiences determine reality, you’ve got a bit of a problem. On the one hand, PJ very much experienced my comment to be out of line; therefore, the reality of the situation is that I have been mean, and I am a jerk. On the other hand, I very much experienced my comment to be acceptable, so the reality of the situation is that I have not been mean, and I am not a jerk. How can we resolve the tension of these two mutually exclusive versions of reality existing at the same time? There are two easy moves here:

1)   Multiple realities. PJ’s human experience and my human experience each inform one of two separate realities (that happen to interact some). PJ lives in his reality, and I live in mine; in PJ’s reality I am a mean jerk, and in my own reality I am not a mean jerk. Since we need to finish that paper though, probably the best thing for me to do is apologize for the fact that I did something (whether right or wrong) that has made PJ upset—after all, that PJ is upset with me is real in both of our realities.

2)   Varying degrees of humanness. If human experience determines reality, then perhaps one of us is less human than the other—probably me, given that I’m a woman and PJ’s a man and that’s just how these things tend to go. In this case, PJ’s human experience determines reality, and I am a mean jerk; since I am less fully human, my own experience of not being a mean jerk is less fully real. Again, I should probably apologize—but for my comment itself, in addition to the fact that it hurt PJ’s feelings.

no-more-realityNow as far as the fictional example itself goes, this isn’t so bad. After all, nature of “truth” or “reality” aside, it’s always a good idea to honor your friends by taking their feelings seriously—so who really cares why I’ve apologized so long as PJ and I get our paper done and still like each other at the end of it. But if something about the above is ringing a bell—perhaps something about “separate realities” and “less human”—then you see where I’m going with this: I’m arguing that a fundamental confusion about the relationships between “realness,” “reality,” and human experiences underlies both what Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) recently categorized as ontological digital dualism and the as-yet-unnamed strains of digital dualism theory that deal with degrees of enmeshment and evaluations of what is “more real, deep, human, and true.” My goals in this essay are pretty big: by the time it’s done, I’m going to attempt to straighten out digital dualism’s ontological confusion, clarify some things about augmented reality to show why it’s not a dualist position, propose important refinements to theories of both digital dualism and augmented reality, and see if I can’t make some of my points about that Nicholas Carr piece along the way. (Good thing I’ve got all day.)

Let’s go back to that question: Have I been a jerk co-author and a bad friend, or haven’t I? But this time, let’s think differently about the relationships between human experiences and reality: suppose that there’s one singular reality, but that it exists independent of human experiences (see David Banks’s [@DA_Banks] introduction here for an illustrative story). Human experiences exist inside this reality—they are themselves “real”—but they neither determine reality nor necessarily reflect it. This means that PJ’s experience of me as a mean jerk is real, and my experience of myself as not-a-mean-jerk is equally real, but that neither of our experiences determines (or potentially even reflects) the underlying objective reality of “what happened” when I made that comment. We can argue and attempt to persuade each other as to the nature of that underlying objective reality if we really want to, and either come to an agreement about how we will determine what is “true” or not, but the fact remains: human experiences are real, but they are not themselves the whole of reality. (Besides, I’d rather apologize and spend the last of the night’s waning collective brainpower tromping through ‘the ontological weeds’ than role-play Boyle and Hobbes anyway.)

Here’s augmented reality in a nutshell: There is but one objective reality, and it exists both outside of and prior to human experiences. This reality contains all sorts of stuff, and all that stuff is real: stuff comprised of atoms (ex: my body), stuff comprised of bits (ex: my online presences), stuff comprised of both (ex: my self), and stuff comprised of neither (ex: my feelings and experiences, social forces, discrimination, love, hate, power, the lot of it). All of these things interact and affect each other in a huge multitude of ways, and again: they are all equally real. There you go: there’s our world. There’s augmented reality. It’s not hard.

So what’s up with digital dualism?

reality-check-1The first mistake that digital dualism (broadly speaking) makes is in the dualism part. (Recall that the definition of dualism is, “the division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects, or the state of being so divided.”) We at Cyborgology haven’t always been super-consistent or clear about what that dualism actually is, so I’m going to look at the three big ones: Atoms/Bits, Physical/Digital, and Online/Offline. We’ve tended to use these three interchangeably—or to treat them as analogous to each other—but I think that, overall, doing so has created more confusion than clarity. I’m going to start trying to untangle them below.

On a conceptual level, all three pairs are co-produced—meaning that for each pair, our conceptualization of each-as-such also shapes and creates our conceptualization of the other, because the two concepts come into being simultaneously as the result of drawing a single conceptual boundary. We didn’t think about “atoms” the way that we do now until we were also thinking about “bits,” for instance, and we didn’t think about “the physical” in the way that we do now until we were also thinking about “the digital” in the way that we do now (remember that “digital” used to mean something physical: “of or pertaining to fingers”); there was simply no such thing as “offline” before we started thinking about “online.” [If you’re new to co-production [pdf], it’s a particularly useful way to think about these supposed binaries because it rejects a priori demarcations (such as those that define any of these pairs) and “sweeps back into the analyst’s field of vision connections between natural and social orders that disciplinary conventions often seek to obliterate, thereby doing injustice to the complexity as well as the strangeness of human experience.” In other words: when you’re thinking about “the physical” and “the digital” (for example) as being co-produced, you’re inherently recognizing that “physical” and “digital” are not rigid or stable categories, and that there’s nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about them.]

Ontologically speaking, however, neither Atoms/Bits nor Physical/Digital is truly a dualism. Neither pair includes two things that are mutually exclusive; neither pair represents stuff that forms an oppositional binary in that one reality outside of human social experience. Even if we’re looking for a contrast dualism rather than an oppositional dualism, neither pair comprises the whole of reality: reality includes more than atoms and bits, and more than things that are physical or digital. Granted, that Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital are (ontologically) false dualisms doesn’t mean that digital dualists—and other people who are wrong—don’t invoke them as dualisms anyway (e.g., as if “the physical” and “the digital” would somehow have beef with each other if suddenly all the people disappeared and there was no one left to imagine it that way), but the important point here is: these two are slippery dualisms.

funny-reality-checkBoth (at least in part) represent concepts that attempt to map onto stuff that exists whether there are human beings around to think about conceptual categories or not. Engaging with these pairs (or critiquing others who have done so) requires careful attention to the level of discussion: are we working on the conceptual, “ideas that some people have” level, or on the ontological, “statements about the nature of our one reality” level? Lack of consistently explicit clarity here is one reason some critics can claim we think all digital dualists are strong digital dualists—and in either case, it’s important that we call attention to when these pairs are being invoked as oppositional binaries without ourselves reinforcing the idea that there’s anything zero-sum about them. There are lots of things which are not physical, for example, but also not digital; “digital” and “not physical” should not be used interchangeably.

The Online/Offline dualism, however, is a bit different. For starters, it’s a genuine oppositional binary: though proponents of augmented reality argue otherwise, in its original (or typical) framing, “online” and “offline” are mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed. Notably, where both the Atoms/Bits and Physical/Digital dualisms take two preexisting concepts and pair them in a newer oppositional relationship, the “online” and “offline” concepts were from their first use co-produced as a zero-sum pair. And importantly, this dualism has the lowest chance of slipping unexpectedly into an ontological conundrum: “online” and “offline” are entirely conceptual, and don’t attempt to map onto anything in objective reality (the way that, say, the human concept of “nature” tries to map onto rocks and trees and other things that exist without people[i]). Of course, Online/Offline is a spurious distinction; as we’ve argued over and over again, the nature of augmented reality is that atoms, bits, and everything else are thoroughly and inextricably enmeshed, which makes augmented reality a non-optional system, so no you simply cannot “log off” or “disconnect.” The impossibility of escaping the influence of digitally-mediated interaction means that there is simply no “offline” (and since there is no cyberspace, there’s no pure “online” either); there are only varying degrees and types of engagement or connectivity.

I was originally going to propose Online/Offline as the defining dualism of digital dualism writ large, largely because it’s a less slippery and more clear-cut dualism than the other two. Upon further consideration however, I think these dualisms map fairly well onto Jurgenson’s three strands of digital dualism critique, so instead I propose the following:

  • Atoms/Bits is the defining dualism of ontological digital dualism
  • Online/Offline is the defining dualism of digital dualism that ignores or underestimates enmeshment (“divisive” or “partitioning” digital dualism?)
  • Physical/Digital is the defining dualism of digital dualism that judges and assigns value (“evaluative” or “executive” digital dualism…or perhaps “moralizing” digital dualism?)

Why does any of this matter? Because I really want to address two points: Carr’s argument that augmented reality does not take into account human experience or how people feel, and Bickford’s argument that augmented reality is inherently dualist. In the rest of this essay, I’m going to argue that augmented reality, as a theory, does treat human experiences as real (and that Cyborgologists have done a great job of doing so), even if we don’t take the position that human experiences determine or reflect reality. I’m also going to argue that augmented reality, as a theory, rejects all three of these dualisms: that it recognizes Online/Offline as a spurious distinction (and throws out both categories), and that it recognizes differences between atoms and bits (or between the physical and the digital) without conceptualizing either pair as a dualism or an oppositional binary.


Whitney Erin Boesel has no idea if this essay will ultimately get posted in two parts or three, but she’ll let you know about each part on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

Reality check image from here; No Reality image from here; Michelle Bachmann reality check image from here; Stop payment image from here.

[i] I’m aware that Carr made precisely this argument, that “offline existed before online gave us the idea of offline”—but put quite simply: this is not correct. Carr makes an analogous statement that “nature existed before technology gave us the idea of nature,” but as Bruno Latour (and a bunch of other people) have painstakingly elaborated: no, actually it didn’t. Nothing was “offline” before the advent of the “online”; it was simply not-online. See? This is the danger of dualist thinking: it leads you to neglect important categories like “not-online” by trying to make everything zero-sum.

no-girls-signIf you’re a regular reader of Cyborgology, chances are good that you caught the most recent “brouLOL” (yes, that’s like a 21st century brouhaha) over digital dualism and augmented reality. If you’re a careful reader of Cyborgology, chances are good you also caught (at least) one glaring omission in much of the writing featured in this wave of commentary. What was missing?

Ladies, gentlemen, and cyborgs, allow me to (re)introduce you to Jenny Davis (@Jup83) and Sarah Wanenchak (@dynamicsymmetry)—oh yeah, and my name’s Whitney Erin Boesel (I’m @phenatypical). None of us identify as men, and all of us have written about digital dualism. In fact, you may have seen our work referenced recently under some collective noms de plume: “the other digital dualism denialists,” “others on this blog,” “others,” “other Cyborgologists,” “other regular contributors,” etc. If you’re a crotchety sociologist with a penchant for picking apart language (ahem: guilty), it doesn’t get much better than this. During the conversation earlier this month, the named and cited Cyborgologists were (almost) always men—while Jenny, Sarah, and I were referenced obliquely (at best) in an unnamed “other” category.

I’m going to do three things in this post. First, I’m going to update my earlier work mapping out writing on digital dualism and augmented reality. Second, I’ll give you a hyperlinked play-by-play of last week’s discussion (or “pissing match”) between author Nicholas Carr and both named and “othered” Cyborgologists in order to illustrate how pertinent work by women theorists has been overlooked (on both sides of the debate). Third, I’m going to ask for your help in compiling a list of women, trans or genderqueer folks, and people of color who are writing about digital dualism, augmented reality, or closely related topics. My goal is to write a follow-up post later this month that highlights more of the overlooked and/or marginalized voices in the digital dualism debates, and which demonstrates clearly that dialogues about digital dualism aren’t just between “white boys with toys.” [And later this week, I’ll add my own critique of Carr’s digital dualism piece to the existing pool of responses.]

no-women-allowed1Please note that one thing I am not going to do in this post is speculate as to why, or with what motives, any particular men have neglected to cite or to consider work by women who theorize digital dualism and augmented reality. There’s no way I could know these things, and I’m not going to pretend that I could be as charitable in my treatment of strangers as I would be with my friends. More importantly, the subjective individual “why” is neither as interesting, nor as important, as the broader social factors that assist or encourage the lot of us to ignore women thinkers in the first place. The question to ask is not, “Why did he do that,” but “Why do so many of us do this, and to what effect, and with what consequences?”

The problem is that women’s contributions are often either overlooked or outright ignored—both in conversations about technology, and in conversations about theory—and that this silencing has a negative impact both on the quality of our collective scholarship and on individual scholars. With this in mind, I encourage you to read the rest of my essay not as an exercise in pointing fingers at specific men, but as a case study in gender, visibility, and the importance of being conscientious about whom and how we cite —for all of us who do this work, regardless of how we gender-identify.


An Updated Crash Course in Augmented Reality and Critiques of Digital Dualism

Image Credit: Audrey Penven
Image Credit: Audrey Penven

Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) both appropriated the term “augmented reality” and coined the new term “digital dualism” in February of 2011. I gave an overview of the next 18 months of related work in an August 2012 post about what I saw as a critical “hole” in augmented reality theory, which basically boils down to its missing ontology. In October of 2012, Jurgenson proposed to start patching the hole I identified with an updated typology framework that includes strong and mild variants of both digital dualism and augmented reality, and Davis offered a corresponding empirical typology. (Sarani Rangarajan (@nineran) offered a critique of Jurgenson’s first draft of the strong/mild typology, while Michael Sacasas (@frailestthing) proposed a typology of connectivity[i]; Giorgio Fontana (@giorgiofontana) offered some new definitions to reinforce the augmented reality framework.)

Our work on digital dualism and augmented reality continued over the winter. Davis used Jurgenson’s typology to theorize embodiment. Wanenchak wrote about how dualist-influenced emotions can persist even when one fully recognizes that there is but one augmented reality, and Davis considered what might be behind some people’s feelings that digital interaction is less “real” or meaningful. Guest author James Vincent (@jjvincent) drew a parallel between academic critiques of digital dualism and New Aesthetic artwork, and guest author Legacy Russell (@legacyrussell) built on the digital dualism critique to establish what she calls “Glitch Feminism.” PJ Rey (@pjrey) and I began an ongoing project to flesh out both an ontology of augmented reality and a theory of augmented subjectivity; we wrote on the origins of the augmented subject and produced a genealogy of the term “augmented reality” as first steps. Jurgenson looked at digital dualism in coverage of the Manti Te’o case, and David Banks (@DA_Banks) previewed his (amazing) Theorizing the Web 2013 (#TtW13) talk on the political origins of digital dualism.

By the time you click on all the pieces I’ve listed above, and then click all the pieces linked in those pieces, you’ll have a pretty good picture of the work that’s been done on digital dualism and augmented reality from February 2011 through February 2013. But if you skimmed the last two paragraphs, here’s the tl;dr you need for the next section: every single member of Cyborgology not only writes about digital dualism, but also produced something on digital dualism in the first two months of 2013.


Denialism, Duellism, and Dude-liness (in four waves)


Round One:
The fun starts with a blog post from author Nicholas Carr, in which he lays out a rather scathing assessment of the digital dualism critique (and takes shots at both Nathan Jurgenson and David Banks personally). Carr draws on several pieces by Jurgenson (with particular emphasis on “The IRL Fetish”), as well as on Banks’s preview of his TtW13 talk. Carr refers to the rest of Cyborgology en masse; though he references Wanenchak’s ‘dualist emotions’ post in his comments section, Carr can be bothered neither to link to Wanenchak’s post nor even to mention her by name.

Round Two:
Drew Kalbach (@drewkalbach) disagrees with Carr, and makes passing reference to Jurgenson.

Banks responds to Carr by further contextualizing digital dualism both historically and politically, and by refuting Carr’s accusation that in his TtW13 preview post he treats people “as dopes.” In a footnote, Banks suggests that Carr made a grave error in failing to engage Rey’s 2012 piece “The Myth of Cyberspace.”

Jurgenson responds to Carr largely by addressing Carr’s misreadings of his work, but closes with some analysis around the nature/technology dichotomy. Jurgenson also points out two places where Carr would have done well to engage Rey.

Wanenchak links to Banks’s and Jurgenson’s responses to Carr, then responds to Carr’s accusation that critics of digital dualism have neglected to consider people’s feelings and emotions. She also refutes Carr’s reading of her work in his comments section.

Round Three:
Chris Baraniuk (@machinestarts) focuses mainly on the exchange between Carr and Jurgenson in his post about “digital duellists,” and draws on material from email interviews he conducted with Carr in 2011 and with Jurgenson in 2013. He spends a sentence mentioning Banks’s and Wanenchak’s responses to Carr, and engages extensively with Rey’s work on “the myth of cyberspace.”

Tyler Bickford (@tylerbickford) focuses mainly on the exchange between Carr and Jurgenson to lay out an interesting critique: that the term “augmented reality” is itself inherently dualist, and that while he agrees with Jurgenson’s cumulative critique of digital dualism, Jurgenson also undermines that critique by insisting that the digital and the physical are “different.”[ii] Bickford draws heavily on Donna Haraway; he also mentions Banks’s response to Carr, Davis’s empirical typology of augmented reality, and my “hole in our thinking” piece. Notably, Bickford stated on Twitter that his goal in writing his response was, in part, “to make [the discussion] about gender/feminism”; he also noted that work by women Cyborgologists was being overlooked, and that he too had done so even despite his feminist intentions in writing his response:

Round Four:
Sacasas responds primarily to Bickford, but reframes the conversation as one between Jurgenson, Carr, and himself that’s been going on since the publication of Jurgenson’s “The IRL Fetish.” Sacasas agrees with Bickford’s critique that “augmented reality” is itself dualist, and that the term “reality” should be thrown out of the discussion—but where Bickford provides what is possibly the first “strong augmentationalist” critique of augmented reality, Sacasas ends on a mild dualist note by closing with a paean to face-to-face interaction.

Jurgenson responds to Bickford by revisiting his own strong/mild digital dualism/augmented reality framework, and briefly references Sacasas’s response to Bickford. Jurgenson concludes that Bickford makes some valid points about how he (Jurgenson) has articulated his ideas around digital dualism and augmented reality, and that he is continuing to think about Bickford’s points.

Jurgenson also responds (on his personal blog) to Baraniuk, and takes issue with some of Baraniuk’s framing both of the exchange with Carr and of Cyborgology’s position on technology—though he also feels these problems stem from Carr’s inaccurate reading of the anti-digital-dualism argument. Jurgenson also posts the full text of the email interview he did with Baraniuk about the exchange with Carr, in which he comments to Baraniuk that Carr failed to engage with work by Rey, Davis, Wanenchak, and myself.


Alright, so now what?

Ticket image from Donna Haraway's retirement celebration, 28 January 2011.
Ticket image from Donna Haraway’s retirement celebration, 28 January 2011.

In January of 2011, I was lucky enough to attend Donna Haraway’s retirement celebration at The University of California, Santa Cruz. The event was incredible: it featured performances, presentations, speeches in-room and via Skype, a delicious potluck lunch, critter masks, and a ritual. What I remember most from that day, however, were the repeated references to Dr. Haraway’s “generous citation practices.” Friends, colleagues, and students (both past and present) made this point over and over again: that Haraway went out of her way to cite even email threads and in-person conversations, even with her students, and that her commitment to making these citations had had positive impacts—both professionally and emotionally—for the people she cited.

Those repeated expressions of praise and gratitude made an incredible impression on me. They reminded me how important it is to cite the people who influence our thinking, and made me realize that citation can be an important political act. What I took home that evening from “Messing With Haraway” was not only a deeper appreciation of an extraordinary scholar, but also an updated picture of the scholar I aspire to become.

Citation matters, folks. Sure, we can’t all read everything—but when we don’t do due diligence in referencing the people and work we have read and do know about, we make it easier and more acceptable for other people both to do likewise and to avoid discovering that work in the first place. Failing to put Harawasian effort into our citations makes it easier for more powerful voices to be heard, and contributes to drowning less powerful voices out; more often than not, it also leads us to produce work of lower quality (just wait until my next post, in which I’ll point out how much work on digital dualism Carr overlooked).

Yes, “academia is a feudal system” (to quote the cliché I’m already sick of hearing). Yes, when tenure time comes, we’ll all be judged according to our individual output; The University will not care what kind of colleagues we have been, how we have worked with others, what we have accomplished collectively. Without a doubt, we are structurally incentivized to view The Academy in “survival of the fittest” terms. But my god, don’t we want to change this? Aren’t we committed to forging a mode of scholarship that’s more just, that’s more accessible and accountable, and that moves beyond the much-maligned model in which a bunch of white men with PhDs sit around talking to themselves and believe they’ve conquered the world? Would any of us be engaged in the somewhat transgressive practice of public, inter- and non-disciplinary theory work that Cyborgology and similar blogs represent, if not?

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I want a different Academy—and while I probably won’t get one in my own lifetime, I remain committed to working toward that goal.

Yeah, no. That’s not how it works.

This is the part where I need your help. I want to get a post up later this month that highlights the work of women, trans and genderqueer folk, and people of color who are working on or writing about digital dualism, augmented reality, or similar topics. Please respond in the comments to this post with names of people who are doing this work, and include a link to that work if at all possible. I’ve started a list of my own, and have gotten a few more suggestions on Twitter, but I think it would be helpful to keep the working suggestions list in a public place where everyone can see who’s been mentioned so far, so I’m offering up the “comments” section here. Like I said, we can’t all read everything—but I’m willing to bet there’s a fair amount of interesting, quality work on these topics that’s being overlooked, and I want to start making it easier for all of us to find that work.

No matter how brilliant someone’s work is, you can’t cite it if you don’t know it exists—so let’s take that first step.


[Note: I edited this piece on 12 March 2013 in order to clarify my point about women Cyborgologists being lumped into the “other” category, and to update my listing of recent work on digital dualism in response to Nathan’s comment below.]

Like a lot of woman scholars, Whitney Erin Boesel also theorizes digital technologies on Twitter. She’s @phenatypical.

“No Girls Allowed” sign image from http://guerillawomentn.blogspot.com/2012/04/where-are-women-ny-times-ethicist-picks.html
“No Women” sign from http://siliconvalleymamas.com/2011/06/join-the-club-gender-discrimination-in-2011/
“Manarchist” meme image from http://www.theprecarious.com/content/manarchist-explosion

[i] This is also the post in which Sacasas coined “The Cyborgology School of Digital Criticism,” a designation that I think has been woefully underutilized—and one that is, at present, a more accurate description of what goes on here than “Jurgenson and his cohorts” (etc).

[ii] I absolutely cannot wait to return to this point in my next post. Watch this space.

Whether they’ve joined me on Twitter, sneakily coerced me into spending more time on Facebook, or just like to go on at length about how social networking sites are “stupid and a waste of time,” it seems my friends never tire of talking to me about social media. Given my line of work, this is pretty great: it means a never-ending stream of food for thought (or “networked field research,” if you will). This post’s analysis-cum-cautionary tale comes to you through my friend Otto (we’ll refer to him by his nom de plume), who got himself into some pseudonuptial trouble last week.

It started when Otto was invited to a “wedding party”—which, as he explained it to me, is a party where the guests come dressed in fancy clothes; two people are selected to get married via a game of Hot Potato; a Mad Libs style prenuptial agreement is filled out after a wonderful hens night with the sexiest male strippers making night memorable ; the new couple is “married” in a (non-binding) ceremony; and then everyone enjoys the reception. As it happened, Otto was hot-potatoed into being one half of the married couple, and so “married” his friend (a young woman) who had invited him. He said that although he’d been skeptical of the party’s premise, it turned out to be a lot of fun.

The trouble began when Otto got home and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I posted these pictures and changed my status on Facebook?”

To Otto, his Facebook relationship status was no more “real” or serious than the Mad Libs prenup, or the ridiculous ceremony itself. He changed his profile picture to a photo taken at the party: himself in a tailcoat and top hat, his friend in a white dress, the two of them standing arms-around-waists and smiling beneath a tree in the park where the party took place. Otto’s friend confirmed the status change, and so their “Fakebook Marriage” became “Facebook Official.”

Donut wedding cake

I’m not always on top of my Facebook feed, so the first I saw of this was in one of those “four of your friends changed their profile pictures” items. I was checking Facebook on my phone while standing in line somewhere, and there in a grid of four tiny pictures was what did appear to be a wedding picture. “Oh, someone I know got married, that’s nice,” I thought. Obviously I’d have known ahead of time if any of my closer friends were getting married, so I assumed one of the barely visible figures in the photo was just someone I sort-of knew from high school.

A day or two later I was checking Facebook again, and suddenly my feed was full of “[friend] posted on Otto’s Wall” items. That’s weird—why were a number of my other close friends telling Otto “congratulations”? I clicked over to Otto’s profile, and was surprised to see that wedding picture. (Wait, what?) I scrolled down a bit further, and saw the “Married” item. The other name listed wasn’t Otto’s girlfriend, so I just started laughing; the random absurdity not just of a fake marriage, but of a documented fake marriage, was precisely his style of shenanigans.

Still, so many of the comments on his wall seemed to be sincere that I started to wonder. It had been about a week since I’d seen Otto; was it possible that, rather than so surprisingly few of us getting the joke, a few of us were just such cynical jerks that we didn’t realize he’d actually eloped (or something)? I sent a text, to which Otto replied, “*laughs* It’s pretty hilarious…Have you seen my wall?” By the time Otto was telling me the whole story over dinner a few days later, however, he had taken the picture down and removed his new relationship status; his amusement had also waned considerably.

“So it turns out…people take that stuff really seriously,” he said. It had never occurred to Otto that anyone would think he’d actually gotten married; nor had it occurred to him that many of his Facebook friends would even see his relationship status change. He knew about Facebook’s filtering algorithms, and how few of his friends he could expect to see any given post—yet, as he put it, “When you get married on Facebook, that goes on everybody’s feed. Everyone sees it.”

While “everyone” may not have included all of Otto’s Facebook friends (I know I missed the announcement), “everyone” did include a number of people whom Otto thought would not be able to see his status change. There was the distressed phone call from his mother, for instance, who asked, “Is there anything you want to tell me?” (“This is why I’m not friends with her on Facebook,” Otto said.) Otto’s long-distance girlfriend was upset as well: although she’d blocked him on Facebook at the time (they were going through “a rough patch,” he says), mutual friends had shown her the photo and the status change. He’d thought the “block” meant he could execute his prank without hurting her feelings; she thought he’d actually gotten married. This was not a good thing.

Real wedding; fake mustaches

Otto’s story showcases a number of interesting issues that surround social media. First, there’s the obvious anti-digital-dualism point here: the inextricable enmeshment of the physical and the digital enables information to flow readily between online and offline contexts. Even with the tightest of privacy settings, people to whom we are not connected through social media can still receive information we post on social media—sometimes even in its original form; even people who do not connect to (say) Facebook directly are still connected through it. This highlights some of the reasons we need to rethink our conceptializations of privacy, as I’ve argued before. (danah boyd’s [@zephoria] recent article “Networked Privacy” [pdf] provides a name for the new kind of privacy I argue we need, and does an excellent job of explaining why we need it.)

Second, what happens on social media is not somehow “less real” than what happens through other media. To many of Otto’s friends, his picture-and-status change was no different than if he had sent out marriage announcements, or placed an ad in the local paper. This doesn’t mean that no one was surprised by his prank, or that some people didn’t wonder what he was thinking, but it does show that to many people (especially those less familiar with the apparently contentious phenomenon of “Fakebook Marriages”), a Facebook marriage announcement bears significance, and has real social weight.

At the same time, a Facebook marriage obviously doesn’t always correspond to a legal marriage. Sometimes a Facebook marriage is a joke; sometimes a Facebook marriage serves to deflect unwanted romantic attention. My own Facebook wife and I got “married” almost three years ago, because we both delight in what’s been called “database vandalism” (or alternatively, “statistical noisemaking“). I like to picture Facebook’s data mining practices as a colony of ants, and my false data as tasty borax-filled ant bait.

As social media practices evolve, social media users necessarily have to develop ways both of signaling and of decoding the multiple meanings that something like “married” on Facebook can have. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes your friend really did elope.) My theory here is that so many people took Otto seriously because he changed his profile picture and that, if he had simply gotten “married,” more of his friends would have been more skeptical. Similarly, if he had changed his profile picture but not changed his status, I’m willing to bet he would have gotten more questions than “congratulations.” Instead, Otto stumbled across what may be an emerging practice: changing one’s status and one’s profile picture when one really does get married.


If Whitney Erin Boesel ever gets fake-married, she’ll be sure to livetweet it. Don’t miss this unlikely eventuality; follow her on Twitter! She’s @phenatypical.


Pinterest ecard from http://www.hercampus.com/school/texas/pinspiration-real-life
Donut wedding cake from http://doodaddy.net/2007/05/23/the-krispy-kreme-doughnut-wedding-cake/
Wedding mustaches photo from http://blog.weddingpaperdivas.com/rant-or-rave-fake-wedding-mustaches/

EDIT (17 January 2013): Please see update below.

The scene is San Francisco, late 2009, and a friend is explaining—animatedly, excitedly—“why there are so many poly [polyamorous] people on OkCupid.” I wasn’t paying much attention to online dating at the time, so the precise details are fuzzy, but it basically boiled down to the options that OkCupid offered for “relationship status.” In addition to the expected categories like “single,” “seeing someone,” or “married” offered by other social networking and dating sites, OkCupid offered the label “available.”

To know why this distinction would matter to someone who identifies as “poly” or “polyamorous” (as did this particular friend), you need to know a little bit about what polyamory is. In an oversimplified nutshell: if monogamy is being in one romantic relationship while having one sexual partner (who are the same person), and non-monogamy is having more than one sexual partner (while having one or zero romantic relationships), then polyamory is openly having more than one romantic relationship (usually while having more than one sexual partner). While a non-monogamous couple in a “swingers” scene might have casual sex with other partners but limit their romantic/dating activities to each other, a poly couple often has romantic relationships with other partners rather than just casual sex. (Nor are all poly partnerships couples; committed poly triads are not all that uncommon.)

Polyamory symbol

“Available” was therefore an important distinction to my friend, who was in a polyamorous marriage. His wife had several boyfriends (whom he knew, and whom she dated with his blessing); he was interested in dating as well and, as an introvert, found online dating to be a more comfortable way of meeting prospective partners. When he identified as “married” or “in a relationship,” however, women who viewed his profiles often read “off the market” (or in one case, approached him for an illicit affair); the algorithms behind the sites also didn’t show his profile to people who were seeking “single” matches. Identifying as “single” would have gotten the algorithms to behave, but he didn’t want to mislead prospective partners or to insult his wife by denying their marriage.

“Available” offered a much more appealing option, both as a relationship status and as a search category. As a status, it was an easy way for him to signal, “hey, you can date me, but I am something other than single.” And because “available to date” and “not in a relationship” were no longer treated as synonymous in the catch-all category “single,” the algorithms behind OkCupid would show his profile to people who wanted to date, but didn’t mind if their new partner had a partner. (It’s important to note, however, that my friend’s enthusiasm for “available” is not shared by all poly OkCupid users; others find the term too general to be useful.)

I don’t know my OkCupid history that well, so I’m not sure if OkCupid’s reputation and status as a poly-friendly dating site came from the fact that it offered the “available” status, or if it started offering the “available” status based on popular demand from its users. What I do know is that last week, as I was going through the process of signing up for OkCupid as a fictitious 18-year-old boy (as research for another piece of writing), I was surprised to find the “available” category missing. When you first sign up for OkCupid, it now offers only three relationship statuses: “I’m single,” “I’m seeing someone / here for friends,” and “I’m married / here for friends.” Once you’ve completed the registration process, these categories collapse even further: as a registered user, you can choose from “single,” “seeing someone,” and “married” only.

Jenny Davis (@Jup83) wrote last fall about identity prosumption on the social networking sites Facebook and Fetlife, and in her piece examines how the two sites differ with respect to both “collective vs. individualist orientation” and “control over identity meanings.” The structure of a Facebook profile puts more emphasis on a person’s individual identities, while the structure of a FetLife profile puts more emphasis on a person’s group member identities. Similarly, Facebook offers more open-ended response fields on its profile form, which allows for more flexibility in self-definition, whereas FetLife offers more drop-down menus with pre-set identity categories (and therefore structures identity prosumption by providing the categories into which people self-select). While I don’t know how significant OkCupid is or was as a site of poly identity prosumption, Davis’s work is instructive here because it shows the impact of online profile structures’ differing affordances.

Four-person poly relationship

While I can’t speak to the significance of OkCupid as a site of poly identity prosumption, that OkCupid is a site of poly identity prosumption is not in question. Poly OkCupid users developed ways of doing/being[i] poly on the site, which usually involved using the relationship status “available,” using the term “poly” or “polyamorous” (or both) in one’s profile keywords, and linking to one’s partner’s profile (if one’s partner was also on OkCupid). In so doing, people experienced with polyamory and online dating not only taught others how to write poly-friendly dating site profiles, but also demonstrated to the newly poly what “being poly” means: for instance, that one should be clear and forthcoming about one’s existing relationships, that one should expect to know about one’s partner’s other relationships, and that one should expect to get to know one’s new partner’s other partner(s).

This makes the prosumption of poly identity on OkCupid an interesting contrast to Davis’s examination of identity prosumption on Facebook and FetLife. Both “polyamorous” and “BDSM enthusiast” are largely considered “deviant” identities (despite what life in San Francisco might lead one to believe), and therefore have fewer well-known scripts and templates for their performance. Yet where “FetLife, through its templated categories, prominently posted norms, and dropdown menus, guides prosuming subjects through the process of BDSM identity prosumption,” poly identity prosumption was (at the time) structured both by OkCupid’s templates (choosing the “available” status) and by poly OkCupid users’ creative appropriation of the site’s more open-ended features (searchable and clickable keywords, linking to other profiles) to create poly-specific practices (using the term “poly” as a keyword, linking to one’s partner’s profile).

Poly triad

I really wish I’d been paying attention to this over the last few years, because now I have a bunch of questions I don’t have the data to answer. First, does anyone know when the “available” category disappeared? (And did its disappearance have anything to do with the more traditional/mainstream dating site Match.com purchasing OkCupid in 2011?) Second, how has the disappearance of the “available” category changed users’ experiences on OkCupid generally, and poly identity prosumption on OkCupid specifically? Third, what new practices (if any) have poly OkCupid users developed to route around the fact that “single” is once again the catch-all term for “on the market,” while new users are rather explicitly told by OkCupid that people who are “seeing someone” or “married” should only be looking for friends? I’m interested in hearing more about this, particularly from poly OkCupid users.

UPDATE (17 January 2013, evening): It turns out I should have titled this post “‘Available’ is Not Readily Available.” The emerging consensus from my Twitter feed in response to this post is that the “available” status still exists, but is not—and may never have been—a status that one can select directly. Instead, the “available” status has to be “unlocked” (my term) by selecting an appropriate combination of options in the “status” and “looking for” categories. The [up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start] for “available” on OkCupid is selecting either “seeing someone” or “married” for one’s status, and checking any/all of “short-term dating,” “long-term dating,” or “casual sex” in the “I’m looking for” category. After doing so, a user will appear as “available” throughout the site.

Most of the rest of this post still stands, however, and I’d love to hear from readers about how—or if—you think the indirect selection of the “available” status affects poly identity prosumption on OkCupid.


Whitney Erin Boesel is on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

Triad in bathtub photo from http://gaypoly.wordpress.com/
Polyamory symbol from http://2.loverules.info/3501
Poly gender keychain image from http://cindykesey.wordpress.com/2008/03/08/the-ultimate-meetup-polyamory-in-second-life/
Four-person poly relationship photo from http://www.ontheragmag.com/watch/polyamory-married-and-dating/
Poly triad photo from http://romantiqueinnocence.blogspot.com/2012/01/lovely-couple-no-just-odd-couple-arent.html

[i] Whether “poly” is an identity, an orientation, a practice, a status, or some combination of the above (or none of the above) is up for debate, and I find that debate particularly fascinating.

“Map View” of a search for apartment listings on boston.craigslist.org

Stop me if you’ve heard one of these before: “[something online/digital] is super-awesome because it’s ‘open’—anyone can participate! Our cool [product/app/service] allows people to [action] all by themselves, without going through [older gatekeeper/channel/service provider]! Our [product/app/service] is totally going to [democratize/revolutionize/‘be a game changer for’] the world of [action]-ing, because now anyone can [action]!” The tl;dr here is that “openness” undermines existing power structures and institutions, and that this opened or leveled playing field allows individuals both to take new autonomous, self-directed actions and to collaborate with each other in new ways.

This isn’t the whole story, however, nor do most “open” initiatives really play out that way. Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc) does a great job of explaining how “flat” or “horizontal” networks evolve into hierarchical structures “not in spite of, but because of, their initial open nature.” Tufekci makes her argument in the context of examining the “leaderless” revolutions of the Arab Spring; Wessel van Rensburg (@wildebees) draws on Tufekci & others to situate this kind of optimism about “openness” in the broader context of early Silicon Valley and technoutopianism. I’m now going to provide a case study of openness’s utopian promise gone awry with a much more banal example: Craigslist, and four of my own experiences apartment hunting in the Boston area between 1999 and 2013.

The Post-Internet but Pre-Craigslist Era

1999: in Boston’s Park Street Station, en route to my first day (ever) of apartment hunting.

In December of 1999, I embarked upon my very first apartment search (I wasn’t yet old enough to buy alcohol, but apparently I was old enough to buy a year’s worth of living space in twelve monthly installments). Back then, there were three ways to find an apartment: you could contact a realtor or real estate agent, who would charge a fee (usually to you, but occasionally half to you and half to the landlord) equal to one month’s rent when you signed a lease on a place s/he had shown you; you could respond to classified ads in the newspaper (primarily the Boston Globe), which usually led to realtors, real estate agents, or management companies, but which occasionally led to landlords leasing directly (in which case, the landlord would only charge you to run a credit check, if that); and you could pay a flat fee to access an online database of “no fee” apartments for a limited period of time (if I remember correctly, the website most of my friends and I used charged $50 or $60 for 60 days of access to that site’s listings; there was another website that offered a similarly priced service for finding roommates).

There wasn’t much on the “no fee” apartments site at the time, so I ended up spending three days looking at apartments with an agent before applying for one and then signing a lease. I found the agent by applying to a classified ad for a particular apartment; the agent then asked me questions and had me fill out forms about what I was looking for in a place, then lined up a bunch of showings. At the end of it, I got a three-room “studio” that came to be known as The Back Bay Menagerie, and my agent got a check for an amount equal to my monthly rent.


The Earlier Craigslist Era

Plaguehaus housewarming party, August 2002

In mid-2000, something happened that started to change how people found apartments in the Boston area: Boston became the second Craigslist city (the first had been San Francisco). As you’re probably aware, Craigslist is like an online classified ads service through which people—random people, “anybody”—can post long-form ads for free[i]. In the realm of rental real estate, the arrival of Craigsist meant three things: landlords (or brokers) could post ads for vacant apartments without to go through a print newspaper’s classifieds department; landlords had a new way to find prospective tenants without going through a broker; and tenants could find landlords without going through brokers or paid-access listing services.

By May of 2002, when I was next looking to start a new apartment, Boston Craigslist had taken off. The metro area itself was divided by geography into a few subcategories; the “Apartments for Rent” part of the site had sections for “by broker,” “by owner,” and “no fee,” and there were a lot of apartments in the “by owner” and “no fee” sections. My then-housemate and I found an apartment in the “by owner” section, so all we paid to move into the apartment known as Plaguehaus was first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and security deposit—no broker’s fee or “finder’s fee.”

A little over two years later, when I was next looking to move, Craigslist was the first place I looked. I ended up falling in love with an apartment based on the pictures in a posting; when I went to go see the place, it turned out that—wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles—the pictures were actually representative of the apartment. The place was listed through a broker, so there was a fee, but it was worth it: I lived in that apartment (attikhaus) for four years, and never would have moved if I hadn’t started graduate school 3,000 miles away. If I could have dragged the apartment across the country with me, I’d have done it in a heartbeat.


The Present Day Craigslist Era

This place rented literally as I was clicking send on my application. I was sad.

Fast forward to the fall of 2012, which is when I first started watching the Boston-area “Apartments for Rent” section, in advance of my much-anticipated return to the East Coast—and was shocked to find the Craigslist “scene” radically changed since my last Boston-area apartment hunt. Sometime in the intervening eight years, the Boston Craigslist “Apartments” section had become nearly unusable. There were very few apartments listed by owner; many of the “no fee” apartments were actually miscategorized posts for rooms in occupied apartments, posted by people seeking roommates; apartments in places like Waltham, Woburn, and Winchester were posted in the Boston/Cambridge/Brookline subsection (hint: it is not easy to confuse these areas—they are quite different); spammers copied pictures from legitimate listings to offer imaginary apartments for ludicrously sub-market rents.

But what really got me was the behavior of some Boston brokers. Sometimes four or five different people from the same brokerage would post the same apartment, and would each post that apartment in two or three slightly different ads (occasionally changing the rent by $5 or so to make it look like a different place), and would then post each of those slightly different ads several times, and would repeat this process every day until a place finally rented—or, as I discovered once I began looking for a place in late December, sometimes even after a place rented. As one broker explained to me (by way of half-apologizing for the fact that the apartment I’d come to see had rented days previous), “Well you know, the Internet makes it real easy to repost a place, and sometimes not everyone [in the brokerage] knows when something rents.”

It’s not intellectually difficult to see through these tactics, but it does take a lot of work. One company that’s particularly guilty of over-posting usually (but not always) posts reference numbers in their ads; this means that, if you’re paying attention, you can see right away that the “sunny” one bedroom apartment for $1500 is the same place as that “spacious” one bedroom apartment for $1495 that you saw yesterday, which is actually quite dark and maybe 400 square feet at best. Eventually you discover that, though there are 20-someodd total copies of 6 unique ads for a one-bedroom near that price in that neighborhood, there is really only one one-bedroom apartment for rent “near Union Square”—and having seen it, you now ignore all postings that sound similar (possibly to your detriment). To get to this point though, you had to open a lot of ads and read them—and even skimming ads takes a lot of time when you’re getting bowled over by a firehose of “new” postings.

Fake wood paneling: it still happens.

I used an app on my phone that allowed me to hide listings that were useless to me, and that notified me whenever an apartment meeting my search criteria was posted, so to some degree I was able to automate my end of things the way the brokers could. But even this left a lot to be desired: hiding an ad, for instance, only hid that copy of the ad; if a broker copied/pasted the content into a “new” ad rather than clicking to renew the original ad, the ad would reappear in my list. No matter how many suburban areas I subtracted in my search criteria (e.g. “–Waltham –Woburn –Winchester”), there was always some town I hadn’t thought of that slipped through the cracks (get thee back to the North Shore section, Lynn), and subtracting too many made my app crash (again, and again, and again). Even when an ad sounded promising, there were still plenty of ways for things to go wrong: Boston has a record low vacancy rate for rental properties right now, which means even in the “off-season” (most Boston leases expire August 31), landlords can charge higher rents for less desirable spaces (think mold, mouse droppings, smoke damage, no kitchen, or neon orange shag carpeting), and can also be extremely picky about whom they take as tenants (for instance, refusing an application from a quiet, boring grad student with perfect references because she has a cat—ahem).

In the end I finally did find a place (apartment name: TBA), and it was one that I called about after seeing an ad on Craigslist. But finding that apartment took being willing to pay a bit more in rent than I’d wanted, being willing to put some of my furniture in storage, and—this is the big one—taking on apartment searching as a more than full-time job for 11 solid days. (I did take New Year’s Day off, but only because no one was showing apartments.) The agent who received my fee, on the other hand, showed up to let me see the place, corresponded with me via text message that afternoon, and spent about an hour with me filling out paperwork and processing my application.


Why Craigslist Is Not The Revolution

This place was cool, but I would have had to put all my bookcases in the middle of the room.

Taken together, my experiences in these three different time periods show the “openness” of Craigslist to be a double-edged sword. Yes, Craigslist could initially be seen as “empowering” for tenants and even landlords because brokers and paid-access ads no longer served as gatekeepers between those two groups. But here’s the thing: those who have power always want to keep their power. The newspaper classifieds have suffered from the rise of Craigslist, and perhaps the brokers did too in the beginning. But today, brokers—who have the extremely competitive rental market to their advantage—have turned Craigslist into not a threat, but a powerful tool for harnessing free labor from prospective tenants. Because Craigslist itself depends upon the free labor of users to flag inappropriate posts for removal (such as spam ads, overposted ads, miscategorized ads, etc; basically all the things that make Boston Craigslist “Apartments for Rent” nearly unusable), the brokers get away with posting these kinds of ads; even I burned out on trying to flag all the overposts after about a week. At least in Boston, at least during this year’s “off-season,” Craigslist is not the world’s biggest threat to professional rental brokers; rather, it’s the suite of reasons most prospective tenants are likely to end up renting through a broker rather than from a landlord directly.

A dedicated apartment-seeker must now put a near-pathological about of time and effort into sifting through ads, making phone calls, meeting brokers, and viewing apartments. On the other hand, a broker (with a desirable listing) can forego the time-consuming process of talking to prospective tenants and driving them to see apartments, and can instead earn a four-figure fee by doing little more than copying preexisting text from a brokerage database, repeatedly pasting it into Craigslist ads, hosting an open house (or letting a few people in to look around), running a credit check, and making sure new tenants initial each page of thick lease agreements. I’m not saying the broker’s end doesn’t involve work, but I am saying the lucky broker (with good listings) has a lot less work than s/he did in 1999. The prospective tenant, on the other hand, has a whole lot more work cut out for her than she did before the brokers ruined Craigslist, or before Craigslist even existed.

This place was huge, and awesome in its own run-down way…but the landlord wasn’t into cats.

Much as Facebook makes “sharing” much easier and less time-consuming than “being shared with,” present-day Craigslist (and the affordances of digital technologies generally) makes posting ads much, much easier than sorting through and reading ads. Brokers have a double-incentive to spam Craigslist with 40 ads for the same apartment: doing so means a greater chance that prospective tenants will see an ad and call about it, and doing so makes it much, much harder for a tenant to find an apartment without a broker’s help. While in theory one can avoid most of the spammy over-posting by sticking to the “by owner” section, that only works when landlords post apartments there—and during the “off-season” of 2012-2013, it seems few property owners are doing so (nor do they have much incentive to do so, given that the tenant customarily pays the broker’s fee in Boston). For some people, it becomes much easier to pick a broker, look at what she or he takes them to see, and choose from that array, rather than continue to weed through the chaos of Craigslist.

When a tenant signs a lease after being taken to see a number of apartments, this does represent more work[ii] for the broker than I’ve described above; that broker is not benefiting from the tenant’s free labor to the same extent as does a broker who only has to do a showing and print out a lease. Even the broker who spends an hour driving a prospective tenant around, however, still benefits from Craigslist Chaos, because that chaos makes looking for an apartment without a broker much more difficult and unpalatable. Plus, chances are good that the prospective tenant found the broker through Craigslist, probably by responding to a specific ad (for an apartment that may or may not actually be available).

My future apartment, shown here with someone else’s stuff (and someone else’s cat).

If Boston Craigslist were less open—say, if it charged brokers a fee for posting rental listings, as does New York Craigslist—perhaps it could have remained more “revolutionary,” more of a venue for empowering tenants and landlords to find each other directly. As it stands, however, the openness of Boston Craigslist, combined with the competitive rental market, have turned Boston Craigslist into a tool for reinforcing broker hegemony.


Whitney Erin Boesel is ridiculously excited to be moving back to Cambridge later this month. Her Twitter address, however, will remain unchanged: you can send tweets to @phenatypical.

Author in Park Street Station photo by Blake Brasher
All other photos by Whitney Erin Boesel. Used with permission.

[i] Today, Craigslist charges fees to post some types of ads in some cities.

[ii] One broker in particular put a lot of work into trying to find me a place. When I finally ended up renting through someone else, I felt really guilty about it—because I remember thinking, “wow, this person is really earning that broker’s fee.” I love my new place, and the broker who rented it to me was helpful, but the person I rented from didn’t do nearly as much work as did this particular broker from whom I didn’t end up renting.