Category Archives: Research

Is limited representation bad for advertisers?

I’m writing a chapter about the representation of individual persons this month so I’ve been thinking more than usual about the justifications for limiting profile options.

One common reason for, say, giving users of your system a limited set of predefined options to choose from (drop-down menus, toggle switch, ticky boxes, etc) is that such strict categorisation allows for easy collection of specific data. You can more easily compare users. And often – for example, if you’re using a free corporate social media service – this categorisation ties right into the advertising side of the business; they offer targeted advertising services to other businesses wanting web traffic in order to remain financially viable.

I was looking at Facebook’s ad targeting page this week, which outlines the process of targeting specific demographics and later seeing detailed metrics that help you review your approach. (Check it out, it’s interesting!)

Another concept I’ve been looking at a lot this week is that of ‘Big Data’. I had some trouble defining it so I evaluated other attempts . . . which weren’t as helpful as I had hoped. It appears Big Data is one of those new buzz words that everyone is using and defining differently in relation to their own work or theoretical context.

However, the MIKE2.0 site offers an interesting understanding that emphasises the complexity of data, rather than its size, as being the definitive property of Big Data. This appeals to me and my approach because it highlights the confusion and potential for new understandings that this phenomenon introduces. To complement this, I also like Mac Slocum’s description of social data as “an oracle waiting for a question” in this context. There is just so much data out there and the new problems we face are less to do with accessing data than trying to ask the right questions to find out something new and exciting.

And this is where we return to Facebook. I’ve always thought the best argument for limited representation (gender/sex is always a good example, but other categories are just as relevant here) is that it helps with their advertisers. However, we have technology that can produce rich datasets and give us more details about individuals, so wouldn’t allowing a greater range of representation actually improve targeted advertising? Companies can include or exclude demographics and then better review the effectiveness of their advertising in much more detail.

One example that Facebook gives is a success story where a wedding photography business targeted women aged 24-30 who were recently engaged. Of course this works*, but it would be even more successful if they could look at and target finer demographics within this quite broad dataset. Imagine if Facebook simply allowed for an ‘other’ gender/sex option – even this simple change would help many advertisers not pay to target ‘those crazy, politically correct hippies who probably wouldn’t want my products anyway’, and give many more advertisers the ability to more easily target this specialised group.

Big Data is complicated, but it enables us to uncover interesting and important details. And where corporations such as Facebook may benefit from expanding its user options, government funded projects like the census who still enforce a male/female binary and ignore non-standard religions – thus making us all miss out on exploring and better understanding our diverse population now and in the future, which is an important aspect of its purpose – really have no excuse.

Admittedly, this is the very early stage of an idea so it’s not completely thought out, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to see Facebook’s binary gender/sex field as being detrimental to their business and thought this was important enough to share.

* As much as any online advertising works, at least. I’m always surprised to hear that people click on advertising links, because it’s counters my own practices so strongly. But I’m happy these people are out there, keeping the Internet alive!

Marginalisation remains in Google’s ‘more inclusive’ naming policy

In a post on Google+ today, Bradley Horowitz announced that Google+ have revised their handling of names in order to work “toward a more inclusive naming policy”. In itself, this sounds great, but I was right to be hesitant in my celebration.

Previous problems

There were many issues with Google+’s original ‘Real Names’ policy. Put simply, Google tells users they must use their real names on Google+ and, if it is suspected users are not complying with this, they may have their account suspended – unless they happen to be a high-profile celebrity, of course. Disregarding the obvious profitability that comes with accurate user data, we heard the typical arguments about how real names create accountability and make people play nice with one another. (I’m still far from convinced this is the case. Boing Boing has a nice, recent discussion on this debate if you’re interested.)

The Geek Feminism Wiki page, Who is harmed by a “Real Names” Policy?, which I keep linking everyone to, highlights the issues better than I can. Along with the simple technical issues – ‘Um, I don’t have exactly two names so I can’t fill in my real name in your system?’ – comes a long list of people who can not or do not want to use their real name for valid reasons such as safety, avoiding harassment, or not wanting their voice marginalised due to assumptions others make about them from their name.  This is a real issue for a lot of people directly, and for the rest indirectly – we lose their voices in the conversation.

So any improvements on the policy should be positive, right?

The changes

As well as facilitating more languages (this is great!) Google has allowed users to include a desired nickname along with their full, ‘real name’.  To be absolutely clear, there is no indication that users will ever be allowed to hide their real name from others. This is simply a feature that allows users to include additional information.

First and last names are still unable to be hidden on Google+.I admit, this is a step forward, but it certainly is, as Horowitz states, “a small step”. They’re helping people use more complicated real names and they’re helping people be recognised next to their more common pseudonyms. But the people for whom major changes are more urgent are not assisted at all here. Those victims of assault who don’t want do be located by their abusers? Those people who dare to prefer that their social presence is not easily searchable by banks and potential future employers? Citizens who want their words heard for what they say rather than for the gender or colour of the hands that type them? They still need to be comfortable listing their full, legal names or not use the service at all. In short, they’re still not welcome.

Statistics and justifications

And this is where it pains me to read the justifications for this system change. It is claimed that because users submit three times more appeals to state a nickname than to use a pseudonym primarily, this is a reasonable response. However, if people do not want to declare their real names in the first place, then they would not fall under the category of ‘users’. They are not included as part of this statistic that wants to be included. However, if it’s simply referring to users attempting to create a new account (the wording is a little unclear), this isn’t including those who are aware of the real names policy and do not bother signing up as a result, or join using a fake name that the system happens to let through. They go unrecorded.

Of course, there are other issues with the wording as it stands – just because someone doesn’t submit a name appeal (I haven’t!) it doesn’t mean they have no opinion on this issue or would not be negatively affected by Google doing nothing – but the suggestion that allowing pseudonyms is an unimportant feature request because of some careful number gathering appears to be an indication that they’re just going to keep on avoiding this legitimate concern. They’ve “listened closely to community feedback” but decided to only implement those changes that don’t question the original real names policy.

In short, I believe the stated 0.02% of users who submit a name appeal to use a pseudonym is a strong under-representation of the number of users who would actually prefer this option – not to mention those who would simply like it to be available, even if they don’t change their own name to a pseudonym.

Every time I see Google implementing a new feature, I see ever more clearly who they really are.

I read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta this afternoon while thinking about social media service exclusions. The following verse from V’s sardonic, “This Vicious Cabaret”, struck me as relevant here:

There’s thrills and chills and girls galore, there’s sing-songs and surprises!

There’s something here for everyone, reserve your seat today!

There’s mischiefs and malarkies . . .

but no queers . . . or yids . . . or darkies . . .

within this bastard’s carnival, this vicious cabaret.

So, I admit it may be a stretch to suggest Google is comparable to the fascist, post-apocalyptic governing body in power throughout most of the story, but the point is, if these services do what they (as corporations) intend to and gain a strong user base, while also refusing service to significant demographics and important voices, they begin erode those democratic elements of communication we were promised at the dawn of the Internet.

And this isn’t the world I want to live in.

Stick-figure sexism and user profiles or: my new favourite xkcd comic

My research became a little more complicated in November.  And by ‘complicated’, I always mean ‘interesting and fun’.

I was having a conversation with Nina Funnell about my work on gendered spaces and how this influences practices of social engagement.  The idea is that enforced gender declaration together with a limited range of response and an imposed prominence of this attribute creates issues for equality of participation.  Users with perceived feminine profiles are often marginalised, their voices weakened through experiences of harassment, whether direct or observed (one study found “female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames”1), and gender stereotyping.

Gender, I find, is a helpful example that explains this issue of marginalisation and fairness of participation within communities.  But it is a specific illustration that highlights a broader issue where individuals are not considered equal in practice – whether through silencing or through others internally delegitimising others’ voices through stereotyping – and the level of control individuals have to diminish the negative stereotypes that work against them.

One clear solution is to give individuals more control over deciding what aspects of themselves they wish to reveal.  Removing the mandatory gendering of social media spaces and allowing pseudonyms, for example, is a good step in the right direction.  Users ‘a1’ and ‘a2’ (with no other declared attributes) are arguably far more equal than users ‘alison’ and ‘ben’.  The more attributes added to the basic user ‘skeleton’ the less equal users become, depending on the viewers and their personal understandings of these attributes within a social context and their process of stereotyping.  I argue that digital systems have too much control over the mandatory enforcement of declaring information that becomes publicly attributable to the users.

Putting it simply, publicly categorising users within communities, such as gendering spaces through mandatory declaration, harms equality of participation.

Giving users more control over their public appearance may seem like a simple solution that fosters equality in community engagement.  In fact, this was the direction my argument had been taking for much of the year.  However!, a real solution is much more complex.

Nina mentioned a concept called ‘stick-figure sexism’.  It is where we are shown a simple stick figure and we are asked to describe the type of person we believe it represents.  More often than not, the response outlines a middle-aged, able-bodied, white male.  This, then, is said to be considered a ‘normal’ person (in stick-figure land), and any divergence to it is represented through ‘add-ons’ such as long hair, coloured in heads that represent different skin shades, walking canes, etc.

gethen blog has a fun, short post on stick-figure sexism, which describes xkcd comics as a “serial offender”2.  On a related note, I’d like to share my new favourite xkcd comic, as published on that post.

Remixed by gethenhome from the xkcd original.

Hearing about this concept, I recognised important implications for my own work.  If I’m advocating the removal of mandatory categorical fields within public user profiles, it is conceivable that some communities may be no better off – or be even worse.  If we remove our focus on gender, say, then it could give rise to the assumption that more users fall under whatever gender we imagine is more likely to participate within those communities.  We may assume that all (or the vast majority of) ungendered, pseudonymous users are young, white, male Americans and in doing so destroy the sense of diversity we are led to experience in real-world situations.

All in all, I believe the negative consequences of this (let’s give it a name) ‘profile sexism’ in practice will be small, especially when compared to the positive consequences that would be far more apparent.  However, it’s certainly important for me to address in my work.  To find a reasonable solution we need to look at both the technical and social gendering of spaces.

An early observation I noted was that, through many years’ engagement with communities on livejournal, I have personally experienced many situations where assumptions have not followed this idea of profile sexism.  In fact, many communities lead me to perceive a large variation of cultures (I use the term very loosely) coming together to discuss a topic they have a shared interest in.  One reason for this is that I’ve been participating within these communities for so long that of course it would have sunk in that users are from different locations and account for a variety of different cultural demographics.  This idea suggests the sense of multiculturalism and the acceptance of various views is learned over time.  However, it’s difficult to determine the strength of this because it’s difficult to remember first impressions to compare present understandings to.

Another reason for the sense of inclusiveness I register from these communities is that there is something about them, some aspect of the design – influenced by the livejournal system, the community moderators and the members themselves – that may facilitate this.  It may be possible that some element of these communities’ appearance suggests they are more welcoming and inclusive than, say, the feeling I get reading YouTube and reddit comments, or user responses to articles on

In truth, it’s probably a mix of both a learned understanding through previous interaction and particular design elements that help inform a sense of inclusiveness.  In effect, what I’m now looking at (though this is only a small part of my research) is a way to determine better system design for various communities, based on the kind of interaction desired, arguing against the common privacy demarcation between Zuckerberg’s and Schmidt’s “communities are better when everything is public [also: we can make more money from it]” and my previous call for users to have full control over their public profiles and be discouraged from publicising anything that’s not relevant.

I still hold the latter view, of course.  But I seek to determine which elements of system design facilitate healthy interaction between users with different backgrounds and social identifications.  This can’t be answered simply by discussing ‘privacy’.

Oh, look, I appear to have summarised my thesis in a few sentences.


1. “Female-Name Chat Users Get 25 Times More Malicious Messages”, 9 May 2006,, <>

2. “Stick-Figure Sexism”, 29 December 2009,, <>

Some important words for the holiday season

Here is a short but brilliant blog entry on Christmas.

It’s a made-up thing, it only exists because people believe in it. You can imagine that if you had been born into a culture that didn’t take any notice of Christmas, you could have lived a long and happy life and never even missed it.

But here in our culture, Christmas is a big deal. Even people who personally don’t find Christmas enjoyable or meaningful, even people who dislike it intensely, still get sucked into exchanging gifts and cards, going to Christmas parties and family Christmas dinners, and wishing “Merry Christmas” to friends, co-workers, and strangers on the street. In fact, for a person who was really determined to avoid Christmas, the only alternative would be to drop out of society altogether.

Gender is just like that.

Gender” from gethen blog.

Please share on whatever social networking sites kids are using these days =)

Caring is sharing

Some of you may have noticed that I have added a Creative Commons (CC) license to the photos posted on this blog.  As a person who loves the idea of free culture, the decision was actually a bit more complicated than I expected.


First of all, I’m a fairly private person so I’m hesitant to publish images of myself for the rest of the world to share and remix.  What if they are used in a way that makes me uncomfortable?

Of course, this is a case of me trying to control my public identity.  A similar example is the fact that I am yet to post images of myself on here.  Yes, I don’t currently have a photo I like enough to share, but I believe the main reason is that I don’t want my appearance to have too much of an effect on how others read the content.  I don’t believe it’s all that relevant.

CC licensing, then, isn’t such an issue for privacy right now so I can safely ignore it.  However, it does highlight a possible future need for the publication of some images that are not for others to use.  I don’t yet know where I stand here.  Perhaps I’ll return to this later.


I then needed to determine where I stand on commercial use of cultural works.

I don’t want something of mine that I have shared lovingly with the world to be used by an evil corporation in order to make more money.  This is a typical sentiment that leads to a ‘non-commercial’ condition being included in many CC licenses.  However, in reality, the effects of such licenses are much more complex than that.

Take Ubuntu, for example.  (Actually, I recommend taking Linux Mint, instead – download it here!)  Many GNU/Linux distributions are put together by people or companies that in some way receive money from their work.  This could be through donations, support, licensing or CD/DVD sales (even if they break even, or lose money).  The point is, if the many pieces of software that have informed these distributions had specified a non-commercial license, their compilation would not be financially feasible and, in some cases, technically impossible.

The problem is imagining a worst-case scenario, like I did at the beginning of this section, and doing all you can to prevent its eventuation, however unlikely, at the expense of legitimate cultural use of your work.  I kinda like living in a world with Ubuntu, so I don’t support the non-commercial licensing of (potential) cultural works.

(Nina Paley has written and spoken on this issue, if you’re interested in finding out more.)

Clarity and metadata

The third issue I encountered wonders how best to ‘advertise’ these licenses.  I want people to feel free to use my images so this needs to be fairly prominent.  Listing details at the bottom of each image post (I’m using a WordPress template plug-in for this) helps.

But I wanted to embed license and author details within the images themselves, as this would make them easier to find.  I installed a handy program called ExifTool and wrote a script on my server computer so I could easily write the desired ‘author’ and ‘comment’ data in all the .jpg files within a single folder.  It worked great!

(However, when using a Windows PC I notice the data are not readable in the standard file properties window.  I’ll have to play around to make sure I’m editing the correct thing.)

 Current license choices

The following image is of a cute spider.  It was crawling on the outside of a car while I was a passenger.  My favourite part is how one of its weird feeler thinggies (a ‘palpus’, apparently) appears to be covering its eyes (actually, they’re fangs, but they look like eyes) from the sun so it can look in on us.

Click for full-size version

If you would like to put a funny caption on this and post it to icanhazcheezburger (remix), use it on wikipedia or simply put it on your own blog or whatever, you can! – under the following conditions.

  1. You must attribute me as the author.  (Attribution)
  2. You distribute any altered image under the same or similar license to this one.  (Share Alike)

If you would prefer to use it in a way that conflicts with one of the above conditions, you can ask for permission to do so.

This appears to be a fairly good license because it allows for a lot of flexibility. (And also helps to diffuse any lingering fears of corporate exploitation.)  However, I do have concerns that the presence of these conditions, although simple, may deter some from using my images.  Perhaps one day I’ll change the license and simply declare such images as being part of the public domain.

Just more to think about, I guess.


Creative Commons License

Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Terms of Surrender – iPhone 4S

I have received no interest for participation in my iPhone research Project yet, but I did get a hold of an iPhone 4S box and documentation to begin looking at.  With the help of YouTube unboxing videos, I can fairly accurately piece together the activation of the 4S and then simply confirm my findings later.  Here are some initial observations.

User agreements in the iPhone 4

Part of my research looks at the construction of user consent in using technology that may go against their best interests in some way.  I began looking at the iPhone 4 when Allen and Warden publicised concerns in April over the use of iOS4’s location tracking functionality (“Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves“).  This sparked a loud backlash from users who were angry their devices were tracking them in a way they didn’t consent to.  In at least one respect, this concern is legally justified – iOS4’s tracking even when you turn off location services went against the Terms of Service (Apple referred to this as a ‘bug’) – but mostly such concern stemmed from a discomfort upon realising the implications of certain functionality, both routine and legal, for such devices.

While others began discussing the length of the iPhone 4’s Terms and Conditions, I began looking closely at its content.  It turns out that, due to certain wording and technical aspects of the activation process, users need to agree to many, many more words than those appearing within the one document – I counted 48,000 words in total (not including phone service provider agreements) earlier this year, and some of these documents have been revised (read: added to) since.  I began to recognise a legitimacy to the argument that not only is it unlikely that a person will read the full terms relevant to their service; it is actually unlikely anyone has read and understood the extent of this agreement.  This raises legal issues (which I don’t want to touch because it’s not my area) as well as strong questions about informed consent.

iPhone 4S’s ‘untethered activation’

Early reports on the iPhone 4S mentioned it would introduce a new ‘untethered activation process’.  Because one of the major contributing factors to the previous model’s word count was its reliance on iTunes (the iTunes agreement is long and links to several other documents), I wanted to see if activation without a computer would drastically reduce the word count.  Also of interest to me was how the smaller screen interface would impact on the readability of the agreements users click through.

Once the 4S was released I began looking at YouTube videos documenting the activation in an attempt to identify the agreements included.  Interestingly, apart from a ‘WIRELESS CUSTOMER AGREEMENT’ (seen in nikoncmk’s video at 0:29) there was nothing.  At what point, then, are users agreeing to the complex iPhone Terms and Conditions?  Previously, iTunes presented users with a scrollable box of text with an ‘Agree’ button.  Now there is no screen at all.  Was it written on the box?

iPhone 4S Terms and Conditions

The box has no mention of an agreement.  It wasn’t until I looked through the ‘iPhone 4S Important Product Information Guide’, the small booklet that gives you no indication that you need to read it*, that I found the terms listed.  Page 2 mentions the booklet contains a ‘software license’, but it’s not until you see it on page 12 that you are told “BY USING YOUR […] (“iOS DEVICE”), YOU ARE AGREEING TO BE BOUND BY THE FOLLOWING APPLE AND THIRD PARTY TERMS”.

If what I have found is correct, that the only mention of the iPhone Terms and Conditions during activation is in a small booklet few people even look at let alone open, this is concerning to me.  It’s one thing for users to knowingly skip over such agreements and laugh to themselves about the silliness of it all, but it’s quite another for this willful ignorance to not even be an option for most users.

Interestingly, I noticed in all the 4S activation videos I saw that users refer to the ‘wireless customer agreement’ as ‘The Terms and Conditions’ (or some variation), as if they see the legal text and don’t even register the title, assuming they’re agreeing to the iPhone documents.  (This raises epistemological questions about this willful ignorance – can one be truly willfully ignorant if they are agreeing to a different document to the one they think they’re not reading?  Gah!)

The content of the iPhone Terms and Conditions (you can download the text here) contains all the usual weirdness: you can’t help someone else update their iOS software (2b); you can’t sell your iPhone unless you include all the original contents of (and including) the box (3a); and the software is licensed, not sold, to the user (1a), which makes sense but is perhaps not entirely intuitive.  However, one big improvement is the resulting word count of the agreement, partly due to better legal phrasing.

In the iTunes agreement (required to activate the iPhone 4), users are told they must agree to the terms before clicking ‘Agree’ and using the software.  This means users must actually know what these terms are, which requires reading them.  The iPhone 4S Terms and Conditions, on the other hand, uses terminology that doesn’t suggest a requirement of conscious understanding.  Users have access to the terms and they ‘agree to be bound by’ them.  If they actually feel like reading the documentation they can, but it’s not a legally binding requirement for use of the service.

But perhaps suggesting this is an improvement is going a little too far.  Acknowledging that users don’t (or can’t) understand the contents of these agreements and making it legally possible for them to participate anyway** doesn’t do much to reduce the complexity and sheer scale of the written content relevant to such agreements.  Though the latest iPhone Terms and Conditions (as of the 15 August 2011 version) are only 10,000 words long (only!), it still refers to other documents that are relevant to most iPhone users.  How many do not use an Apple ID, Google Maps, iTunes, iCloud, YouTube, or any of the other ‘Services’ mentioned?  With each click of a button, how much bigger does your legally binding document footprint grow?  There is a seriously disproportionate relationship between the simplicity of a mindless click in order to use your new, shiny toy just that much sooner, and the complex set of documentation users must now adhere to as a consequence.

Purchasing an iPhone introduces a major shift for many in terms of the services they connect to, so it could be argued that the complexity of this process is justified.  I do agree, to a small extent.  But I believe the iPhone examples help highlight the inferiority of user agreements in constructing informed consent from users, a pressing issue that we need to address.

* ‘Important’, here, suggests to me it has information useful for reference, not that it might include a legally binding document you should read before continuing.

** Not to suggest Apple, or any other company, would take legal action over users just because they didn’t completely understand the agreements they are bound by.  I’m just pointing out the difference between the semantics of ‘you agree to everything within this complex document’ and ‘you agree to be bound by what is in this complicated document’.  The latter better allows for ignorance, which I argue is not only the norm; it’s nearly impossible to be completely informed.  (And this doesn’t take into account the constant updates to these documents.)

Gender and sex interchangeability on Facebook

I heard that Facebook’s ‘sex’ field once said ‘gender’, instead.  This somewhat disturbing interchangeability of two very different words, I feel, helpfully highlights the disconnect between Facebook and the complex individuals it attempts to categorise.  Understanding the difficulties involved in gathering historical information on closed software interfaces, I nevertheless looked for evidence to support the claim that the field name had changed from ‘gender’ to ‘sex’.

‘Sex’ influences gendered pronouns on Facebook.  This is clearly visible on profiles, and just about anywhere users are referred to in some way.  This imposed one-to-one relation is also apparent from the language used in ‘He/She/They: Grammar and Facebook‘, a June 2008 post from The Facebook Blog.  It is claimed that some languages have difficulty with non-gendered pronouns.  “For this reason”, they write,

we’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks.

The post goes on to say,

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account […].

(Of note is the fact that it is currently impossible to remove gender from your account, like it supposedly was in June 2008.  Hiding your sex status from everyone does not stop Facebook from referring to you using gendered terms (or using a gendered default picture, if you have no profile photos visible) that relate to your declared sex.)

According a a Facebook user (quoted in Emily Rutherford’s June 2009 article ‘Choose One‘) “this is the only peep ever heard from Facebook regarding this issue”.  Two years later, there are still no other mentions of these options in The Facebook Blog.  Google encountered similar issues with non-gendered language translation in Google+, but managed to get around it because they felt user privacy was more important than the discomfort felt by those few who are uncomfortable reading ‘their’ or ‘they’.  (Also of note, Google are not guilty of instituting a culture of sex/gender interchangeability.)

Looking further I found a few interesting conversations and projects people worked on in response to concerns over this limitation.  Sadly, it appears any and all petitions calling for a revision are ignored.  However, I did come across one highly intriguing comment in the Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition page that claimed setting your language from ‘English (US)’ to ‘English (UK)’ changes references of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’.  That couldn’t be right, I thought, and had to test it out immediately.  But lo and behold, changing the language on your profile options page or the welcome screen, for example, changes the field title.

I have absolutely no idea why this is the case.  Is the gender/sex difference actually considered to be a ‘language difference’ by the Facebook team?  Are different people in charge of the UK translation who happen to have different views on the appropriateness of this field — and hold the power to implement different terminology?

I’m still yet to find any evidence of when — or if — Facebook changed the terminology for all users, but this discovery reveals a situation whereby Facebook is using different terminology to relate to the same field, depending on what settings are used.  I played around with it and confirmed that this difference extends further than self-expression within your own profile — open up the profile page of a user that displays their sex or gender to you and switch your language settings between UK and US English and see what I mean.

This language setting, then, represents a sort of cultural lens through which we understand other users.  What it also represents, however, is a systematic disregard of users’ sex and gender performance.  If I wish to declare my sex in a particular way but others read it as my gender identity (or vice versa), I am being misrepresented.  Some may feel comfortable declaring male or female using one language rather than the other, but the recognition of misrepresentation may destroy any sense of freedom experienced through this act of expression.

In my previous post on sex legitimisation on Facebook I wrote

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

Now I know there are two systems operating simultaneously I realise it’s actually worse than this.  No one can express their sex or gender identity accurately on Facebook unless they believe, just as Facebook has asserted, gender and sex are exactly the same thing.

Sex and gender legitimisation in context

This year I’ve been looking at, among other things, the representation of sex and gender in digital spaces.  My thesis argues that restricting user options in profile fields – not just sex and gender, but these are great examples – alters the way individuals self-identify, through social feedback loops.  Digital representation introduces major issues of marginalisation and safety (which I won’t go into here), but I’m also looking at the limitations of digital technologies in representing real, complex individuals.

Wanting to get into the habit of posting regularly, I thought I’d share something I noticed recently about misrepresentation by context.

When asked for my sex I respond that I am ‘male’.  This is what I self-identify as biologically.  (I don’t identify as male gendered, but I’m going to avoid that discussion to keep this example simple.)  I have ‘guy parts’ and I personally understand sex as correlating to this aspect of my self.  Categorisation is often difficult and inexact but, while a little uncomfortable with the gathering, use and publication of such information, I am fairly happy to categorise myself in this way.

However, I also believe that sex is not a simple binary.  Not everyone falls neatly into a category of sex that allows only one of two responses.  If I casually identify as male, I am doing so without explicitly acknowledging that this comes with the following concession: I don’t believe in the binary notion of sex.  I am male, but this isn’t to be equated with ‘the opposite of female’.

When creating a Facebook account, you are asked (required) to declare your sex as either male or female.  What is interesting here is that, though I personally identify as male, if I chose that option the system would actually be misrepresenting my sexual identity; it represents me as male, but it represents me as male in the context of the limited and often insulting binary idea of sex.

The meaning of words change depending on their context.  If I told someone from the UK that I dislike football, I would have to address the ambiguity of this statement by including, ‘but by that I don’t mean I dislike soccer’.  ‘Football’ can mean different things depending on the national or cultural context, and not simply the sport being referred to; it could relate to the experience of seeing a game in person, playing first-hand, or represent the wider culture of football fans.  In conversation I could provide further details and state exactly what it is I dislike about football, and any qualities I actually find redeemable.  Digital systems, especially those with binary options, rarely allow for such elaboration and precision of response.

Words play an integral part in self-expression.  When the meanings of words we value become heavily simplified and determined by their context within digital systems, when our range of response becomes limited, we lose an important tool for performing our identity.

Some digital systems address the issue of misrepresentation, in regard to gender and sex.  For example, Diaspora* has an optional text field for gender, allowing users to write whatever they want, only if they want.  (I think this is a pretty good response, but I don’t think it is the optimal solution.  I’ll talk more about issues in designing gendered spaces another time.)  The point is that digital systems demonstrate a strong tendency toward allowing users to, often publicly, identify themselves only within a strict vocabulary defined by the system itself.

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

iPhone Research Project – Participants Needed!

I’m in need of two people who are buying new iPhones (one iPhone 4, one iPhone 4S) to assist me with a small research project that will document the activation processes of both and, hopefully, provide interesting results for a discussion on the construction of user consent that will form part of my thesis.

If you or anyone you know is considering purchasing a new iPhone in the near future (I’m not in a rush), and may be up for helping out with a completely anonymised study, can you please link them to the following .pdf poster?

iPhone Research Poster

I still have a few old drafts relating to this that I haven’t cleaned up – perhaps I’ll post something about it soon.  In the meantime, if you’re interested and have any questions (even if you can’t help out) let me know!

Perceptual time travel

As a person, I’m interested in science fiction and the notion of time travel.  As a postgraduate student with important work to get on with, I like to procrastinate.  With these two powers combined, I felt it was about time I wrote about something that I’ve been thinking about for a while but never put into words.

I’m going to assume we can not physically travel back in time, that we can not be present in the past.  Or, at least, if it is possible it’s not what I’m concerned with here.  I’ve been thinking about ‘time travel’ as a means to describe the perception of witnessing past events, from their contemporary perspective, as they are occurring.  I will call this ‘perceptual time travel’.

(I should also mention I have made absolutely no effort to see if anyone else has looked at this phenomenon.  It may or may not be ‘original’.)

In Groundhog Day, Phil (played by Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over, each morning waking up to Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’.  Once Phil realises this happens, an expectation forms.  So, when the day after Groundhog Day finally comes around, and the same song happens to be playing on the radio, it’s not immediately apparent.  Phil still believes it’s Groundhog Day until something out of the ordinary happens to provoke a sort of Gestalt shift of awareness.

It is until this shift occurs that Phil is taking part in perceptual time travel.  Phil does not yet realise that time has passed and a new day has arrived.  Phil believes all of the external events have already happened and it’s possible to observe them again.

It is this level of belief, of immersion, of existing within an idea that is important here.  The fiction situation in Groundhog Day simply helps highlight this.

Another example exists in every undergraduate philosopher’s favourite film, The Matrix.  It is set in the future (from now) but almost all of the human population are experiencing an imposed reality of Earth around the turn of the millennium.  They believe they are participating in a past they don’t know is the past.

Of course, this example doesn’t quite work here because the past is a false one, fabricated by the machines.  It only serves to highlight the focus on perception, through immersion, for time travel of this kind to work.

Technology can present us with the past, and it is technology that can facilitate or impede immersion within the representation’s timeline.  Documentary (and perhaps all) film, for example, can show us past events in varying degrees of ‘real-time’.  However, the limited perspective of the camera, the quality of the picture and the environment the film is viewed in limits the viewer’s level of immersion.

But it doesn’t prevent it completely.  Though perceptual time travel can describe a situation of unquestioned belief of presence in the past, such as may be the case in the day after Groundhog Day, it is more about a scale of more or less immersion within the temporal location of past events.  Watching film leads to perceptual time travel to varying degrees, depending on many complex environmental factors that limit or help focus.

Reading a book for the second time triggers the experience of the previous reading.  We may think (at least I occasionally do), ‘I remember where I was and what the weather was like last time I read this sentence.’  But our surroundings, our overall interface, reminds us of our current temporal location.

From here we may begin to wonder if we can increase our immersion potential by simplifying the interface and the content.  (Well, I do at least.  I don’t know about other people.)  If we make it easier to experience a recording of an event without breaking the temporal illusion, perceptual time travel becomes stronger.

One example is Twitter.  It’s a simple interface that doesn’t change drastically and that we can view on any computer.  If I wanted to watch how a particular event was covered using a hashtag (and if I had access to all the tweets) I could play them back in real-time using an interface (software, computer hardware, the environment of my room, etc.) that is not visually dissimilar enough to its historical counterpart that I would be conscious of any errors of continuity.  If I can not differentiate between my surroundings today and what they were like on January 25 2011, then it’s easier to trick myself into experiencing events as they are re-unfolding for the first time.

(We can also use this sort of set-up to trick someone else into thinking an event is happening live, thinking that the window into the past is happening concurrent with their position outside of it.  This perhaps wouldn’t work with dated events such as the Moon landing, but could be successful with live television and Twitter feeds – as long as timestamps aren’t prominent enough to be noticed.)

But then we uncover difficult questions of lag.  Isn’t normal live television delayed anyway, even if for only a few seconds?  And if the speed of light (and brain processing, etc.) is not immediate, then aren’t we always experiencing and living in the past?

In short, this notion of perceptual time travel deals with increasing the potential of temporal immersion within experiences of historical replay, to the possible  extent that an individual absolutely believes they are experiencing a past event ‘live’.

Just thought I’d put this jumbled mess out there =P