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Weekly Summary : Interface!

The major theme that ties this week’s material together includes how on the Web, interface (“a point of interconnection between two independent systems” Mushon) is being shaped in a way that break the balance of power depriving users (as one side of the 2 systems) of their power. The Web is often considered as an open and free media yet users’ experience does not seem to be under their control…

Dan Ariely, Are we in control of our own decisions?

Israeli Professor Dan Ariely teaches Behavioral Economics at MIT. Passionate about rationality, he is the author of Predictably Irrational. Ariely performed this presentation in December 2008. It is obviously meant to push his audience to question itself. He wants people to recognize and understand their limitations…

  • Visual illusions are a physical limitation people are well aware of. They can demonstrate it yet they cannot escape it. Therefore they adapt to it.
  • Cognitive illusions would also be mistakes that we cannot avoid but worst as we cannot demonstrate and understand them.

However some people well aware of this weekness take advantage of it to influence others… Using different examples (organ donation forms, tour operator advertisings, doctors’ instructions and the hottest guy to date…) Ariely demonstrates how you can shape the message you send in such a way that you help people figure out what they want. Here are little tips : working on the format of the question you ask, emphasizing the default option, presenting a worst option than yours etc. While everybody remains in the illusion that they decide, you almost decide for them.

Ariely concludes on a very positive note: what if we put our pride aside and aknowledged our cognitive limitations? Then we would be able to design a better world.

Questions:

  1. Ariely takes for granted that understanding the cognitive illusion we are submitted to would allow us to adapt to it. But these two illusions are not the same at all: visual illusions are very specific and defined while cognitive illusions come down to rationality which is much harder to demarcate and control… Do you still think Ariely’s argument is relevant?
  2. Also, how to raise awareness on cognitive illusions when it could be the mean for some people to acquire so much power over others?

Chris Messina, The death of the URL

Chris Messina is a designer who believes in the open web. He is a member of Open ID and maintains a blog, he works at Google (for the record!). In this post Messina makes a plea on behalf of the URL. He wants to make people realize that URL could disappear which would put our freedom on the Web in jeopardy. To make his point the designer uses 6 examples:

  1. Web TV. A simplified, toned version of computer : no browser, no keyboard, no mouse. It will be “user friendly” but allow no flexibility at all.
  2. Litl, chromeOS, JoliCloud, and Apple Tablet… The design of these tools is  definitely “cool”. Yet it leads to “a  predetermined set of options” always restricting our freedom on the Web.
  3. Top Sites. This features provides you with a selection of the websites that you visit the most. As convenient as it is it prevents us from thinking. We don’t even need to think about the most accurate website to find what we are looking for. Everything on our browser tend to be preset, predetermind. We are becoming passive users.
  4. Warning interstitials and short URL frames. The annoying format of those warnings that we experience everyday contributes to deter us from clicking through certain link. Another way of restricting our freedom.
  5. The NASCAR or this tendency to turn everything into logos for the sake of simplicity. Another abstraction of URL
  6. App Stores or “a cleaved out and sanitized portion of the web”. Big business has the power. Companies, brands are taking control of the digital environment. “The hardware makers got into the content business” and are turning the Web into a shopping mall.

Messina concludes by reminding why there is so much at stake with URL: it allows anyone to create a website and to propagate it. URL empowers users, if users loose access to it they will be cast out of the Web.

Messina also cleary stresses on the interface that are the key issue of the Web: the battle to win “the universal interface for interacting with the web is just now getting underway ”

Questions :

  1. What do you think of Messina’s plea? Do you think the Web will be just like TV, reducing its audience to passivity?
  2. Do you feel that you lose control, that you are driven to a predetermined set of options?
  3. As Messina, do you think companies are responsible for the death of the URL and that they have interest in it?
  4. I feel that the discrepancies between different types of users will be increased and that some people are going to be able to preserve their freedom while other will lose the freedom of their experience. What about you?

Andrew Rasiej & Micha L. Sifry, Social networking, new governing

This article written in March 2009 clearly defers from the two other documents as it is mostly optimistic regarding the power of users on the Web.

The authors draw their argument on Facebook. The social network has reach such a number of users that it plays a key role in our societies: “it is a meaningful platform for political engagement”. But “is Facebook a public square or a private mall?”. In response to users complaints about a unilateral control of the site, Zuckerberg decided not to change the website but to include users in the website policy and organized a “virtual town hall”. Zuckerberg said he wantes to develop “new models of governance”. So far so good but in reality this seem a bit fake:

  1. It is very unlikely that Facebook will mobilize 30% of its users to take part in the company’s governance.
  2. Facebook did not promote this new development at all. (Indeed, who heard about that?)

It seems that Facebook took very little risk. However, the two social entrepreneurs  founders of Personal Democracy Forum consider Zuckerberg’s proposal as the first step towards “an overall change in expectation about the relationship between digital landowners and digital tenants.”

Question:

  1. A year after their article, I am wondering what the authors would have to say about Zuckerberg’s declaration “privacy is no longer a social norm”? This declaration give me very little hope in the new democracy Facebook could provide us with…

Mushon Zer-Aviv, Interface as a conflict of Ideologies

This essay dives into the very question of interface.

Interface as “the point of interconnection between two independents systems” is all about balance. The design, the way the interface is built should aim at respecting and protecting the equilibrium between the two sides. However, interfaces are often used by one system to gain power over the other. Therefore interfaces are at the center of a major conflict on the Internet.

  • Encoded/ Decoded. The Web highlights the importance of interfaces yet we have been using them forever to communicate and interact between us. Languages for instance are a major interface. Referring to Ferdinand de Saussure M. Zer-Aviv explains how language has been conceived as a circuit on which messages could be exchanged as long as the interface is equally shared. However Stuart Hall has demonstrated that language relies on a system of codes and that “the codes used for encoding and decoding are often different”. There are 3 defined types of codes:
  1. Dominant Code: the sender shapes the interpretation od the receiver (Mass Media, advertising do that all the time as we cannot change the message)
  2. Negotiated Code: the receiver understands the message but does not completely buys into it
  3. Oppositional Code: the receiver understands the message but refuses it and uses another code to decode the message in oppositon to the goal of the sender.
  • The Web’s Communication Diagram. In theory “the Web is a revolutionary tool for gaining ownership of media” as it provides different types of communication: one to one, many to many, one to many. But it has also made the hierarchy at work in those communication system much more complicated.  Indeed the identities of the systems interacting are harder to clearly indentify on the web. The identities are somehow blurred. While the comment interfaces on blogs seem to leave room for users, “the only identity represented through the dominant interface (the website) is that of the publisher.” Most of the time on the web, interfaces fail to maintain the equilibrium between the two independent systems.
  • Commons-Based Peer Production – A new Ideology. The example of Wikipedia the free encyclopedia based on Benkler’s principle of Commons-Based Peer Production: “no one person controls how the resource is used, they are either open to the public or a defined group”. There is not one single author and the quality of content is protected by the moderation.
  • The Revolution will not be verified. Wikipedia is a wonderful proof of what common based peer production can achieve. However, Wikipedia’s strength relies in its “tightly policed ideology“. When people edit in Wikipedia they accept and relay Wikipedia’s ideology. The system works because wikipedia’s editor are strong advocates of Wikipedia’s identity (the respect of the power editors have been entitled to in the benefit of “the greater good”). And indeed, the system has proven to fail when reproduced in the LA Times. Even if the control is distributed there is always “one side who holds the key” and has the power to break the balance. The interface is the carrier of an identity and therefore carries a message in itself.
  • Unknowns Knowns in On-line Urban Space. Even though in theory HTML is simple and accessible to everybody, for practical purposes we experience the web through web pages that are “in the hands of the identity behind it”. Everything on the Web is privately owned and therefore under control. Because of these web pages, “the web has never had any public place” directly accessible. This part relates a lot to Ariely’s presentation: as well as we cannot aknowledge our cognitive limitations, there are things we “don’t know we know”. We don’t know we could think of the web in a different way that the one we get.
  • Cracks in the walls. Even if everything is under control, some things are a bit flexible and give hope for a little bit more of openness on the web.
  1. The RSS feed which gives mobility and visibility to content
  2. Application Programming Interface (API) when “the powers of one software can be shared by another”
  3. Social Bookmarking

Those new features are participating to the development of the metaweb which creates “a public space on the web” leading to more flexibility, mobility and participation. Through metaweb users could “retrieve their agency in the interfaces”. Interfaces would not be freezed anymore but the result of an on-going process in which all users can take part.

After having analyzed the interface and all that is at stake, the author suggests to enter into conflict to retrieve the balance in the interconnection between systems through two approaches . A tactical approach consits in destabilizing by questioning something established. It enables able to trully modify and improve the system (the example of Google bomb). A less spectacular but efficient approach is the strategic media one. It is much more sustainable and consits in “influencing the system from within”. Greasemonkey for instance allow users with coding skills to add, remove or fix features on the page, as well as it allows to insert content from other sites into the page.

And indeed you can contribute to the metaweb!

Mushon as contributed to the creation of ShiftSpace “an open source browser plugin for collaboratively annotating, editing and shifting the web”. It allows users to move out of their passivity for a much more active and interactive experience of the web. They have the opportunity to react, produce content and share it among Shiftspace users.

Questions :

  1. This text bring us back to the role of design. What is good design? Is it what prevents us from thinking?
  2. Private interests seem to be responsible for the loss of control of the users on the web. Can we think of a another Web (Web 3.0?) which could not be privately owned?


Cyborgasms – Concluding Travelogue 3

“The fashionable ideology that ‘artificial’ lacks the inherent goodness of ‘natural’ is an appealing, but hopelessly simplistic notion of the intellectually chic. Artifice is the result of a deliberate intent to make. Nature also ‘makes’ things…” – Syd Mead

Language, gender, ethics and social rituals of ‘real life’ – all appear to be ‘natural’, but are in fact ‘artificial’ – constructed by a society’s ideology and discourse, in a specific historical situation. These self-referencing systems of symbols are at once liberating (for some) and constraining (for others). Fundamental changes in artifice/technology are capable of transforming this landscape, liberating those who were once constrained. Those who were once marginalized now find themselves privileged. The ‘margins’ are thus ‘folded back to the center’. But this practice creates new margins.  In turn, some other people are marginalized.

That is my conclusion after three weeks of exploring the phenomenon of the use of the internet for sexual interaction.

In the modern society, norms in courtship rituals are defined by the commercial media. For those who are not ideal consumers – such as obese teens who do not fit mass-produced clothing, isolated individuals who do not belong to predefined subcultures, desperate  adults who have lost the ability to communicate – these rituals sometimes become impossible to negotiate. “How does Web 2.0 change these norms?” I asked.

Reality

The answers were surprising, as I became a regular reader and contributor to the ‘Casual Encounters‘ section of the free classified ads website Criagslist. From Jane Austin’s protagonists to veiled women of my third-world country, gender-role constraints make women focus whatever little power they have in courtship rituals for social mobility. On Craigslist this power becomes subversive.

“My body looks like a 51 year old fat womans body, like it should,” says one woman. She has no qualms about her looks and age and is incredibly honest about it. In fact she uses them as a source of power that she can exercise on a young boy, “and if he can hold my interest out of bed, I will keep him”. Earlier in the ad, she says: “I am… looking to have a sex partner that is a White or Latino male ONLY, either 18 or 19 years of age ONLY, and must have NYS ID to prove it.” Seeking an ID is an act associated with authority, especially the police, and is the ultimate expression of who is in control here. While she might feel marginalized  because of her age, skin color and body type in the meatspace, she is certainly in control on the web. Such women, my experiments show, have a sizeable fan following.

  • Ads by mature women looking for younger guys were the most successful of all the types I posted. On the average, they received 30 responses in the first hour after posting.

    "I am a classic BBW and I love my body..."

  • BBWs were surprisingly the second most popular, with 26 responses in the first hour. These ads did not include pictures and were firm, controlling and non-descriptive. Almost all men complied with the demand for a picture in the first email. This is significant because women with higher than average weight are portrayed as unattractive, and weight is a major concern with most women.
  • Straight white female under 30, without specifying a body type, followed closely behind with an average 25 responses in the first hour.
  • Ads for straight African American women without no specific body type only received 14 responses. While this is substantially lower than other women and implies racial biases, it is significant in terms of gender, as no ad by any straight black male got any response at all.
  • Young white girls looking for mature men, although conforming the gender-role norms, received a strikingly low response of only 7 in the first hour after posting.

Men, it appears, need major PR boost. Responding to female ads, a large number of men would send pictures of only their genitals either out of privacy concerns or because of a desperate attempt at re-gaining the lost authority that they have in ‘real life’ only because of their genitals. “So what’s the secret to getting some tail on CL?” asks a user posting in the ‘w4m’ category. “All I get is spam, dudes and working girls. what am I doing wrong?” the user asks. “If you can’t tell by now I am a MALE.” Maybe that is all you’re doing wrong, I said. Being a male. While it may be useful to be a male in the meatspace, in the virtual public space of Craigslist personals, it is apparently a major disadvantage. Women make the choice and they are in control.

  • Ads by straight white males received only 6 responses on the average in the first hour. But most of them were concealed ads for dating sites and even some prostitutes (who understand that men are ready to go the ‘real-life’ way and spend money for sex). Occasionally, gay men responded too. The average number of actual responses in the first hour was: 0.33!
  • Young males looking for older women received one response in the first hour, excluding spam
  • Large males, African American males, and older males looking for younger girls received no responses other than spam.

Queers received fewer replies than women, but more than men.

  • Men looking for men and women looking for women received an average of three responses each in the first hour. Lesbian ads received the most superior responses, they were respectful, description was precise, and included face shots.
  • Transsexuals and cross-dresses looking for other people like them received two responses in the first hour, with pictures and contact details.
  • Transsexuals and cross-dressers looking for men received four responses on the average, in the first hour after posting.

The number of responses received by queers is very manageable, compared with those received by women, and significantly higher than those received by men. I look at these results not in terms of how many people write back to queers, but in terms of their ability in the first place to reach out to an audience that might not be possible without Craigslist. Overall, I think Craigslist is the most workable for queers. “I know exactly what I want tonight,” said one woman responding to a lesbian ad. “And I could use the company as well.”

Reality 2.0

Like gender, the cyberspace is a social construct. It is at once a fiction and a lived social reality. Part of my research was to go out in the 3D virtual world of IMVU and live this reality in order to observe, talk about and participate in its sexual rituals. I played as many roles as I could, limited only by my imagination and time. I also attended a virtual wedding, bought and traded slaves, helped a woman with childbirth, flew naked with a fairy like me, and got abducted and sexually tortured by a dominatrix.

As a site of escape and fantasy, the audience that IMVU attracts the most is girls aged 18 to 25. For a large number of these girls, especially from countries where their social life is more constrained, IMVU is the exclusive space for intimacy and sexual activity. For others, it is a matter of choice.

  • Cyber sex risk-free. There is no risk of disease, no liability and no social consequences.
  • It takes much less effort and resources to connect to a person like yourself in a virtual world than in real life.
  • It is anonymous and thus liberating in terms of what you can say and how you can say it.

“Where else can a girl from India fulfill her bondage fantasies?” one user remarked. “It is like reading a comic book,” said a male user. “Only better because you can participate and be someone.”

Contemplating over an appletini at a strip club for cats

The meaningfulness of their sexuality and multiple identities that form their whole selves are tied exclusively to the web – where they play not only human roles, but become cats, foxes, fairies, or monsters, blurring the boundaries between humans, machines and animals. They are cyborgs.

But as the IMVU society is getting more established, these users taking their fantasies more seriously. They take their multiple identities as parts of themselves and owning up to virtuo-social responsibilities. People now have relationships online. Although they have never met or seen their partner outside of IMVU, men do not cheat on their virtual girlfriends. If they do, “that is SO real life”. Girls, like real life, go on to get married with loyal and caring men, and have children. Others make single men spend virtual currency on them by being strippers and prostitutes.

The virtual currency can be bought with real money, and thus like many of the ‘real life’ public spaces of the modern society, commerce seems to be eroding into IMVU as well, and certain fetishised goods become symbols of authority that mean nothing in themselves but are possessed because they invest power in whoever owns them.

But despite these tendencies, women seem to generally control these courtship  and sex rituals. Both the power that women can exercise in choosing a partner and the money as the last resort for men to gain some authority are remarkably similar themes in my experiments with both Craigslist and IMVU.