The Powerbook, by Jeanette Winterson

“The world is a mirror of the mind’s abundance,”
is typed alone to a page near the end of this novel.

What Winterson makes abundantly clear is the true process of storytelling, a process that abstracts the past and remaps the future. Our heroine, Ali, taps out stories for her customers, sent through the ethereal interweb in pursuit of such an impact: “freedom, just for one night.”

As much as the story shifts so does she, hurtled through the lives of fairy tales past, retold again and again in various guises. Through such shifting of the story, for which the screen is a conduit, we find a metaphor for the ever-fluxing selves in which history and memory are contained: 

There are so many lives packed into one. The one life we think we know is only a window that is open on the screen. The big window full of detail, where the meaning is often lost among the facts. If we can close that window, on purpose or by chance, what we find behind is another view.

This window is emptier. The cross-references are cryptic. As we scroll down it, looking for something familiar, we seem to be scrolling into another self- one we recognize but cannot place. The coordinates are missing, or the coordinates pinpoint us outside the limits of our existence. 

If we move further back, through a smaller window that is really a gateway, there is less and less to measure ourselves by. We are coming into a dark region. A single word might appear. An icon. This icon is a private Madonna, a guide, an understanding. Very often we remember it from our dreams. “Yes,” we say, “Yes, this is a world. I have been here.” It comes back to us like a scent from childhood.

These lives of ours that press in on us must be heard.

We are our own oral history. A living memoir of time.

Time is downloaded into our bodies. We contain it. Not only time past and time future, but time without end. We think of ourselves as closed and finite, when we are multiple and infinite.

This life, the one we know, stands in the sun. It is our daytime and the stars and planets that surround it cannot be seen. The sense of other lives, still our own, is clearer to us in the darkness of night or in our dreams. Sometimes a total eclipse shows us in the day what we cannot usually see for ourselves. As our sun darkens, other brilliancies appear. And there is the strange illusion of looking over our shoulder and seeing the sun racing towards us at two thousand miles an hour.

What is it that follows me wherever I go?

Not that the self be shaken loose, but that it be found, reassembled, in the process of remembrance itself. Which is to say: I am the sum of parts, artifacts of time, indulgent fantasies and messier proclivities. And in this space, here and now, I am neither man nor woman but as yet an alien voice, hanging in makeshift space.

That said, I must say that this novel is reminiscent of my adolescent online diary: a tangled, messy, yet occasionally brilliant jumble of bits and pieces devoted to the wistful myth of romantic love. While the perfect companion to 20-minute subway rides, the writing here is oft redundant and cliched. Still, an inspiration for a new era of writing and reading.

Lit Review: A familiar Face(book): Profile elements as signals in an online social network (Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfeld)

In the third of a continuing series of Facebook research projects, Lampe et al; drew data from over 30,000 Facebook profiles at Michigan State University in order to uncover the relationships between the amount and type of profile elements presented and number of friends.

Walther’s Social Information Processing Theory: Online, lack of traditional cues leads to the development of new social cues, such as spelling ability.

Signaling Theory: Profile elements are signals used by individuals to communicate personal qualities that are interpreted by others in order to make judgments.
-Donath differentiates between assessment signals (which are observable qualities) and conventionial signals (indicated through social conventions). Online signals are generally conventional.
-In the world of Facebook, relationships are generally formed first offline. Thus, the structure of Facebook encourages honesty in profiles. Dishonesty is typically playful or ironic in nature.
-The researchers propose that the number of legitimate conventional signals included in Facebook profiles is proportionate to the size of one’s online social network, as well as the signaling value of less verifiable cues (such as interests).

Common Ground Theory: Profile creation is motivated by a desire “to establish common frames or reference that enhance mutual understanding.”
-Community membership is integral to assessing the amount of shared understandings, working to establish common frames of reference.
-Information derived from Facebook profiles works much in the same way as face-to-face “interviewing”, indicating shared common ground that may enhance understanding between individuals (such as shared location or academic major).

Transaction Cost Theory: In establishing these common frames of reference through profiles, costly negotations ensue that work to enhance communication between interactants.
-Facebook profiles reduce the cost of connections by creating an easy way for individuals to search for those who share their interests or other attributes. Thus, the more information that is provided by an individual, the more likely they are to be found by others, enhancing the number of connections displayed by that individual.
-From this lens, the researchers suggest that the more verifiable elements and contact information is exhibited in one’s Facebook profile, the greater the effects will be on the number of friends that person has.

The study used automated scripts to gather profile information, which was then encoded into four variables:
1. Control Variables: Network characteristics. (Sex, Length of Membership, Institutional Status, Last Updated)
2. Referents Index: Common points of reference, possibly assessment signals. (Hometown, High School, Residence, Concentration)
3. Interests Index: Conventional signals of identity. (Favorite Movies/Music/Books/TV Shows/Quotes, Interests, Political Views, About Me)
4. Contact Index: Willingness to share off-site connections. (Relationship Status, Looking For, Website, Address, Birthday, AIM, Email)
5. Dependent Variables: Total number of friends (Same School, Other School)

-Users completed 59% of fields on average.
-Median number of preferences listed: 5 interests, 1 book, 5 movies, 3 music, 0 TV shows, 36 characters in “About Me” section.
-Median number of friends: 75 same school, 68 other school, 0.53 ratio.
-Number of friends is highly correlated with undergraduate status, as well as how long the account has been active.
-The act of providing information on one’s profile is highly correlated with number of friends, most notably High School (92:35), AIM (100:50), Birthday (80:26), Favorite Music (83:37), and About Me (88:56). The first three aid in supporting pre-existing bonds, such as high school bonds, while the former provide information about one’s identity to all users.
-There is a weak correlation between the AMOUNT of information in profiles and the number of friends. The researchers posit two possible explanations: either a user with many friends feels social pressure to include more information, or such a user includes more information while also seeking out more people to add as friends.

One of the main limitations described by the researchers is that their study focused on the behaviors of Facebook users, but not their attitudes toward or motivations behind these behaviors, and that they did not examine the content of profile fields, but rather the existence of them.

My examination of online social networking communities will be considerably less quantitative than many of the studies I have been reviewing. An emphasis on qualitative interviewing of SNC members (both face-to-face and online) will be a considerable benefit to the current research in this field.

The Age of Egocasting?

Rosen, a technology journalist, discusses emerging online community practices in terms of a modern-day process she has coined “egocasting”. She documents the recent history of communicative technologies, which allow individuals to control with increasing precision the information they consume. Popular contraptions such as TiVo and the iPod allow individuals the capacity to avoid the sounds, images, and ideas we don’t agree with. She warns of the potential of this power for crafting a culture that is profoundly impatient and critical of all that does not align with their ideologies of choice.

TiVos and iPods will never destroy us. But our romance with technologies of personalization has partially fulfilled Krutch’s prediction. We haven’t become more like machines. We’ve made the machines more like us. In the process we are encouraging the flourishing of some of our less attractive human tendencies: for passive spectacle; for constant, escapist fantasy; for excesses of consumption. These impulses are age-old, of course, but they are now fantastically easy to satisfy. Instead of attending a bear-baiting, we can TiVo the wrestling match. From the remote control to TiVo and iPod, we have crafted technologies that are superbly capable of giving us what we want. Our pleasure at exercising control over what we hear, what we see, and what we read is not intrinsically dangerous. But an unwillingness to recognize the potential excesses of this power—egocasting, fetishization, a vast cultural impatience, and the triumph of individual choice over all critical standards—is perilous indeed.

The parallels to online communities are cutting. Though our culture frequently heralds the globalizing force of technology, there are darker implications that this technology may allow use to blind ourselves entirely to ideas and information that contest our beliefs and challenge our comfortable notions of ourselves, others, and the world at large.

Lit Review: The Online Nomads of Cyberia

Based on fieldwork amongst a community of online gaming fans, Knorr argues that the field of anthropology is well-suited for the study of online communities as sites of sociocultural appropriation. The habitat of an online community is located within the Internet infrastructure, a dynamic space that utilizes multiple forms of mediated technology. Rather than limiting communication to the common shared interest, members of the group exchange gossip, create hierarchies, and establish new spaces for group interaction when older forms are obliterated. The community in question is described as a “nomadic tribe” that retains interpersonal structure regardless of geographic or even Internet space. The members of this community can best be described, not as consumers of technology, but as active creators of their online habitat. In this sense Internet communication technologies are reconstructed through a process of appropriation. So too are social networking communities appropriated as they are reworked to suit individual groups, as is the case in online activism and the geographical dispersion of subcultures.

Lit Review: Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networks (The Facebook Case) (Gross & Acquisti)

The researchers conducted an analysis of over 4,000 college students using Facebook at Carnegie Mellon, utilizing the lens of information revelation and related privacy implications.
-Sought to examine the openness of individuals in revealing information (such as contact information, political and sexual orientation, and intimate details of one’s personal life) freely posted in the public realm of the Internet.
-Collected actual field data, rather than surveys or experiments.

Information Revelation and Online Social Networking

1. Identifiability
-Varies according to the nature of the site, though most encourage identifiable photos.
2. Types of information elicited
-range from the semi-public to the private to entirely open-ended (diary communities).
3. Visibility of information
-Can be viewed by all members or limited to one’s personal network.

-Anecdotal evidence reveals an utter willingness of members to reveal private information.
-Social Network Theory and Privacy: Discussions center on the complex nature of one’s propensity to disclose personal information, the importance of weak ties in the formation of social capital, and expectations of privacy.
-In the offline world, relationships are dynamic and can exist at multiple levels of intimacy. Online, relationships are reduced to simply “friend or not”.
-Though not necessarily supportive of strong ties, the Internet facilitates the formation of a large and dispersed network of weak ties.
-Situating the Internet as a vast network of rather weak ties, it has been described by some as an imagined community (Anderson), and thus the meaning of trust must be renegotiated, as well as the meaning of intimacy.
-The Internet slightly facilitates meaningful interaction while greatly enhancing the ability of others to access your information.
-Privacy Implications: Photos, demographic data, unique tastes may lead to a re-identification of an individual belonging to more than one SNC. This occurs either through recognition of a pseudonymous user by searching for this information, or knowledge of unknown characteristics of an identified subject on another site.
-Members are often not fully aware of a hosting site’s privacy policies concerning information disclosure, or the magnitude of the site’s user population and/or data archival.
-Risks include identity theft, stalking, embarrassment and blackmailing.
-Factors in information revelation include peer pressure, perceived benefits outweighing potential harm, casual attitudes regarding privacy, lack of awareness of threat, trust in the service and its members, or the SNC interface itself.
-College-oriented SNCs are often based on a shared real space that is extended to a bounded virtual domain.
-Increased sense of trust and intimacy, however outsider access and rapid network expansion quickly challenge the “realness” of the community and expectations of privacy.
-Photo: 91%; Birthday: 87.8%; Phone: 39.9%; Residence: 50.8%; Dating Preferences, Relationship Status, Religious and Political Views
-Facebook encourages validity of information and a valid e-mail address.
–>89% real names, 8% fake names, 3% first name only
–>91% provide images: 61% directly identifiable, 80% useful for identification, 12% unrelated – in comparison to Friendster: 23% joke images, 55% directly identifiable
–>CMU students average 78.2 friends at CMU and 54.9 at other schools
Data Visibility and Privacy Preferences: Default settings allow everyone at same institution to view full profile, and full name/institution/status/photo show up in any general search. However, visibility and searchability are able to be defined by the individual user. Less than 3% of users alter their privacy settings.

Privacy Implications

-Facebook users appear generally unconcerned about information disclosure and potential ramifications.
1. Stalking: Physical presence can be determined based on location and class schedule; AIM (listed by 77.7% of users).
2. Re-Identification: the linkage of non-explicit information (name, address) with explicit information (common attributes). This can be based on demographics (all one needs is zip code, gender, and birthdate- provided by 44.3% of users), face (provided by 55.4%), social security number and identity theft (birthdate, residence, phone number)
3. Building a Digital Dossier: Sensitive data revealed in college, such as sexual orientation and political reviews, is archived and can potentially be mined in the future.
4. Fragile Privacy Protection: Social networks can be hacked! E-mail addresses can be hacked, manipulation of users (when 250,000 users were sent a friend request, 30% were willing to make all of their information available by accepting), advanced search features are available to anyone in the network looking to search for someone at any college

This article is slightly dated (2005), and concerns over privacy on the Internet have since grown exponentially due to media dramatization and new features implemented by Facebook (namely, the News Feed, which encouraged many to finally implement some of the privacy options made available to users). A simple survey tapping into perceived privacy, protective behaviors, and perceived audience would be easy to implement- Facebook does make recruiting participants a lot easier! Also, Facebook has since updated their privacy policy- a little highlighted review:

We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile. Where such information is used, we generally allow you to specify in your privacy settings that you do not want this to be done or to take other actions that limit the connection of this information to your profile (e.g., removing photo tag links).

We do not provide contact information to third party marketers without your permission. We share your information with third parties only in limited circumstances where we believe such sharing is 1) reasonably necessary to offer the service, 2) legally required or, 3) permitted by you.

We may be required to disclose user information pursuant to lawful requests, such as subpoenas or court orders, or in compliance with applicable laws. We do not reveal information until we have a good faith belief that an information request by law enforcement or private litigants meets applicable legal standards. Additionally, we may share account or other information when we believe it is necessary to comply with law, to protect our interests or property, to prevent fraud or other illegal activity perpetrated through the Facebook service or using the Facebook name, or to prevent imminent bodily harm. This may include sharing information with other companies, lawyers, agents or government agencies.

If the ownership of all or substantially all of the Facebook business, or individual business units owned by Facebook, Inc., were to change, your user information may be transferred to the new owner so the service can continue operations.

Individuals who wish to deactivate their Facebook account may do so on the My Account page. Removed information may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time but will not be generally available to members of Facebook.

Lit Review: Unraveling the Taste Fabrics of Social Networks (Liu, Maes & Davenport)

-Sought to uncover a semantic fabric of taste derived from the language used in 100,000 social networking profiles, dubbed the social Semantic Web.
-First mapped users onto taste-spaces, then compared the taste-similarities of participants.
-Moving away from formal semantics toward implicit and emergent semantics that are organized from the bottom up- folksonomies that include taste neighborhoods, identity hubs, and taste cliques.

Theoretical Background
1. Authentic Identity and Aesthetic Closure
-Contemporary culture is marked by consumeption preferences of diverse demographic categories- a culture of plenitude, in which identities are described using the vocabulary of preferences (McCracken).
-Simmel: the individual is born as an unidentified contents that evolves into identified forms, a truly authentic identity.
-Lacan: the self is a mediated construction in the Other (supported by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and feminism)
-Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton: consolidates the above two theories- an individual’s “symbolic environment” both echoes and reinforces her identity. This is the framework from within which this study works.
-Aesthetic Closure: when an individual’s interest can be regarded as unified, interconnected, sharing a common aethetic.
-Diderot Unity: the compulsion of consumers for consistency, to like that which we consume in a consistent and unified manner- provides support for aesthetic closure.

2. Upper Bounds on Theoretical Ideal
The above theory is problematized by a number of factors:
-Goffman’s theory that performance is inherent in socialization- we all wear different masks depending on the social context. Identities are viewed as multiplicitous- online profiles provide only a single flat view.
-boyd’s theory that, because profiles may be viewed by myriad social circles, the individual is forced to take such publicity in account, resulting in self-censorship.
-boyd also points out profiles are often abandoned over time, resulting in static representations/artifacts of past identity performance.

3. Identity Keywords vs. Interest Keywords
-Examined both broad interests as well as special interests (such as cultural identities).
-Special Interests are usually placed at the top of profiles, while more specific interests are listed later on. The former is used to place individuals into categories, while the latter serve as more detailed descriptors.

Weaving the Taste Fabric
-A single crawl of two SNCs mined information from 100,000 profiles.
-To preserve anonymity, only the text of descriptors was used.
-Because language fragments are often used in specific categories, 90% of them were successfully segmented.
-In the case of general interests, about 75% were successfully segmented, as they often contained more idiosyncratic speech.
-Descriptors were then coded in order to create a common language of categories using sources such as wikipedia’s article on subcultures, IMDB, AllMusic, AllRecipes, etc;
-21,000 interest descriptors and 1,000 identity descriptors coded.
-Correlation analysis was then conducted via numeric strength of semantic relatedness.
-Identity Hubs: One’s location in the fabric is described in terms of proximity to the various identity hubs, which serve as an index of identities.
-Taste Cliques: cliques of interest based on taste- for instance, “Soccer,” “Manu Chao”, “tapas” and “Samba Music” would be an example of a Latin taste clique.
-Taste Neighborhoods: larger, more permanent taste cohesions

What is a Taste Fabric Good For?
-InterestMap: taste-based recommendation system- an interactive map where users can input descriptors and receive recommendations based on a navigatable map of descriptors
-Ambient Semantics: facilitates interaction between two strangers who share taste.
-IdentityMirror: makes identity self-management possible
-A dynamic model of taste would take context into account- current events, location

One of the implications I derived from this article was the potential for the creation of true interest-based communities that are capable of a radical clarification and reconfiguration of the networked individual. How addictive it would be, I imagine, to have a system before you powerful enough to know what you like before you’re even aware that you did. Oh yeah, check this out:

Pentagon to Merge Next-Gen Binoculars With Soldiers’ Brains

‘Sup, Big Bro?

Lit Review: An Evaluation of Identity-Sharing Behavior in Social Network Communities (Stutzman)

-Though academic institutions have been working to protect student identities, their work is increasingly being undermined by social networking communities (SNCs).
-The goals of this study were twofold: obtaining quantitative data about SNC participation on college campuses, and analyzing member attitudes pertaining to SNC participation and online identity sharing. This data was gathered from the perspective of an outsider to these communities.
-A random survey of 200 students (38 of whom responded) inquired about the specifics of their involvement in SNCs as well as their feelings regarding online identity sharing. The researcher then created a disclosure matrix for each participant by examining the data made available in their SNC profiles.
-Limitations: Small sample size, internet survey may be biased toward the tech-savvy, outsider status, lexical differences in coding identity elements of the SNCs (favorite movies, sexual orientation, academic status, etc;).

-71% involvement in SNCs: 90% of undergrads, 44% of grads.
-Most popular was Facebook (90% of undergrads), followed by Friendster and MySpace.
-Though participants expressed doubt that their identity information was protected online (2.66 on a 5-point Likert scale), they were nevertheless okay with friends accessing this information (4.55), but markedly less so with strangers (3.15).
-Information of particular interest: location, sexual orientation, political status
-Urges discussion of new identity disclosure threats posed by SNCs.

The very small sample size of this study makes it almost entirely worthless to review, but it is worth noting that academic institutions are working to protect the identities of their students. In another vein, the enormous discrepency between SNC participation by undergrads and that of graduate students suggest that the undergaduate community may possess certain qualities or needs that SNCs fulfill, such as maintaining high school ties.

Seeing as identity disclosure would seem to be a pertinent issue, it would be interesting to reassess users’ feelings on the matter now that SNCs have become both mainstream and problematized by media discourse. How is “stalking” defined (it is a commonly used term in Facebook discourse)? What sort of activities and degree of involvement are deemed acceptable by today’s norms?

Lit Review: Digital Relationships in the ‘MySpace’ Generation: Results From a Qualitative Study (Dwyer)

A qualitative study of online social networking sites and instant messaging.

-CMC reduces the exchange of social context cues, affecting perceptions of truthfulness, interpretation and response to messages, and the formation of impressions.
–Social Information Processing Model (Walther): CMC relies on paralinguistics, slowing the rate at which social cues are received.
-Impression Management (Goffman): The subtle process of controlling another’s perception of something by managing the information exchanged in a social interaction. When that something is one’s own identity, it is referred to as self-presentation. We interpret others through inference of their roles, derived from the information they or others present to us.
-Social-Technical Gap: The space between what technology can support and what actually happens in the social world.

The Study
-Examined the use of technology to manage relationships, and the ways in which these technologies mediate behaviors pertaining to the management of these relationships.
-The semi-structured interview designed inquired about self-presentation/impression management, pros and cons of these systems, usage and dependency for social communication. It also probed participants for information on how they used the tools provided by this systems in developing new relationships, restricting access, and responding to negative events. Expectations of privacy were also investigated, pertaining to what individuals felt comfortable with sharing and why.
-Interviews were conducted by 6 undergraduates, who interviewed a total of 19 college-aged participants. The transcripts were content-analyzed and coded.
-Participants reported heavy use of communication technologies, heralding their low cost, entertainment value, and convenience.
-Profiles provide the opportunity for impression management. Authenticity plays a large role here- profiles that appear (or are known to be) false or contrived trigger a very negative impression. However, they also discussed the need to create a “cool” persona and intense awareness of how others would perceive their self-presentations. Nevertheless, the act of constructing one’s profile was generally considered a fun, entertaining activity.
-As one participant put it, “The defining characteristic of social networking sites is extreme impersonality. The people that one talks to on these sites are not treated as other human beings. They appear more like characters in a story.”
-Though privacy concerns have been well-documented, the participants expressed general apathy, countering that they as members are responsible for the content and management of their virtual personas.
-Acknowledged that relationships formed online are superficial in nature.
-General enjoyment of these systems’ ability to maintain bonds with those one doesn’t see every day, as well as reunite one with old friends.
-Instant Messenger Away Messages: A user is able to monitor others while behind the “barrier” of the away message.
-Comfort level increased as the degree of their own anonymity rose, decreased with the anonymity of others.

Communication technology features (profile, visibility, and identity management) enable interpersonal relationship management (forming new relationships, maintaining existing relationships), which is in turn influenced by individual attitudes (impression management, concern for information privacy).

Questions Raised
How is impression management carried out within CMC?
How to explain the apparent contradiction between privacy concerns and the overwhelming popularity of social networking sites?

Individuals are fluid, not static, and in the act of creating a profile of the self one undergoes a strangely simplified process of impression management. I would like to examine the paralanguage of Internet communities, the ways in which social cues are subtly communicated, as well as the complex ways in which impression management is enacted.