Sunday, March 09, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XII

Heather Champ, Jason Nolan, Katharine Parrish, and Ana Sisnett: Conceptual Firewalls

Champ is creator of the Mirror Project. Nolan co-edited the forthcoming International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments. Parrish researches the use of multimedia environments as spaces for non-narrative literary expression. Sisnett is executive director for Austin Free-Net. Here is a rough transcript of the panel discussion:

Parrish: We're going to limit our concerns today to blogs. Blogs are such a powerful symbol. Today we'll consider blog technologies, cultures, and communities to address these questions: Can anyone publish anything at any time? What aspects of accessibility might we be overlooking? Does anyone publish anything at any time? If we removed any limitations, would people blog anything? How much do we really know about the breadth and depth of experience communicated by blogs? What do we do with this information?

If we make the claim that everyone has access, it becomes our problem. Some of it is beyond our direct control. It's still incumbent to ask, are there things that we do that maintain inequities? If the revolution will be bloggerized, what will its impact be? We must be careful when we say "we." This is a very particular "we." Do we want to see everyone blogging? Do we want everyone to have access to some vehicle for voicing dissent? Is there something inherent in blogs or blog cultures that don't translate well to other cultures?

One of our panelists, Cameron Marlowe can't be with us today. But he sent us his comments, so I'm going to keep talking. If you're familiar with Blogdex, you're familiar with Cameron. I can't find it on my laptop. Maybe I won't deliver Cameron's comments.

Champ: My name is Heather Champ. My Web log is is Harrumph.

Nolan: I will just talk in teacher voice. This is a picture that you have in handout. What I'm talking about is the Null and Hidden Curriculum. I've written about the Null and Hidden Curriculum of the Internet. Curriculum speaks to how we learn in any environment. Most of my work is around the types of learning that go on in non-school environments, such as online communities.

The hidden curriculum looks at what goes on beyond what is explicit. You have to be acculturated. You have to know how to participate in that environment. The Nolan Curriculum is a little more insidious. It's based on the idea that learning involves opportunitites as well as lost opportunities. The Null curriculum is what you did or did not choose.

The tools that we use to create limit what is said as well as offer opportunities for new forms of expression. The tools we use and the language we use influences the way we think. We can express ourselves in a varity of different ways.

As big a fan of blogs as I am, blogs are also tools for silencing and othering. How can tehre be democracy without access and representation? Are blogs reporducing dominant cultural norms as well as taking steps to challenge them? Blogs, from my experience, don't always expand cultural horizons. There's a natural difficulty dealing with foreign languages and the immediacy of online communications. I can't set up Moveable Type in Japanese because the instructions are in Japanese.

There are usually multilingual plug-ins, but they always start with English. The Internet can do two languages at once: English and another language. I want to create technology-based environment that do not privelege first.

How do we overcome the English-ness that's built into the Internet itself? I don't think we can. If you send an email message in Russian, the message gets sent with this HELO from server to server to server. Imagine if you had to greet everyone in a foreign language. The letter "a" in ASCII stands for American.

I don't want everybody to be equal. But I want there to be equal access. I want to foster and ensure communication. Can we overcome bias? No, but we can be conscious of it in the tools we create. My facetious question would be: Why shouldn't everything on the Internet be tied to the American way of life?

We are very much interested in other cultures, and we very much want to interact with them.

Sisnett: Katharine has touched off what has become a big change in my life. Before she contacted me I had only visited one blog consciously. It was Dr. Tom Ferguson's blog, and he's sitting right here in the front of the room. Katharine wrote to me and asked for my participation in this panel basically as a reality check.

What keeps me in the room is the issue of community. There is so much time spent on blogging, I wonder do these people have jobs? As much as I write, I don't spend that much time writing about anything. But for the last few weeks or so, I have been blogging like crazy. What became as a potentially adversial relationship has now become a love affair.

I am someone who is on the other side f the frewall. I am in community technology. I build bridges to people who may may not know how to use computers, know how to type, know English. There's another layer of questioning that has to do with the political implications of putting one's information out there.

If you're considering using Web logs as part of training programs or as a community-building tool, you need to consider whether the people you're serving are interested in using the tools. How do people stay in touch with each other? Is it the ideal form of communications? A lot fo the people we work with would rather have a spaghetti lunch or a face-to-face discussion. Most of the people don't use these tools, don't use them efficiently.

Access becomes an issue. Access to information. Access to technology and training in the use of those tools isn't available. The Mirror Project was a great alternative because it's about photographs. Then the question becomes "Who's going to pay for the camera? Who's going to develop the film?"

There's also a fear factor. If someone's an immigrant, they're going to be concerned with what they say and how they say it online. Some other questions that were raised include: Do I have to sign up to see blogs? What about privacy? What tools do I have to know how to use? I haven't used HTML since Java came around. What's interesting is that it's come back around to a text-based tool like what I first used: Telnet and Pine. Who gets to access my blog? Can I password-protect my blog? What if somebody wants to hack my blog? Can I protect it? The last question is the reliability of the information. How do you know how to trust the information? How do you know the blog wasn't set up for another sinister reason?

The work that Jason and Katharine have done is very relevant to a friend of mine. She works for a black college with scant resources. It takes three weeks to set up an email. There aren't enough accounts for students. They're all setting Yahoo accounts. The letters are taped to the keyboards. Imagine going to a college without enough computers?

The level of critical thinking I've found on the Net is something I don't always have in my day to day. Even if I disagree with it, at least it's something I can bounce off of. But ultimately, is it useful? What am I going to do with it?

Parrish: I'm just going to briefly outline some of Cameron's thoughts. One of the reasons I was interested in having Cameron on this panel is that Blogdex is an index to blog content and communities. There doesn't really exist any scientific statistical information on the content of Web logs.

I validate each and every blog that's added to and indexed by the system. This past year was the year of the oppressed, with the largest increases in Iranian, Chinese, and American conservative populations. It might be interesting to unpack how new communities online can be quellef by the larger existing groups or become central to the online world.

We're dealing with a monster here when we start asking these questions. I hope you can see that these are interrelated questions. Please bear with us. We're eating away into time to respond. These questions are best answered over beer.

I would like to ask Heather. I never became conscious of myself as a gendered individual. I knew I was a girl. I knew I was performed as a girl. But I never really considered my gender until I began working with technology, when I realized that I behaved as culturally female. How conscious are you of your gender?

Champ: I want to back it up a step to conferences. In 1995 I went to Internet World and Mac World. The most strongly I feel the division is at conferences and in the materials that are handed out to me. Last year, when I came to SXSW, I felt like it was predominately a white male conference. It's so terrible. Look, it's Joshua Davis, but where are the women? This year, SXSW has made more of an effort to find a balance.

I'm concerned about women who are coming after me, who look at these materials, and who feel whether these events speak to them. Anil recently posted a photo of Dave Winer's recent panel at Harvard, and it struck me that it's white, it's male, and they have beards. There were two women there? Those people don't speak to me. Is this the face of blogging?

Nancy White: It's about exposure. I work with young women in high school in Seattle to think about themselves in technology work. Do blogs give us this opportuntiy to try out if we imagined ourselves to be in another way? Is this a safe place, an incubator? When we offer new technologis, can there be a safe place to see what the ramifications are? If we don't give them a chance to try it, we'll never see their faces. Is there a space in between public and private?

Sisnett: I think it's two different things, though. There needs to be energy put into diversifying the attendance of conferences. Advertising dollars have not gone to newspapers owned by people of color for SXSW. Is it assumed that people of color don't care about SXSW? There aren't a lot of women who look like me in this entire building. It's about racism. It's about sexism. We need to say that and deal with it if we want it to change.

Nolan: For educators, the goal is just to get people online and blogging. I ask my students, "Why is this useful to you?" I have a freat student who's going to eclipse me in 30 seconds, and she never touched technology before. She was very hostile to working with technology. She was very hostile to blogging. Now she wants to work with women to blog to each other in a network segregated from the Internet. These are women who might live 50 meters away from each other, but they may never see each other. And the men don't want them to get online, because they know what the Web is for: porn. We've got a lot of great opportunities when we engage people who don't think it's important to be blogging.

Question: You made a comment about dragging your students kicking and screaming into blogging. Why? Only a minority people find it worthwhile writing in the first place.

Nolan: I teach mostly grad students, engineers and technology people. They're afraid of expressing themselves. I think they need to experience using technology before they can develop and design tools for others to use.

Question: Blogger was originally created by a man and a woman. Do you think that attributes to its success?

Nolan: You could say the same thing about Moveable Type. I can't speak to whether the genesis of a given tool based on gender has a role in their success.

Parrish: Teachers, particularly English teachers, are always forcing their students to journal and then interrogate them. There haven't been enough good thinking behind that. Most of my lack of sleep I've experienced in my teaching practice stems from forcing my students to journal. With blogging in the classroom, you're forcing people to bring something that is private into the public.

The way that we culturally think about out private thoughts and what happens when they're brought into the public space has a tremendous effect on how people perceive blogging. My students see blogging as a threat. The very concept was not enjoyable at all.

Nolan: You kept bringing up the notion of journal writing as being a specifically female-centered form of writing. In English and Japanese culture, men aren't diarists. But novel writing was very hard for women. They could get diaries published, however.

Sisnett: My first attempt searching blogs based on race ended up finding angry white men blogging about affirmative action. I was pretty underwhelmed by what I found to begin with. It didn't stop me, but it wasn't a welcoming effort. It turned out that two white men answered my questions in very thoughtful ways.

How do I bring all this great stuff back into my communities. And is it my responsibility? We don't tell people what to do. We let people know what tools are out there and leave the decision up to them.

[At the end, Lisa asked a question about privacy that turned into a brief discussion of Nolan's work with Steve Mann on sousveillance. In fact, Nolan had set up his Webcam to capture footage of the panel audience -- and Lisa behind the camera -- during the session. Here's a snap from his footage.]

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