Adventures in babysitting

Actually, this post is about my adventures online but the original title is catchier.

1. First weird thing: I was downloading something the other night and some guy started hitting on me. This is how our exchange went

Interlocutor: are you really in ns [Nova Scotia]?
Me: why do you ask?
I: i’m in truro [a town in Nova Scotia]
Me: yes i’m in halifax
I: i’m m/40
Me: sorry you’re barking up the wrong tree
I: no i just wanted to talk
Me: sorry anyway, i only use this [program] to dl [download] and don’t like to chat on it

And that was that. Yeah, so maybe he genuinely wanted to talk. What can I say, I was multitasking, I had multiple article PDFs and websites open. I didn’t want to add chatting to my activites otherwise I’d have opened up MSN Messenger. He must have found out where I was by my IP address. I think he thought I was female because my handle had “pink” in it. But I was going by “pinky” after Pinky & the Brain, a cartoon show I used to watch when I was younger. Or he may have thought I was male and wanted to flirt anyway.

On the one hand, this incident shows how being online changes the way people relate to identity. The guy was asking for my gender and my age, something he probably wouldn’t have done if we’d met in person (I look like a twentysomething guy in my picture, right?). Because all he had to go on was my name, the guy (possibly) assumed I was female and started doing the mating dance. I would have had to explicitly tell him my gender for him to get it.

But on the other hand, the incident above also reveals how being online changes nothing at all. The guy immediately declared his age and gender and implicitly asked for mine as well. If he was genuinely interested in just chatting, how relevant would that information have been in reality? Doesn’t the Internet make it so that age and gender don’t matter? Don’t we get to transcend our bodies by being online? Evidently not, since the status of my body (namely, my age and gender) obviously mattered to this guy. A/S/L (age/sex/location) is a common query in chatrooms, so it’s not limited to this one person. Bodies matter, even on the bodiless Internet (though the other person may not have been m/40 anyway, or even just a single person).

This perspective, where the body is seen as the source of identity, mostly comes from feminist theory. In this specific case, I’m drawing upon the work of Lisa Nakamura, whose book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet I’m using quite extensively in my research.

2. Later that night, I went to the University of California at Berkeley’s website to find out more about Ethel Regis, whose work on the Filipino diaspora I read about here. I go over to the page of the Department of Ethnic Studies and find this instead:

Hacked by Byond

Yes, I admit I was reading The Onion while I was working. This was on July 25 at 11:51 PM ADT. It’s puzzling why this crew hacked this particular website. Berkeley is a rather liberal campus, and if anyone is likely to support the Lebanese it’s people from Berkeley. Second, why hack the website of the Ethnic Studies department? A lot of the people there are postcolonial and anti-imperialist thinkers, and they’re even more likely to oppose Israel’s actions in Lebanon. Don’t worry, the website was fine the next day.

Take a look at the countries that the hackers* claimed to be from: Argentina, Mexico, Germany, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Chile. They’re all over the place, aren’t they? The Internet is certainly quite good at severing people from the bonds of geography. However, look closer and you’ll realize that all of the countries mentioned are in Latin America, except for Germany. Why are these crews so concentrated in one particular area?

One answer may be language. While the Internet allows users to potentially communicate with anyone else connected to the Internet, the truth is that Internet users are segregated in several different linguistic communities. I’m guessing that these hackers operate mostly in Spanish and they probably met through some kind of Spanish-language space online: a message board, an IRC channel, whatever. Yet another example of how geography is reproduced online.

Notice also that the hackers specifically stated what countries they were from. Why did they do this? What does it matter what country they were from? Does that change their message in any way? It may be that the hackers felt proud to be non-Americans bringing down an American website (though being based in Mexico doesn’t mean you can’t be American too). You see? Nationalist pride exists online, and therefore geography does as well.

3. Someone found my blog by Googling “nova scotia rifle ass”. They ended up on my post about Canada Day, where I mentioned a rifle exactly once. Sorry, I’ve got no analytical insight into this. I’d just like to know what exactly they were looking for.

Anyway, I still haven’t done the post on nationalism and diaspora that I said I’d put up weeks ago, so that is definitely the next thing that’s appearing.

*I know that coders actually prefer these types of programmers to be called crackers, while hackers should be reserved just for really good programmers. But as far as the vast majority of the world is concerned, a hacker is an online vandal and burglar. I defer to the dictatorship of the majority.

Internet dogs continued

I just did another phone interview this morning (actually it was over Skype). I think I see another way that IM interviews are different from voice: the way previous utterances are saved. IM is different from voice communication because speech is ephemeral. Once you say something, it’s gone. Even if you’re recording the exchange, you can’t review the recording during the conversation itself. But with IM, you can always scroll back and see that there was a point you wanted to come back to. So time is handled differently with regards to IM. This isn’t a novel observation, but it was just something that struck me after this morning’s regular old voice communication.

On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog

Well, I just conducted my first interview through instant messaging (IM) over the weekend (if you’re reading this thanks again CK!). I was going to blog about how different it was from traditional interviews when I realized that I actually have little experience with doing traditional interviews. Not the Platonic ideal of traditional interviews, anyway. The first set of interviews I ever conducted were in Spanish, a language I’m not that great in. I got the meanings of the words but I didn’t have the level of fluency necessary for the true back and forth rapport that the best interviewers are supposed to get. I only interviewed two people for my second set of interviews, one of them over the phone (I was doing their life histories). And now for my third research project and third set of interviews, I’m interviewing people for this blogging thing. I was going to do some face to face interviews, but now that’s gone and it’s all phone interviews and VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol, also known as Internet phone). Anyway, I thought I’d compare the different kinds of interviews I’ve done.

Face to face interviews. With this one you get the most and the richest information. When you’re interviewing someone, you’re supposed to take notes not just on their answers but on the interview itself: your impressions of the other person, awkward pauses in the conversation, the tone in which things were said, and so on. You get the most of this kind of nonverbal information from face to face interviews. A lot of times you feel like you’re being deluged with a constant flow of information that you have to get down. And with face to face interviews, you can keep the whole thing going for a relatively long time (I think the longest I ever did was two hours).

Phone and VOIP interviews. Obviously, with this you don’t get as much nonverbal information. You can still tell a lot from voice, though. How is the participant feeling? Are they sick? How strongly do they feel about what they’re talking about? The thing is, you can’t keep this kind of interview going for very long. As a general rule, most people start getting restless if they talk on the phone longer than 30 minutes, unless it’s about a subject they’re interested in or they have a personal connection to the person they’re speaking to. So you have to keep phone interviews short and sweet. But they’re a lot more convenient for both the researcher and the participant.

Instant Messaging and Chat. Ok, so I’ve only done one so far. Still, here are my impressions:

  1. First, there’s a lot less information you can get that isn’t explicitly told to you by your participant. You can guess at how they’re feeling by their responses but it’s not a foolproof method (though it’s not foolproof in person anyway).
  2. It’s also hard to tell when someone is actually paying attention to you. The other person could be watching tv and you wouldn’t know it. It’s not so bad when they answer immediately, but when there’s a longer than normal pause, it’s impossible to tell if the participant is considering their response or have shifted their attention somewhere else. This is particularly bad because interviewers aren’t supposed to pester their participants and pressure them for answers, otherwise the person may just whip out a half-formed thought solely to satisfy the researcher.
  3. The nature of IM makes it easy for numerous conversational threads to form. The participant can type something interesting, then you think, “Aha! Better follow that up,” but then they go on to say something else entirely that’s also as interesting. Interviewers are supposed to give their participants enough leeway to explore interesting tangents, but then you have to keep in mind the interesting thing that was said several dozen lines back. And it’s even harder when there are multiple items of interest that come up.
  4. Connected to the previous point, it’s very easy to interrupt the other person when they’re in the middle of typing. When I’m using IM normally, I often interject when the other person is in the middle of typing, which adds to the number of conversational threads that come up. Often, it’ll be like two conversations are going on as I ask a question, then I ask another, and then the other person answers the first question and I respond to that while they answer the second question. It gets confusing until one thread ends. That is a definite no-no in interviewing, since you’re supposed to give your participants time to respond, and the constant appearance of more questions will make participants feel like they have to type faster to keep up. So what happened during the interview was that I kept starting to type and then deleting what I had when I saw that my participant still had something to say. I just had to keep watching out not to fall into my normal IM habits.
  5. Finally, you can keep IM and chat interviews going for a relatively long time, longer than phone interviews. This probably has to do with the fact that most people spend more time sitting around typing on computers than they do talking on the phone. And being on the computer means you can multitask, so you can keep an eye on the kettle you set to boil or play solitaire or something.

Anyway, that’s what my experience has been with interviews. Your mileage may vary.

I’ll go a little later

Wow, getting up early really does change your view of the world. It’s only 2:40 PM and yet it feels like I’ve already had a full and productive day of work. I’ve been running interviews all week and will continue to do them next week. I know that I said I haven’t been blogging much about my research itself. This is partly because I don’t want to influence any of the people I’m going to interview. When I recruit participants, I invite them to check out Sarapen for themselves as part of the proof that I’m a legitimate researcher and in hopes of starting a dialogue. But I can’t discuss my findings just yet or else my participants might start answering differently according to how other people have responded.

Also, thanks to the fact that interviews have become my top priority, I’ve been reading the books that I really should have finished reading by now but kept setting aside. So the reading I procrastinated on before I’m doing now because I want to procrastinate on something else. I’m reading lots of good stuff that I really could have used earlier. But remember, the early bird may get the worm, but the lazy worm will live another day. Of course, in my case it’s the lazy worm that gets eaten. Maybe the bird is also lazy?

In which I prove that I actually work

It strikes me that for a blog claiming to be about my research on Filipino bloggers, I haven’t actually discussed blogging yet.

Partly it’s because I’ve been setting the ground for discussing Filipino bloggers. Filipinos don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s hard to talk about them without talking about the Philippines. This is especially true when you want to discuss nationalism and national identity.

But how do I define Filipinos and how do I define blogs? And how do I define Filipino bloggers?

Well, I define blogs using the most inclusive definition: a website that displays dated entries in reverse chronological order. I’m not interested in hairsplitting between online journals and blogs. When people make this distinction between online journals and blogs, they usually define online journals as being about personal issues in the author’s life while blogs are about larger issues (i.e., politics or information technology) which are covered in more of an essay format. I don’t agree with this distinction, which I think is partly an attempt to exclude female and youthful bloggers from the blogging world. Online journals are dominated by females and youths, and the attempt to define them as merely journalers creates a scheme where females and youths talk about who’s dating whom on journals whereas older and more masculine bloggers talk about big stuff like the war in Iraq. In other words, the mushy emotional stuff is for online journals, but the serious stuff is for blogs. And it’s no coincidence that the mushy emotional stuff is mostly covered by women and youths: it’s girly and childish, but the serious stuff is grownup and mature (i.e., masculine). This follows larger patterns in popular media, where the contributions of women and youths are devalued and where the emotional and personal are seen as superficial and shallow.

Since I don’t follow this distinction, then it should be obvious that a lot of the bloggers I examine are women and younger people. Quite a few are on Xanga and Myspace, too.

Now then, how do I define Filipino? It’s not really so important how I define Filipino, though, the relevant question is how I define Filipino bloggers. The definition I use is also very simple. Filipino bloggers are those bloggers that identify themselves as Filipino.

Actually, I don’t really mean that. What I mean is that for the purposes of my research, I am only studying those bloggers that identify themselves as Filipino. This means that I don’t cover those bloggers who consider themselves Filipino but don’t identify themselves as such in their blogs. Partly it’s for reasons of pragmatism. How would I be able to tell a blogger was Filipino if they didn’t tell me they were? It’s not like I could tell just by sight, since someone who calls themself Filipino could very well be mistaken for Chinese, Indonesian, or another ethnic group. And not all bloggers put up pictures of themselves in the first place. Sure, I know some bloggers that don’t mention being Filipino, but not enough to be able to base a research project on them. At least, not according to how I’ve designed the project; I can think of several ways you can conduct a project by just studying a couple of people or even just one person, but I’m not interested in the questions that only that type of research can answer.

I’m also relying on self-identification because I don’t want to impose my own definition of “Filipino” on the people I’m studying. Identity isn’t something that’s already there, but instead something that people actively create. No one is born Filipino, they’re raised that way. “Filipino” is a label that a bunch of people have decided to share, but it’s not some eternal and unchanging category like solid, liquid, and gas. It’s a label that has had different meanings at different times. Not even Filipinos have always been Filipinos — “Filipino” used to only refer to Spanish people born in the Philippines, or what are known as criollos or creoles in other parts of the colonized world. If I try and impose my definition of Filipino on the world, then I’ll be trying to set in stone what has always been in motion, rather like trying to put the wind in a box. It’s not the wind if it’s no longer moving, it’s just empty air. Would I then be studying Filipino bloggers, or would I be studying my definition of Filipino bloggers?

You see? It’s tough work having to think about this all the time.

Nationalism and its discontents

I’ve just come across this article about the University of the Philippines Open University’s course, Filipiniana Online, which from what I gather is a sort of quick immersion in Philippine “culture”. There are several things I find interesting about this course.

First, the course seems to define culture as art: the student studies, among other things, “Filipino paintings and other forms of visual arts . . . Philippine rituals, dances, musical forms, plays and films.” Well and good, but the implicit message is that culture is superficial. How much of daily life do you spend dancing or watching films? Not a lot, so this culture as art idea seems to be saying that Philippine culture is just something Filipinos indulge in every now and then, but it otherwise doesn’t impact their everyday lives.

The course also seems to define culture as being prestigious. Notice that tv shows aren’t mentioned, and I suspect the films being reviewed are serious stuff like Lino Brocka’s work and not trashy like, say, Darna. Wouldn’t the stuff with popular appeal impact on more people, and therefore reflect the concerns of more Filipinos than high-minded artistic fare? If the purpose of the course is to understand the Philippines, you would think understanding the vast majority of Filipinos would be a very high goal.

The course also focuses on the spectacular instead of the everyday. Dances and plays are certainly nice to watch and participate in, but as I said, they don’t really influence that many Filipinos and aren’t a concern for most. Filipinos in the Philippines, ask yourselves this, when was the last time you danced the tinikling? Probably when you were still kids in school, right? Now, when was the last time you sent a text message? The Philippines has been claimed by some to be the most texting-crazy country in the world. I would argue that studying the use of texting in the Philippines would give someone a greater understanding of Filipinos than studying any number of dances would. The same for studying the demographic composition of the Philippines or the way social class works in the country (for example, how most middle class Filipinos have maids, and how that is not the same among the middle class in, say, Australia). However, if you define culture as being spectacular, then this kind of stuff would not apply, since it is just the boring everyday stuff which also happens to be the stuff that most Filipinos deal with everyday.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t mind enrolling in the course if I had the time. I certainly have the money, which is no small thing when you consider that quite a lot of Filipinos in the Philippines don’t. I’m curious to see exactly what this course would say about the Philippines. Would the course mention that Emilio Aguinaldo, the official first president of the Philippines, had his rival Andres Bonifacio shot because of Bonifacio’s popular appeal despite the fact that they were both supposed to be on the same side? Would it also mention that Aguinaldo collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation of the Philippines in the Second World War?

I’m not trying to be overly critical of the Philippines, I’m just pointing out that all countries have things they shouldn’t be proud of, and I wonder whether the course would take this harsh realist approach instead of the nationalist rhapsodizing that I expect.

Still, this kind of whitewashing should be placed in its context. The Philippines is a country of multiple languages, ethnicities, and religions. It doesn’t fit too well into the ideal of “one country, one people” that nation-states aspire to. It’s a lot harder to sustain the fiction of a Philippine nation when there are so many obvious divisions within the population, and the constant efforts by the Philippine nation-state and its intellectuals to promote the Philippines should be understandable from this perspective. To put it simply, Filipinos have to be constantly reminded that the Philippines exists because they get so many reminders everyday that it doesn’t.

The focus of the course on traditional dances and such reminds me of how the Germans invented Germany. What we know as Germany today was divided into several different principalities, kingdoms, bishoprics, and city-states until the middle of the 19th century. Sure, the people all spoke the same language (in the same way that Scottish people and Texans speak the same language, i.e., with varying degrees of intelligibility), but they had different rulers, somewhat different customs, and even different religions. “Germany” was a mishmash of different peoples. However, once German unification started, the commonalities between these different peoples also started to be highlighted. One of these projects of cultural unification involved the collection of folk tales. “See, Germans, this is something we all have in common — Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, the Pied Piper of Hamlin.” That was part of what the project was saying. The collection of folk tales was one of the ways in which the German Volk was constructed, the German people. And we see the same process taking place in the Philippines with the Filipiniana Online course today.

Anyway, I have more critical analyses of this Filipiniana Online course, but they’ll have to wait for another day.