Hey what’s up, tell me whatsa happenin’

I recently had an interview for a job where my social science research skills were actually relevant (I know, quelle surprise). During the interview, I mentioned my participation in an ethnographic field school in Peru and that the interviewers could find the paper that I wrote about the project I conducted using a combination of my name and some specific search terms. I was rather satisfied with it, but now it seems rather naive and unpolished to me (I was a 3rd year undergrad at the time). I won’t tell you how to find the paper, but it’s really not that hard.

Anyway, I suddenly remembered that the interviewer could find this blog as well just by Googling me, and I thought, “Oh crap, have I written anything incriminating?” I felt the teensiest bit iffy about the anarchist sympathies I expressed in previous posts, but I thought I didn’t really have anything to hide. I got the job at the end of the interview anyway, but that brief moment reminded me how potentially vulnerable you can be online. I’m also reminded of what happened to a friend of mine when she was applying for Phd schools: one of the professors she was hoping to work with had found her blog and complimented her on it. There wasn’t anything incriminating there either, but she’s now gotten herself a new blog (just in case, I suspect).

Because the gaze of the Internet is potentially always present, many have likened it to a panopticon. The panopticon is a type of prison designed in such a way that the prisoners never know whether or not they are being watched by their jailers; since the prisoners do not know whether they are being watched, they will act as if they are always being watched and accordingly police themselves. Michel Foucault likens certain parts of “Western” societies to panopticons, since their power to discipline behaviour relies on the visibility of subjects to the gaze of others. The individual is always self-consciously aware of the possibility of being spied upon and will therefore change his or her behaviour accordingly.

However, it seems to me that people won’t necessarily police themselves in a panopticon system. Rather, I think it’s just as likely that people will start tearing down the wall between public and private in their own lives. If one is potentially always being watched, then does it matter if one farts in an empty room or in a crowded dining room? Perhaps someone will see you expel bodily gas when you are in your own bedroom, and perhaps no one will notice if you fart while having dinner with other people. What used to be private might start becoming public, and instead of a society where people police themselves, you might see a society where self-discipline is largely nonexistent.

The power of the panopticon also rests on certain culturally-specific notions of private and public. For example, there is a certain group of people in South America (damned if I remember which one — the Aymara? the Jivaro?) who traditionally lived in longhouses shared by several families. Because there will always be comeone in the longhouse, couples usually have sex in a secluded spot outside, perhaps in the jungle or an empty garden. For these people, then, the indoors is a public space, while it is outdoors where privacy exists. This is the reverse of “Western” notions of public and private, since “a man’s home is his castle”, “it is not the business of the state to regulate what happens in people’s bedrooms”, and so on.

Many people often speak of blogging as a panopticon system. The blogger is always under the gaze of the Internet. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to call blogging a panopticon, since the gaze of the Internet is one that bloggers invite. The gaze of others in a panopticon is involuntary and unwanted, while the gaze of the Internet in blogging is one bloggers try to capture. There have been many news stories, for example, about bloggers being fired for criticizing their employers in their blogs. Blogging cannot therefore be a panopticon system, since otherwise the bloggers would have censored themselves. In a panopticon, the prisoners must be aware that they are potentially being watched by anyone on the Internet, which the bloggers who were fired obviously didn’t consider.

However, even if bloggers start censoring themselves, blogging still cannot be a panopticon. One of the implied requirements of a panopticon is that the prisoners be entirely revealed to their jailers, or else they could simply engage in their illicit activities while out of sight of the authorities. In blogging, whatever is visible about a blogger is visible only because the blogger has made it so. The blogger reveals only what he or she wishes to reveal, and therefore what is revealed is not the entirety of a blogger but a front that he or she has constructed.

It should be obvious in this blog that I reveal only a fraction of the things I do and think about. What you see is what I wish you to see. Hoever, how you understand it is beyond my control. Which takes us into a discussion of authorship, intent, and the death of The Author. But that’s as far as I want to go, so you’ll have to be satisfied with what I’ve given you today.

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.

Work that Network

One of the things about being an Internet researcher is how easy it is to find other Internet researchers — they’re all on the Internet. It would, of course, be rather odd for an Internet researcher not to be easily contacted online. After all, if someone is doing Internet research, then they must be very interested in it and are probably sophisticated users. You know, reading blogs, chatting on IRC, wasting time on Youtube, that kind of thing. Plenty of people still don’t know what a blog is, after all (my supervisor didn’t). Therefore, Internet researchers are probably heavy users of the Internet, and being heavy users, they’ve seen firsthand the incredible convenience being online and connected can bring. As well, they’ve probably bought into the prevailing online ideology that connectedness is a virtue in itself.

In my case, I’ve gotten a lot of information just from googling the names of prominent researchers, even ones that don’t do Internet stuff. They’re all connected to universities, so they usually have a faculty or departmental page where you can get copies of some of their articles (or even books if you’re lucky). Many even have their own websites and blogs. It’s in the interests of academics to have their work read by others, so this kind of open sharing is unsurprising. What’s particularly interesting, though, is when I move from reading other people’s work to communicating with the authors themselves. I’ve had fruitful discussions with Internet researchers, not just with professors but also with other grad students doing research on similar topics. The different ways I’ve found other Internet researchers is interesting: through email, through blogs, and through mailing lists. I’ve only met one of them in person, and I didn’t actually meet her per se, since I attended a presentation she was giving without knowing that I already “knew” her, and only found out afterwards who she was, when it was already too late to do anything. Two ships passing in the night.

What happened was that I attended a conference and went to a certain presentation that was supposed to be about community online. I went, found out that there had been a mixup in the program, but I stayed anyway. Later on, I discovered who the presenter had been. Life went on, I found that person’s blog and said we’d been two feet away from each other without realizing it. Then she said, “Aren’t you So-and-so’s student? When I told him that I was doing Internet research, he said that he had a student working on Filipino bloggers and said he’d put me in touch with you. But now it’s redundant, since you’ve found me anyway”.

It’s fascinating to discover firsthand how small the world is. Still, it wasn’t such a big coincidence, since academia is structured in a way that facilitates linkages across continents. Think of how many people an average professor is connected to, how many students they’ve taught, how many professors they’ve studied under, and how many classmates they’ve had. Quite a lot, so if two randomly selected academics should discover that they’re connected in some way, it’s not really a surprise. Besides, my story took place at a conference, which are designed to create connections between the people who attend.

Why do I care about networks? Because nowadays, people’s social networks extend online, in ways similar to what I’ve discussed about myself. And this is one of the things I’m studying in my research: networks, not just social networks, but networks of blogs and networks of bloggers. While I was contacting other Internet researchers I was also building a network of Internet researchers for myself. That, or I was linking into an already existing network. When you study networks, you’re never entirely sure that you’re not constructing what you’re studying.

It’s also in the nature of networks to constantly be expanding. People make connections, and those people go on to make other connections, and so on. So it’s kind of hard to study something that’s always changing. But more on that in a later post.

Networks, people. Not just computer networks, but networks in general. That’s what I’m studying. And I hope now you understand why.