Category Archives: Hmm

Where is the “open web” now?

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Photo: Arikia Millikan, Olympus Pen E-P5

I’ve been thinking a lot about the open web lately. As a concept, it is relatively abstract to me since I was born in 1986 and came of age in an online ecosystem where closed software systems were promoted in convenient packages. I got my first computer when I was eight (a Packard Bell with Windows 3.1), and my online consciousness began to develop within the confines of the AOL 3.0 interface. For those younger than me who don’t remember, it came on a CD-ROM and had a splash page of a few topics you could click to view content, which I assume some curator on AOL’s end manually updated.

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The chatrooms were glorious cesspools of humanity. My user name was SmileyA125 and I still remember the sounds of the door opening and closing when someone would enter and leave a room. Eight-year-old me could transmit messages to Japan in the blink of an eye! What power. But the closest I ever got to the open web via AOL was typing in a URL by hand. I remember I used to just guess which words to put between the www and the  dot com, and if a website actually did exist there, it was like winning a game.

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When AOL Instant Messenger came along, my peers and I rejoiced. It wasn’t so much that people my age (12-16) wanted to communicate within a closed system, but the features (profiles, fonts and text colors, and my favorite of all: the warn button) made it more appealing. Also starting was the tendency of people to be online all the time. As soon as hogging the phone line was no longer an issue, the concept of logging on and off began to fade. If you were AFK, you were simply idle.

I can’t even remember how I found my Sweet Valley High fanfiction sites—I suppose through a search on Netscape Navigator—but I think this was as close as I got to the open web. I wasn’t yet big on reading the news, so I have no idea what online news even looked like back then or how publications disseminated information online other than by email listservs or people manually keying in the homepage URL. I’d guess the news organizations would have to collaborate directly with the ISPs (like AOL) in order to get direct placement on their curated portals. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but I know of some news organizations that still require manual updating of their homepages.

I never used The Well or Mosaic or any of the other key things that came before, so I have to use my imagination where all the early stuff is concerned. After meeting Tim Berners-Lee by proxy of interviewing him with Nate Silver for Nate’s book, The Signal and the Noise, I read Weaving the Web which does a nice job of laying out the chronology and major players leading up to the AOL era. I know the open web he spoke of still exists somewhere. When I hear people like Chris Anderson and Ev Williams talk about how the Web is dead, it seems like they’re saying it out of self-interest rather than describing some factual reality. But I still don’t know what on the web is truly “open,” or what ever really was.

The summer before I began my freshman year of college at University of Michigan, The Facebook sent an invitation to my freshly generated umich.edu email address, probably along with all the other umich addresses and those of about a dozen other select Universities. We were to be the first users outside of Harvard. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of absurd that they were able to do that. I remember interpreting that invitation as a 17 year old and thinking The Facebook must be something the University was endorsing as a directory tool—a service it was providing to students like me. But why would some guy from Harvard be given (or be allowed to take) entire student email lists to promote his product, which was set up like a dating site at the time? What other closed web system that wasn’t proprietary University software got such preferential treatment?

My friends and I poured our college life data onto the Book of Faces, openly and assuming respect for our privacy at first, then more hesitantly and pulling back as cases popped up to indicate moderate to great harm could come from sharing too much. The most famous example at my school, which I’ve blogged about before, was when my classmate then two-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, lost a bunch of sponsorships because someone posted a picture of him smoking a bong on the facebook. I never deactivated my profile, but I went through at least 10 cataloging sprees to hone my privacy settings, as well as complete purges of photos of myself. None of that cataloging really matters anymore since facebook decided its users needed simplified options. Those photos I deleted may be lost forever to the internet Nothing.

OR, they may remain in data purgatory, inaccessible to me like much of the other data I’ve input into the facebook over the past 10.5 years, but stored somewhere in the recesses of facebook’s servers for whatever reason. In light of all the illegal government surveillance stuff that’s been happening, I’ve been thinking a lot about how if we give a company data, someone could then force the company to give that data to them if they want. I don’t think anyone wants pictures of me getting drunk as an 18 year old, but if they did and I didn’t want them to have them, I couldn’t stop them.

Facebook is definitely not the open web, and I’ve been posting less and less there the more I think about what it means to feed this monopolistic beast.

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In college, each student got some allotment of free server space hosted by the University. We could all store files in a shareable directory that said Index at the top. I filled mine with pictures from the internet, mp3s, and maybe some school-related things. It felt like it was mine while I was there. But it doesn’t exist anymore. It was wiped from their servers a while after I graduated. Nobody asked me if they could do it, they just did. The Nothing strikes again.

Now as I think about where the open web exists and how one could encourage publishing there, I’m searching for scenarios in which the decision-making power of what happens to user-generated content online rests not on a corporation that doesn’t share the user’s interest, but on the user, who should technically own her own data.

I’m wondering if WordPress is considered the open web. It certainly feels more open than facebook. I met Matt Mullenweg (the WordPress founder) on two occasions and he seems like a nice guy. But WordPress owns the servers where all the content I’ve authored on this blog over the past eight years is hosted. Matt Mullenweg could theoretically disappear my entire literary archive if he wanted to. He probably doesn’t want to. It would be unlikely for him to do that, but why should I assume that he wouldn’t? It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

So, if the open web ever existed, and if it still exists, where is it? How is one to publish on it and what benefits does that have for the individual user and the overall health of the web in general? How can I be absolutely sure that content I publish on the web will remain there until I decide to take it down? How can i ensure it will remain there at its original URL after the event of my death? I’m going to do some research, because I’m prepared to go deep with this quest. But I wanted to share the beginning of my thought process, so feel free to leave comments if you can point me toward the open web.

 

 

 

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Casual Predation: Postscript

A week ago I published an essay on LadyBits called Casual Predation, about the ways in which women are made to feel hunted by random passersby. You can find that essay here:

View story at Medium.com

Since publishing, I have received quite a bit of feedback, both rewarding and distressing.  The best was the overwhelming response of acknowledgement from women I respect, such as Cindy Gallop, Kelly Bourdet, Nilofer Merchant, etc. Part of the reason I wrote this is that when I’ve spoken with women about the incidents I’ve experienced in the past, they always have some kind of story about being alone and freaked out because they were being hunted in some way—every single one.

The other part of why I wrote this is because I’ve noticed a major lack of understanding from guys about this very real, very common occurrence—even from the most awesome guys who I adore to pieces. And so another facet of rewarding feedback has come from guys who were finally able to have some sort of revelation through this essay about what it feels like to be a woman. One man emailed me so say: “Thank you for writing that. As I seek to reflect on making more positive contributions to the world (and at least quit being a jerk, to quote Marshall Goldsmith), I find writing like yours to be very useful.  I’m sure you catch all sorts of troll crap, and I wanted to provide a voice of thank you.”

You are welcome.

On the flip side, I’ve gotten some very bizarre feedback from a handful of guys who have read my story and been very defensive. Their line of reasoning seems to go something like: “I enjoy looking at women and having sex with them, and it’s offensive to me that you’re calling me a predator for doing this and trying to mate.” First of all, no. The whole point of the essay was to describe a very specific behavior that women notice that sets off defensive alarm bells in our bodies. While some people are certainly more sensitive than others, we can usually tell the difference between a look from someone who is a potential predator, and anything else. It isn’t hard to do if you are paying attention (provided you don’t have a condition that prevents you from detecting human emotion such as autism).

I used to have a parrot and sometimes he would bite me. Eventually, via observing his behavior prior to the bite, I learned to recognize his intent to bite me before he would lunge. He would get very attentive to the part of my body he was preparing to attack and his pupils would dilate. I learned to move just in time before he would fly into a monstrous rage, lashing his beak in every direction, and would put him in his cage to chill out.

If we can detect these warning signals in our animal companions, we can certainly detect them in other humans.

Nomad magnets

My mother was a true nomad. She could never stay in one place for very long, and it forced me to learn to quickly adapt to new environments. I find myself drawn to other adapters. In New York I would sometimes wind up in a small group of virtual strangers, having the best conversation ever into the wee hours of the night, and someone would casually mention that “…because I moved around a lot as a kid…” Then someone else would chime in “no way, I moved around a lot as a kid too,” and before we knew it the whole group would realize that we were all nomad progeny.

Finding your inner gazelle

I stood there sweating, panting, looking at the 9 other Amazonian women standing with me in a circle.

“After a gazelle gets chased by a lion, if it gets away and doesn’t get eaten, it shakes it out, ” said Rochelle Schieck. “The gazelle doesn’t go to therapy for ten years, it shakes out all its nerves and goes about being a gazelle.” She instructed us to shake out every limb and portion of our bodies without worrying about what it looked like. “Just do what feels good.” I did as I was told.

I was at a Qoya class, a female-only movement system Schieck developed to help women remember. When she said that’s what it was for at the beginning of class, I didn’t really get what she meant. I have a pretty good memory and didn’t feel like I had forgotten anything especially important. But after two hours of wild flailing, yoga, stretching, trust falls, and moving about the room to tribal music while blindfolded, I remembered what I forgot.

Generally in adult life, there is only a small subset of accepted motions that we can do with our bodies: walking, sitting, and standing. If you’re in a gym, you can do some more. If you’re on a dance floor, the subset grows depending on how many other people are dancing, how much space there is, how much you think you might get made fun of if you were to bust a move, and how much you’ve had to drink. Even in dance and exercise classes, movement is relatively prescribed. Even during sex, people typically don’t trust themselves enough or listen to their partners enough to move spontaneously, so they mimic porn instead. Most adults don’t know how to move freely.

Little kids though, they fling themselves in every which way just because it feels good. This class made me remember what it was like to be a little girl in my kid body. I remembered how I used to move around innocently before all the self-consciousness set in, before I felt the weariness of gazes that I worried might judge me, sexualize me, mock me, ignore me. I remembered that we minimize the possibilities of negative events occurring to the detriment of positive ones. I remembered that I didn’t always used to just sit in front of a computer screen all day and jump on the elliptical machine when I got too stressed out to function — I used to be a dancer, for about 15 years of my youth.

The ten of us lay on our backs kicking our legs into the air, something I’m pretty sure my mom has a home movie of me doing when I was like three. The whole rest of the day, I felt the impulse to listen to the pop punk I used to like in high school. I walked over to the Venice Beach shore to watch the sunset, and thought about letting myself love with all the confidence I had before I knew what a broken heart was.

Be more weird. Be the gazelle.

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Isolative tendencies

I’ve been sort of withdrawing from Twitter lately. I’ve been closing Tweet Deck for days at a time, only tweeting from the web browser or my phone if I need to. I guess it’s because I’ve been more focused on productivity and other adult things lately, and it’s just so busy and blinky that I can’t focus. But also something feels different lately. It’s not as fun anymore. Or maybe I’m not as fun anymore, or drawn to the fun. Maybe I’m taking it on as my responsibility to focus on serious things. I just don’t geek out like I used to on Twitter, mainly just in person, with people. I feel like Twitter has become this frantic ego-stroking competition. Maybe I’m noticing more because it’s my job to be a front-facing journalist instead of a back-end editor. I worry that I’m being judged, and the more I worry the more I want to give the finger to the judgers. How dare they.

Maybe I just need a break from Twitter. Who me? Queen of the Internet? Nobody’s called me that in a while, The science bloggers used to, back when my entire life was devoted to getting their work out into the world. I miss being able to do that for the scientists. Everything’s changed so much.

But I digress. The whole point of this was to remind you that 40% of Americans never leave their home towns. Can you believe it? A friend told me that on the road trip we took to Pittsburgh last weekend. It’s places like that that make you remember how true it is, when you walk into a diner and everybody knows you’re not from around here. It’s kind of like how the majority of Americans have never used Twitter either, or use it once and think it’s stupid and never use it again. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ll allow it to comfort me about closing Tweet Deck for a few days so I can write, and think.

Spring hot dog contemplation

Tonight I went out to celebrate the 3rd year anniversary of the first email sent on Rachel Sklar’s XX in Tech listserve. There was an open bar, but I drank only water. I think this may have been a first for me. It wasn’t hard or anything. I’ve had a few debates in my day with people who were looking out for my well-being and those who were simply self-righteous hypocrites about whether or not I was an alcoholic. I’m not, I just like to drink. But I like not drinking just as well.
When I was at this open bar I didn’t get cravings, I didn’t sit in the corner isolating myself from all thoughts of alcohol. I happily drank water and said no thank you whenever anyone offered me a drink.

On my way home I stopped at a hot dog restaurant because all the windows were open and it was nice outside, and also because I wanted a hot dog. I sat down in the far corner with the latest edition of n+1 and began reading about our post-sociological society, when a woman sat down next to me, also by herself. I told her I liked her skirt. “Thanks, it’s actually a dress,” she said. We chatted intermittently while I waited for my hot dog and she waited for her beer. I learned she was from Russia and worked at an Irish pub on the West side. It was pleasant conversation, but I kept burying myself into my reading material. I like n+1 because it’s the kind of text that makes you get lost in thought. I read a sentence, and then zone out for a minute thinking about what I just read until I realize I’m making some start realization about my life, so far away from the content that I snap my attention back into it to digest. It’s kind of like how dolphins sleep, I’d bet.

Then I realized that this was the first time I’d read printed material for my own intellectual enjoyment in a while. Something besides the news, or research for an article. I’ve had that edition of n+1 for two weeks now, and I’m still only on page 10. The Russian chick kept chatting at me. She was trying to make friends, and five years ago maybe we would have become best friends. Five years ago, I met my best friend in a similar way when she spilled coffee on me at Atlas. But now, I’ve long past that theoretical capacity where you can’t mentally add anyone to your social circle. I love making friends and having friends, and it’s not like that number actually exists in a rigid way. I just have no time for myself lately which lowers the quality of friendship I can offer, so I try to resist unless it’s so compelling I can’t resist (which still happens at least once a week).

Two of the Russian’s friends walked up just as I was finishing my hot dog. She asked me if I wanted to go to a show down the street with them. Five years ago I would have. But I told her I had to go home and work, and referenced my n+1 like that had anything to do with it. In a way it did. I needed to go restore my sanity by sitting alone in my apartment on Friday night, practicing the flute and going through my starred email list and doing the things I needed to do so I don’t have anxiety dreams. Those are the worst.

But I’m glad she offered to be my friend. It makes me all the more certain that I can go anywhere in the world and experience the best of the place, because something about me makes people want to invite me to experience things with them. I haven’t quite figured out what that is yet, but I’m glad it’s this way and not the other way around.

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10 things I learned at SXSW

After spending 10 days at the SXSW festival in Austin, here is some #realtalk for you:

1) Nerds are awesome in large numbers. Interactive > Music in terms of general atmosphere, but I’m pretty biased in this regard.

2) Our internet connectivity devices are extensions of our bodies, and we feel crippled when they are out of power or if they get lost. I really hope that the industry is structured such that inventions that could massively improve on battery technologies can be incorporated into the current technological landscape.

3) Overnighting a phone (which was stupidly left in a rental car) from NYC to Austin costs $75, the same price as a pair of Black Milk leggings. Cursing my negligence because I really wanted these.

4) So many young people are devoting their lives to building apps that don’t benefit society in any way. There are going to be some hardcore midlife crises down the line, so hopefully at least one startup out there is working on an app for that.

5) Some venture capitalists have a really distorted sense of reality. When the bubble bursts and there’s nobody left kissing their asses because they want something from them, they are going to be very sad. App for that?

6) Internet friends are almost always good IRL friends too.

7) SXSW is hands down the most annoying festival to observe from afar. I was annoyed when I missed out in past years, so I did my best to not annoy others in the twittersphere too much, but I apologize if I gave anyone FOMO.

8) If you don’t stop and get hot and sweaty on a dance floor every now and then, you’re doing it wrong.

9) I can talk my way into 99% of things, and I didn’t want that 1% anyway.

10) Southern hospitality is alive and well in Austin, Texas.