Data journalism and Media Lab fun

In June (catching up with posts here!) I went to the MIT Knight Foundation Civic Media conference to talk about data journalism and hang out with other free speech minded, politically active, wordy nerds. The tour of the MIT Media Labs was great and super inspiring. I especially loved the high low tech lab run by Leah Buchley, the materials hacking Mediated Matter lab with tons of 3d printing materials projects, and the Fluid Interfaces and Tangible Media labs. I talked with people from Document Cloud, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Center for Investigative Reporting as well as lots of great people from the Ford and Knight Foundations.

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Other stuff from my scattered notes: Irene Ros’s talk. Storyfying a company CTO’s responses to reports of sexist internet behavior in the javascript community. Data visualization is helpful to explain and show gendered bias in how women are described in the news. The squoot incident. I note to myself to tell Irene about the Joanna Russ antipatterns to detect and categorize misogyny.

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Someone advised me to get in touch with T Mills Kelly to talk about our work on internet hoaxes. While it looks like we work on different kinds of “hoaxes” or fictional information on the net, I’d like to take a closer look at their work.

Notes on journalist’s responsibility to the people in the story, on action in human rights communities and emerging communities online, and what journalistic ethics are regarding consent in a story or for a story. Different communities have different expectations for ethical behavior and consent around identity, identifying a source.

One of the nicest conversations I had was with Sasha Costanza-Chock who demoed VozMob for me and let me sign up to try and to test their platform, which was in beta. They wrote a Drupal module which enables people to blog very easily from feature phones — i.e. if you can’t afford a smartphone, you can still take a photo, make a slideshow, or send an SMS message directly to post on a blog. They pioneered a project here at Vozmob.net:

Mobile Voices (VozMob) is a platform for immigrant and/or low-wage workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones. VozMob appropriates technology to create power in our communities and achieve greater participation in the digital public sphere.

It looks like a very carefully set up project done in collaboration with existing organizations and communities. Their structure and guide for participation and affiliation is especially great. There is a Drupal project for the Vozmob module where development is ongoing.

Even better: the vozmob project and module evolved into a launch of a hosted platform, vojo.co. Groups or individuals can set up a vojo account to blog by voice message, or text or photos sent over SMS, or to blast to a group’s members by SMS. It looks like a great tool for activists or for any group whose constituents have phones but not feature phones. This is something that would have been (and will be) very useful for people from the Occupy movement!

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My own ideas that I wanted to convey to people at the conference were largely around journalism and sourcing about events that *happen on the Internet*. Data journalists often deal with large stacks of paper or PDFs that need storage, access control, and annotation as well as with plain old huge data sets. We think of events as happening in “real life” and about stuff on the net as being part of the “coverage”. But what about when the stuff on the net is the event — an Internet drama, a suddenly exploding Twitter hashtag, a political idea or a video gone viral? The stuff “happening” is happening textually or in media – it is already mediated. To write about it well, we need to source it and to source it we need ways to capture and archive it, especially as these happenings can be ephemeral; accounts or comments can be deleted. I see this as an opportunity to create tools to turn on “hotspots” of activity – for example on a controversial blog or a cluster of blogs or associated social media accounts – and record the activity happening so that sourcing of coverage about a controversy can be transparent. This might be a private, semi-private, or a site that functions as public storage like the Internet Archive. While this makes me feel as if I am re-inventing the idea of an annotatable “shadow web”, it might have more of a practical use and might be more possible with the increasing cheapness of data storage.

Well, it was a great trip to Boston, and I really appreciate getting the opportunity to participate and meet so many smart, motivated, creative people in tech and journalism.

Imagining radical democracy, practicing feminist anarchy

At WisCon a couple of weeks ago I was on a panel called Imagining Radical Democracy with Alexis Lothian, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Andrea Hairston. We talked about political change, culture, and science fiction, leaping into mid conversation. Everyone was quite erudite so I will try to link some of the important background concepts, books, and thinkers mentioned. The title and description of the panel don’t quite describe “what we talked about”, but everyone knew what “it” was. This was the topic:

The General Assembly has become a familiar practice since the growth of Occupy Wall Street. Anarchistic and radically democratic organizing processes have a much longer history, though, including the Zapatistas, the Spanish student movement, and movements in the history of feminism. For WisCon members, a familiar feeling might have bubbled up in watching, reading about, or participating in Occupy: wasn’t this a bit like what they did on Le Guin’s Anarres, or in DuChamp’s Free Zones? This panel will discuss the possible growth of a kind of democracy other than our current party-based political systems, using the ways it has been prefigured and imagined in feminist science fiction to help make sense of radical histories and futures.

Here is a rough transcript of the Radical Democracy panel by laceblade. It meant a lot to me personally that laceblade transcribed this panel and put it up for public reading so quickly; it’s something I started doing at WisCon panels to document the conversations for the Feminist SF Wiki, but I was too exhausted to do it this year. It was beautiful not just to see many others documenting live, but to be documented myself by someone so passionate and engaged. I was touched to the core.

I felt that we jumped immediately into the conversation with the assumption that we all knew what we were talking about without having to give much background or try to explain things. We didn’t talk about Occupy or specific movements so much as we talked about “that thing we know when we see it, or are doing it.” We didn’t even really introduce ourselves, partly out of eagerness to jump into the topics, partly from assumption people knew who we were in the context of WisCon 36, and partly because of automatically killing the rock star on the stage (opposite of killing the angel in the house!) — so I’ll write a bit of an intro now!

L. Timmel Duchamp, Timmi, is a publisher who runs Aqueduct Press; a brilliant thinker and SF author of an epic science fiction work in 5 volumes, the Marq’ssan Cycle, which is about an intervention in Earth politics by alien feminist anarchists. They convene a giant consensus meeting including two women from every Earth nation, destroy much of the technological infrastructure of the military industrial complex(es), and establish anarchist Free Zones in many locations around the planet. The book centers on the relationships and complicated conversations of various women including Kay (who is from the Professional class), Elizabeth (an Executive), and Martha (one of the proletariat… a service tech or sub-exec) and female-presenting though ambiguously gendered telepathic aliens such as Sorben and Magyyt. Revolution, imprisonment, torture, being co-opted, complicated sexual relationships across class boundaries, and the exploration of false consciousness and double consciousness all make this series politically exciting and emotionally intense. Her work in establishing a feminist science fiction press has fostered many writers and amazing, award-winning books. During the panel Timmi did what she does so well which is telling a specific story but with the feeling of it being a roundabout way to arrive at a point or an impression or knowledge conveyed which leaves layers of impressions behind — and the feeling I get from her of a mind somewhat frightening in scope and power channeled through the body of a specific fragile human being, exercising her will to focus all the dehumanization she has experienced and witnessed into a scary laser beam. I’m just saying, I feel a disturbance in The Force when she talks.

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Andrea Hairston is a playwright, professor, and novelist, author of Redwood and Wildfire and Mindscape. She has done a lot of analysis in understanding the history of minstrelry in the U.S. She teaches theater and African American studies at Smith. She’s an amazing speaker and storyteller, brilliant, enthusiastic, and complicated. I love when she talks and gets excited and waves her arms around with the wildest enthusiasm and keenest intellect. And reading Mindscape, I thought (dorkiest example ever) of Menolly describing what it was like to play a piece of complicated music that other people find too difficult and technical (I believe it was The Ballad of Moreta’s Ride) to Master Shonagar; like riding a dragon!

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Alexis Lothian is a writer and academic, a professor at Indiana University, and theorist of science fiction fandom. She is an active vidder and deep into media fandom, gender studies, digital cultural politics, and is a founder and editor for the journal Transformative Works and Cultures. She moderated our discussion. I remember on first meeting her I came to a discussion between people of color at WisCon in someone’s hotel room, an intense and amazing conversation which she recorded with permission (I was there as assistant techie person, I think) and transcribed for the inaugural issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, recording with quiet attentiveness, contributing to the opening of that space for conversation.

I felt Laura Quilter’s absence on this panel (and at WisCon) keenly, painfully. She is a huge part of this conversation.

Timmi opened the panel by talking about how her writing and her activism (feminist and anti-globalization work) feed into each other. She talked about why science fiction is important for activism:

Bad experiences create low expectations especially with social rollbacks over the last 30 years. Creates political apathy. Political apathy is a response, not just a state of ignoring the world, it’s a state of actual response. It’s not passive even though it looks like passivity. I think what’s important about science fiction is it gives us alternatives that we can’t imagine in the US even though our history is full of tens of thousands of experiments in collective communities. All around the world, all sorts of things going on, all sorts of collective groups.

“The revolution” takes place in our imagination and is a process, not a means to an end.

Then I talked about hackerspaces and Noisebridge, the hacker/maker anarchist collective I’m part of in San Francisco. Hackerspaces are an important part of what’s happening in the current political moment. People banding together to try to form alternative social structures, pool resources, make physical spaces that reflect some of the social, cultural spaces and philosophies we have made in F/LOSS culture and on the Internet and web. As part of Riot Grrrl we tried to “Kill Rock Stars”; make and be part of a story that is not about a Great Man, not about The Hero, that works from many points of view; there is no puppet master moving us around a chessboard, and there are no saints (or sainted texts) we should canonize. Difficult SF stories, difficult narratives, are important politically to teach us all how to read reality, how to construct complicated truths. I described trying to explain “Anonymous” or “Occupy” to journalists, and how because of their failure of imagination, and their assumption that no mainstream readers could understand a story without a hero, they can’t get it. They have to participate and be changed in order to know how to tell a story that draws in the reader to participate and change.

I’m not sure how long it took me to say all that, but in my remembrance of the panel I managed it in a leaping, telegraphic, holographic staccato. I felt transported by not just my words but by knowing that we were all on the same page, many of us, and that what we were about to say would blend together like a river and take us somewhere.

Andrea said her upbringing was of a very solid African American household of being a race man, or race woman. Something which happily did not need to be explained in a feminist anti-racist science fiction con, but which I will link for you here. Andrea talked about the Iqbo Women’s War, not just the “riots” and murder by the British in a particular incident but women’s war as part of Igbo culture and politics.

. . . {the] one who tells the story rules the world. Therefore, we all need to. WE all need to be agents of action, all need to be storytellers. All need to be agents of action in the story.

For Andrea the story of Women’s War is one of working feminist anarchy, of a political process that worked, of anarchy rooted in a specific place and time and culture, that came from African women and men and worked for them; an important story. Part of that story is the British shot everyone and made the Iqbo have chiefs. Back to the idea of “no rock stars”, no leaders in the sense of elected officials who represent everyone in a hierarchical structure that feeds into the hoppers of power and that support oppressive (and in this case imperial, patriarchal) infrastructures. The book Andrea is currently writing is about a woman coming to America from that time and place.

Andrea then remembered to introduce and identify herself. So I introduced myself too and said everyone should buy my book, Unruly Islands. Andrea’s two novels are published by Aqueduct Press. My book as well, and Alexis and I both edited volumes of The WisCon Chronicles, which is a series Aqueduct publishes to document the conversations at WisCon every year. Aqueduct Press for me has solidified, made real, some of the exciting public discourse that happens at WisCon, the connections that spark our thought, the utopian ideals we share, the passion that fuels our daily practice of life and activism and writing. It made our conversations more public, and I hope adds another small brick to the things we are building, the ways we are trying desperately not to lose our histories as women, as marginalized people who are aware of the processes that shape how the stories are told and what is allowed to be seen as “real”. When I first realized what Timmi was trying to do by starting Aqueduct I was happy beyond explanation. Something that was my dream was happening in the world — for real. Cultural artifacts created and fostered, nurtured, grown. Timmi is my hero for doing this, for committing her life work to this act, for making our communities visible to each other and to others, for exposing us further as public intellectuals. I am so honored to be part of it and that they publish my work. Long ago I realized that what I wanted in life was not fame, money, success, the Good Life, in the way people sometimes describe what goals should be, but instead the respect of other people I respect. It was like a little mantra for me. Whenever it became reality in a small way, I felt bolstered and comforted: a sign I was on the right track. I rather imagined (as a teenager, in my childlike hero worship) that as an embarrassingly specific little scenario: that I’d be at a cocktail party with Marge Piercy, and she’d know my work, and we’d talk about our ideals, books, feminism, and poetics as equals in the creative process even if not equals in worldly position or age. WisCon and Aqueduct have made that dream come true for me even if I have not yet achieved the particular Nirvana of wine and cheese with Marge. I admire so many people there — very deeply. Beyond the Secret Feminist Cabal, which was a joke made real in organic “slow anarchy” fashion, and which continues to spread, which describes something that (like Riot Grrrl, like Anonymous) does not exist, and which you joined by hearing the idea and declaring you were in it, too — it came true for me. I wish that dream will come true for everyone. The respect of other people you respect.

Back to the panel. Alexis asked us all three to give specific examples of “what we were talking about” — of collectivity, of collective action and what happens and how.

In response, I talked about Noisebridge some more. (Which… ironically… is light years away from feminist utopia for me as a woman.) I talked about hackerspaces.org, the history of hackerspaces, the idea of F/LOSS culture not just “products” but culture, and cultural production, and community; the ideas of patterns and anti-patterns, in software, in architecture and culture, from the book A Pattern Language which by the way is a fascinating read and which I used to explain Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing to F/LOSS geeks. (A later WisCon panel on Feminism and F/LOSS brought this in as well.)

Alexis interrupted me to remind me that I wrote about this very topic in the latest WisCon Chronicles, Volume 6, Futures of Feminism and Fandom, which she edited. “Oh yeah! Right! Read that essay, and you will understand what I mean!” I moved on to answer Alexis’ question, explaining what Noisebridge is and how it works — and some of its glories and problems.

Alexis mentioned Louisa May Alcott and Fruitlands. I then brought in, as another strand to the pattern, Alice Marwick’s and danah boyd’s excellent paper on gender and Internet drama The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked Publics as well as my own essay with Debbie Notkin on Internet Drama from The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 3, Carnival of Feminist SF. To understand the dynamics of women and public discourse, read that paper about teenagers’ attitudes toward “drama”.

Andrea says “drama” is melodrama. Alexis adds that it is “wank”. Yes! I then said,

By making a space in which we’re trying to address one problem, we’re more revolutionary than we realized. Once you’re part of a revolution, you have to Fix All the Things. It’s very hard, very valuable it takes place in public, documenting what happens. Also really difficult and uncomfortable

Alexis added,

What wank and drama and melodrama do and why they might just not be….part of how we negotiate. We have to emerge from it. It does things that other kinds of more carefully planned politics don’t do. Even the most trivial fights can have ripples of effects that are really important to what a community does.

And Timmi pulled it together by saying,

Little drops of water evaporate in dry atmosphere, need a human environment. Not just all of internal difficulties here but thes efforts are operating in a context in which we have vast problems. We have terrible collective problems and no collective solutions or collective process. These space (occupy, hacker, etc.) are besieged by that context. They can’t address them by themselves. That’s basically the problem. We sort of, what’s happening is more and more people are seeing the horizon of what’s possible but in this current environment, it’s very hard to …you can hack out a space but you can’t put up walls, [it’s] antithetical to what you want to do.

She then talked about being arrested for direct action against globalization, and the trial process. I got kind of excited listening to this and started writing a poem about it in my paper notebook while also live-Twittering.

A lesson from that story is that the interface between what we’re building, what we’re doing, as anarchists, feminists, activists — the interface between that and the larger world is extremely important and uncomfortable.

Alexis brought us back to talking about culture, narrative, and cultural production. Writing, drama, process, and art.

Andrea then kicked into awesome overdrive.

I love live theater, I don’t know what’s going to happen, even if you have a script. I know my blocking, audience comes in, audience makes me change. Every moment is alive. Feedback between me and the audience and other actors. Have to respond. All theater is to prepare you to be ready in the moment. That’s what anarchy is about. If you just follow blocking and your lines, that’s not going to work. What am I going to do that keeps me…the audience loves it when you solve the problem, in it for the live moment. Image of anarchy as negative melodrama. Good guys/bad guys. Victor Turner: Social drama is essential to humanity. I’m paraphrasing him. Have to have dramatic process in order to perform the meaning that you want. That’s what drama is. Struggle to have lived experience turn into meaning. That is a slow process. We’re stuck on things needing to be fast. Social drama takes time. Slow money, slow food, I think we need to have slow anarchy.

For Andrea, it is about creating ecosystems. There are people who build monuments, and people who build ecosystems. That is true in writing science fiction as well.

I spouted off at length trying to cram in more holographic imprint of what I mean and what I see and know. My process of watching many channels at once for the Arab Spring and Occupy Oakland. Learning to listen and hear decentralized narratives, which are not what you think you want to hear. Book recs: Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson (with caveats); Direct Action by David Graeber; Illicit Passages by Alice Nunn. Marq’ssan Cycle; Kevin Carson. My currently developing theory that a particular current of SF today is not post-apocalypse but is Mid-Apocalypse; not first contact with aliens, not pioneering imperialist expansion, but being inside the process; the 1% are our aliens, already here, alien because we can’t imagine or access their scale of power; this is important in what science fiction is going to become.

We had some audience responses then.

Andrea Hairston talked about capitalism and the idea of “growth”. Opposed to the ecosystem of growth, diversity.

I agree with Andrea and add that it is part of the current of science fiction I’m attempting to describe, which is about deepening interconnectedness — not about first contact or “discovering new frontiers” or invasions.

Timmi talked about journalism and false objectivity.

Andrea talked at length about lland ownership, property, the degradation of the commons which is a big part of our struggle. She brought in accessibility and specifically WisCon’s and other feminist space’s struggles to be accessible, which is part of treating the commons as the commons, as being for everyone; changing cultural attitudes toward the air and smoking, for example. I felt transported all over again to a higher level of thought hearing her bring in so many strands to our central topic — and one that touches on my experience so personally as disability and access and public space.

I put in one more book rec I had forgotten in my earlier burst of book recs that do or represent “what it is we are talking about”. Tales from the Freedom Plough, edited by 6 women, stories told by 52 different women who worked in the Civil Rights movement. Individual stories, sometimes contradicting each other, brought together to represent what happened, what is history, what is truth, and thus what is possible for us to do, like a beautiful and terrifying map. I meant to bring in Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin, as another exemplar; but we were wrapping up the panel.

Timmi closed the panel wonderfully by quoting Augustine of Hippo:

Hope has two beautiful daughters, their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and Courage to make them the way they ought to be.

My talk at SXSWi tomorrow morning at 9:30am, on an outer gas giant, in the rain

So, I should have written this post earlier so people knew I was speaking. Tomorrow, Saturday morning at 9:30am I’m speaking with Scott Rosenberg (author of Dreaming in Code and Say Everything) on identity, pseudonymity, fake identities, hoaxes, anonymity, and so on. The title of the talk is How to Be Yourself When Everyone Else Is Faking It. It’s at the Omni Downtown at 700 San Jacinto (between 7th and 8th), so, not in the main conference center.

When we met to discuss the talk Scott and I both realized we wanted to talk about our takes on the arc of identity formation and representation on the Internet from the late 80s onward and possibly stretching back a bit earlier. My own impressions reach back to powerfully strong Usenet and MUD personalities from the late 80s and early 90s. There were mailing-list-famous people, hoaxes, personalities who would morph but who were identifiable by writing style or personal obsessions, people who were known for updating their .plan file daily; web and blogging identity issues have older roots not just from the literary world but from the pre-web online world. I’m going to talk about the arcs I see in blogging identities, going from personal journals to subject-focuses to identity fracturing and then back to wallet-name based blogging for many people — once they switched subjects or centrally defining characteristics a few times, hit a particular level of success, or were outed. Though I am firmly on the side of protection for anonymity and pseudonymity (and I believe Scott is too) I can outline some of the objections to that position. And yes I will definitely talk about Internet hoaxes a bit.

I think it will be a lively discussion and whoever shows up at 9:30am on Saturday morning in the rain to a hotel several blocks away will probably into be able to contribute substantially to that discussion! YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Hope to see you there — or perhaps in comments here. I’ll update with links to our slides and whatever extra notes get taken. You could also check the hackpad page to see if anyone adds info there.

And if you see me around, definitely say hi and introduce yourself! Give me a card! Tell me everything! And please…. I am dead serious…. hold my hand and pull me down the (carpeted, difficult, exhausting) hallway or up a horrible hill. It would be so helpful. I am stopping total strangers and asking them to hold my hand and pull me along a little while.

me and al

Other stuff I am definitely going to: Curing a Rage Headache: Internet Drama & Activism with Sady Doyle, Jay Smooth, et al Sunday at 12:30, and Tech Co-operatives: A Better Way to Make a Living with Raeanne Young, Jack Aponte, and crew Monday at 9:30. I haven’t gone through the whole schedule yet to pick things but those are the two I definitely want to make. But on Sunday at 12:30 YOU should go to How to Build a Social Site and Not Get Users Killed which includes Danny O’Brien, Jillian York, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, and Sam Gregory.

Today I went to Gina Mccauley’s Social Media Sharecropping session and I’ll put my notes up from that a bit later tonight.

London and The Story

It’s amazing how only two suitcases can explode over a hotel room in stratigraphic layers of gadgets, papers, cords, chargers, cookies, postcards, tshirts, teacups, leg braces, books, and handkerchiefs-and-underwear washed in the sink hung out to dry. I have a fabulous view out the window of beautiful brick rooftops and the dome of the British Museum, which is lucky since I’m spending a lot of this trip to London lying in bed with my feet up on pillows!

I really enjoyed The Story. Eighteen of us told 20-minute stories one after the other, and it was never boring! It was like being inside a real-life anthology carefully edited by Matt Locke. As the day went on the bigger and somewhat inchoate Story began to emerge from the selection of individual stories told. I’m not sure what that big story is. It had the feeling of a thing that’s too new to be named, something diffuse that’s popping up rhizomatically in many different gardens, or something invisible and huge that we’re all trying to harness and ride. It felt like a story about the possible future.

I’m sure it’s unfashionable to be earnest about something so pomo. But that’s how I respond to anthologies. They’re about an unnameable shape and their pleasure for me is in trying to wrap my mind around that emerging shape.

My talk, “Fake Lesbians All the Way Down” was on last year’s blogging hoaxes (Gay Girl in Damascus and Paula Brooks/LezGetReal) and while I tried to make it a personal story about the process of doubting and then investigating particular identities, being lost in a labyrinth of identities and sources and histories, what I wanted to convey was not my personal experience or drama or a homily about Syrian activists in danger (which does trump the rest of the story). I wanted to convey an instance of what it means to read a story actively, to engage with a “difficult text”. Whatever people got out of it, the gossipy pleasure of Internet Drama and so on, I think I represented a good piece of the puzzle, one with swirly doubts, complexities and difficulty, that you can’t read without being drawn in to be part of it.

Other stories: Jeremy Deller‘s historical re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave, part of the miners’ strike in 1984; Matthew Herbert‘s experiments with sound as story (I was overcome with sudden nostalgic desire to hear the sounds of a city street in 1982); Ellie Harrison‘s playful, scarily and wonderfully OCD manifestations of enormous personal and political data sets; Tom Chatfield and Phil Stuart on the narrative tricks of their video game for children on philosophy and death; Tom Watson and Emily Bell on the story of sticking with the unfolding phone hacking scandal; and Danny‘s wrap-up story about Anarchy, the Universe, Occupy, Hackerspaces, Open Source, the Internet, and Everything — and too many other talks to go into in one blog post.

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I loved how interested the audience was, how everyone was listening very hard, and talking about it all on the breaks and afterwards, with more than idle curiosity — a bit more like being at a science fiction convention where you know you are among other people who really love Whatever It Is, than like being at a tech conference where half of it is necessarily about networking and pushing your startup or getting a job. Maybe that view is because as an outsider to this scene, the networking bit was invisible to me. Still, it felt like most of the people there were story-lovers and creators who had the capacity to listen with complexity.

Also, how awesome was it that the conference schedule was printed IN CHOCOLATE?

The Story program in chocolate

The night before the conference there was a dinner for the speakers, and for me the highlight was talking with Matt Sheret not just about our own upcoming talks but also in depth about zines, anthologies, books, stories and games including role playing games and MUDs. We had something of a shared experience of the ways role playing games, especially as collaborative stories extended over months or years, pull people together socially and the depth of community & friendships they can create.

I have to add a few ill mannered words though, because it is part of my role as an imported American to stomp around, braying gracelessly. And it’s not like, when I see the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen and the most ripe for mockery, I can keep my mouth shut about it! One talk made my head explode with rage so much that I was glad it was there as a bad example, as the utterly wrong kind of story and story telling. So while I don’t want to be mean to the perfectly nice person exemplifying this, I must slam the subject of her talk. /end disclaimer

Fiona Raby gave a sort of “multimedia presentation” (and I mean that in all the ways one might itch all over at a badly “interactive” museum exhibit) of a vision of the future in 2050 of humans as “Foragers“. Without any apparent knowledge of the enormous amount of science fiction and futurist thought of actually creative and visionary people on this subject, some design consultancy in South Africa poured out buttloads of money to come up with the Art Concept of how in 2050 the Earth’s 9 billion people will need to be fed. Oh, no one has ever pushed the boundaries of thought about THAT before, for fuck’s sake! Anyway, the Foragers will be genetically engineered with handwavium to have external stomachs around their necks like inner tubes and will have prosthetic arm extensions to vacuum up and digest common weeds and the leaves of trees (in order to preserve biodiversity rather than having nothing but soy crops) whilst wearing Nikes and fashionable track suits because globally industrialized consumer capitalism is still going strong and nothing else about the world has changed other than “9 billion people” and “we still have brand name sneakers”. This, presented as radical conceptualization of the future rather than as just freaking lazy. Swoopy drawings of the foragers and then some people cosplaying foragers with long green sleeves, masks, and inner tubes around their necks in a skanky vacant lot under some pylons (with the people playing frisbee in the background hailed as more radical conceptualization of the normal human activity taking place as foragers forage, and the snapshot-level quality of the photos lauded as brilliant camera work. Interspersed with “science” bits about how (news flash!) Scientists have discovered (recently!) that there are certain plants… (peas… fancy that!) that “put Nitrate” into the soil and useful crops could be genetically engineered to splice that capability in.

orly-owl

THEN… as if that were not enough crime… they hired a hack writer to drivel on about the last butterfly being accidentally Foraged off an oak leaf, and then printed a few paragraphs of that drivel in 5 inch high plastic three dimensional letters (in a special font) which were artily placed on an art gallery floor so that they (radical concept!) were only readable in a linear fashion from a particular perspective. There is also a video or three and some computer animation. I could almost forgive the whole Foragers thing as a clumsy, naive, beginner’s attempt at science fiction, if not for the obviously obscene amount of money an enormous amount of useless people sucked off some governmental/NGO tit to produce this 5th-rate bullshit. I have to be harsh, because to me this is exactly the most horrifying process of producing and telling a story, as well as being a bad story.

Anyway!

On Sunday I went to the London Hackspace to have a tour. It was amazingly like Noisebridge in San Francisco, but somewhat quieter and with less people trooping in and out.

hackspace

I loved how familiar it was, I loved the clutter and mess (which to me is richness and depth), the 3D printers, computer equipment and half-finished projects everywhere, cables hanging down from the walls and ceiling, murals of robots, enormous wood shop full of tools and scraps, and most of all the little flyers and bits of tape everywhere exhorting people to clean up, put your stuff away, put tea cups here, how to use this particular machine without cutting your hands off, organizational systems carefully created for the screwdrivers, and NO SLEEPING signs, because they are common to co-ops and collectives everywhere and their evident frustration is so touching an attempt to believe in human virtue.

screwdrivers big

Did you clean up?

With amusing naivete I had made the mistake of, while crippled and in theory “resting”, trying to keep up with Coryand Alice for an entire day. I have been in bed ever since. I really enjoyed Shoreditch House, the office with all those fascinating things and the astroturf balcony and back issues of Punch and the Whole Earth Catalog and lots of great science fiction, the hackspace, that awesome Vietnamese restaurant, both levels of Forbidden Planet, and that one store with the fancy leather coats.

Meanwhile — my beautiful view of rooftops from the hotel window led me to a small ridiculous epiphany. As I grew up reading everything including a ridiculous amount of British literature the word “chimneypots” meant something completely abstract to me. An architectureal feature of some sort that is part of a chimney or maybe just a weird old word for chimneys themselves. Of course looking out this window there are actual pottery things that look like flowerpots sitting on top of brick chimneys. Mindblowing! And they’re so lovely! I wish I could convey how smug I feel at this realization of how imaginary these objects were to me and how mundane they obviously must be to people here. Now I have a thing to the name, have read the Wikipedia entry for chimney pots (theory and history of) and have found 52 page pdf parody history of the fine old sport of Chimney Pot Spotting; I believe I’m looking at a Tadcaster Stoat and a Manly Bovington right now!

out the window

Oh! And! Two people (at least) drew cartoons of the speakers at The Story: sketch by Francois Jordan and another by Drawnalism. And… I wanted to mention that it was all a fundraiser for the Ministry of Stories which runs writing workshops for kids and has a storefront — The Monster Shop — run on the same sort of model as 826 Valencia and The Pirate Store.

Tangled up money

I made a stab at moving my money to a credit union in support of #Occupy, or (as I wish it were) #Decolonize, but ran into a bunch of problems! Because I live on a boat, and my harbor doesn’t handle us receiving mail, I can’t prove a fixed address that the two credit unions I’ve talked with will accept. I get most of my mail at my ex’s house, which I also still own half of. I get some mail at my partner’s house in San Francisco. But what credit unions want is a utility bill and a credit card bill to prove my address, or my residency, or something. I have all sorts of Documents Which Can Prove I Exist and Am Contactable, but none of them count. So, my dollars are all in Ally.com for now, until I can find a credit union that will take me as I am or until I start paying Oblomovka’s electricity bill.

empty wallet after many used book stalls

Online payment systems are very handy for me. I buy a lot of stuff online — sometimes to spare myself the physical cost of running errands. I now have everything set up so that I can use Amazon payments, PayPal, Dwolla, and (naturally, since I’m a crackpot and a neophile) a few token, languishing, Bitcoins which I think of as the Pet Rock of currencies. I kind of like having all those possibilities and having them all tie into Mint.com, which displays everything in a way I can understand. I’m no financial tycoon but I do have some resources, and I really like being able to see the data about the bit that I have at my disposal. I had a good conversation lately with my friend Ian about how strange it feels to have that (and not be living paycheck to paycheck) and what we think we should do with it or about it. We talked about ethics and whether we would ever be someone’s landlord (No.) And the fact that we can’t figure out how to pool resources with other people and do things collectively other than through becoming a non profit, a corporation, or getting married. Are those structures enough? What other structures might be possible? How can we make co-operatives easier to create?

Anyway, back to money, banking, and software. Dwolla looks very promising! It has a nice web interface, elegant and non-stupid, which counts for a lot with me. It charges 25 cents to the person receiving the money. I think that’s it for the fees. Can it last? And could this be the magic platform/app/currency that enables us to pay content providers for stuff? I’ve written a few times about payments for music. I’d love to see music players with built in direct “tip jar” for all the artists. So while I’m listening to something, I should be able to not just star it or rate it; I could send a dollar (or even 50 cents) to the artist directly using Dwolla, alleviating my occasional torrent-guilt. I know people talk a lot of smack about micropayments. But this one, not really micro, and not ambitiously trying to be pervasive-over-everything, could work!

I have a list of posts I want to write a yard long, about music, books, politics, software development, poetry, feminism, and nifty techie things, but feel weirdly blocked up and so this uncharacteristic post in order to get what’s in my head out onto the page.

SXSWi talks I'd love to go to!

Take a look at these suggested SXSWi panels, and please vote them up and comment if they sound good to you! I first spoke at SXSWi in 2006 on a panel organized by BlogHer who were invited by the SXSW folks as part of their effort to diversify the conference and get more women and people of color to speak and attend. As they sustained those efforts over the years SXSWi grew exponentially in size, developed a fairly decent gender balance, and became something more than the same old talking heads who only hear each other’s voices. The talks are good and the scene is amazing as Austin fills up with musicians, geeks, and filmmakers for several weeks.

* How to Be Yourself When Everyone Else is Faking It I’ll be on this panel with Biella Coleman, Zeynep Tufekci, Scott Rosenberg, and Brian Christian and honest to god, that alone would make it amazing no matter what Internet pundit topic we picked. We’re going to talk about identity, names, ethics and internet culture; I predict some fierce synergy. Biella is a hacker anthropologist and FLOSS advocate, Zeynep is a sociologist of net culture and while we haven’t met I’m a huge fan of her blog. Scott Rosenberg is a writer and editor whose work is totally amazing – He wrote Dreaming in Code and Say Everything and is a great tech journalist. Brian wrote The Most Human Human; do you think I can convince him I’m not a sockpuppet ? As for me, I must be on this panel because of Amina et al but I will talk a bit about my ideas from The WisCon Chronicles and my essay there about free speech, internet drama, and feminist safe space; what happens when ethical expectations collide.

I hope to get everyone on the panel on board with my project, The LOLcat Delusion, which will explicate Evgeny Morozov‘s book The Net Delusion entirely through macros and animated gifs.

SxSWi 2010: Viral Video Session

* The Fall of the Geek Triumphant In which Danny O’Brien (Oblomovka, Committee to Protect Journalists) will humorously but brutally explain our cultural mythos to us & the risks of what happens when geeks (us) become the popular kids (i.e. incredibly fucking powerful.) This will extend the talks that I heard Danny do at FooCamp in June and it got everyone there very excited as they saw what we have been doing and believing in a bit of a new light (and ways to fix the problems with it.)

* How to Run a Social Site and Not Get Your Users Killed. Consider activists and journalists who are in danger from governments and law enforcement as use cases when you make a social site (or a blog, or anything really) This is incredibly important! Jillian York from the EFF, Mathew Ingram from GigaOm, Kacem El Ghazzali, Danny O’Brien, and Sam Gregory from WITNESS are going to break it down for us.

* Race: Know When To Hold It And When To Fold It . Adria Richards, Anjuan Simmons, Corvida Raven, Erica Mauter, and Scott Hanselman talking brass tacks, how can we keep diversifying tech conferences and make events better?

* Man Up Ladies or You Don’t Stand a Chance Obnoxious but I love it. Comp Sci profs tell us to Man Up! I wrote to Sue Black and asked if I could be on this panel but if not I’m certainly going to it!

*Digital Sisterhood for Women Entrepreneurs , Ananda Leeke leading a panel on participating in strong communities of entrepreneurial women, how peer support works, and basically Sisterhood as a business model. Good stuff!

* Tech Cooperatives: A Better Way to Make a Living . I have lived in co-operative housing for a long time and love the idea of work co-ops and worker-owned businesses. That’s ideally how I’d like my working life to be organized and so I really want to hear how people set this up in practice. My friend Raeanne from Quilted Coop, a web dev, design, and strategy company that focuses on developing sites and apps for nonprofits and companies that promote social change. They also seem to do a lot of work for artists.

* LiberationTech – how geeks overthrow governments. Hacktivists!

* Binary Bitches: Keeping open source open to women Another “Man Up” but from a different angle — talking about gendered communication and communication styles. Can’t tell if they’re going to be all like “be pushy! toot your horn! don’t be so egalitarian!” or tell dudes to join our Modest Workers’ Commune Circles or what. Probably both. Should be a great discussion!

liza, nesting

* Open-Web, Open-News: Reporters & Developers Remix . Dan Sinker – Mozilla Foundation (Also from @mayoremmanuel !), Mohamed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English, Emily Bell from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and Andrew Leimdorfer are going to unleash a world of fabulousness in this panel about the future of journalism and I think there will be a lot said on developer-journalist collaboration. This sounds very NewsFoo so I look forward to it greatly!

* Trekkies, geeks and furries oh my! Covering fandom Obviously I want to go to this panel since I edited an entire anthology on a feminist science fiction conference and its culture and am part of stuff like the Organization for Transformative Works. SXSWi has fandom running through it like a weird secret system of pneumatic tubes but no one talks about it as part of geekdom — for one thing I think the ethics and policies developed in fandom are quite influential in geek culture and for Internet social practices.

sxswi parties - sunday night

There are so many more I have left out!! And there are more here than I can possibly attend at once conference. If I left your panel out and should not have, or if you just want to court my thumbs-up vote for the panel picker, please tell me in comments!

Support open data and defend Aaron Swartz

I fully support Aaron Swartz as he fights unjustified charges from the U.S. government, and hope that my readers will support him too. Aaron is a researcher who works with huge datasets and has worked on many open data projects. Aaron is being charged for having accessed JSTOR, a repository of academic journal articles, and downloading them.

JSTOR itself didn’t want to press charges and says it hasn’t suffered loss or damage. But the U.S. Government indicted Aaron because they feel like they “caught a hacker”.

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

I’m incredulous that they would pursue this case against a well known researcher and activist who allegedly was doing something quite benign — scraping data.

I worry that this case will have a chilling effect on open data projects. The government has gone to great lengths here to stop a respected activist’s work, siccing the Secret Service on him and wasting an incredible amount of resources to trump up this case. The FBI has already investigated Aaron at least once for downloading PACER data . It looks bad to me, like the government was basically waiting for any excuse to build some sort of charge against Aaron for his briliant open data activism.

Here’s Aaron’s background in open data and analyzing large data sets:

In conjunction with Shireen Barday, he downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review. From 2010-11, he researched these topics as a Fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.

He has also assisted many other researchers in collecting and analyzing large data sets with theinfo.org. His landmark analysis of Wikipedia, Who Writes Wikipedia?, has been widely cited. He helped develop standards and tutorials for Linked Open Data while serving on the W3C’s RDF Core Working Group and helped popularize them as Metadata Advisor to the nonprofit Creative Commons and coauthor of the RSS 1.0 specification.
In 2008, he created the nonprofit site watchdog.net, making it easier for people to find and access government data. He also served on the board of Change Congress, a good government nonprofit.
In 2007, he led the development of the nonprofit Open Library, an ambitious project to collect information about every book ever published.

I would also like to say that I think that libraries and academics should stop buying into the JSTOR model. JSTOR aggregates academic journal articles which it doesn’t even own, and sells limited access to those articles to large institutions for thousands of dollars. Libraries and universities should act to enable access to information, not to limit it.

ETA: Here is JSTOR’s official statement on the case.

Civic fictions at conferences

Because of the Amina and Paula Brooks controversies and my part in unraveling them, I spent the last few weeks talking with media and giving talks about online hoaxes, identity, sockpuppets, and astroturfing.

I did an impromptu lightning talk at Noisebridge‘s 5 Minutes of Fame, making my slides right there on the spot. That was a lot of fun — because of the informality of that crowd I was very frank and could have a (bitter) sense of humor about the whole thing.

At O’Reilly’s FooCamp, I gave the talk I had planned on How to Suppress Women’s Coding. But as the Amina story unfolded over the weekend of Foo Camp, I was talking with more and more people about what was going on and at some point actually had a bit of a nervous breakdown on Molly Holzschag and Willow Brugh because of the constant stress and uncertainty about how to proceed and what I was choosing to do. I added in a discussion session “Lesbian Sockpuppet Detective Story” to talk about online identities and think that it went fairly well. People had very good stories about how they detected and fought astroturfers and sockpuppets. Anyway, I could write a giant post for every conversation I had at FooCamp! And might do that — I have pages of notes.

P1140280

Three things really stood out for me as themes of Foo Camp: Big (open) Data and Visualization; our collective imaginary picture of Oof Camp (the “bad guys” doing the opposite of Foo Camp, working to do things we would disapprove of or find deeply unethical) alongside an examination of what we do believe is right and “our” geek culture; and women in tech talking with each other in public about sexist patterns and strategies to deal with them, which isn’t new, but which seemed to me to be scaled up and comfortable beyond what I normally see at mixed-gender tech conferences. On the women in tech front I think Foo Camp and O’Reilly might be progressing, a sense I’ve had building slowly over the last few years. It seems glacial to me but still positive. In short, I didn’t feel tokenized, I felt respected and valuable, I made tons of great connections with women and men, there were lots and lots of women there kicking ass, I didn’t know all of them, and as an extra bonus, nothing creepy happened at all, at least to me. Huzzah!

Media Lab

After FooCamp, John Bracken gave me a last minute invite to the Knight Foundation/MIT Future of Civic Media conference. This was an absolutely fantastic conference. I loved the MIT Media Labs spaces and all the projects I heard about. Ethan Zuckerman led a panel called Civic Fictions, with Dan Sinker, me, and Andy Carvin. The audience questions and discussion went off in some fairly deep and interesting directions. Here’s a video of the panel with a link to a bare-bones summary. I’ll try to transcribe the entire thing soon.

Civic Fiction: MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Dan Sinker talked about writing the @MayorEmanuel Twitter story: 40,000 words of satire in 2000 tweets. I later read the entire MayorEmanual saga which was hilarious & compelling. His analysis of identity and online media and history at the end of his talk blew me away which is part of why I want to transcribe the entire panel. Also, Dan absolutely rocks. We had a fun conversation about being unable to describe ourselves neatly or give any sort of elevator pitch to explain why we were interesting to the suits and … well you know.. the actually legitimate people. Dan has a long history of zine making as the founder of Punk Planet and has done countless fabulous things.

Ethan introduced the panel and told his own story of heading up Global Voices & having to determine whether people were “real” or not, including his doubts from years ago about the blogger Sleepless in Sudan and his relief at finally meeting her. I remember him bringing up Sleepless as an example of deep uncertainty in the discussion at my talk on online fictional personas at SXSWi in 2006.

I told some of the Amina/Paula story, my part in it, how I worked with other investigators, bloggers, and journalists to figure out and expose what was going on. In the discussion afterwards I was most happy with my answer to (I think) Waldo Jacquith‘s question about history and truth. I mentioned Songs of Bilitis partly because it’s the first thing that popped into my head. But it’s a good example of a historical literary hoax that was then actually used by lesbians as a name for the first lesbian rights organization in the U.S., the Daughters of Bilitis.

Andy Carvin then talked about his involvement with the Arab Spring and the Amina hoax in that context. When Amina was “kidnapped” by security police and her identity began to be questioned, all his Syrian contacts went silent for over a week. Andy’s thoughts were great to hear and I really enjoyed talking with him and respect his particular skills in Firehose Immersion.

At these sorts of talks we keep discussing ethics. Many people appear to *want* to do such projects, to tell compelling stories for a political purpose to mobilize particular audiences to have empathy & take action for marginalized people. Some people want to try it, or perhaps have already done it and want to hear that they didn’t do something wrong — or maybe just want to believe that something good came of the attention to bloggers in Syria that the Amina hoax brought. There is also a strong thread of “but… what about creativity and post modern identity?” running through the attempt to save something good out of all this.

It was a great conference and there was only one mildly ew-tastic drunk guy who I had to work to escape from (Larry, you gotta hold your liquor better, dude, and not talk about your junk like that to strange feminist ladies well-known for blogging everything.)

I came out of all these talks thinking that many more hoaxes and large-scale astroturfing situations are coming. Elections and political movements are going to be even more confusing. I think there is a field emerging for analysis of online identity, personas, authenticity, and so on — in fact perhaps an academic discipline which might best be part of journalism/new media schools. “Internet Sleuth” will become a profession that needs much better tools than we have now. As better “persona management” tools are built, we need better and easier to use tools to detect those personas — open source tools in the hands of everyone not just government and huge corporations.

I did think of a few great and inevitable ways that civic fictions could exist without being immediately offensive and appropriative. Here are two.

We could have fictional universe reporters intertwined with our own. Basically, crossover fanfic reporting in first person, crossing some media nexus of fiction, preferably a politically complicated one, with breaking news. Harry Potter, for example. If you had freaking Harry Potter, on location, or better yet several Potterverse characters reporting on breaking news, you would attract entirely new audiences to the news. It would provide ways in for young people to talk about politics and to think about politics in a context of stories they’ve thought a lot about. I mention Potterverse because it’s popular, but also because its story *is* politically complex as a story of child soldiers and armed resistance to dictatorship. Well, anyway, that could be horrible and disrespectful if done clumsily, but I think it *will happen* probably with TV show franchises.

We could have civic fictions that consciously and collaboratively explore a real situation. I thought of one for the town I live in, Redwood City. Redwood City has very strong ties with a specific town in southern Mexico, Aguililla. I’m not sure of the real numbers but I’ve read that 40% of the population of Aguillia has at some point lived in Redwood City in a migration, remittance, and return pattern that has lasted for at least 40 years. People could have *many* reasons for not wanting to tell their personal or family stories of migration and return. How interesting it would be to write a collaborative soap opera or epic stretching over time, twittering and blogging it in a network of friends and family (all fictionalized) perhaps bilingually in Spanish and English (or trilingually since not everyone in Michoacan has Spanish as their first language) to show some of the issues and drama in people’s lives — and perhaps to show the relations, friendships, and tensions between Aguillia emigrants and the other residents of Redwood City and Menlo Park. Good idea isn’t it? Maybe someone will take it and run — or do a similar project in their own home town. Keeping in mind firmly the principle of “Nothing about us without us“.

After I got back from Boston I said I’d do an Ignite talk for IgniteSF but then flaked at the last minute out of exhaustion.

Many people have asked me if I’m still investigating hoaxes and if I found more Fake Internet Lesbians. I did find a few including Becky Chandler the sassy libertarian post-modern feminist in short-shorts who wrote a book on how it’s great to spank your children, but other people have already debunked her and exposed her as a creepy porny p*d*phile spanking-fetishist dude, and looking at that whole case made me throw up my hands in complete disgust. Plus, I really had to get back to my real work projects.

I have to mention my employer’s awesomeness in all of this: As soon as the Amina thing started eating my life, I let my boss and co-workers know about it and BlogHer basically gave me permission to do all the media stuff, radio interviews, talk with reporters, go to the MIT conference, and continue the bloggy sleuthing I was doing and delay my Drupal development projects for a couple of weeks. They were very supportive! But now I am back in the saddle and mucking around with code again, which is VERY SOOTHING.

Coming up in August in San Diego at the BlogHer ’11 conference, which is basically 3000+ women who blog and are heavy social media users hanging out with their laptops, I’m going to be speaking on a panel called “Viral Explosion”, giving a Geek Bar workshop talk with Skye Kilaen on what to do if your blog is hacked or if you lose your data — basically on security and disaster recovery — and then one more talk on Internet Sleuthing on You Know What and You Know Who and the tools I used to track all of it (like Maltego, which I recommend you try), a private wiki, and good old index cards. I’ll post again about BlogHer ’11 and these talks and all the kick ass geekiness that happens at BlogHer conferences!

Notes on sockpuppetry and astroturfing

Mischi says in comments,

The fallout from this whole Amina/Paula Brooks mess has really spooked me. I’m starting to wonder how many other individuals on my twitter or facebook feeds might be equally “unreal”.

So, I have to ask: are there any clues or patterns one should be particularly careful to pay attention to?

Also, what are the different kinds of motives that might compel someone to create sock puppets that have such a long and involved online presence (as both “amina” and “paula brooks” seemed to have). Some people here are suggesting they could be motivated by a desire to gather intelligence and/or disrupt activist organizations… but surely there must be other reasons? I mean, “Paula Brooks” wrote about surfing — what was the motive here? I’m just confused, and more than a little bewildered.

Anyway, it would be nice to get more insight into the world of sock puppets (a term which until a week ago I had never heard of, but now can’t stop thinking about!). Again, thanks!

Good questions Mischi – we could talk about that all day.

I think that members of long-standing organizations and communities often have developed the discernment to recognize likely instances of people who are not quite who they say they are, *and* the difficulty and offense of proving that. People who percieve themselves, also, as being in a less powerful situation or in danger have to hone their judgement.

Growing up in the 80s in Texas, I learned how to have good gaydar. People who are online a lot, who live out important parts of their lives socially online, have good sockdar.

Sockpuppets galore

Just as there’s no one motivation for masking or fictionalizing identity, there’s no one tip-off for who is real, and how far they’re trustable.

In most cases, I don’t care — and I don’t have to care — if a person is representing themselves with complete accuracy. Your situation might be different and you need to know you’re not being Facebook-friended by your abusive ex-boyfriend or some weird lying person from your past or an International Woman of Mystery or an FBI agent who just infiltrated your animal rights activist group.

Anonymity and pseudonymity can help people to have a public voice who might otherwise find it difficult to make their thoughts known. Not everyone can be out of the closet! So, while it’s legitimate to worry about who you’re talking to, ask yourself perhaps — does it matter? If it does, how would this conversation change?

If you care a lot about it, you could video chat with them briefly, or verify from someone you both know that there’s been a face to face meeting.

If I want to know, and I care, then I’ll just ask. It’s okay to be rude. If someone’s identity is a bit thin, and it’s reasonable to want to know who you’re speaking with, and they’re real, they should understand why you need to ask. If, on the other hand, they come up with reasons why it would be outrageous to ask, or know — maybe that should be unacceptable to you. If the person keeps missing your meetings and the excuses get more and more strange, that’s another clue!

I think we see here also in this entire fucked up mess that asking your friends for help is a great technique to triangulate on reality! Look at the great stuff in the comments . . . People are still working together to figure out who Graber is, and who he’s fooled, and what damage has been done. Because of that, more people will be protected against him in future. (And maybe he’ll get some kind of of real help, if he’s helpable.)

People have been asking me — what’s a sockpuppet? What’s astroturfing? Astroturfing is “fake grass roots” — many shallow fake identities created to give an illusion of popular support and interest. Astroturfing could be lots of voters from different IP addresses with different logins, gaming a voting system, or many people talking about how great a product is. Because of astroturfing’s volume and potential sophistication, it may be best detected by building good software tools. People who think a lot about botnets and spam-fighting are probably best equipped to talk about astroturfing — though as Mechanical Turk and other tools are used more often for astroturfing, this will get more difficult.

By “sockpuppets” I usually mean a persona of some depth. (Picture a person wearing a sockpuppet and having a conversation with it.) Wikipedia pages are often places where you can easily find a pattern of unsophisticated sockpuppetry. Several new accounts spring up to edit the same article. If they’re all from the same IP address, that’s a dead giveaway.

Sockpuppets are there to talk to each other. Writers make sockpuppet friends or enemies, drama-filled relationships, or conversation partners. Ms.Scribe would make a somewhat obvious sock to accuse herself of not being real. Someone else would then expose the attackers. Ms.Scribe would become more solid and look more more important. I’ve seen Wikipedia edit wars where several people follow a pattern of argument. Alice will propose something outrageous, Bob will come along to disagree by saying something even more outrageous, challenging Alice; Alice refutes Bob and then Bob admits Alice was right after all. They make puppeets to debate with about why the sky is green.

Plain Layne on the other hand looked to me like a “literary experiment” gone wrong over time. There I saw that the specific locality of Layne’s blog and how she described her life led to the other bloggers in her town to expect to run into her. In the earlier days of blogging, people didn’t think that they would be noticed, or found, or develop real life friendships. Some of us might know better these days. MacMaster didn’t.

The story of Victoria Bitter shows some very interesting patterns that remind me more of Paula Brooks and LezGetReal than of Amina’s hoax. Amy Player/Victoria Bitter/Andy Blake shifted identity several times in real life and went through a gender transition. They also defrauded people of money – and somehow, all this tragically led to a triple murder-suicide in May 2011. As the documenters of Victoria Bitter point out, Andy Blake is still around and is still – amazingly quickly after his friends’ deaths – playing out the same patterns of asking for money and engaging with communities that care about LGBT issues and about fiction.

It seems difficult for identity-performing people to resist *engaging with themselves*. I think they also get very tempted to engage directly with people who are beginning to get suspicious about them. It must be like taking a dare, or pushing one’s experiment to its logical extremes. How far can it go? Maybe it’s a power rush, like the feeling of power a fiction writer gets as they move their characters around inside a story. The sense of psychopathy people talk about when they have been involved with sockpuppets may relate to this feeling of power and manipulation.

But I remember the story being more complex as I think of Plain Layne. She would reach a crisis in her life, or would be challenged by a commenter who’d say she couldn’t be who she says. And I’d intervene and comment myself, saying, “But she *could* have had crazy great sex on her first date because…” or “Well, you are all saying she shouldn’t take in her teenage cousin’s baby — but I’d admire her if she did” and then what I predicted *would happen*. Layne’s author would take suggestions or cues from commenters, and would play them out. We all had, now and then, the pleasure of feeling we were right in our advice, or our predictions of how Layne would feel about her choices and why.

With fictional personas of less well established boundaries, I think that kind of thing can have feel like talking with a person who’s schizophrenic and who incorporates anything you might mention into their fantastic ramblings. It feels *off*. There can be a pattern of boundary violation. Some sockpuppet hoaxers, like Bill Graber, seem to have incredibly bad boundaries right from the start. I mean, I don’t have the most fabulous boundaries either, and not a lot of instinct to stay away from drama, or I wouldn’t have kept on poking into this entire mess — but I’m actually nice, and exist, and have a life, and all that.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about science fiction fandom and its online communities. Fans who write transformative works have been using pseudonyms, and developing chains of trust and reputation based on those pseudonyms, for a long time. In other words, if you make vids about characters who are owned by someone else, and build up your reputation with that as your art, you have good reason to hide your identity, because you don’t want to be sued.

For sockpuppet detection, it’s important to document the process of unravelling a hoax — the red flags, dead ends, and all the threads and evidence. Investigators screengrab and archive chats and photos or copy entire websites, which might turn out to be crucial traces of a sockpuppetry nexus or a Very Complex Internet Drama — before the perpetrator or a community moderator deletes the evidence. They’re archiving events and documenting extended public conversations. That’s a skill and a way of thinking that’s still evolving very quickly.

You can also look at people’s IP addresses, times they come online and go offline, and so on.

If you’ve been in activist groups of any kind it seems fairly usual for someone to point a finger at someone else who is a bit disruptive and accuse them of being an infiltrator. That can be a destructive process in itself, unfortunately.

While there do seem to be various patterns of behavior I think part of the sockdar we have at our disposal – especially as sophisticated readers – is about the use of language, being in the same register of formality, and speaking the same way. There are also differences in what sites a persona joins. A skilled hoaxer can fake those things of course! I’d like to know if other people notice particular things that affect their judgement of a person’s real-life existence or their sincerity?

I’ve got to stop writing for the day [ETA: I wrote this 8 hours ago and thought I posted it, but it was still in draft!] but I’d love to hear what others have to say on this topic. There is plenty to say as well about literary hoaxes (going back to JT Leroy, Nasidjj, Margaret Jones/Peggy Seltzer, and so many others). How do you smell a rat? Have there been situations where you have figured out someone’s real or not real?

[Also ETA to add, I am still researching and thinking about who the hell Bill Graber is, but needed to stop and write this, partly because it is what everyone calling to interview me is asking. Will post tomorrow about Graber and so on. Who the hell is Graber? Is that really his name? Does he have some overall agenda? Is he just independently kind of . . . not sane, having maintained an alternate identity for years and then totally melting down? I don’t buy the theory that he’s a secret agent of a government.. but it’s more plausible that he could be a disrupting agent of conservative/anti-gay organizations.]

Hacking class for kids

My son’s school had a day this week called “Festival of Numbers”, a day where they invited the geeky parents and anyone else to come teach fun hands-on classes about science, math, engineering, or computer concepts. There were GPS treasure hunts along with classes on origami and code-breaking, probabilities in poker, bubble blowing, calculus, and gravity. The kids from grades 3-8 could sign up for whatever classes they liked throughout the day. It was an amazing event!

I proposed teaching “Computer Hacking 101” which would be a hands-on tour of Unix (in this case Mac OS X) with a little bit of Python thrown in at the end. The school officials reacted with mild dismay to the word “hacking” and I think the issue was kicked up to the district level. I hadn’t realized that popular opinion, even in Silicon Valley, equates hacking with criminals. So, they changed the class’s title to Command Line Secrets along with a kind of silly description about “robo cops and techno spies”. This made me laugh in that it was a weird endorsement of state violence (spies, cops) while rejecting individual power to learn skills and wield knowledge. Well, of course I went ahead and taught the same things I had been planning to teach.

tara's kid

The class was about 30 middle school students. A core of them seemed to be there because they heard from my 6th grade Python student that I was a decent teacher. We opened the class with the IT guy from the district logging them all in from a central computer under the same temporary login that let them access Terminal. As he did this, I read out the points of the Hacker Ethic and explained why I think it’s important for us to be able to tinker with the guts of the computer and of the Internet and the servers where we keep our information.

1. Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!
2. All information should be free.
3. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.
5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
6. Computers can change your life for the better.

Of course it’s the Festival of Numbers not the Festival of Subversion, but cultural background is important!

I explained that knowing how to mess around with Unix or Linux was useful because tons of Internet servers use it. We went through a few basic commands like ls, pwd, and cd to understand the idea of moving around in directories and knowing “where you are”. Most of the kids didn’t catch on to this too well, but they managed. It’s really best to teach this kind of class with an extra helper for every 5-10 students, to get them all on the same page.

Then I asked who would like to see the super secret master password file for the computer. There were some actual screams of delight and disbelief. EVERYONE WOULD! What a surprise. We cd-ed into /etc and typed “more passwd”. I didn’t dwell on this too much, but told them to google it to understand all the bits of /etc/passwd, and said that the passwords won’t actually show, even if you have root, but you might be able to see the encrypted passwords in another file. A tall girl raised her hand. “So… um… how do you understand that encryption? How do you know how to encrypt things?”

We didn’t go into that. Instead I moved on to some more commands like touch and mkdir to make a file and a directory. Then they were getting a bit restless. Many people had moved ahead on the handout and there were more shrieks from around the room as people had typed ps -x or top and were stuck with lines of green text scrolling by in a Matrix-like way! There was another bit on the handout that explained to try control-C, control-D, q, quit, escape, and so on to get unstuck, but it was information I repeated many times over the next two hours!

At that point I was peppered with questions and some kids demonstrated to others that in Mac OS X you can type “say I like farts” and the Mac computer synthesized voice will say it out loud. Hilarity ensued. I let that go for a few minutes (laughing) and then the “say” chorus mostly stopped. Another kid in the back of the room raised his hand. “Ms. Henry how could I see someone’s IP address?” Other kids wanted to know what an IP address was so I gave an extremely condensed explanation that it was a number that shows at what point you’re connecting to the net. We moved on to the “Nifty Network Tools” bit of my handout, and tried: whoami, who, hostname, whois, ping, dig, ifconfig, and traceroute. It was impossible to keep the whole class together and still move as fast as I wanted to. But I did show whoever was paying attention how to do an nslookup on baidu.com, then traceroute to it, which is fun because you can see that it goes to China and that the time lag keeps increasing.

A couple of kids asked how they could get to Terminal to experiment with all these things when the computer lab at school locks them out of it. I recommended they ask teachers with computers in the classroom if they can experiment there, since those computers aren’t under central control. When they asked further if there was some way they could hypothetically get around the lockout in the computer lab I asked the IT guy if they had Terminal and a browser on a USB drive and ran it from there, if that would work. He wasn’t sure!

At some point in response to all their “how to get around school policy” questions I recommended they propose what they wanted to the school and see how they could get it, maybe through a computer club, or a promise of good behavior and to report any serious security holes immediately to a teacher or to the IT staff. And also, that they agree with their friends to try and hack each others’ accounts, then do harmless pranks — not anything malicious or mean. For “password cracking” questions I steered the conversation towards the importance of picking good passwords, but I did mention dictionary attacks, keylogging, and man in the middle attacks as well as simple social engineering or shoulder surfing.

julia with laptop

It was a fascinating experience, I loved the kinds of questions they asked, and really wonder what they’ll do with the information! It seems to me too that I should teach an identical class for their teachers and parents, to demystify the subject and let them know the landscape.

What would you teach to middle school kids in a Hacking 101 class?