Friday, December 24, 2010

The Digital Social Contract and Social Media

Have you ever read Facebook's End User License Agreement? If not, you should definitely do that. It's refreshingly accessible as EULAs and other legal documents go, largely in response to criticisms that their privacy settings are too byzantine to be fair to the average person.

Aww, still don't feel like going through it? Allow me to highlight two important points:

From Section 2., "Privacy": "You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings."

From Section 14., "Termination": "If you violate the letter or spirit of this Statement, or otherwise create risk or possible legal exposure for us, we can stop providing all or part of Facebook to you."

So. Theoretically, I am the sole owner of my data, but access to my data can be cut off at any time if it is believed that I've violated "the spirit" of the agreement. But Delicious' Terms of Use are even better: "Delicious reserves the right to terminate your license to use Delicious at any time and for any reason..." Okay, fine. That looks obnoxious, but honestly, if they went around cancelling accounts for no good reason, they would have a bloody hard time getting people to sign on and give them more of their super valuable info. That's sort of a natural logic of any contract.

Now, my friend Greg linked me to this Harvard Business Review blog update on the rumors that Yahoo is planing on pulling the plug on Delicious.

Ms. Samuel is right on the mark. She writes about the transaction between Delicious and its users, referring to the relationship between two people using information stored on Delicious to communicate, saying that,
We've placed those relationships in trust, along with the information about which websites we find useful enough to store, and which keywords we use to describe them. We contribute the content and relationships; Yahoo! contributes the software and servers. (Emphasis mine)

Interestingly, she uses some bank terms here. Which makes sense. For the purpose of web 2.0 services, information is currency. It's an apt parallel; We place funds in trust with a bank, and they use those funds to generate more capital. We also place our information in trust with the fine folks of Google, Facebook and Yahoo so that they can generate value in the form of "free" web applications.

As trustees of that informational currency, there is a certain obligation to maintain the value of what's been entrusted to Delicious (or Facebook, or any other online service that is paid for with informational currency). Because we have the right to close a Delicious or Facebook account at any time, I can accept the idea that they may want to stop offering the service, but a way of preserving the value which has already been generated by the information entrusted to them is highly important. Like any social or legal contract, if you prove unreliable, one one's going to want to contract with you again. So remarking that cancelling a service indicates poor customer service, it's not "personal" as Ms. Samuel suggested her comments may have been construed as-it's a poor way of doing business. Data can be backed up and access to that data can be maintained without continuing to offer the service; Yahoo should do so if these rumors turn out to have any truth to them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Empathy, Gender and the Workplace

An interesting take from philosophy professor Hugo Schwyzer on gender and empathy.

He makes a good point. And I note with interest that he touches mainly on personal relationships rather than professional links. I can't help but apply this mode of thinking to the IT world as well.

A good deal of my discussions with men on the subjects of getting more women into computing could be summarized with the statement, "we would love to, but don't know how." I think a big part of the answer to that question lies in this line of research - guys are less empathetic. That's not to say they're jerks, but as this research points out, men don't have the same cultural perception of empathy as women.

Sara Chipps at Girl Developer made a good point at her Girl Geek Dinner talk about a year ago that people can be passionate about software. Don't get into the discussion unless you are comfortable with that kind of intensity. And she's totally right. But I like the idea that it can, and should, work both ways. Of course you need thick skin in the professional world. But as with all things in life, a moderate balance is needed. The trick is finding the right balance between empathetic understanding and forthright directness.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Back, now with audio!

Hi all!

So I have been fairly MIA since the spring, mainly because my arty side projects were in high gear and I was doing a bit of casual job hunting. Which gave way to being hired at Vibrant Media in May, and I have been happily and busily learning my way around the new place since then. I promise details on that later, but the long and short of it for now is: more fun, and way more challenging.

Another fun project I've been up to more recently is the Immodest Proposals discussion group, put together by my friend Lee. Our most recent topic of discussion was how computers affect our attention, focus, and tendencies to procrastinate. And, he recorded the discussion! So, I give you Immodest Proposals VI: Procrastination, the Internet and the Future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quick hit: CyberSource, Visa and online commerce

Just got this: CyberSource
bought out by Visa for $2B

Ordinarily a market comprised of a couple monolithic competitors really annoys me, but I do think this will ultimately be a boon to merchants. (Yet I am fascinated by Google, I know. [shrug])

One of the nice things about Amex is that everything is all handled by them. Amex holds the line of credit, administers the card, and processes the transactions. Yet it's more expensive for merchants to accept. If Visa is acquiring its own processor, this could potentially make transactions a lot easier to deal with for the merchant but at a much lower cost to them. Good move, Visa (assuming of course that CyberSource share holders will go for it).

How to address a systemic mental hangup?

Last week there was a really solid piece in the Sunday Times on female technological entrepreneurs. I was pleased with the quality of the research, and can personally relate to a lot of the comments from women interviewed. For example:

"It just never dawned on me to do it [enter engineering]," she says. "You're just sitting there pecking away. I need more human interaction."

I've actually heard this firsthand from a former DB programmer somewhat recently. And this seems a little odd to me because the biggest reason I opted for a career in QA was the collaborative aspect. When I was handling customer accounts the human connection is very superficial, limited to a few moments at a time with someone you rarely speak with. Building websites also means building professional relationships with your team members. You're working towards a common goal, which is infinitely more satisfying to me then solving dozens of smaller scale problems for people I speak to very infrequently.

However it does speak for the educational disadvantage than many women have in the computer sciences. Math is not a very collaborative field, and women generally tend to opt for other fields of study as a result. This is a problem for technical innovation.

One of my favorite characteristics of humanity is a person's ability, by dint of human self awareness and habit of self reflection, to evolve and change with enough will and discipline. That's going to be a pretty key quality if this is a problem that the IT industry wants to solve. Ms. Miller hits the nail right on the head here when in a couple places she mentions women's lower confidence as a suspected reason for hesitance in making an entrepreneurial leap without every detail worked out (see the case of Ms. Karen Watts in the Times piece), and the fact that we're discouraged from a young age from committing to math and the sciences. When I was in high school, a close male relative of mine once commented that "it's too bad you're not as good at math because you have a good grasp of physics." Owch. And I heard a lot of that growing up, not to intentionally discourage, but to shield from academic discouragement by saying that girls aren't supposed to be good at math anyway. We're not bad at math per se, we just like working in groups instead of sawing away at a single problem all alone.

But as has been successfully argued from numerous corners of industry,* fewer women in the math and sciences is still bad for innovation. So how do we encourage more women to go into them if they're "naturally" inclined in other areas? (Disclaimer: I personally think leaning too heavily on what comes "naturally" is a cop-out. See previous comments regarding self discipline and personal change.) First we need to stop telling kids that girls aren't supposed to be good at math. Not only does it encourage a feeling of helplessness and discourage the development of self-discipline, it's bloody untrue. While women obviously do tend towards activities entailing interpersonal relationships and more verbal communication, math can still be taught in a way that would be engaging to those personality types. Almost all of Paul Erdős' work was completely collaborative; he embraced the idea of "crowd sourcing" before we even had a world wide web. Especially now that so much more is understood about different cognitive and learning styles in children, taking a more cooperative and collaborative approach to teaching math in the hope of reducing the gender disparity in math heavy professions would certainly be worth investigating.


*Quoted from the link above: "Venture-backed start-ups run by women use, on average, 40 percent less capital than start-ups run by men and are increasingly involved in successful initial public offerings of stock, according to a recent white paper by Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist who compiled data from 100 studies on gender and tech entrepreneurship."


Monday, March 22, 2010

Quick note: QA as UX

"In reality, the [tester's] expectations don't have to be valid, they just have to be in alignment with the customer's overall expectations."

Found this when skimming around Borland's website. It's bringing a smile to this web app tester's face.

This is a very Agile idea, and one that I think would translate very well to companies that either haven't yet or don't have the resources to commit to a more Agile development practice. If there's one Agile principle you embrace, this is one of the better ones.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interactive Archiving

Hi all. Sorry for the lax updating, it's been busy. My biggest side project is starting to get into gear for the season and various other creative pursuits have been keeping me busy. (But sadly, not SxSW…deploying things today!)

The Times posted a nifty piece on digital archiving, which is delighting both my technically and curatorially geeky halves.

Writing down ideas is kind of weird. Kind of like money, when you put stuff on paper, it's not really the idea being put down, but something like a symbol for the idea. And the symbols can have varying layers of complexity. One of my favorite pieces of digital and interactive art lets you play with this idea abstractly. Digitally storing information is like adding another degree of complexity to the symbols. Not only are the funny squiggles there, we've encoded them into ones and zeroes and committed the symbols of symbols to a very finicky storage medium.

What delights me about the rising field of digital curatorship is how these curators are pioneering new ways of interpreting those symbols. As in the case of the Emory curators, they're trying to allow collection visitors/patrons to interact with an approximation of Mr. Rushdie's subjective experience of writing. (With emphasis on approximation.) Here visitors are getting so much more than the content of the documents, they're having an interactive experience with the information.

But like a lot of cool art, it's necessarily ephemeral as a result of the media it's stored on and the technology used to interpret the symbols. (Or rather than art itself, the archive installation is a symbol of the art itself, perhaps? More like an imprint of the act of creation for the final work of art, Rushdie's novels.) While it's sad to think we'd lose the records, that almost makes it that much more interesting an experience. Like a bottle of fine wine, there's some beauty in experiencing something wonderful yet fleeting, and it's an idea you see in other areas of art. One of Eva Hesse's favorite sculptural media was latex; she would specifically treat it so that the material would degrade faster. When she died she instructed one of her assistants to destroy several pieces of her work. A resistance to permanence is also a big part of performance art (hence some controversy over the Marina Abramović show, which features the reperformance of some of her pieces.)

While this makes digital art that much more interesting for me, it's also incidentally why I refuse to pay for mp3s or other digital content without a physical disc. Data is fragile. (I love when people get all nostalgic about CDs. Yes, I still maintain a CD/DVD collection.) As Ms. Cohen points out, it depends on the storage media, and the current data storage technology is far from indestructible. But that makes computing machinery that much more interesting as an artistic medium.

Monday, January 25, 2010

“Fully safe”

Real quick: German government advises against using Internet Explorer

It's fairly droll that the "increased security setting" wouldn't make IE "fully safe." Well yes, there's no such thing as guaranteed safety online. Obviously the attack on Google was advanced or else they wouldn't be talking about throwing away a solid toehold in a serious market that they would have a hard time recovering. I think it's a safe assumption that this sort of attack isn't going to happen to the average user.

Anyway, in the interest of honesty I don't use IE because it indirectly caused me to require a new harddrive when I upgraded to IE8. But I have the great misfortune of running Vista…

Victims of success?

I love the adage that "Stats don't lie," because it's so accurate in one manner of speaking, and so totally absurd in another. Data is data: it's how we interpret the data that's often the source of debate.

In the case of last week's Pew study the data has sparked a debate that this blogeuse is loving. I first read about it from The New York Times, whose article was (fascinatingly, I think) less about the findings and more about the interpersonal element – how are we subjectively experiencing the demographic shift?

Initially when reading about some interpretations of this data along the lines of this NY Times blog piece seemed irksome. Really, why terms like "Alpha" with the confrontational connotations in analyzing the situation? Obviously something a male-dominated media might do. Likewise, seeing expressions like "wearing the pants in a relationship" make me cringe, not only for the implication that any one person in a couple needs to be dominant, but that it's no longer true in a literal sense. Everybody wear pants anymore, people.

But the reality is that money = power. It's not a particularly nice truth, but there it is. And I do like that the Pew study has started a debate that acknowledges that there is an unintentional power dynamic in a committed relationship between cohabiting couples. (I hesitate to say "marriage" because there are many common law, civil unions and other "nontraditional marriages" which would have the same qualities I'm writing about.) No matter how much two people strive to make all decisions together, when one member of the couple has the better job, there's going to be a little more influence to make life decisions like moving in favor of supporting that member's job. It's not always a question of regarding both people's wishes and coming to a decision together as much as, we need to eat. We're going to go where we can eat.

So back to the Times piece. The upshot of the piece that Mr. Roberts seems to want us to gather is that women are becoming "victims" of a male backlash from this shift. I won't disagree that there are men floating around who don't like the idea of smart women, women in power and with resources. And I've certainly experienced for myself how much it sucks to be condescended to by men who were making themselves feel better.

But that's their problem, not ours. We're clearly doing well, and other peoples' insecurity is not our fault. How does that make us "victims?"