Stalking My Former Self

Reading about social networks and online identities has gotten me curious about what insights might emerge from examining my old profiles from high school. When I was 15-18, I maintained profiles on Xanga and MySpace, which were left dormant at various points in the lonely avenues of abandoned cyberspace. Because everything online is permanent, I am able to cull through my old profiles like an architectural dig and remember what kind of online identity I was trying to shape back then (and how true it is to who I am today).

Let’s start with my MySpace profile. An important contextual element: I joined MySpace when I was 16 because the boy I liked (who would become my first boyfriend ever…and second and third, because apparently I didn’t know when enough was enough!) was on MySpace, and I wanted to flirt with him. When I first wrote my profile, I was crafting every sentence for an audience of one: I wanted that boy to like me, so I emphasized the parts of myself that I knew he would be drawn to (my sense of humor, my political savvy, and a put-on sense of ease, etc). While appealing to the tastes of a suitor is kind of Courtship 101 (at least in the mind of a high schooler who only has tv shows as a reference for how to go about these things), there is no doubt that a lot of the construction of this particular identity hinged on getting the attention of a “certain someone”. This reminds me of the  Danah Boyd, in The Networked Self, points out that many friendships that are confirmed in social networking environments are for political reasons. While an individual might rather avoid close ties with a person online, they associate with a certain person because it is the socially acceptable thing to do. Similarly, I think all content generated on profiles is, to an extent, political and filtered through the author’s perception of audience reaction. My profile being shaped to get the attention of my crush was political and calculated (or maybe just teenage desperation).

My xanga account was a collaboration between me and my best friend. We decided to make blogs to keep in touch with each other in high school (or…something….) and we made funny “About Me” sections and wrote ridiculous notes back and forth on these sites. If I remember correctly, we also desperately wanted to get the attention of a mutual crush (code named “Green Tea,” who makes star appearances in my posts…) and this was an effort to make a public but secret declaration of love. (15 year olds are weird. as. hell.) If you are curious, check it out.

I definitly think my xanga account is a representation of my relationship with my best friend, and a ridiculously fun reminder of what I was like as a freshman in high school. I’m surprised by how much I have changed (I no longer troll the local pool for cute guys), and I barely remember what half the inside jokes were between me and my friend. At the same time, I see how I reacted to problems then and now is similar, and how I wrote in journals then is surprisingly consistent with my current tendencies. This site– maybe all like it–serves as an archive of a certain moment in my development, and also an archive of how much and how little we change.

Now, I’ve made this site, a representation of my professional. academic, and sometimes personal self. I am proud of how far I have come, as a self-assured woman; as a writer; and as a savvy navigator of digital technology. This site has been cultivated intentionally, not to get a boy to like me but to share my ideas with the world.

To be continued…


How the Internet Taught Me How to Cook

The most complex thing I’d ever cooked before about two years ago was a microwave dinner. My parents never showed an interest in the culinary arts, so I’d always scoffed at the idea of spending hours in the kitchen. However, when I moved out on my own and then got married, I began to see the value of a nice, home-cooked meal. I am no Stepford Wife, but I love that a delicious meal can bring people together and make a house feel more like home. I began to research cooking, but had no idea where to start.

Then I discovered, a site where recipes can be uploaded by users and reviewed by those who try the recipe. There are recipes for virtually any kind of food or preparation, and the reviews are an easy way to evaluate whether a recipe is worth trying. I have found that the user reviews and comments allow me to discover variations that others have tried (including spices to add, substitutions for ingredients that work well, and preparation variations).

As a very amateur cook, this online community has allowed me to 1) find the best recipes quickly and easily, and 2) learn from the wisdom of more advanced cooks who actually know what they are doing. I almost never make a bad meal, and while I’d like to attribute this to some kind of innate cooking talent, my prowess is mostly due to the excellent resource that is this website.

In the past, I think many people learn to cook from their parents or grandparents– recipes and tips are handed down through the generations. I think this is a wonderful practice, and I am keeping a recipe book with all my favorites (and my own spin on the recipes I find online) to give to my children when the time comes. But the internet certainly makes it easier to cook well, to use the wisdom of the crowd to figure out what recipes work best and which ones are duds.

Speaking of Hardware

Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice discusses the relationship between progress in hardware development, software development, and the changing nature of professions. Check out this latest development in fiber cables. How do you think this will change the nature of communications?

No Cyborgs Allowed

Google Glass, Google’s latest tech innovation, is a head-mounted, wearable computer that responds to voice commands and can do things like take photos, record video, conduct online searches, and give directions. While the gadget has drawn enthusiasm for being a leap forward in making technological resources instantly, constantly accessible, many have expressed concerns about the impact Google Glass might have on privacy rights and social dynamics. This article explains why some establishments have chosen to ban Google Glass, and why some activists are resisting its widespread adoption.


I wonder if Google Glass is little more than a gimmick. The technology allows little functionality that smartphones don’t already have. My hope is that this will be a fad that flops, and our daily lives will be no more integrated with the digital realm than they already are through computers and cell phones. I love how technology allows me to communicate and perform productive tasks, but I don’t want technology to constantly interface with my real life; I don’t want my world to be filtered through Google-colored glasses. Despite its many successful applications, Google has developed many failed technologies, and I can only hope that Google Glass will end up in the Google Graveyard.

I agree that it’s scary to think that our physical spaces will become mediated by digital technology, and that our entire lives might be shaped by the awareness that anyone around us might be recording and posting us as we go about our lives. I also think that with Google Glass might come an increased narcissism, with people constantly aware of how to fit themselves and their technological objectives within any situation (without an awareness of how that technology is impacting others).

I hope that as technology continues to develop, more attention is paid to etiquette and proper behavior so that social and professional interactions retain or reclaim some level of focus. I also think it’s essential that individuals maintain their right to privacy. People drinking coffee at Starbucks shouldn’t need to worry about their every move being recorded by civilians (and Google) who then own the material and can post it or use it in whatever way they please. Especially when it comes to recording minors or other vulnerable groups (or taking video in public bathrooms or dressing rooms), Google Glass could violate privacy in new ways.

Brief Note on Skill Building

Back when I was taking high school algebra, I remember working on homework and studying for tests week after week, waiting for the hard part to start. Nobody I knew liked algebra– in fact, the general impression I had before starting the class was that algebra was a unique form of torture that engendered endless frustration and misunderstanding and error upon the innocent souls subjected to its miseries. In taking the class and focusing on integrating each new skill into my acquired knowledge, I realized that algebraic knowledge is cumulative, and each discrete skills is not more difficult than the last– each new skills simply relies on mastery of the previous skill. Algebra becomes more complex, but not more difficult. For this reason, algebra went from being intimidating to completely do-able for me. I stopped worrying about how intimidating the problems sets looked three chapters ahead and focused on developing continuously.

I feel that building websites– a skill I am only beginning to acquire– is similar to algebra. At first, I felt “there is no way I can do that. That’s for people with a natural aptitude, who already think a certain way, who are more interested in technology than I am.” But as my professor gave workshops in HTML, CSS, and web design software, I realized: I can do this. I just need to learn the basics and gradually accumulate more information.

By breaking down tasks and systems into smaller chunks, they are easier to understand. I’m finding that any network or system is only as complicated as the sum of its parts. It’s not necessary to understand the big picture right away, because the individual nodes and relationships between nodes will eventually inform the observer or user about how the entire system works!

I find immense comfort in the idea that I can continue to learn new skills, that something that seems puzzling at first can become demystified if I work on it long enough and hard enough. I think real creativity and innovation are unleashed when reservations are set aside and you just dive in.

And that is my call to action for the day!

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out!)

Check out this article, which discusses the tyranny of algorithms that connect consumers with suggested products based on previous browsing history. It’s just one more signal that amidst the infinite articles and products online, we may be missing out on things we might like that the algorithms can’t predict or detect.


On Being the Product, and Other Forms of Subtle Exploitation

In Chapter 4 of A Networked Self, Mark Andrejevic argues that there is a need for increased research into the distinction between “commercial exploitation” and “willing participation” when it comes to online users’ information being harvested to deliver targeted advertising. Andrejevic explores the nature of mutually beneficial exchanges, and the exploitation of relationships and “immaterial labor” which some employers and advertisers have been practicing. This reminded me of a video by John Green, author and community organizer, who made a video stating that if a product or service online is “free” (a la Facebook), YOU are the product. Watch the video. It is thought-provoking, and raises the excellent point that information from social networking sites is being used for various marketing purposes. Users must be aware of this and choose how to conduct their online lives accordingly.

Users need to begin informing themselves about the various ways that their information could be used, and make decisions they are comfortable with about whether and how to present personal information. It is inevitable that profile information will be sold and used to target advertising.

The prevalence of targeted advertising adds a whole new dimension to the idea of a “networked public,” because the content and networks created by users online for specific, user-generated purposes are exploited by outside groups for purposes that may or may not benefit the users and the network. By this, I mean that I might use Facebook to stay in touch with family. But marketers are tracking every input I make on Facebook so they can better understand my relationships in order to sell me and my family more things. The “cost of doing business” (or the cost of socializing) is that my relationships expressed in my networked publics will be used to sell me things. Because Facebook is designed to facilitate the generation of commercially viable information, my relationships are being mediated by corporations. Now more than ever, our public is being designed and monitored by people who want to get their hands on our money by watching how we interact with family and friends. That’s a pretty scary thought. Especially because we all buy into it.

What Does My Facebook Say About Me?

Recently, I read an article about a study in which 60,000 Facebook profiles were analyzed for trends linking “likes” and other profile information to demographic information. The results showed that sexual orientation, political affiliation, and religion could be predicted with 88% accuracy based on the users’ “likes.” Gender could be predicted correctly 93% of the time, and determining African American or Caucasian males was accurate 95% of the time! This makes me wonder how much online identities say about a person, even if their name is withheld.

My Facebook behavior often involves scrolling through my News Feed and checking for interesting news about friends. Sometimes, if someone I know has “liked” something, I will click the “like” button, too– it’s simple to do and literally takes no more effort than a click. But on some level, that action is putting me in a certain category. In associating myself with a certain brand of tv show or experience on Facebook, I become the “type of person who likes that thing.” Like any self-respecting angst-ridden college student, I resist the idea of being labeled and of those labels defining who I am.

Looking through my list of “likes” on Facebook (something I’ve never actually done), I found I like 54 things. In looking at the list, I wonder what conclusions a stranger would draw about me, and how much of my personality I have left in and how much I have left out.

My “liked” books are: The Book Thief, The Portable Dorothy Parker, The Gospel of John, Ender’s Game, Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, The Fault in Our Stars, and Fahrenheit 451. A pretty good list, I’ll admit, and certainly indicative of some of my favorite books and authors. However, a lot of these books were “liked” back when I was in high school and early college. I love these books, but they represent a slice of my reading life, with an emphasis on fiction written for young adults. There is nothing here to indicate my reading about politics, rhetoric and writing, or trashy romance novels. At the same time, I don’t use Facebook for academic networking and I don’t want the world to know every time I read about the archduke and his mistress (I’m mostly joking about the romance novel thing….mostly.)

Another example of the inadeqauacy of “likes”: Under activities, I have listed “writing.” It is true: I spend more waking hours writing than I do on almost anything else. But I also love to cook, hike, spend time with friends, travel, go to coffee shops, and a million other things. I have not cultivated a long list of activities on facebook because the things I like to do mostly seem ordinary and I don’t see the point in making them a badge on my page. I do know, however, that no list of activities I have haphazardly clicked into existence could really sum up who I am.

As for the movies I have “liked,” most of them are classic films (think: 12 Angry Men and Casablanca) that I have seen once and enjoyed. But they are not the movies I watch again and again. That being said, the list of movies probably does put me in a certain demographic in terms of education level.

It’s interesting that while my demographic info might be gleaned from my “likes,” other parts of me are not visible. I am an educated, 23-year-old Catholic employed woman who enjoys intellectual endeavors. My Facebook page would show that much to a stranger. But it would likely not capture my sense of humor, my approaches to problem-solving, or my unhealthy relationship with reality tv.

In addition, my Facebook shows that I am married, but my husband and I never interact using the site. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a thriving relationship in “real life.” My Facebook friends list does not include my parents, but I talk to them more than 95% of my Facebook friends. Facebook is representative of a small slice of my life, but it doesn’t capture what is most ridiculous or funny or important about me.

I guess my likes on Facebook will help marketers to know me better, but not necessarily anyone else…