Archive | February, 2012

Nymwars and Culture Clashes

Walking home from the downtown Oakland BART station a couple weeks ago I passed a young man standing on a street corner next to his bike. He was dressed all in black, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Kind of like this guy:

Image of protester wearing Guy Fawkes mask

Occupy PDX Anonymous ~ Image in public domain

I was freaked out and even vaguely offended by the mask, which seemed a bit hypocritical of me. I’m a big supporter of masks [1] of a sort online: the use of pseudonyms, multiple identities, and some forms of anonymity — and here was a guy wearing a mask linked to a group actually called Anonymous. So why was his  ‘real life’ mask disturbing? In a chapter from Communities in Cyberspace, Judith Donath observes:

In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor… The virtual world is different. [2]

Maybe I was freaked out by an implicit violation of the body as “stabilizing anchor” in the physical world?

But there are so many forms of media that extend people beyond their bodies. People write books (sometimes under pseudonyms), circulate tales through oral traditions, and are captured on audio and video and in photographs.

There’s something unsettling about not being able to see someone’s face, though.

My reaction to the guy in the mask reminded of Google+ Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger’s recent comments on a change in Google+’s policy on pseudonyms. Following several months of backlash (#nymwars) against the lockout of  G+ users suspected of using names they aren’t commonly addressed by in the “real” world, the policy was modified to prohibit names that aren’t “name-shaped”. Pseudonyms are acceptable, but the nym has to look like a “real name” (or “wallet name,” i.e., a name on official identification in your wallet) to Google [3].

Yunger explained this policy as an attempt to avoid “culture clashes,” writing:

Generally, if you know at least one person who has an unusual name, you’re likely to know a lot of such people; i.e., people with unusual names travel in tightly-connected clusters. That’s largely because these names tend to be tied to particular subcultures. The problem we’re really encountering here is of culture clashes: people from one culture absolutely freak out when they encounter people from a very alien culture.

Read More… Nymwars and Culture Clashes

Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

Sam Ladner, our guest blogger, started off the new year with a provocative question on Ethnography Matters, “Does Corporate Ethnography Suck?” where she described academics’ critiques of industry ethnography as second rate or illegitimate. In her second post, Sam proffered methods for the shorter cycles of industry ethnography. In this, her final post, Sam discusses how to maintain reflexivity in ethnographic practice.

Maintaining Research Quality Through Reflexivity

In his wonderful short book On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus (2009) argues that online learning differs from face-to-face in one significant way: online learners are physically removed from the learning environment, making it hard for them to feel their discomfort physically. Dreyfus argues that this discomfort is a key aspect to learning; we must be uncomfortable to learn.

If discomfort is learning, then ethnography offers a wealth of learning opportunities!  Ethnography necessarily entails becoming immersed in that which you study. This immersion presents a wonderful – if sometimes uncomfortable – opportunity to continuously improve research. Immersion means you are “out of your element” and a guest in someone else’s location, be it their home, office, garage, or local grocery store. You are going to make mistakes. But these very mistakes provide an opportunity for both corporate and academic ethnographers to reflect on their practice.Read More… Practicing Reflexivity in Ethnography (Part 3 of 3) [guest contributor]

Online reputation: it’s contextual

This post is the first in a new category for Ethnography Matters called “A day in the life”. In it, I describe a day at a workshop on online reputation that I attended, reporting on presentations and conversations with folks from Reddit and Stack Overflow, highlighting four key features of successful online reputation systems that came out of their talks.

A screenshot from's sub-Redit, "SnackExchange" showing point system

We want to build a reputation system for our new SwiftRiver product at Ushahidi where members can vote on bits of relevant content related to a particular event. This meant that I was really excited about being able to spend the day yesterday at the start of a fascinating workshop on online reputation organised by a new non-profit organisation called Hypothesis. It seems that Hypothesis is attempting to build a layer on top of the Web that enables users, when encountering new information, to be able to immediately find the best thinking about that information. In the words of Hypothesis founder, Dan Whaley, “The idea is to develop a system that let’s us see quality insights and information” in order to “improve how we make decisions.” So, for example, when visiting the workshop web page, you might be able to see that people like me (if I “counted” on the reputation quality scale) have written something about that workshop or about very specific aspects of the workshop and be able to find out what they (and perhaps even I) think about it.

The organisers write that a reputation will be “a way for the user community to collectively calibrate the contributions of its members”. And if work of the new system will be “annotating” content on the web, then the reputation model will be an important part of that system. It turns out that calibrating contributions is not as easy as developing a scale and then marking a measure on a measuring jug. First you have to work out what the measure is. When is comes to peer production projects, the goal might be an vibrant volunteer community that comes together to produce something of public value. Wikipedia, for example, wants to see a growing volunteer community working together to build and improve a free encyclopedia, especially in areas that the encyclopedia is weak. Ushahidi, on the other hand, might want to see volunteers deploying and organizing around content in order to improve decision making and effective action in crisis situations.

When co-founder and general manager of the tremendously successful Stack Overflow and Reddit talked yesterday about how they developed their reputation systems, I was struck by the organic nature of their reputation model building process. Building reputation systems, it turns out, relies on an effective process more than a fancy algorithm. Successful codified reputation systems like those used by Stackoverflow and Reddit have developed their codes the way doctors grow skin on different parts of the body in order to use on other parts. Organically, along with the community, evolving in a process of increasingly shared responsibilities. Just the right amount of adherence to what the community currently values and how they already distribute rewards and attention, with just the right amount favoring or weighting of activities and values that achieved desired communal goals.Read More… Online reputation: it’s contextual