Monday, June 27, 2011

Four frames

It's been a long time coming, but now it looks like Routledge will publish Online Gaming in Context soonish. I am in there with an article which kind of happened along the way of a lot of nice, friendly and interesting conversations with Kristine Jørgensen, Rene Glas, and Luca Rossi, the co-authors.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hoax: Sex, power or good will?

After I was used as an "expert" in Politiken yesterday (I am used to being presented by title and connection, not just this vague "expert"), where the headline proudly claims that "many men are lesbians online" (yes, I cringed) I haven't been able to stop thinking about this.

First, by way of Nancy Baym, a really good write-up of the story by Kira Cochrane in the Guardian. Cochrane sees the hoaxes as a power play, where straight men take the positions of what they see as their challengers, the gay women. Gay women are both extremely tantalising and extremely challenging to straight males, as they are both competition and an ultimate conquest. From the article:
Both cases, says the feminist writer Beatrix Campbell, can be seen as a portrait of male dominance – men needing to infiltrate discussions where they wouldn't otherwise have an obvious, and certainly not an authoritative, place

Being a relatively straight woman with a butch haircut, I have experienced the power play of straight men wanting to prove the supriority of a straight life-style first hand. However, I don't think the hoaxes are only about male superiority. If so, how do we explain the cancer-hoaxes?

In two well known cancer hoaxes the persons behind them were women. I have already mentioned the well-known case of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, but another interesting case is that of Jonathan Jay White, or Melissa Ann Rice. While this and most of the other cancer hoaxes included fraud by accepting donations, it's interesting because it was revealed through a personal connection, just like Kaycee Nicole. The outcome was considerably more tragic, as the woman behind the story was found dead shortly after it was revealed.

The creator of Kaycee Nicole wanted to raise the general public's consciousness of cancer. Tom MacMaster wanted to raise the general public's consciousness of the lesbian struggle. Instead both added to the (necessary?) online paranoia. What I suspect caught wasn't their good will, but the power rush of having a lot of attention, the joy of being that other who was loved and admired, and to be an even better other than the real thing. It's a power rush not so much connected to gender as to the potential for attention. Many of the bloggers who burn out blogging describe it as a lifestyle. From one burnt-out blogger, who posted her last post in 2008:
Agathe vurderer ofte å slutte med bloggingen, men det er vanskelig å gi slipp. Tenk hvis hun savner det. Hun kan tenke «ok, nå er jeg ferdig», men fortsetter alltid.
(Agathe considers quitting the blogging, but it's hard to let go. What if she misses it? She can think "ok, now I am done", but she always continues.)

Agathe's description of her experience as a popular blogger (link in Norwegian) heavily editing her life carries a reminder of the reason why so many other couldn't stop their blogging. In her case the life she blogs isn't a hoax, as she lives it. But perhaps is it not quite what she thought after all, perhaps her heavy editing of herself caused her to lose contact with her reality? When her husband leaves, everything collapses, and she becomes a very different person - a person who is not blogging. Perhaps was she never the style-ikon she lived her life as? Perhaps was she - a hoax?

Still, it all leads back to checking sources - to the extent it's possible. However, people tend to be truthful. In Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym points out that most people err on the side of truthfullness, and represent themselves honestly rather than lie (p. 121). Agathe was truthful, as far as she was able to, and sometimes being truthful can be too much. When opening up to the world wide web, there needs to be some kind of filter.

Perhaps not the filter of a total change of gender, nationality, sexual preference and political agenda though.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Internet Hoaxes

I didn't know about this until a journalist from called me today, to ask how I felt about it. It's the blog of a man with a deep interest in the middle east, who has been writing online as a homosexual woman from Damascus. He has now let people know that he is the one who pretended to be Amina, the Sunni lesbian, and he apologises to his readers.

This is an interesting story, and I can see why journalists are taken with it. It has a tittilating touch of slightly deviant sex, it underlines the importance of confirmed sources (that middle-east blogger you admired might be an american male), and it reflects the myths about how people behave online as they are expressed in this rather well-worn cartoon:

However, it's not the first internet hoax that's gone viral. One of the first online gender hoaxes to be reported was the alleged gender swap of Sanford Lewin, reported by Allucquere Rosanne Stone.
Cut to New York, 1982. The multiple user social environments written for the large, corporate-owned, for-pay systems betray none of their origins in low culture. They do not contain objects, nor can objects be constructed within them. They are thoroughly sanitized, consisting merely of bare spaces within which interactions can take place. They are the Motel 6 of virtual systems. Such an environment is the CB chat line on CompuServe. It was on the CB chat line on CompuServe that a New York psychiatrist named Sanford Lewin opened an account.

Sanford Lewin, according to the story, experimented with a female name, only to discover that the information he got access to as a female was very different from what he learned as a male. The parallels between Sanford Lewin and Tom MacMaster are interesting.

From Stone's description of Lewin's actions:

Actually, Lewin was getting nervous too. Apparently he'd never expected the impersonation to succeed so dramatically. He thought he'd make a few contacts online, and maybe offer some helpful advice. What had happened instead was that he'd found himself deeply engaged in developing a whole new part of himself that he'd never known existed. His responses had long since ceased to be a masquerade; with the help of the narrow bandwidth online mode and a certain amount of textual prosthetics, online he had @italic Joan. She no longer simply carried out his wishes at the keyboard; she had her own emergent personality, her own ideas, her own directions. Not that he was losing his own identity, but he was developing a parallel one, one of considerable puissance. Jekyll and Joan. As her friendships deepened and simultaneously the imposture began to unravel, Lewin began to realize the enormity of his deception.

And the simplicity of the solution.

Joan had to die.

From Tom MacMaster's apology:

Amina kept growing. And I kept trying to ‘kill’ her. Her story was great; I can easily write in Amina’s voice because I know her like she was a real person. I know what she likes and what she dislikes, how she feels and what makes her angry or elates her.

It was a terrible time suck but it was fun. And, regularly, I tried to stop. Amina moved overseas, she dropped out of sight repeatedly and so on and so forth. I meant to stop her … but is was hard. I’d read news stories and I’d find myself fighting the urge to respond as Amina … and occasionally giving in.

Some of MacMaster's latest posts before the hoax was revealed points towards a final disappearance for Amina. She is about to "die" and she won't be the first online fictional character to go that way.In 2001 Kaycee Nicole died after fighting leukemia for two years. Or rather - the character was killed off by it's creator, the woman pretending to be Kaycee Nicole and her mother.
The whole operation was the work of a Kansas housewife, Debbie Swenson. Posing as both Kaycee and her mother, Swenson had started by constructing an online personality, but it spiralled into an increasingly complex deception as the diary became ever more popular. Once her cover was blown, she revealed the truth quickly with one final diary entry

The case even created a new diagnosis, Münchausen by internet. By pretending to be a beautiful, brave, struggling young woman, Swenson got attention and was listened to and admired. It's heady stuff.

The stories of hoaxes and gender-swapping online are legion, and some of them lead to court cases, such as the story of two women, where one of them pretended to be a fire-man. This story caused a divorce, but before it could lead to a new marriage, the fire fighter died of cancer - apparently a very popular death online.

However, sometimes you may have a good reason to become somebody else. Perhaps you need to hide your identity, because what you are talking about could have you punished, either socially or as a criminal. If so, you need to take the advice on how to fake your identity online to heart. It is pretty easy to cross-check online identities, and it's hard to fake it in the long run. Kaycee Nicole was revealed as a hoax when Swenson leaked too much and too strong information about her "real" identity. When you know where somebody goes to school, what sports they are in, how old they are, what languages they know, where they travel, the jobs of their parents, the names of their friends - then you start having a lot of information to go on, if you want to find their real selves.

Doing research online, I reveal who and what I am when I start using the people I encounter for research. In gaming communities, where identity swapping is pretty accepted and expected, revealing that much about yourself is often frowned at. In one guild I was told "that information will immediately reveal your name!" by a friend, when I gave out some key-words for one of my articles in guild chat. Other researchers choose not to reveal their identity in such situations, claiming the information they gain will be more authentic if they don't stand out as researchers. There are good arguments for both views.

This leads us back to the hoaxes. What is a hoax, in this case? It's obvious that when you start taking money, when you cause so much disturbance in another person's life that they grieve your death, when people start organising to assist you in a fake crisis, then you have gone too far. But it's hard to notice where that point is. If you have managed to build a personae - when you have gone from anonymity to pseudonymity - it is hard to let go of the voice you gained. An internet identity is so strong that the identification can cause you to feel raped, even if nobody ever touched you, as Julian Dibbell describes in one of the articles that influenced my own research online: A Rape in Cyberspace.

We are still asking ourselves who we are, online. As a research field it wasn't exhausted on the nineties. It's worth noting though that despite the potential for being another, keeping a good alternate personae running is a challenge. It's hard work, and you need to be extremely good not to trip up. It's far easier, and far more common to just be a somewhat edited version of yourself. Perhaps a bit younger, a bit thinner, a bit richer - it's so easy, and nobody are harmed...

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Electronic writing

Lately I have been thinking a lot about hand-writing, note-taking and commenting, and I have been considering a couple of different options for how to integrate hand-writing, which is a vital act of organising thoughts for me, and technology.

When Hilde Corneliussen was here in the beginning of May, she brought with her an iPad and a very enthusiastic attitude about a certain application. One of these was GoodReader, an app that lets you annotate PDF's. Hilde described and demonstrated how she could pull up the iPad, open student papers and comment on them by writing with a pen on her screen/on the pdf. I have to admit, that led to instant gadget envy.

The other object I have coveted for a long time, I have just not gotten around to actually buying it. I want an eletronic pen, for instance LiveScribe's smartpen. In combination with a notebook this is a seriously powerful object when it comes to organising information from meetings, lectures, annotations to books, work in libraries, note-taking and interviews. I also have an idea that it may be quite useful to create my own version of the Chrononotebook.

The Chrononotebook is what prompted the current round of technology-lust. I struggle with scheduling, and tend to resort to pen and paper in order to feel that I have a hands-on approach. Then I put the paper away, log on, and forget all about it. The circular nature of the Chrononotebook would satisfy my need to understand the rythm og my days - weeks - months, and it's also sufficiently beautiful that I would enjoy the process of scheduling. However, when I am done, it's still on paper. What if I could then transfer the image to a screen?

And this takes me a step further. I have used pictures of models I have drawn by hand in lectures, when I haven't found good examples elsewhere, or I have made up my own. With the smartpens I could just draw the model, then transfer it to the computer and to the presentation.

Now, the question is: are there pads, iPad or others, that will give me that kind of flexibility? The pen is not as expensive as a digital pad, but it is also a lot more specialised in its use. However, if I am to buy an expensive electronic device which might bring me further into slavery to Apple (my iPod went missing, and it feels kind of liberating not to worry about how I get control of my own music), I want to be able to use it all the time, for everything!

Or, do I take the chance and buy a totally different, new product? I have been watching Notion Ink's Adam for a while now, and after I found RepliGo Reader I am thinking really hard about getting a notepad that uses/supports android and not the many iProducts. However, Notion Ink is distributed from India (that's both a pro and a con), and doesn't have a solid user base or anybody who can maintain them if something goes wrong. Am I that much of an early user that I dare buy the cutting edge of tablet technology?

My first computer was an IBM Advanced Technology. We bought it in 1986, and we wrote a master's thesis and a book on it. The price was outrageous compared to the prices of comparable technology today. It did however trigger at least two young men's interest in technology, it brought me to computer games, and we learned how to delete the DOS - and rebuild it. I have to admit I did not, at the time, imagine I'd ever face the problem I am enjoying now.

The main point of fascination is however the combination of handwriting and drawing and of digital storage and accessibility. That is the part that currently feels like magic to me.