Well, it finally happened: I caved, and I joined Clubhouse. (God help us all.)
If you know nothing else about me, know this: I have been a lifelong tire-kicker of social networks of all kinds over the years, starting with Friendster and MySpace (I wrote about my many misadventures with Friendster here and here). I was an early adopter of Facebook and countless other social networks (remember Tribe? Hi5? Orkut?!?? Trust, Auntie Ryan was on them all, sweetheart). I was an early adopter of Flickr way, waaay back, when they were still a tiny Vancouver startup. And I was also a part of the whole wild, crazy Google+ rollercoaster saga, from beginning to bitter end.
So this is not my first time at the rodeo! Far from it. If my past experience with Friendster, Flickr, Facebook and its ilk repeats itself, I am in for a head-first, deep dive into Clubhouse! (I may not resurface for weeks, people. Google+ basically took over my life for months in 2011.)
Be afraid…BE. VERY. AFRAID.
I have lived and learned, made many mistakes (which I hope I will not repeat this time around), and basically, I have become rather bitter, cynical and jaded about it all. 😉
What had seemed like such good, clean, harmless fun back in those halcyon MySpace, Friendster, and Orkut days has turned into something more suspect, more sinister, more polarizing and divisive, and more weaponized (and yes, I do think I have some form of Facebook PTSD, which tends to colour my perspective).
Therefore, I am now much more reserved and cautious when it comes to new social networks and social media platforms. In fact, at the very end of January, when there was such a big fuss on Twitter about Elon Musk hosting a room in Clubhouse, I tweeted:
I am following all the chatter on Twitter about Elon Musk and Clubhouse, and half of me is feeling FOMO, and the other half is thinking: do I *really* want to join yet another social network that is going to get worse the more it opens up from its exclusive, invite-only phase?
However, when an acquaintance on Twitter posted about a new virtual worlds discussion group starting up in Clubhouse tomorrow night, I was in like a dirty shirt! (Thanks to Shawn Whiting for creating this new group, and thank you to the kind person who shared one of her precious Clubhouse invites with me. so I could take part!)
So, yes, I am excited, but I am also cautious and wary (and no, please do not ask me for an invitation to join; I only have two and I am saving mine for a few, select people whom I already have in mind). Half of me feels like one of the cool kids, and the other half thinks I have drunk the Kool-Aid. So we’ll see how this all turns out. The sentiment I expressed in my tweet above still holds as true as when I wrote it.
Clubhouse, which is still in beta and isn’t yet available to the public, was founded by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. It’s an audio-based social platform. You can enter rooms (or create a room) and hear or participate in discussions on topics: how to pitch your startup idea, the future of marriage, whether Clubhouse is getting boring. Rooms generally have speakers, the way conference panels do, and moderators. The conversation is in real time, meaning you can hear folks throwing in their opinions about the subject at hand, and you can raise your hand to toss in yours as well.
“Imagine if you were in class with everybody in the world,” said Natasha Scruggs, an attorney from Kansas City, Missouri, who’s been on the app for a couple of weeks.
Clubhouse is the latest manifestation of our desire to connect to each other at a time when social distancing and remaining isolated at home is the new norm. But while videoconferencing services like Zoom have blown up for everyone, Clubhouse’s largest appeal is its exclusivity and its ability to draw in notable figures including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Officially launched less than a year ago, in April 2020, Clubhouse has racked up some truly impressive user growth statistics (source):
May 2020: 1,500 users
December 2020: 600,000 users
January 2021: 2 million users
February 2021: 6 million users
In fact, Clubhouse is currently valued at one billion U.S. dollars (up from $100 million in May 2020), making it a unicorn along with the likes of Uber and Facebook (yes, Mark Zuckerberg is a user, too, and yes, I’m sure that the breakout success of Clubhouse is giving him some sleepless nights).
So, like I said, we’ll see. I hope that I will be able to use Clubhouse to interact more easily with the many wonderful and talented people who work and play in social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse, in much the same way as I do on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server.
OK, I have totally gone down the rabbit hole, re-reading my old Friendster blog, and I am going to share some choice quotes from my misadventures in amassing the largest Friendster network I could muster, from Sept. 30th, 2003 when I started on Friendster with zero connections, through to Feb. 13th, 2004, when I hit the 3 million Friendster mark. Ready? Fasten your seatbelts!
Saturday, October 04, 2003: “You are connected to 111,713 people in your Personal Network”
I must confess that I can’t even quite grasp the concept. At 15 photos per page, there are 6,827 pages. At one minute per page, just for a quick scan, it would take me 113 HOURS to go through 111,713 profiles. That’s FIVE FULL DAYS. This is truly insane! But it’s addictive, and God some people photograph well LOL. Not that I’m jealous (OK I am).
Saturday, October 04, 2003: I can stop anytime I want!!!
Well, this is addictive. I was up until 4 a.m. in the 24-hour Unix lab, surfing through my Gallery, sending notes to various people whose profiles caught my eye, and occasionally requesting to become a link on someone else’s personal network. Went home, slept 5-9 a.m. and I’m back at again Saturday morning.
I bet there’s a twelve-step group for this, a Friendsters Anonymous. Oh, wait…I already have a request in to join that network too 🙂
Monday, October 06, 2003: Jonathan Abrams [Friendster’s CEO] is in my personal network!
…In my bookmarks list so far are comedians Judy Tenuta and Margaret Cho; California candidate for governor and billboard star Angelyne; drag queen porn director Chi Chi LaRue; Douglas Faneuil, the stockbroker’s assistant who testified against Martha Stewart; and five seriously hot gay men 🙂 sounds like my perfect dinner party LOL!
Tuesday, October 07, 2003: Friendster Slut
Well, according to Friendster’s sequential member numbering system, it would appear that the service has grown from 2 million to 2-1/2 million users in one week. That’s another 500,000 people in 7 days. Amazing. No wonder the venture capitalists are throwing money at it. But the word I think of is: “bubble”. No system can contain this rate of growth forever without problems.
Last night, the system was full of bugs; I couldn’t respond to requests from others to add me to their networks; I mysteriously lost a friend from my network; etc. This morning I sign on again and all’s well. Late evening Winnipeg time seems to the be the worst I guess that’s when all the West Coast people sign on. This morning, when all the Californians are still asleep :-), seems to be a much better time to get good system response.
I’m at the point where my network is growing like a yeast infection, about 50-100 people every 10-15 minutes, even if I do nothing but re-log in and check. It’s weirdly fascinating, like watching a slime mold…
Tuesday, October 07, 2003: Reflections on Compulsion
I have an investor friend whom I tease mercilessly for checking his stock quotes several times a day from his PC. But now I’ve fallen into the same sort of trap myself: I have my Friendster home page open in a corner of my PC, and every 15 minutes or so, I check to see by how many people my personal network has grown. Is it up or down? By how much?
Looking at it from an outsider’s objective perspective, I find this behaviour rather disturbing. Somehow Friendster has hooked itself into some deep need of mine….the need to feel connected? the need to feel I belong?? the need to feel that I can help by linking people together, much as I do in real life? (or at least, as much as I think I do it in real life…). My God. This is bringing up all kinds of nasty questions. But I sure the hell am not going to discuss them on Friendster…I’ll be heading to tribe.net to talk about that.
This is my take on the difference between tribe.net and Friendster: In a large, fancy restaurant, ten people are seated around a table, deep in conversation, brainstorming, idea-shaping, etc. There’s a sense of engagement, commitment, (dare I say it?) community. Those are the tribe.net people.
In the next room, one thousand people are speed-dating over cocktails. That’s the Friendster crowd 🙂
Saturday, October 11, 2003: Thirty-Four Kevin Bacons
As it somewhat fitting for such a choatic network, Friendster has no les than 34 people claiming to be Kevin Bacon. You know, I betcha Kevin Bacon is already on here somewhere, under an assumed name, and laughing his ass off.
Saturday, October 11, 2003: danah boyd and the Definition of a Friendster Whore
danah boyd, of the School of Information Management & Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, is (I believe) the first person to coin the term “Friendster whore”. She is researching Friendster and other social networks tools, trying to understand how people present their digital identity, negotiate social contexts and articulate their relationships.
Her definition, which I have adopted, is taken from her blog Connected Selves, September 1, 2003:
Friendster whores – people who simply collect as many people as possible, including Fakesters.
Tuesday, October 14, 2003: 42%; Tale of Another Friendster Addict
“You are connected to 1,176,695 people in your Personal Network, through 86 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Seah (2796871) Percentage of total friendspace covered by personal network: 42%
I find it interesting that my personal network growth is parallel to the growth of the friendster network as a whole, and therefore my accessible part of the network remains steady at 42%.
“MIKE PARK doesn’t need any more friends. As founder of Asian Man Records, a solo musician and community activist, he has trouble keeping in touch with the ones he’s already got. Recently, however, Mike’s social circle has exploded. In September 2003, he typed Friendster.com into his web browser, and online life for him hasn’t been the same since…
…The day after signing on, Park embarked on an eight-hour Friendster jag, typing in the names of friends randomly, surfing profiles and sending and approving Friendster requests. In two weeks, his list of Friendster friends ballooned to 150.
“I’m addicted,” Park admits. “Whoever came up with this is a genius.” “
This is an excellent overview article, and I recommend it highly.
Saturday, October 18, 2003: Recalculating…
You know, I just realized something: my estimate of the total size of (i.e. number of people in) friendsterspace is too high. What about all the empty spaces where people (fakesters and realsters) have been deleted?
So I decided to conduct a highly unscientific study, checking 40 profiles, from friendster ID=200 to ID=4100, going up by hundreds,. Of the 40 profiles checked, only 2 came back with an invalid ID error., which gives a guesstimate that 5% of the total number of IDs no longer exist. This means I need to subtract 5% from the total size of friendsterspace before I calculate my percent coverage.
O.K. let’s try this…
“You are connected to 1,295,401 people in your Personal Network, through 109 friends. “ Highest ID number in the New People display: Sunshine (2939435) * 0.95 = 2,792,463 Estimated percentage of total accessible friendspace covered by personal network: 46%
That’s better 🙂 …
Tuesday, October 21, 2003: FRIENDSTER CHALLENGE #1: Well, this ought to liven things up a bit…
“You are connected to 1,413,436 people in your Personal Network, through 169 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Sabrina (3041241) * 0.93 = 2,828,354 Percentage of total friendspace covered by personal network: 50%
This announcement was posted on the Rad Librarians and Friendsters Anonymous profiles, and my bulletin board on Friendster; as well as the Progressive Librarians. Friendster Whores, and Friendster Sucks tribes on tribe.net (plus the following global listing):
“Date October 21, 2003 06:12 AM
Title: Looking for Gamesters: Friendster Challenge #1.
Message: Hey, there’s 2.7 million people on Friendster; let’s have some fun 🙂 …
I issue a challenge to those members of tribe.net who still have friendster accounts …and to all my fellow Friendster whores:
The winner of this challenge gets a glowing, over-the-top testimonial from yours truly (what, you were expecting a washer-drier combo?). The challenge: to have seven people in your personal network (that is, one degree of separation from you) where one is from EACH of the seven continents:
1. North America 2. South America 3. Europe 4. Africa 5. Asia 6. Australia 7. Antarctica (YES, Antarctica!)
P.S. All entries will be judged by Sister Ryan of the Home for Wayward Friendster Whores (below):
Thursday, November 20, 2003: danah, Dame Edna, and Buddha…
“You are connected to 1,825,516 people in your Personal Network, through 235 friends. Highest ID number in the New People display: Aileen (3930571) * 0.93 = 3,655,431 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: 50%
A couple of days ago, Dame Edna finally accepted an invitation to join my rapidly-snowballing personal network (although perhaps, at 1.8 million, I should start calling it an impersonal network…if I spent one minute with every person in my network, it would take three and a half years…call my receptionist to book your appointment LOL!).
Yesterday, I accepted a friendster request from Buddha and today, danah boyd of Connected Selves (from whom I gratefully appropriated the term “friendster whore”) added me to her network.
At any moment my co-workers, friends and family are going to break down my door and stage an intervention 🙂 …but I’m smarter than them because I know I can stop anytime I want!. MWA HA HA
Oh, and Friendsters Anonymous is back up (yay!) and the testimonials are just as hilarious as ever.
Sunday, November 30, 2003: Two Million
Hey, I did it! I know, I know, what a geeky-dorky and ultimately meaningless accomplishment, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. (Quick, someone call David Letterman and the Guinness Book of World Records!)
Two million friendsters in two months (Sept. 30 – Nov. 30, 2003). That’s like meeting 33,300 new people every day for two months. Hmmm, maybe I should consider a career in politics … or selling Avon hee hee hee…
Wednesday, December 03, 2003: Some Friendster Stats for That Next Cocktail Party…
“You are connected to 2,092,944 people in your Personal Network, through 266 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Rea (4283881) * 0.93 = 3,984,009 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: 53%
Since I’ve got access to my Gallery (again.. finally) and to a good chunk of Friendsterspace (hey, what good is a HUGE network if you ain’t gonna use it?), let’s have some fun and run a few stats: (assuming that the half of Friendsterspace I *don’t* have access to is pretty much the same as the half I *do* have access to…)
In all cases, the first number is the result when doing a search on my gallery; it is followed in parentheses by the estimated percentage of Friendsterspace that matches that result.
People who indicated that they were men: 862,398 (41%) People who indicated that they were women: 835,240 (40%) … which means that 9% weren’t really sure WHO they were… People who are “just here to help”: 327,533 (16%) People who are looking for activity partners: 932,953 (45%) People who are looking for friends: 1,339,616 (64%)
Thursday, December 04, 2003: …and 100% who like to sit and wait for a minute or two after they press the Enter key…
“You are connected to 2,097,997 people in your Personal Network, through 266 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Celestine (4294446) * 0.93 = 3,993,834 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: 53%
A few more fun stats from the Friendsterwhore Institute of Statistical Trends (F.I.S.T.):
People who are looking for a date with a woman: 394,641 (19%) People who are looking for a date with a man: 298,385 (14%) People who are looking for a serious relationship with a woman: 289,652 (14%) People who are looking for a serious relationship with a man: 216,602 (10%) People who are single: 1,067,620 (51%) People who are in an open marriage: 48,444 (2%)
And, once again, “Your personal network is temporarily unavailable…” *sigh* oh, wait, it’s come back….
People whose name is “Kevin Bacon”: 33 (0.002%) People whose name is “George Bush”: 28 (0.001%) People whose name is “Jesus Christ”: 147 (0.007%) And people whose name is “Ryan Schultz”: 14 (0.0007%), hmmm, maybe we should start a very exclusive club 🙂 ….
Thursday, December 04, 2003: Driving Along at 833 FPH…
“You are connected to 2,101,102 people in your Personal Network, through 266 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Sasha (4300785) * 0.93 = 3,999,730 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: 53%
When your network gets to over two million friendsters, strange things start to happen. For one thing, your friendsters begin to multiply like Star Trek Tribbles…I added 100,000 friendsters in five days (Sunday to today, Thursday); that works out to 20,000 friendsters a day, or 833 friendsters per hour (FPH, hey now that’s one term we should adopt… but officer, I was only going at 60 FPH!).
Put another way, my personal network is now growing at 14 friendsters per minute, or one friendster every five seconds.
Hmmm, I better set up the hide-a-bed 🙂 ….
Thursday, December 04, 2003: Not a lot of Streisand fans out there….
“You are connected to 2,104,547 people in your Personal Network, through 266 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Alvin (4307013) * 0.93 = 4,005,522 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: 53%
(* …and a voice from the back yells: “MORE STATS!” *)
Number of people who live in the New York City area (within 25 miles of Manhattan): 150,803 (7.1%) Number of people who live in the San Francisco area (within 25 miles of the Castro): 130,341 (6.2%) Number of people who live in the Los Angeles area (within 25 miles of Beverly Hills): 146,626 (7.0%) …and number of people who live in the Winnipeg area: 1,375 (0.065%)
Number of people who list “wine” as one of their interests: 22,361 (1.1%) Number of people who list “beer” as one of their interests: 23,066 (also 1.1%) Number of people who list “milk” as one of their interests: 1,818 (0.086%)
Number of people who list “reading” as one of their interests: 193,545 (9.2%) Number of people who list “shopping” as one of their interests: 108,703 (5.2%) Number of people who list “sleeping” as one of their interests: 77,421 (3.7%, including Jonathan Abrams)
Number of people who say Celine Dion is one of their favourite singers: 3,174 (0.15%) Number of people who say Barbra Streisand is one of their favourite singers: only 566 (0.027%)!
DAMN! “Error: Temporarily unable to perform your search. Please try again in a few moments.” Oh well, it was fun while it lasted…
Sunday, December 14, 2003: More Friendster Statistics from F.I.S.T. (the Friendsterwhore Institute of Statistical Trends)
“You are connected to 2,228,509 people in your Personal Network, through 278 friends.” Highest ID number in the New People display: Nadiah (4527170) * 0.93 = 4,210,268 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: 53%
danah boyd asked me to shake a few more statistics out of my personal network, and I was happy to oblige her (but I would like a mention of F.I.S.T. in the thank-yous for your Ph.D. thesis, Danah 🙂 …O.K. on with the show…
Straight vs. Queer (percentages based on then-current network size: 2,139,475):
Women looking for women (dating or relationship): 71,929 (3.4%) Women looking for men (dating or relationship): 207,756 (9.7%) Men looking for women (dating or relationship): 336,776 (15.7%) and men looking for men (dating or relationship): 103,580 (4.8%)
…which means that over 8% of Friendsters (3.4 + 4.8) self-identify on their profiles as queer (gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, etc.). The figure is likely a bit higher because of all the queer folk who indicated that their status was single, married, in an open marriage, or “just here to help” (Ryan puts up his hand).
Photos on Profiles (percentages based on then-current network size of 2,143,637):
Men who have photos: 651,808 (30.4%) Women who have photos: 572,371 (26.7%) Total number of people who have photos: 1,224,183 (57.1%)
Where Friendsters Come From (percentages based on then-current network size of 2,154,381):
ranked from highest to lowest total number of friendsters according to their profiles… and a warning that these figures are biased by the fact that most of my personal network contacts are in North America…I’d love to see someone from Singapore or Malaysia do the same sort of statistics so we can compare. Philippines: 286,699 (13.3%) Singapore: 159,760 (7.4%) Malaysia: 82,406 (3.8%) United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland): 33,645 (1.56%) Hong Kong: 20,666 (0.96%) Japan: 7,176 (0.33%) Germany: 4,687 (0.21%) Taiwan: 4,225 (0.20%) Indonesia: 3,949 (0.18%) France: 3,395 (0.16%) South Korea: 2,906 (0.135%) China: 2,724 (0.126%) Netherlands: 2,351 (0.11%) Brazil: 1,896 (0.088%) Ireland: 1,491 (0.069%) Mexico: 1,303 (0.060%) India: 1,085 (0.050%) Belgium: 1,003 (0.047%)
Note that I can’t do similar stats for Canada or the United States because Friendster requires that you enter a postal code as well as the country name for these two countries.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004: “Six Degrees of Enough Already”
This morning, on a whim, I sign in (I have noticed that early morning, when the West Coast is still waking up, can often be a good time to use Friendster).
Slow as molasses. Personal network sizes unavailable. Gallery searches still unavailable. Feh.
And the January 2004 issue of Wired puts it best, on its regular feature, the Hype List. On the way DOWN:
Six Degrees of Enough Aleady: Social networking sites from Friendster to Friendzy are sucking up VC (i.e. venture capital) cash. Merge ’em all and call it DoubleClique.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004: “Being your friend is hard work”
“You are connected to 2,769,765 people in your Personal Network, through 307 friends. “ Highest ID number in the New People display: Dan (5632041) * 0.93 = 5,237,798 Percentage of total friendsterspace covered by personal network: still hanging in at 53%
Overwhelmed by the amount of work necessary to keep up with all my friendships on Friendster, Orkut, and all the other social networking sites, I’ve posted a job opening over on craigslist for a personal social coordinator:
Permanent full-time position for a personal social coordinator for a New York-based web designer. Your primary responsibility will be managing my accounts with various online social networking sites including, but not limited to, Friendster, LinkedIn, Tribe, Orkut, Ryze, Spoke, ZeroDegrees, Ecademy, RealContacts, Ringo, MySpace, Yafro, EveryonesConnected, Friendzy, FriendSurfer, Tickle, Evite, Plaxo, Squiby, and WhizSpark.
Friday, February 13, 2004: Three million Friendsters… yawn…
I don’t know whether I should cheer for myself for hitting 3 million, or feel sorry for myself for engaging on this futile endeavour in the first place… God what a waste of time and energy.
I shut down my blog the next day, and walked away from Friendster. I don’t remember exactly when they shut down, but I wasn’t too surprised when they did.
What I do find interesting is that many of the things that people are still talking about today on Facebook, were things that were first brought up in the context of Friendster: who is your “friend”, what does befriending somebody mean on a social network, fake profiles, spamming other people, compulsively checking your social network for updates, etc.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. But back then, social networks were still fun, fresh, new and exciting. Everybody wanted to jump on the bandwagon, it seemed. And many did.
Nowadays, it’s much more likely that people want to jump off, not on. And, just like Friendster, Facebook will likely have its heyday, then fade into obscurity as people leave to join whatever the next big thing happens to be. Mark Zuckerberg might not like it, but it’s inevitable. People in North America are already leaving Facebook in large numbers. Teenagers won’t touch Facebook with a ten-foot pole because their parents and grandparents are on it! (Some of them probably haven’t figured out yet that their favourite hangout spot, Instagram, is also owned by Facebook.)
Warning: I was young and ignorant and I used some language on that blog back then, that absolutely makes me cringe today. I’m truly sorry. I can’t go back and edit those posts, and frankly that old blog is a historical document that shouldn’t be edited after the fact. So please consider yourself warned, and forgive me if the 2003/2004 Ryan Schultz causes any offense. I would like to think I am becoming a better person over time, as I learn from others.
danah asked me to run some statistics on the Friendster network I had amassed of 3 million people, to get a better sense of who was using Friendster and why (she has done a fair bit of research on teenagers’ use of the various social networks). I had data, and I was happy to help out. (I wrote more about my crazy Friendster days here.)
danah boyd asked me to check how many friendsters gave their (underage) ages reversed: “61” (16) and “71” (17). The answer: surprisingly few (I bet most of them just lie and say they’re 18):
61: only 821 out of a total of 2,809,843 71: just 665 out of 2,836,990
(I did the samples at different times whenever Gallery stayed up long enough to give a result 🙂
You see, Friendster had a feature called the Gallery, where you could search for various things (like those profiles that said they were male or female, married or single, etc.), and it would pull up a list of profiles in your Friendster network that matched, with a count of the total number of matches. The Gallery went up and down like a yo-yo, especially in the later days of Friendster when it buckled under the sheer onslaught of people using it, but when it was working, I would search for various things, either on my own initiative or at danah’s request.
All of this is a very roundabout way of getting to the point of this blogpost, which is the fact that danah recently received an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and she gave a speech that you will definitely want to read.
Last night, I was honored by the EFF. As I reflected on what got me to this place, I realized I needed to reckon with how I have benefited from men whose actions have helped uphold a patriarchal system that has hurt so many.
The story of how I got to be standing here is rife with pain and I need to expose part of my story in order to make visible why we need to have a Great Reckoning in the tech industry. This award may be about me, but it’s also not. It should be about all of the women and other minorities who have been excluded from tech by people who thought they were helping.
The first blog post I ever wrote was about my own sexual assault. It was 1997 and my audience was two people. I didn’t even know what I was doing would be called blogging. Years later, when many more people started reading my blog, I erased many of those early blog posts because I didn’t want strangers to have to respond to those vulnerable posts. I obfuscated my history to make others more comfortable.
I was at the MIT Media Lab from 1999 to 2002. At the incoming student orientation dinner, an older faculty member sat down next to me. He looked at me and asked if love existed. I raised my eyebrow as he talked about how love was a mirage, but that sex and pleasure were real. That was my introduction to Marvin Minsky and to my new institutional home.
And so, if my recognition means anything, I need it to be a call to arms. We need to all stand up together and challenge the status quo. The tech industry must start to face The Great Reckoning head-on.
My experiences are all too common for women and other marginalized peoples in tech. It’s also all too common for well-meaning guys to do shitty things that make it worse for those that they believe they’re trying to support.
If change is going to happen, values and ethics need to have a seat in the boardroom. Corporate governance goes beyond protecting the interests of capitalism. Change also means that the ideas and concerns of all people need to be a part of the design phase and the auditing of systems, even if this slows down the process. We need to bring back and reinvigorate the profession of quality assurance so that products are not launched without systematic consideration of the harms that might occur. Call it security or call it safety, but it requires focusing on inclusion. After all, whether we like it or not, the tech industry is now in the business of global governance. “Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society.
Taking shortcuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified. In a healthy society, we accommodate differently-abled people through accessibility standards, not because it’s financially prudent but because it’s the right thing to do. In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.
Bravo to danah for speaking her truth, and using her acceptance speech to point out that we still have a long, long way to go to make things better for women, for minorities, for everyone, who works in tech.
The Great Reckoning is in front of us. How we respond to the calls for justice will shape the future of technology and society. We must hold accountable all who perpetuate, amplify, and enable hate, harm, and cruelty. But accountability without transformation is simply spectacle. We owe it to ourselves and to all of those who have been hurt to focus on the root of the problem. We also owe it to them to actively seek to notbuild certain technologies because the human cost is too great.
My ask of you is to honor me and my story by stepping back and reckoning with your own contributions to the current state of affairs. No one in tech — not you, not me — is an innocent bystander. We have all enabled this current state of affairs in one way or another. Thus, it is our responsibility to take action. How can you personally amplify underrepresented voices? How can you intentionally take time to listen to those who have been injured and understand their perspective? How can you personally stand up to injustice so that structural inequities aren’t further calcified? The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good. But it’s not enough to say that we’re going to do good; we need to collectively define — and hold each other to — shared values and standards.
People can change. Institutions can change. But doing so requires all who harmed — and all who benefited from harm — to come forward, admit their mistakes, and actively take steps to change the power dynamics. It requires everyone to hold each other accountable, but also to aim for reconciliation not simply retribution. So as we leave here tonight, let’s stop designing the technologies envisioned in dystopian novels. We need to heed the warnings of artists, not race head-on into their nightmares. Let’s focus on hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been harmed because of the technologies that made this industry so powerful. And let’s collaborate with and design alongside those communities to fix these wrongs, to build just and empowering technologies rather than those that reify the status quo.
I don’t have a huge audience for this blog, but I wanted to use what little platform I do have to amplify danah’s message. Thank you, danah, for speaking up and speaking out!
God, there are days when I miss Friendster. Anybody remember Friendster?
Friendster was founded by Canadian computer programmer Jonathan Abrams in 2002, before the wider adoption of MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and other social networking sites. It was my first introduction to social media. Hell, it was most people’s introduction to social media. This was a brand new world! The hype about social networks then was similar to the hype over virtual reality now.
Jonathan Abrams originally meant for Friendster to be a dating site, but the people using it had other ideas. People began to game the system by connecting to each other to form ever-larger social networks. Friendster would give you statistics on the number of your connections, out to three degrees of separation (that is, friends of friends of friends). And people began to compete with each other to see who could amass the largest social network. We called ourselves “Friendster whores”.
Actually, danah boyd, then of the School of Information Management & Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, was (as far as I am aware) the first person to define the term “Friendster whore”. She was, at the time, researching Friendster and other online social networks, trying to understand how people present their digital identity, negotiate social contexts and articulate their relationships. (I actually did submit some stats of my huge, eventually-3-million-plus Friendster network to her.) Her definition, which I adopted, was taken from her blog Connected Selves, September 1, 2003: “Friendster whores — people who simply collect as many people as possible”
On top of that, people begin creating fake Friendster accounts called Fakesters (“Hi, I’m Jupiter, a huge swirling ball of gas!”). The Fakesters became a way for Friendster pranksters to connect with each other, and expand their merry mayhem even further.
Of course, the people running Friendster were not too terribly keen on people creating fake accounts, and they would delete them as fast as they could. (These agents were termed the “Friendstapo”.) That only made some people redouble their efforts to create fake accounts, and some of them were truly hilarious and inspired.
My favourite Fakester was someone who channeled the late-night-infomercial fake-Jamaican tarot-card-reading shaman Miss Cleo, who declared a run for President…
Dat’s right babies! Da will a’da spirits be dat
I should lead dis wonderful nation trew da comin
times! Due ta m’overwhelmin popularity and trust
wit’in da Friendster community, Miss Cleo be
runnin fer president! So call me now ta cast yer
Friendster turned into a very different beast from what Jonathan Abrams had intended. Now, who would have predicted that?
My main point is this: the people who create the software platforms think they have control, but it’s really the end users who shape the service and build the community that they want to see. Past a certain point, it’s completely out of the founders’ hands. Linden Lab understands this and, for the most part, they get out of the way of the insanely creative people who have built Second Life into what it is today. Nobody could have predicted all the fantastic directions that SL went into. And I can see the same thing happening already in Sansar, High Fidelity, and other virtual worlds.
Surprisingly, it’s the often-anarchic world of VRChat which is currently following the rigidly-controlled Friendster corporate playbook that’s doomed to failure. For example, from their Community Guidelines page, there’s this gem:
Petitions & Protests
All questions and concerns should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Any effort to organize a petition or protest on official VRChat channels is forbidden. These include but are not limited to VRChat, the VRChat subreddit, and the VRChat Community Discord.
Hmmm…let’s see how long this little edict lasts, shall we?
I do remember reading somewhere that Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Lab and the creator of Second Life, was truly surprised when people took his platform and basically recreated the real world (big mansions, fancy cars, etc.), as opposed to creating things that were impossible to have in real space and time. Of course, that came about too, over time. But it turned out many people simply wanted to live out their fantasies of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I just came across this ad from the March 2018 issue of the SL magazine, Attention:
Which goes to prove my point. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. People may take social VR spaces and virtual worlds into as-yet-undreamed-of and unanticipated areas. Nobody can predict what the metaverse is going to look like.