Unveiling the Veil – on the web

The veil?

And that’s where many of us would simply end the discussion.

The issue of the veil is one that raises a red flag for many; it has on innumerable occasions lead to heightened emotions that at times culminate in drastic acts of violence. Many now approach the topic as a ‘danger-zone’ of sorts; afraid that it may spiral into debate rather than discussion. But there are signs that new modes of communication and Digital Natives may be changing this.

Women’s battles for or against the veil are long-standing, but it seems that recently the battle field has been moved to the Internet, through the mediums of blogs and social networking sites (SNS). Most of these discussions have not been Muslim vs. Non-Muslim, but rather between Muslims. Bloggers like Lisam have started to create online spaces simply entitled ‘Head Coverings’ where anyone and everyone is able to freely express their views- a phenomenon which has only been brought about with the turn of this decade.

Such a multitude of Muslim women’s voices, especially of those living in the Middle East, is a genuinely new thing. And it seems the initiative, for this fight for freedom of speech, has been taken up by the younger generation, namely Digital Natives. Perhaps most surprising is the increase in males online who support the removal of the veil – a clear signal of progress in the minds of many Muslim women.

Political and social issues are often taken up by Digital Natives on social networking sites but now more and more groups on Facebook and on other sites like MySpace are being dedicated to the cause of discussing the veil. What is important to note is how this once unapproachable topic has literally unveiled itself to the world with the help of Digital Natives and the tools and mediums available on the Internet. The Internet, with its lessened degree of intimacy as opposed to face to face conversations, has allowed many to gain enough confidence to say what they really think, without the fear of being hunted down or physically attacked. Thus, the Internet has bridged the gap between Muslims, especially women, all around the world – living up to its promise of global connection and mediation.

But this young uprising has not gone unnoticed, especially in countries in the Middle East with Iran having banned high-speed Internet in 2006 so as to “cut the West’s influence” and Egypt contemplating a total ban on Facebook. Nevertheless, the voices haven’t been stifled completely.

Muslims living abroad are taking up the initiative and increasingly using blogs and social networking sites as microphones for their thoughts. With the introduction of “Fullah”– the veiled version of Barbie – have come calls for avatar based sites like Second Life to provide more options of veiled avatars.

Fullah- Veiled Barbie Doll

Whether this call is attended to is yet to be seen, but what we can acknowledge is the extent to which this topic has been realised and opened up on the web; it signifies not only an improvement for society as a whole but also provides a positive notion in the midst of so many negatives that are attached to our exponentially growing digital world.

The veil?

Well, now it’s no longer a question that needs to be avoided.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Got Missiles?

As a recent photograph depicting Iranian test missiles reveals, all you need to do if you’re one warhead short is break out Photoshop. That, at least, is what somebody affiliated with Sepah News (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s media outlet) did with a now-infamous photograph. The picture, a view of three test missiles launching, was altered to include four (hiding one that failed). The photograph was displayed by many prominent news organizations (including the BBC, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times) before it was noted that portions of the dust clouds beneath the missiles were identical. Online news sites have been abuzz all morning, engaged in a debate over what, exactly, this means. As the New York Times notes, this is not the first time Iran’s state media has altered photographs for political ends. Nor is photoshoppery for private gain a new phenomenon (just ask the L.A. Times, which was unfortunate enough to find an emerging pixel jockey among its photographers in 2003).

What does this mean for Digital Natives? Could top-notch picture-tweaking skills land them lucrative jobs with a government spin unit somewhere? Perhaps. Before they even think of submitting a cv, however, they’ll have to master what Henry Jenkins and others at the New Media Literacies Project have labeled the “Transparency Problem,” the “challenge[ ] young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world” (read the NML whitepaper here). Scholars still disagree as to just how savvy kids are these days. As NML’s white paper points out, Ted Friedman’s analysis of the game SimCity could be read to suggest that gamers are more likely than other youth to identify a system and learn how to manipulate it to their advantage. NML also cites other studies that have shown exactly the opposite — that Digital Natives have difficulty separating the objective and subjective components of digital media (for example, in a case in which students played a game depicting both American and British accounts of the Battle of Lexington Green, the young players interpreted everything presented by the game as fact, rather than as a dramatization of two biased, contradictory interpretations)

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser argue that in some cases (among gamers or Wikipedia editors, for example) being a Digital Native improves young peoples’ ability to critique information online. For those youth who spend less time online, the opposite is true. Incidents like this week’s explosive photoshoppery are a reminder that students need to be taught how to evaluate online material just as they are encouraged to assess historical print sources. Students also need to be reminded of some complexities unique to digital media, including the way a website can change from moment to moment to reflect shifting views on an issue (the four missile picture is said to have quietly disappeared from the Sepah News website). This latest altered photo may not have been good enough to fool everyone for long, but as governments continue to expand their digital media arsenals, it is likely that propaganda of this variety will be produced with greater skill and distributed with greater frequency. It is up to teachers, parents, and Digital Natives themselves to ensure that young people will be critical enough to demand the truth.

Nikki Leon

Can you hear me ……now?

My grandfather worked for Bell Telephone, mother of “The Baby Bells”, aka “The Phone Company”, for his entire career, installing phones and running wires. My aunt worked for Bell as a telephone operator (and spent much of her career 60 feet underground in a nuclear bunker). My uncle worked DSL networks. At 4th of July barbecues, instead of talking about shopping or football, we talk about wonderfully exciting things like bandwidth, the unconscious effect of latency, and how the role of telephone has changed over the years.

According to granddad, early on in telephone history, many folks felt that phone conversations were so awkward and impersonal that they really didn’t enjoy using them. The reticence receded in waves as phone calls went mainstream. Phone users adjusted and began having succinct, purpose-driven calls. Over time, they began doing routine business, having personal conversations, and eventually becoming comfortable talking to people they hadn’t yet met in person. Eventually, of course, the telephone became an acceptable way to have important business conversations. (Which reminds me of the way we adopted a certain series of tubes I’m fond of…)

Initial reticence to using the phone is traditionally attributed to the lack of body language and facial expression in phone conversations, but most people don’t realize that the alien-ness of a phone conversation is also caused by uncomfortable conversational latency patterns. (..

Roughly speaking, latency is the amount of time it takes for a message to get where it is going. The speed of sound is roughly 340 m / s, depending on air pressure, humidity, temperature, etc. This means that normal conversational latency is about 6 milliseconds. If I were to speak to you from two meters away, my speech would take 6 milliseconds to travel from my mouth to your ear.

But suppose you and I were having a conversation via a local telephone call over the “Plain Old Telephone Service” (POTS) network. Even if you are on the other side of town, the timings wouldn’t much different. My voice leaves my mouth, travels to the phone just a few cm away (.06 milliseconds), moves a microphone diaphragm, and gets converted to electricity that travels close to the speed of light, which is negligible delay at that distance. When the signal gets to your phone, the process is reversed and the sound is pumped directly from your phone into your ear. Thus, speech of a local phone call is actually at least a whole order of magnitude faster than face-to-face communication. This conversational sensation was alarming to the first generation of phone users.

With nothing more than anecdotal evidence from my teenage years to back it up, I speculate that this lack of normal conversational latency, this “hyper–closeness” which has both the echo-location and the latency characteristics of someone whispering in your ear, helps conversations over local POTS phone networks to sometimes actually feel more intimate than face to face communication.

But this doesn’t hold true over long distance phone calls. If we talk on a POTS call from say… from San Francisco to New York, the time the electrical takes to travel along the wire is a lot longer, roughly 30+ milliseconds, creating a 60+ millisecond round-trip. While many of us no longer notice the latency in long distance phone calls, this latency was unsettling to the first generation of long distance phone users, who found that their innate abilities to tell a lie from the truth and by extension to make character judgments, having been honed by years of face to face conversation, were thrown off by the long distance delay.

At some point our long distance phones conversations started going over fiber instead of copper, bringing them closer to the theoretical speed of light and getting rid of some latency. But those gains were negated by the transition from analogue to digital, which costs a few milliseconds and is required at each end to bring our analogue ears into the loop, and is particularly slow in small, cheap, energy efficient devices (like cell phones). Add the unpredictability of wireless phones, network congestion, and you have wildly varying conversational latency.

Chances are that if you are reading this, you’ve grown up making long distance calls. I know that I don’t notice the latency in any POTS phone networks… but I can’t stand cell-phone latency. I constantly second guess my five year-old decision to ditch the landline. As a freelancer, I can’t stand negotiating fees on my cell phone, where I find it difficult to read a client and play the give-me-an-estimate / what-is-your-budget dance to my benefit. Trying to do so is mentally and emotionally exhausting. I echo generations past in my lack of ease in doing business using this confounded new communications technology.

The current crop of teenagers doesn’t know a world without cell phones. Having never (really) known much else, do these Digital Natives have different conversational patterns of micro timing molded by a life of cell phone latency? Has this age bracket lost a certain ability to unconsciously read truth or intention in a conversation from variations in micro-timings? …Or have they merely adjusted their conversational patterns to account for the immense additional latency? Do their “cell-phone” conversational speech patterns carry over in face-to-face conversations, or do these digital natives unconsciously work in different conversational rubrics when using different communications technologies? In terms of mental energy, what is the net effect of the effort required to switch back and forth?

John Randall

Social vs. Collaborative Spaces

I’ve been ruminating for a while now on The Real Paul Jones’ excellent post on the differences between social and collaborative spaces and practices, and the implications:

This points out the weaknesses of social networks versus networks for collaboration. When using say del.icio.us, I want collaborators for much of my research and teaching and work. But when it comes to say last.fm, I want my friends who share and enlighten me about music. People using FaceBook for work can see right away what I’m getting at. I do feel close to many of my coworkers and they keep me in touch with a lot of things I’d otherwise miss, but I don’t use FaceBook as a work resource — except for those times I need incidental or ad hoc help. I think that LinkedIn is defining itself less of a social space and more of a collaboration space. Not so much for active collaboration in any constant way but in a kind of punctuated temporary way that is slightly ad hoc but more about information exchange — I see Bill is in your network and he seems to have the skills we need in my office. Could you recommend him?

After mulling this over, I don’t think that that’s quite right, but I’m also still figuring out what I think the difference is between social and collaborative spaces. LinkedIn – in that it basically presents contact and relevant contextual personal information (in its case, work experience rather than, e.g., music tastes) – seems more like a traditional profile-based social networking site (SNS), mainly useful for the maintenance and growth of social capital. That it’s a professional and not a particularly sociable space (as, e.g., Facebook or MySpace is) is not quite the point – whenever collaboration occurs, it will be as a result of actions taken on LinkedIn (that is, social actions) but the collaboration itself will take place elsewhere. Mostly, existent SNS are designed for sociability, and functionally are crippled for collaboration – they include neither the basic features (e.g., document storage; basic word processing, etc.) or the flexibility of interface (truly open API) necessary for it. It’s also not for nothing that these SNS have become perceptually established as social spaces and thus users are likely resistant to their re-framing as collaborative work spaces.

I don’t think that, at present, there are many truly collaborative spaces online. Something like Ning suggests other possibilities as a collaborative space because,

  1. it hasn’t really been established as a social space, for many people, and
  2. it does include the flexibility of interface to make it into a collaborative space

Indeed, many self-organizing social networks on Ning are explicitly organized around professional projects or interests – constructed social spaces for the purpose of collaboration. Not being in the prognostication business, I’m not going to call for Ning to be The Next Big Thing but I do think that we’ve reached or are rapidly approaching a transition point in online activities.

While the socializing-online-will-destroy-the-world crowd still gets in their punches, an increasing body of research combined with the personal experiences of a large share of society are revealing that social activity online can actually be a net benefit and indeed result in more offline socialization rather than less. Part of this is down to the maturity and ease of use of the technologies, part to habituation of users, but basically – many people have “figured out” socialization online, and it’s a relatively uncontroversial part of many people’s daily lives.

Work and collaboration, by contrast, still exist for most users in the same hybrid online-offline space that has predominated since e-mail became a widespread tool and computer workstations a taken-for-granted element of office life. We’re talking about 10, 15, 20 years here, which is kind of awesome to contemplate – almost literally forever in Internet time. Most people still collaborate by e-mailing successive drafts of a document and then talking about it in meetings, or accessing copies on a shared drive. A range of platforms are making document-based collaboration easier, but this is just a part of the puzzle. The perceptual shift that hasn’t quite happened yet – and this is, again, a function both of technology and of habituation – is the movement of collaboration from a splintered, multi-modal (Word Doc -> meeting -> IM conversation, etc.) process to one that is streamlined and takes place in a single space, or at least a space in which all of the various elements are coordinated in such a way as to make the space effectively unitary.

Okay, so maybe I am a prognosticator: this is going to happen, even if the particulars of the how remain to be sorted out (and there’s more grist for the mill). But it will happen especially and increasingly among those for whom living online is the default presumption, who’ve grown up IMing each other for help on homework and working together as squadrons in Halo. That perceptual difference – of always having additional cognitive resources in your ear or at your fingertips – seems to me the bridge to be crossed in developing truly collaborative spaces online.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

Digital Natives in Egypt

The term ‘Digital Native’ has only just become familiar to me – before joining the Berkman Center as an intern I had no true conception of what being a Digital Native really meant. And I believe that a lot of people my age in Egypt (where I live) or in the Middle East don’t realize that the term even exists. This is my experience of Digital Natives in Egypt – they don’t even know they are one!

As many of you will be aware, the rising food prices and consequential rise in cost of living in Egypt has caused a great deal of unrest, especially in the lower strata of society. Interestingly, though, it is the middle and upper classes which have been using the Internet (namely social networking sites) and other digital goods as a medium to organise protests and strikes comprising of over 80,000 people. Despite the class divide that is apparent in the Egyptian social structure, it seems that their mutual dislike of the governing system has united them, and thus instilled the use of Facebook and other social networking sites as a means to ‘spread the word.’

This then leads onto what exactly differentiates Digital Natives in Egypt from the ones in the rest of the world. In a country with 75.5 million people, only around 15% own a computer. However, a substantial percentage of the population are Internet users because of the huge commercial Internet business presence, available to the public through many Internet cafes. The class divide is more apparent than ever when concerning digital goods; in my own school (The British International School Egypt) I have witnessed a five-year-old talking on a mobile phone and a Grade 6 child boasting three iPods, but then also observed multitudes of child labourers across the country. Nevertheless, in comparison to the United States, there are evidently fewer Digital Natives.

From my own personal witnessing, most Digital Natives in Egypt use the social networking system (SNS) they find to be ‘in.’ For me, the process began with Hi5, which was quickly replaced with MySpace and now more recently with Facebook. Unlike other Middle Eastern countries Egypt has no local SNS and so Facebook has taken the younger generation in the country by storm (there are some others like Zorpia but only supporting a minority of people) – and with it has come the exponential growth in Digital Natives in the country; as one person gets hooked onto Facebook or MySpace so do at least another five, and so the chain increases. Even though Arabic is predominantly the local language in Egypt, Digital Natives will most likely be better if not totally fluent in English; established through their regular use of networks like Facebook rather than any local ones.

A mobile phone in Egypt, especially for Digital Natives, is crucial; you are nothing without one. In fact, when walking into a restaurant it is typical to lay out mobile phones onto table tops and it is not uncommon to see four or five phone lying on a table with only three people. Recently blogging has also become a major aspect of digital life in Egypt; bloggers have made their presence felt, some of them emerging as a force of political opposition. In 2006, media freedom organization ‘Reporters Without Borders’ added Egypt to its list of “Internet enemies” over the arrests of bloggers during pro-democracy demonstrations.

You may have concluded thus far that Digital Natives in Egypt are really not that different from those around the world. And at least for me the greatest difference in not in the Digital Natives themselves but the way freedom regarding Internet and privacy is implemented towards them. I personally was puzzled the first time I discovered that downloading copyrighted music from peer-to-peer software like Limewire was illegal in the United States- in Egypt it is quite the norm and not condemned by the government as heavily. In the same way, here the US government is able to allow freedom of speech on blogs and social networking sites. In Egypt, however, Facebook and other social networking activists are being targeted by government-based media campaigns defaming the website and the youth activists who use it. In fact, Egypt has the highest number of Facebook users of non-US countries, after Canada – but this has not gone unnoticed, and presently the Egyptian government is considering blocking the site altogether.

It is my opinion that not that much separates Digital Natives in Egypt from those in the United States or anywhere else in the world, except for maybe the types of sites they frequent, or their habits regarding their use of digital goods. After all, ultimately Digital Natives will eternally be linked by their common affinity towards and recognition of the digital world.

– Kanupriya Tewari

Are you a Digital Native?

I thought I was. I was born January 9th, 1980. I missed the 70s by just nine days.

I love technology. I was luckiest 6 year-old kid in he world when my uncle gave the family a Commodore 64 for Xmas. I programmed in BASIC. I was in chat-rooms on Prodigy and CompuServe. I played in Multi-User Doors (MUDs) on local direct dial-up bulletin board systems before I even knew what the Internet was.

I thought that I was a Digital Native.

I’m an active participant in “online culture”. I can name every YouTube reference in Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video. I get ALL of my news online and I own a television almost exclusively for the purposes of watch media that comes to me across the Internet. I conduct 80% of my professional life online and maintain only the fuzziest of boundaries between my work and play time. I multi-task. I transition between IM, SMS, email, telephone, and face-to-face seamlessly. I Facebook. I Myspace. I Flickr. I LinkedIn. I Wiki. I YouTube. I twitter (sort-of). I code a little.

I thought that I was a Digital Native, but I am not.

When I twitter, I often do it alone. (I’m more enamored with the concept than the practical application.) Although IM has become an indispensable tool for getting work done and telecommuting, most of my friends and family are not usually logged in. Aside from email, most forms of online communications never gained enough a critical mass in my age bracket to endure past our extended adolescence. My Skype window sits idle, displaying a grey-out contacts displaying ghostly reminders of my fleeting online social life.

With much enthusiasm and the best of intentions, I try to co-ordinate social events and camping trips with friends using online calendars, forums, social networks, or email lists. But more often than I think is reasonable, I need to resort to the phone to really make things happen. Most of my people just don’t live online.

I am not a Digital Native, but I would like to be.

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with technology and it’s potential for creating change. My age bracket, generally speaking, has not shared this interest with me. True Digital Natives have a mainstream culture of online connectivity. My interest in digital technology has been exploratory and forward thinking, and placed parts of my life-style on the geeky fringes of American culture.

I’m probably more tech-savy than most Digital Natives today, yet I am not one of them. The Digital Natives around me have been shaped by a totally mainstream digital lifestyle, a norm that enables allows them to digitally communicate and collaborate with their peers with ease. Their habits have been formed by their lifetimes of digital communication and complete immersion in digital spaces.

In contrast, my lifetime has been a lifetime of waiting. Waiting for the digital spaces held in the collective imagination to come online. Now that the early, early alphas of the meta-verse are here, I am shocked that my peers aren’t rushing in to them as I always imagined. It’s too late for me. I missed the 70s by nine days. I just realized that I missed the life-style I’ve always imagined would come by about a decade.

I adore the Internet. The possibilities that are provided for by massive digital collaboration and open access to information are the single biggest factor in my having any hope of a brighter future for the human species. (Clay Shirky’s talk on excess cognitive capacity gives me chills.) I wish that my generation was going to play a major role in that imagined future. …But sadly, I will have to go it mostly alone because their embrace of life-changing technological innovation seems to have stopped at Tivo.

John Randall

UPDATE 2008.08.04: More on the term “Digital Native” here.

Who’s Hussein?

Switch your name on Facebook, and the New York Times will declare a national movement.

Maybe that’s not exactly how it happens, but a recent Times article suggests that changing your Facebook moniker may actually be far more significant than, say, uploading a new batch of photos. The June 29th piece, which made the front page of the Times website, traces what appears to be a trend among young Obama supporters, some of whom have informally adopted the middle name Hussein to show loyalty to their candidate. Their object is twofold: first, to reject opponents’ attempts at making Obama’s middle name a campaign issue and second, to demonstrate that, in the words of blogger and Obama supporter Jeff Strabone, “We are all Hussein.” This statement is meant to be a declaration of solidarity in the vein of “I am Spartacus,” a 1960 film in which Roman slaves attempt to protect one of their number from solitary execution by declaring that they, too, are Spartacus. To this end, some Obama acolytes have not only adopted the name on Facebook, but have also begun to sign their checks with it or to have their friends append “Hussein” when addressing them. The trend only goes so far, however. As the Times reports, “Legally changing names is too much hassle, participants say, so they use ‘Hussein’ on Facebook and in blog posts and comments on sites like nytimes.com, dailykos.com and mybarackobama.com, the campaign’s networking site.”

What’s to be made of all this unofficial renaming? Is it a revolution, as the tone of the Times article seems to imply? Or is it, as the title of one critical blog suggests, only so much hot air? It’s hard not to be skeptical. The article consists mainly of testimonials from those who have already adopted the name Hussein, omitting any alternative viewpoints that might lend some perspective on the trend. To be fair, reporter Jodi Kantor does throw in one mitigating phrase about halfway through — “The movement is hardly a mass one, and it has taken place mostly online, the digital equivalent of wearing a button with a clever, attention-getting message” — but because she presents no sources or statistics to buttress it, the statement seems like an afterthought. And really, what does changing a username prove, other than the fact that you have internet access?

My initial fear in reading the article was that Kantor’s coverage only substantiates what Mark Bauerlein and others have already alleged – that today’s youth are the “Dumbest Generation,” a demographic that equates activism with fashion items and the Facebook causes everybody puts on their profile but never actually contributes to. Indeed, responses to a handful of blog posts critical of the article include such choice lines as “What a bunch of dillweeds” (at HotAir Headlines) and “Just stoopid kids” (on Sweetness and Light). The piece itself does little to counter this impression: the five newly-minted Husseins in the accompanying photo are posed more like a rock band than a group of political volunteers, and the arrangement of the subjects suggests the photographer was particularly concerned with showcasing the most photogenic members of the group. The article also dodges a more significant point – that adoption of the name among young people reflects both growing acceptance of Muslims and a rejection of the anti-Islamic sentiment often promoted by critics focused on Obama’s middle name (and yes, to say it again, Obama is Christian, not Muslim).

It appears to me that the Mark Bauerleins and Jodi Kantors of the world, despite their divergent impressions of young people, are all guilty of the same thing: oversimplification. Their portrayals of Digital Natives gloss over the legitimate and difficult work youth are doing to address a variety of international and domestic issues — whether launching NGOs like TakingITGlobal, which promotes youth activism in various social and political arenas, or running national grassroots organizations like ObamaWorks, which organizes community-oriented service projects.

Teenage frippery, which usually involves toying with identity, has always gone hand in hand with youthful idealism and achievement; nowhere is this combination more pronounced than online. As danah boyd notes, young people today are no different from the youth of generations past, and much of what they do online (hanging out, listening to music) is normal, real–life behavior that has simply been transferred to a digital space (albeit with additional opportunities and risks presented by the new medium). Just as these activities take place both online and off, so too do youth activism and political engagement. It seems that both Kantor and the advocates of the “Dumbest Generation” argument have been misled by the blurring of young people’s private and public faces, confused, perhaps, by the fact that teenagers’ shallow and serious tendencies are expressed simultaneously in the enduring public space of the web.

Kantor and reporters like her would do well to acknowledge this balance and to cover stories in a way that reflects what young people are really doing in the world today: defining themselves, determining their loyalties, and doing much more to bring about change than just tweaking their usernames.

Nikki Leon