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Mea Culpa: Gender, Bias, and Who I Follow on Twitter

So last night I did some analysis of who’s following me on Twitter, by gender. It skewed male. I wasn’t entirely surprised.

But that’s not really the important question. The one that matters is, who am I following? What’s my filter bubble? What’s my bias? I downloaded the file and manually coded all 708 accounts.

I am really not happy with the results:

  • F: 228 (32%)
  • M: 389 (55%)
  • gender-anonymous on Twitter: 16 (2%)
  • genderqueer: 2 (0.5%)
  • organisation: 70 (10%)
  • bot: 3 (0.7%)

For notes on categories see my previous blog post, but quickly to note that “genderqueer” is when someone explicitly identifies as GQ in their Twitter bios. Trans women are women, trans men are men (obviously). Gender anonymity on Twitter isn’t an identity (or probably isn’t one), and isn’t necessarily a queer thing - it just means I as an observer can’t immediately tell from their Twitter profiles.

That out the way, fuck fuck fuck. I know about internalised bias, I know about filter bubbles, and I have made a conscious effort in the last 6-12 months or so to work against that on Twitter. Either this has not worked, or the list of who I was following was super-biased to begin with. Let’s be honest: probably both.

I am also surprised! Surprised-disappointed. I mean, the field of social media research is visibly female-led (Zeynep, Biella, danah, Kate Crawford et al.) I didn’t think I was that far off 50/50. It’s humbling, to be honest. 32% vs. 55%, and I’m supposed to be a feminist? I certainly don’t believe that men are more worth listening to! But apparently I’ve internalised the idea nonetheless. It’s really shocking me how far.

Actually internalising your principles and behaving in ways congruent to them - I knew it wasn’t easy, that’s why I was making this effort to follow more fairly on Twitter. But apparently it’s harder than that. That’s why you measure. Numbers don’t let you off the hook.

This bias also extends to race, class, disability. Gender is perhaps just the most amenable to self-audit.

So who are the people I choose to follow?

In the interests of SCIENCE (oh look, it was past 11pm), I built some Wordles out of each gender’s user bios - the lazy girl’s keyword frequency analysis. Some similarities, thank god - social media and research seem fairly balanced as top interests, ditto data & digital.

But men are directors, whereas women emphasise their PhDs. Founder has heavier weight for men, professor for women. That’s got to map on to income & wealth.

Women are disproportionately “writers”, whereas men call themselves “authors” almost as much - I can’t unsee that as a claim to authority. Women are more likely to call themselves “editors”, i.e. someone else gets the byline.

I mean, this is an analysis of who I follow, not “social media research Twitter” as a whole. So ultimately it’s reflective of me and the choices I make, more than it speaks about the people I’m actually following. But still it feels like there are some real gendered inequalities there, in terms of who gets to claim power and authority, and under what terms. It’d be worth looking at this in more depth across my professional community.

So what?

I’ll close by amplifying a man’s writing (err) - Anil Dash, talking about The Year I Didn’t Retweet Men and “Being mindful about whose voices I amplify.” He says:

"we spend so very much of our time on these social networks, and there’s so much we can do to right the wrongs we’ve seen in other media, through simple, small actions."

Yeah. It’s important to try.

Try how? So what’s the right course of action? This is the question, I’d really like your thoughts and feedback. What does this mean? And what should I do? Unfollow 160 men? Feminist Follow Friday? Have you ever looked at who you follow? What did you find?

Who follows you on Twitter?

Verrrry different gender stats from Followerwonk vs. Twitter Ads analytics.

Being (as you may have guessed) a wonk, I wanted to explore which seemed more accurate.

Method:

1. Use NodeXL to imports a list of my Twitter followers into Excel.

2. There are 2574, so I’m not manually coding them all. Instead I want to randomly sample 100. Use Excel function Rand() to give each account a random number. Sort smallest-largest (i.e. order randomly) and code the first 100.

3. Coding the data.

NodeXL imports doesn’t Twitter names, just username, bio and link to profile. My process for coding gender relatively quickly:

i) If I know you personally, code immediately

ii) Go by user handle. If your Twitter handle is @MrMattThomas, with a male title and a male-normative username, I can reasonably enough code you as male (more on this below).

ii) If androgynous user handle, click through to profile. Code gender by looking at full name and photo. If these map to male or female, or another named gender identity, code as that. if they don’t, code as gender-anonymous

4. Resulting codeframe:

  • female
  • male
  • gender-anonymous
  • organisation
  • inactive / spambot
  • potential “none of the above” category, to allow for further identities to arise organically from the dataset observed (this is important)

5. Results:

  • F: 29 
  • M: 40
  • Gender-anonymous: 8
  • Organisation: 22
  • inactive / spambot: 1

6. Methodological notes (the real point of the discussion)

The randomly selected 100 didn’t include anyone with identities beyond my initial codeframe. I’m sure the full sample of 2500+ would.

Now, I fully acknowledge that people’s gender identities can of course be more complex than forenames and profile photos allow, and as such this is an imperfect means of assigning gender.

I am aware of this! By my own heuristic, my Twitter profile would code into the category I’ve called genderanon - “Jay” is an androgynous name, and my Twitter profile pic is of the tiles in Jay Street subway station, NYC. While I’m a girl-Jay, you can’t tell that from Twitter. So anon it is.

None of the 8 accounts I coded as gender-anonymous asserted a specifically named non-binary gender identity in their user bios. (I went and checked: neither did anyone I coded M or F.) Again, I know the full list of 2500 people following me does include people who do.

If someone’s profile had said “genderqueer”, I’d have created a specific genderqueer category - ditto other queer identities. The “anonymous” is because the relevant factor to foreground is exactly the inability for an outside observer to fix that user’s gender. I argue this is a reasonable way to respect people’s gender presentation - or at least it’s better as coding these people into a named non-binary identity, e.g. “genderqueer”, when there’s no specific indication they identify as such. (Some probably do. But as I say, their profiles didn’t give this information explicitly.)

The aim is that “gender-anonymous” as a category leaves visible what this project is - an analysis of the social signals about gender that people send, i.e. not the actual identities they personally hold. The latter are inaccessible to me - of course. But gender is also more complex than being something purely inside oneself, purely individualistic - as per Judith Butler et al, it’s something learnt, enforced and performed. Gender exists as a social relation. Which is ultimately the basis that I’d argue coding Twitter users’ gender, as I have done here, is not an entirely illegitimate thing to do.

(Can you tell I’m kind of concerned that Tumblr’s going to call me out on the notion that even presuming to guess anyone’s gender is oppressive, however many qualifiers I give?)

Let’s also acknowledge that a great many people experience gender as straightforward and congruous with sex and societal expectations, too. If someone chooses to use a masculine-normative name and present with a masculine-normative user photo, I’d be doing their identity a disservice if I sought to code them as “ungender-assignable” when they’re using all the profile features Twitter offers to say “I’m male”. We’ve gotta acknowledge people’s performed identities as real.

So again, I hope I’ve found about the right balance. I’m sure Tumblr will tell me if I have not! Your thoughts on methodology and/or ethics are much appreciated, before I COMPLETELY caveat myself into a corner.

What to make of analytics platforms’ gender identification?

For what it’s worth, FollowerWonk looks more accurate than Twitter Advertising. Now, my ratio of 29:40 F:M followers is calculated on a sample, and I’ve not calculated any statistical significance on this ratio for the margin of error when extrapolating to all 2500 followers. That said, it’s in the same broad ballpark as FollowerWonk’s 20.5 to 32 ratio, though that does seem to oversample men.

Twitter Ads, by contrast, would seem to HUGELY over-code men. This is weird. I looked up their methodology:

"we’re able to understand gender by taking public signals users offer on Twitter, such as user profile names or the accounts she or he follows. We have strong confidence in this approach. A panel of human testers has found our predictions are more than 90 percent accurate for our global audience. And where we can’t predict gender reliably, we don’t — and those users won’t be targetable through this feature."

So what’s happening?

The first problem with how Twitter present gender data is that they show it as a ratio of M:F, obscuring those followers who are variously organisations, genderqueer, or gender non-determinable from public signals. As mine and FollowerWonks’ numbers both show, in my case that’s a third to half of a follower base! Rather a lot of accounts to leave off the graph. (On the other hand, that’s a lot of people not receiving targeted gender normative advertising, which some might see as a good thing - YMMV).

Secondly, Twitter seems to be finding it much easier to code accounts as male-gendered than as female. What’s going on here? My hunch is that it’s basically patriarchy. (Finally she gets radical!)

#1: If masculinity is valorised as the norm, then there’s greater social pressure on men to gender conform. So men are more likely to have definitely-male names - while there are lots of female Alexes, Jos and Sams around (i.e. women get to present androgynously or masculinely), there are rather fewer guys called Sali or Su. (My brother’s a Patrick, and he HATES being called Pat.)

#2: Trolling. I don’t need to cite it that women get more harassment on Twitter, and thereby have more incentive to present gender-neutrally or anonymously.

#3: Men get more retweets on Twitter, says this tool called Twee-Q, so that’s another reason that kind of implicitly encourages masculine IDs over feminine ones. I bet I get more RTs as “Jay” than “Jessica” would #sadbuttrue

#4: Short-sighted, probably overwhelmingly-majority male Twitter developers who possibly didn’t put enough thought into the forces biasing their gender-IDing algorithm.

Worth mentioning that we know via Pew Internet stats that American Twitter usage is basically balanced, genderwise (49:51, F to M).

So what?

If you’re thinking tl;dr, I sympathise. Some take-aways:

  • Automated systems for identifying gender on Twitter aren’t very accurate…
  • …though FollowerWonk looks a lot better than Twitter ads
  • Even when you manually human code, there’s a whole chunk of people whose gender isn’t evident
  • It’s good & considerate to create space for non-binary identities, rather than just hide them (as Twitter does on its bar chart)
  • Remember you’re also followed by a good chunk of non-humans such as organisations, businesses and bots

Men and Reading Women’s Writing: 4 Links

David Gilmour on Building Strong Stomachs
ed. Emily M. Keeler, 25 September 2013

"Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth."

BREAKING: If You Are a Woman, Your Work is Irrelevant. How Dave Eggers Can Get Away with Ripping Off a Woman’s Book about Facebook, or Patriarchy 101
Kate Losse, updated 26 September 2013

"Society makes assumptions about women that make us guilty by default: our work is supposedly minor, less valuable, and limited to the personal, where the work of a white man is presumed to be “universal”, “essential”, and relevant to all. This assumption is how, when I published The Boy Kings about working at Facebook for five years and the impact Facebook has had on society, the media made the sexist assumption that this book was not important, because how could a woman writing about technology be important? How could a woman doing anything be important? The assumption the media makes in these instances is that something is not important unless a familiar, male white face does it. So, when Dave Eggers decided to rewrite my book as his own novel about a young woman working her way up through Facebook, the Wall Street Journal called it a treatment of “the essential issues of the day.”

It May Interest You to Know, But If Not, There Is a Scroll Feature
Belle Waring, 23 September 2013

"Often the protagonist of an Important Novel of the Latter Half of The 20th Century is male, and is a thinly veiled version of the author. So thin of a veil. A veil so thin is it possible to discern whether the author was circumcised. Also, he often displays a particular stomach-turning combination. He regards women as, one the one hand a mere necessary evil, not things one would be inclined to befriend or discuss life with, and on the other hand, beings of terrible power that make one very angry indeed."

[…] I judge novels that were written during a time when men perfectly well could have known that the women they spoke to were intelligent human beings, in which the authors nonetheless fail in varied awful incredible ways to represent the 51% of humanity involved, to have failed qua novels. It is a necessary result of the Updike-version sexist writing that your novel fails to be even a passable novel. It is actually somewhat embarrassing for everyone.

Loving female writers: One man’s reading journey from male to female novelists
Jason Rice, 10 June 2013

"A publicist working for a book publisher recently said, “Jason, I’ve noticed that you really like female writers.” Sheepishly agreeing, I realized she was right and spent the rest of the day figuring out why, because it wasn’t always like this."
*

On a personal note, I have basically given up on OkCupid, disillusioned by all the “literary” man-children and their stupid, short-sighted lists of favourite books. Testosterone-saturated ego: Miller, Roth, Amis. And so on. Most of the time, not a single female novelist makes the grade. It’s dispiriting.

Then again, these lists are at least useful heuristics for assessing their ability (or even interest) in actually relating to women.

Reblogs & content-sharing on Tumblr: pronouns follow-up

hayesdavis:

bluechoochoo:

I don’t know Jay IRL, but he’s a she.

(Having read her blog/research for a bit, she will find this exchange amusing.)

Anyway, good posts, both of you! :D 

*moonwalks out of room*

In which I’m mortified at an incorrect default gender choice. Sorry, Jay!

No problem! I fully recognise that I don’t exactly make it easy to tell, what with a name like Jay & not having a personal photo as my usericon.

And I love it that Andrea (bluechoochoo) recognised that I would be amused by this - I am!

A little discussion, because I probably do owe Tumblr an explanation:

Backstory would be that when I was first participating in communities online as a 12- or 13-year-old girl, I didn’t especially want anyone to know I was a 13-year-old girl as I would probably not be taken seriously. Habits of usernames & usericons have persisted nearly 15 years, it’d seem - and I remain camera-shy.

But I also think that point of uncertainty - the “Errr, hang on, am I reading a guy or a girl here?” - is potentially interesting and useful. It’s a very small point of rupture that exposes some of the assumptions we hold about gendered behaviour - and hopefully helps disprove some of the more obnoxiously polarised ones.

This both is and is not a “post-gender” argument, as this blog post - and its Donna Harraway quotation, reproduced below - addresses:

Gender is a verb, not a noun. Gender is always about the production of subjects in relation to other subjects, […] Gender is a specific production of subjects in sexualized forms where some have rights in others to reproductivity, and sexuality, and other modes of being in the world. So, gender is specifically a system of that kind, but not continuous across history. Things need not be this way, and in this particular sense that puts focus on a critical relationship to gender along the lines of critical theory’s “things need not be this way” - in this sense of blasting gender I approve of the term “post-gender.” But this is not “post-gender” in a utopian, beyond-masculine-and-feminine sense, which it is often taken to mean. It is the blasting of necessity, the non-necessity of this way of doing the world

As examination of the term ‘post-racial’ quickly reveals, there is no social space wholly outside race (or in this case gender). It does matter that I am a woman on social media, and a woman writing and doing research, and a woman writing and doing research about social media and technology specifically. As such, pronouns are valuable to get right - the visibility does matter - because this is a world that’s not quite there yet on believing women can do these things, as the contributors list to any magazine (bar TNI!) or conference reveals.

So thank you Andrea for your comment, and Hayes for the blog edits - good to have.

Found: the #nomen manifesto

My last post embryonically started to raise the question of #nodads in relation to feminism.

Fortunately it turns out Jane Hu was already on it with her post on 31st October, #nonodads:

I’ve voiced my hesitations about #nodads here a few times now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to convince those who use (and maybe even abuse, if possible?) the phrase online, but Pateman has helped me feel more firm in my conviction that #nodads is generally unproductive, and often a red herring.

To emphasize society as problematically paternal makes us forget that we’re more urgently caught up in society-as-patriarchal—it takes focus away from the dominance men have foremost over women (before they are ever dads), and places the weight on fathers and husbands. The focus on families doesn’t just play up the importance and necessity of motherhood, but downplays the always present female submission implied in conjugal relations.

Others have written that #nodads can really be whatever you want it to be (of course this is a directive given to us from some one—a man, a straight white man—but beside the point), but that sort of looseness (of which, again, I am suspicious) is still contained within the emblem of “nodads.” Why not “nomen”? I understand that most people behind #nodads don’t see it as a way toward apocalypse or nihilism — that they want the possibility of reproduction without the burden of daddies, but #nomen still seems more appropriate to me. Isn’t it possible to have a no-male (or at least no-man) society too? Is it because most of the people shooting the #nodads tags aren’t (yet) dads? Is it a just-enough-distanced point from which to speak in the name of feminism, of anti-patriarchy? Is the hashtag, then, explicitly anti-paternal enough, especially with said looseness?

As it happens, I am reading a radfem book on this exact topic in another tab - Refusing To Be A Man (by John Stoltenberg; link’s to the PDF full version)

This is where I lose half my audience who aren’t familiar with radical feminism and assume it’s attacking men-as-people rather than man-as-cultural-category. You know, the ones who like to criticise Andrea Dworkin for saying “all sex is rape” without ever having read Dworkin, or made any effort to understand the point she’s actually seeking to make. Anyway, I’ve basically only mentioned Dworkin to in-advance reverse-troll them - now I’ll get on with the point I was trying to make.

Which is basically to say Jane is making a great point, and that this book by John Stoltenberg is attempting to answer that exact question:

Contrary to opponents’ dissembling, radical feminism did not hurl an accusation at a biologically determined class named “men” but rather at a value system—an ethic of injustice to which eroticism, both male and female, had been conditioned. This book urges a solution to that injustice: a radical self-examination among people born with a penis, a radical inquiry into the ethics of our social identity as men.
[p. xvi]

Stoltenberg wrote the revised introduction in the late 1990s, and makes a lot of parallels in the introduction with the then-current New Abolitionist movement seeking to overturn “whiteness” as the dominant identity structure. (Their journal: the brilliantly named Race Traitor). His argument is best summed up in 3 paragraphs where he takes an “abolitionist” passage and re-writes it in brackets as a radical male feminist one:

The rules of the white club [the men’s club] do not require that all members be strong advocates of white supremacy [male supremacy], merely that they defer to the prejudices of others. The need to maintain racial solidarity [sex-class solidarity] imposes a stifling conformity on whites [on males], on any subject touching even remotely on race [on sex].

The way to abolish the white race [to refuse to be a man, to end manhood] is to disrupt that conformity. If enough people who look white [who look male] violate the rules of whiteness [of manhood], their existence cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the upholders of white rules [manhood rules] to speak in the name of all who look white [look male], the white race [the male sex class] will cease to exist….

How many will it take? No one can say for sure. It is a bit like the problem of currency: how much counterfeit money has to circulate in order to destroy the value of the official currency? The answer is, nowhere near a majority—just enough to undermine public confidence in the official stuff.

Which might be, for our purposes, a #nomen manifesto.

since I’m a science fiction writer, let’s imagine this as a hypothetical situation. You’ve got three women communicating by email. A woman, another woman and a third entity who is a computational system but presenting as a woman.

Obviously this male metaphysical head-banging contest is going to last about ten minutes. This situation isn’t a math test.

The two women are going to feel deep sympathy and solidarity with this tortured, alien creature who so much wants to be a woman, while having zero chance of ever having a woman’s lived experience. This entity is a woman who will never be beloved, was never a daughter, sister, wife or mother. This woman never nurtured anyone, never had so much as a pet cat. She never danced, never sang a song, never felt the sun on her skin, could not comfort a weeping child, could not weep at the graveside of her parents, never got a smile, a compliment, never saw her own face in the mirror… And yet we somehow have this right to badger her with questions.

Turing Centenary Speech (New Aesthetic), Bruce Sterling, Wired.com, 25 June 2012.

Bruce, what the fuck kind of idea is this about the lived experience of being a woman? I hope it’s parodic - femininity as a beautiful fluffy meadow of dancing! and being loved!!! and getting compliments and smiled at and otherwise Gazed Upon - of petting kittens, raindrops on roses, nurturing little children and other fantasies of oestrogen-overdose.

I like the main point you’re making - that computers are Not Like Us and we should get the fuck over our human-centrism and stop pretending otherwise.

But you’re also trying to talk about gender in this essay, yet good god there are some bizarrely regressive ideas going on there.

*

[More thoughts from me about gender as a learned cultural system, as linguistic, and as an artificial drag performance - perhaps - at the weekend.]

The language of ‘sacrifice’ makes me feel a bit ill, though. Women have been told for millennia that they must sacrifice their own wants and needs for the good of their partners and children; that of the whole family, their needs and lives must come last, must be subsumed beneath the ‘fulfillment’ of producing the next generation. Men - you will note - can have all the fulfillment of children without making any personal sacrifices. This is entirely left out of the discussion, which is all about what women must do and what children allegedly need from them.

How long before women stop buying into these ideas, and glamorising their own exploitation, rather than addressing it? Wouldn’t the grotesqueness of the language be far more apparent if someone attributed the need for their own greater sacrifice and loss of ambition to their ethnicity? The normalised language of servitude used by some women has got to be unpicked and abandoned. That language alone, Emily Murray, is going to give your son a badly skewed idea of gender relations.

Comment by coffeetable, 21 June, on the (rather poor) article What Cherie Booth doesn’t understand about ‘yummy mummies’ by Emily Murray in the Guardian, 20 June 2012.

Women and men are special kinds of social subgroups in that you can’t have a human society that doesn’t feature them, and the biological differences are crucial to the way society functions and reproduces itself. This is rather different from the divide between tall and short people. I mean, people have got to have and raise kids. If you’ve got an economic system where the rules and incentives are profoundly interfering with society’s ability to produce and raise kids, you’re going to encounter massive problems.

This, to a great extent, is what’s going on in Japan and in southern Europe, where birth rates have dropped way below the replacement level because sexist societies have failed to make it easy for women to have both careers and children. In a post-industrial society where women are educated, if you really force that choice, you’ll end up with a lot of women who choose the career, and birth rates of 1.2 to 1.4 children per woman. Long-term GDP growth flatlines, pension schemes become unaffordable, and a lot of things start to go wrong.

North America and northern Europe have been much more progressive on this front, and we have much less scary population outlooks. France has the most generous, comprehensive child-care scheme in the euro zone; it also has the highest birth rate.

Another way of saying this is that the costs of having kids are disproportionately borne by young women, while the benefits of the existence of future working adults 30 years down the line are shared equally; they aren’t being properly paid for by current working-age men and childless people.

Spending More Time With Our Families, The Economist, 22 June.

The author subsequently fails to draw the right conclusion - she considers compensation for having kids but calls this distasteful (and cites evidence from Russia that it doesn’t work).

What needs to be advocated, however, is the counter-position: seeking to reduce the penalties for women to have children. E.g. equal distributions of parental leave, subsidised childcare, govts/central banks not subsidising massively inflated house-prices, flexible working policies and so on.

I might even go so far as to argue that some of this is about “men’s rights” - allowing men the same ability to choose a family life and contribute in this realm as women have. This might not be what the “men’s rights activists” are arguing for, but let’s not cede any ground to people like that! Instead I observe the generation of early-30s dads around me, and the huge quiet-ish shift that’s taken place over the last 15 years or so. Finally kids are getting to have two real parents.

Academic dress codes continued

PS Got an interesting personal response by Transartorialism to my post on gendered norms of dress in academia. Trans or cis, it seems the pressure is particularly on women.

Where I commented on presentation of sexuality, however, Transartorialism notes that only one gender is allowed to be scruffy:

i feel like the women in my program […] are pressured to dress a degree less casually than the men; to present themselves as at least a little more polished than the scruffy guys in my department. i remember this dynamic being much more intense at my undergrad, where the men frequently wore beat up cardigans or irritatingly racist print kaftans from their anthropological research and the women were almost always dressed to the nines. it was an unspoken, weird dynamic. this is especially evident in that some men in my department never dress up to teach, while almost all of the women do.

Also looks like I was on to something with that COS / Marni line of thinking - and good to learn that “hard femme” is a thing!

i’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, especially coming into a cohort of eleven with nine women, all who are very very different people and have very very different fashion tastes. only one of us is really invested in “fashion” in a sense, and by that i mean the kinds of incredibly expensive, marni-esque hard femme fashion you see a lot in art history/visual culture/performance studies kinds of ph.d. programs. and she actually doesn’t wear that kind of stuff frequently because she can’t afford it anymore

Fascinating too to see that how these dress-code norms play out quite similarly across different university types. I was at LSE and UCL in the heart of London, but Transartorialism comments:

even at less fashionable rural-ish institutions, there’s still a fairly obvious gendered and classed double standard when it comes to dressing like an academic.

*

I also recently re-found an essay from @IlllllllllllllI that makes for an interesting contrast here. He writes on academic dress of another sort: that of a 26-year-old male school teacher in Korea. Compare and contrast:

The Respect Of My Peers (10 April 2012)

I am not very good at clothing. It is mostly gathered, both hand-me-downs and spun into nests around my apartment. It is the part of adulthood, devenir-père, which is off-putting enough, but it costs a lot of money and I am not good at it. That is, I cannot buy the clothes to properly convey my In-Most-Self. No, that’s a lie, over-dramatic. I can’t really convey anything with clothes, because I don’t understand them.

I’m nearly 27, or nearly into the late part of my twenties. Most of my clothes are getting disreputable, either because they are old, and shitty, or don’t fit me like they did when I was 14, or because they are speckled with party dots, from when my cat upended a smoldering ashtray and no-one moved quick enough. I trim the hairs on my fraying belt, my collection of short cut-offs grows as my pant collection dwindles. In this way I have maintained my clothes without really buying anything for a long fucking time.

But a crisis is coming. Where I live, where I work, clothing is important. More important than wherever you are, and work. It’s not just korea, it’s also the ages I teach, particularly sixth graders, who transform from hard-working, bright-eyed fifth graders to sullen catty assholes with the turn of the new year. Not that I don’t love them as much. They are just a lot harder to work with, and a co-teacher that doesn’t mind boring the fuck out of them for the first twenty minutes basically ensures that nothing will get done but screaming, or laconic lazing at disinterested angles. So appearing like someone who isn’t a total idiot, or a hoodie-wearing jib, is helpful for maintaining some meager respect.

Respect isn’t just a way to better organize my lesson. A good pedagogy is one that carefully arranges experiences for a student, rather than tells them the case. Respect, for me, exists in order to be effaced, to slip-the-mask and find equality from my domineering position (teaching-authority gets no more overbearing than when you are trade on your allochthony). It exists to undermine the other authorities in the room, the textbook that insults middle and lower class sixth graders for being parochial, the fucked-up complexes of regional class-war that provoke my even being-here. And again, wearing not shitty clothes is part of that, a part that I don’t do very well.

[continue]

What Not To Wear: Academic Edition

An interesting discussion over at The Thesis Whisperer about acceptable academic dress. One comment stood out:

I’m in a Fine Art department in the UK and we operate a fascinating double game. The unspoken rule is: the artier the clothes, the worse the work. Therefore, nothing ‘arty’ or ‘theatrical’, nothing ‘formal’ (no suits/jackets), nothing ‘fashiony’, nothing ‘perfect’. You have to signal that you work in the studio, possibly getting very very messy (of course, your practice may not involve this but the same rule applies), but that you are utterly in control of all aesthetic communications. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. […]

As an undergraduate I was trained to critique every tiny aspect of our visiting lecturers presentations- including their clothes. It was incredible training for understanding the visual nature of a presentation, but I can imagine my long-dispersed crit group analysing every outfit I consider!

[comment by Isabellisima, 16 April 2012]

One of the smaller reasons I didn’t pursue a PhD was that I did not see any women in my field who looked like me.

This was in fact reasonable - I was pushing it at the time (variously white-bleached hair, not wearing anything other than monochrome). But actually, I did not see any women in academia who could dress full stop. They all followed the style that Isabellisma (in her longer comment) identifies as “American Academic” - aka the frumpy end of preppy and fashion trend-illiterate. The outfits on AcademiChic are not, to be frank, any definition of chic that I recognise.

"Academic dress" (as defined by these bloggers) done right should be straight down the line COS, aka mid-budget Marni with fewer prints. Suitably librarian-ish and sexless, but also chic as fuck.

But that is not the point - the point and the problem is that women in academia are apparently supposed to evidence no sexuality and bodily awareness in how they dress. By this I don’t mean anything so obvious as cleavage - I mean shape, cut, a just-so attitude. Apparently women in academia are supposed to be dis-embodied, such that (as the original blog post demonstrates) they spend hours worrying how to present themselves suitably so. Women in academia appear to believe - perhaps rightly - that men in academia want them to be neutered men.

Driven by a combination of serendipity and desperation, I interned in commercial real estate consultancy in the summer of my third year. It’s an intensely old-school male-dominated environment: a fully 90:10 gender imbalance is typical and women had to be able to hold their own against a certain amount of masculine banter and bullshit.

But I remember being struck by how some of the senior, partner-level women dressed: the shoes, the silk shift dresses, the sharply-cut slightly cropped jackets. It was chic and it was feminine, expressing a strength through a distinct identity rather than conforming to an imitation of men’s suiting. It felt like a game I could play, and maybe do well at.

So I went commercial. No-one had ever said in academia that I wasn’t going to fit. But I read the semiotic codes and the writing was on the shirt label.


We can’t perfectly control our online selves any more than we can control the contours of our flesh. Bodies, like data, are leaky. Out of the mess of bodies and blood and bones and pixels and dreams and books and hopes we create this mess of reality we call a self, we make it and remake it. Each human being is a palimpsest of possible faces, of personas, and none of us were “born this way.”


From Model Behaviour by Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) in the New Inquiry, 30 May 2012. 

The longer post is about the social enforcement of feminine appearances, with an excellent conclusion arguing that all gender performance is drag - well worth a read. But of course it’s the physical/digital parallel that jumps out at me.

Image by Lucas Simões from his Unportraits series

We can’t perfectly control our online selves any more than we can control the contours of our flesh. Bodies, like data, are leaky. Out of the mess of bodies and blood and bones and pixels and dreams and books and hopes we create this mess of reality we call a self, we make it and remake it. Each human being is a palimpsest of possible faces, of personas, and none of us were “born this way.”

From Model Behaviour by Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) in the New Inquiry, 30 May 2012.

The longer post is about the social enforcement of feminine appearances, with an excellent conclusion arguing that all gender performance is drag - well worth a read. But of course it’s the physical/digital parallel that jumps out at me.

Image by Lucas Simões from his Unportraits series

Perfect case study in how design is gendered:

Here is a bike storage solution.
It works by holding on to bikes by the top bar 
The designers apparently never considered that some bikes don’t have a top bar…
…Women’s bikes.

Blindness to issues like this: not good design.

Perfect case study in how design is gendered:

Here is a bike storage solution.
It works by holding on to bikes by the top bar
The designers apparently never considered that some bikes don’t have a top bar…
…Women’s bikes.

Blindness to issues like this: not good design.

About time – Examining the case for a shorter working week

CASE and New Economics Foundation public discussion

Date: Wednesday 11 January 2012 
Time: 6-7.30pm
Speakers: Professor Juliet Schor, Professor Lord Skidelsky, Dr Edward Skidelsky
Discussant: Professor Tim Jackson
Chair: Anna Coote

As the economic crisis deepens, this is the moment to consider moving towards much shorter, more flexible paid working hours – sharing out jobs and unpaid time more fairly across the population. The new economics foundation (nef) set out the case in its report 21 Hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century.

Now, in partnership with CASE (Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion) at the London School of Economics, this event brings together a panel of experts to examine the social, environmental and economic implications. They will consider how far a shorter working week can help to address a range of urgent social, economic and environmental problems: unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being and entrenched inequalities.

Solving part-time work is one of the big socio-economic challenges for the next decade. It’s something needed by several demographics:

  1. The baby boomer bulge coming up to retirement, but not financially able to support 30 years of leisure off 35-40 years of work.
  2. Young people wanting to get an education, but potentially increasingly unwilling to commit to 3 years of full-time residential study at the age of 18 to rack up £60,000 of debt / future tax liability. They need better work-study options, not only Apprenticeships which are far too often being used as ways for employers to escape the minimum wage
  3. Solving the work/kids balance is essential for many countries to avoid the aging population problem above. (It’s not just Italy worst affected, but actually South Korea, most of Eastern Europe, Japan and Germany too [source].)
    You could call this the “last challenge of feminism”, in that childrearing is the point where income inequality kicks in (women in their 20s are actually earning 3.6% more than men, commensurate with greater levels of education [source].) But that’d be a very white middle-class feminism (aka blinkered to others’ challenges).
    I’m more inclined to consider it one of the first challenges of post-feminism, if we take post-feminism not to mean not the backlash (that’s anti-feminism) but something more constructive where we “generalise the insurrection” such that what were once seen as “women’s issues” are recognised as struggles men too want to fight. Research shows that fathers want more involvement with bringing up their children [source] - in about the last 10 years, going part-time after having kids has really become much less gendered behaviour.
    Gaby Hinsliff’s new book Half a Wife talks about the need for households with children to find 2 days a week for “wifework” (itself another book by Susan Maushart, worth reading).

There’s also another set of ideas worth referring to around the increasing automation of work and the challenges of maintaining full employment under these circumstances. A few quick links:

  • Job-devouring technology confronts US workers [Financial Times]
  • Will robots take our jobs? Who cares? [Tim Worstall, Forbes]
  • The Next Economic Revolution [Alex Planes, Motley Fool]. One of the most fascinating and important articles I’ve read recently, it argues, "our economy — and much of our market prices — is built on consumption, and a world run by machines is one that won’t support the same levels of consumption if those displaced have no easy way back into the workforce." The profits from increasing labour efficiency can’t necessarily outrun the losses from permanently-high unemployment killing consumer demand.

The emerging (middle-class) ideal may be the four-day work-week, and the employers who do best at making this possible may well prosper by being the ones who hold on to talent. Unexpectedly enough, it is in fact the companies known for the longest working hours that are making strides to introduce it - law and consulting firms are really pushing flexible working as they recognise (are best-placed to measure?) the impact of losing experienced women at 35. They’re also keen to reduce their fixed costs from real estate, and allowing working from home + hotdesking can dramatically reduce the office square-footage required.

But that’s still an upper-middle class elite. The real challenge is how to introduce a shorter work-week for lower-middle and working class jobs that retain the benefits of employment (pension; healthcare in the US) and don’t become the zero-hour flexi-contracts of the "precariat"….

Interesting reading III: being a teenage girl online

Read a couple of good long-form pieces recently about teenage girls online - the whole nexus of growing up and working out who you are in a digital culture voraciously set to consume youth, fashion, cool, and of course sexuality.

Here they are:

1. bebe zeva and overcoming the hatred of the american teenage girl

Sets out the progression from cute kid - to girl consciously being cute - to teen girl playing with looking sexy before she’s quite aware of how it’s being read - to being picked up by other blogs (Hipster Runoff) for having a prominent ‘personal brand’ - to having a lofi documentary made about 24 hours in your hipster life.

along the way bebe talks about her life being home schooled, her isolation, her philosophy on life and the internet and her strange family situation. the best moments are when bebe talks candidly about her unusual life, which is focused on her internet presence, or makes comments that shows us she knows exactly how ridiculous it is. bebe says “I understand that life is bleak and you can either kill yourself or donate yourself to social commentary. I’m just a brand. I’m just shit. All of my content regarding my personality is available.

obviously, society’s problem is not teenage girls. rather, what society views its problems to be often become fully embodied by the teenage girl. in other words, the teenage girl has become a mirror, in which we see everything we believe to be bad about our culture and ourselves—excess materiality, a desire for fame, vapidity and so on. as a young woman it can be close to impossible to avoid taking on these qualities when our society values our beauty over our intellect and the services we can provide rather than our contributions.

Significant also that the article’s author is artist Ann Hirsch, who’s done some pretty big performative projects about “internet cewebrity”, gaining 1.5 million YouTube views for her Scandalishious dancing girl vids.

Hirsh’s essay was spurred in part by this rather uncomfortable review by (who else?) Vice of the Bebe Zeva documentary.

Bebe Zeva’s photoblog is called Fated To Be Hated, which says it all.



2. Rolling Stone on Kiki Kannibal: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Another story from MySpace to Stickam video stream to online shop - and cyberbullying spilling over into the real world, and stalkers, and paedophiles - and a really nasty sub-Perez Hilton site called Stickydrama.com created by an adult man seeking to cash in on teen drama, internet celebrities, and all their sexy naked pics.

Ick.

It’s particularly interesting to read Stickydrama.com as a compare-and-contrast with Fandom Wank. They initially seem to be similar meta-blogs reporting on activity within particular scenes’ social mediaspheres - and, subtitled Mock Mock Mockity-mock-mock - both would seem to be equally savage.

Except that Fandom Wank ends up working as a disciplinary mechanism for the fandom community, shooting down hostile and malicious behaviour and reaffirming social norms of decent behaviour. It’s basically the Internet Police, but with enough autocritique (and indeed postgrad social scientists onboard) to keep its own actions in check and largely clear of anything that can be called bullying.

Why Fandom Wank is constructive and most other scene blogs wildly destructive, I’m not sure. I’d moot it was something to do with fandom being highly female-dominated - but I went to an all-girls’ school, so bitch puh-lease! So maybe it’s something to do with fandom culture being anti-commercial - fanfiction, fansubs, shared vids, and somehow managing to build something creative strong enough to escape the vortex of capitalist consumption in a way that Scene Girls putting together new outfits somehow never quite does?



3. danah boyd on Publicity and the culture of celebritization

As information swirls all around us, we have begun to build an attention economy where the value of a piece of content is driven by how much attention it can attract and sustain. It’s all about eyeballs, especially when advertising is involved. Countless social media consultants are swarming around Web2.0, trying to help organizations increase their status and profitability in the attention economy. But the attention economy doesn’t just affect the monetization of web properties; it’s increasingly shaping how people interact with one another.

Teens’ desire for attention is not new. Teens have always looked for attention and validation from others – parents, peers, and high-status individuals. And just as many in business argue that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, there are plenty of teens who believe that there’s no such thing as bad attention. The notion of an “attention whore” predates the internet. Likewise, the notion that a child might “act out” is recognized as being a call for attention. And it’s important to highlight that the gendered aspects of these tropes are reinforced online.

So what happens when a teen who is predisposed to seeking attention gets access to the tools of the attention economy? Needless to say, we see both exciting and horrifying events play out. We see teens like Tavi Gevinson propel her interest in fashion into a full-blown career before the age of 14. And we see countless teens replicating the trainwreck activities of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and other celebrities. When teens leverage social media to propel themselves into the spotlight, they fully (and with reckless abandon) engage in a set of practices that Terri Senft and Alice Marwick talk about as micro-celebrity. They work to manage their impressions, cultivate attention, and interact in ways that will increase their fame and social status.



Epigraph: Hipster Runoff on Where have all the Myspacers gone?

Whenever ur internet identity is so strongly linked to a social network’s brand
U run the risk of being buried alive
underneath the sands of internet time
in the digital graveyard

My hair trauma - Mimi Thi Nguyen

I’ve read about ‘hair politics’ from black women’s perspectives, so it was great to find this piece on thoughtful fashion blog Threadbared giving an Asian take on the issue.

In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”

That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”

Read the whole article for a really great personal-is-political take on gender, race and sexuality as seen through the medium of buzz cuts and blue hairdye.