Johanna Blakley

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Archive for gender

Gender & (Anti)Social Media

gamergate

I’m an English PhD and so when I was in grad school, the Modern Languages Association Conference (MLA) was THE annual event to attend – not only to get a teaching job, but to take the pulse of humanities scholarship from around 10,000 specialists in the most obscure sub- sub- sub-niches of academia. Attendance has declined about 40% since those heady days, but, at the 2016 convention last week in Austin, where I gave a talk on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, I still felt that anyone I met was the only person in the world doing the particular kind of work they were doing. Every presentation was like an exotic hybrid flower, a specimen brought to life through years of laborious research and experimentation in the hothouse climes of the academy.

This specialization is both inspiring and tragic as you encounter lonely scholars who have been toiling in their own very narrow silos, hoping that perhaps 10 people will show up to a talk that took them five years to prepare.

It is one of the main reasons that I departed from the typical English PhD path, casting my lot with a web startup and a giant computer games company. But it was a pleasure to return to the esoteric world of MLA, where new media is now something that cannot be ignored. I was especially keen to join the roundtable on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, which focused on recent bouts of social media–based harassment (e.g., Gamergate) but also on the potential for social media to create change for the better through cyber activism and coalition building.

Ever since I gave my TED talk on gender and social media, which was optimistic about the benefits that social media offer to women all around the world, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled for convincing case studies that demonstrate the potential for social media engagement to result in real-world change – things like increased awareness, attitudinal change, civic engagement, and the coup de grâce of civic intervention strategies, policy change.

I wanted to know what evidence we have that activism on social media is not simply self-congratulatory “slacktivism.”

It’s often unclear whether things like Twitter hashtag campaigns accomplish much more than increased awareness (which is nothing to sniff at). A tragic example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which, despite its high profile supporters, appeared to have absolutely no impact on the situation on the ground.

bringbackourgirls

However, here are three examples that should give us some faith in social media-based efforts to address gender equality:

2015 Saudi Election

girlsofriyadh

I first became aware of how social media was being used by women in Saudi Arabia from a novel I bought in a bookstore in Japan. Girls of Riyadh was a real page-turner, set up as an anonymous epistolary serial, issued on email, that galvanized the attention of the singles scene (male and female) in ultra-traditional Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Because of strict physical gender segregation, social media platforms offer a radical new channel for social interactions between males and females, and Girls of Riyadh paints a portrait of the profound pleasures and dangers to be found there for women who have been effectively locked out of the public sphere.

Of course romances in Saudi Arabia are blossoming on Facebook, but we can also see that political campaigns are triggering unprecedented conversations between men and women. Just last month, women were allowed for the first time to vote and run for political office – which meant that candidates needed to reach voters of all genders. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter penetration rates in the world and so it’s not surprising that women voters used Twitter to testify to their participation in the public sphere. In the picture below, this Saudi woman took her children with her to the poll so that they could see first-hand that she had the power to vote.

saudivoter

I’d argue that much of the activity on social media platforms is driven by a desire to testify – to one’s beliefs, interests, affiliations, desires, achievements . . . the list goes on and on. Twitter, in particular, is positioned as a kind of digital public sphere, where participants who do not often have access to physical public places, can test their voice before a global audience and respond to the call of communities that they may never have known existed.

#DelhiGangRape

DelhiProtests

Delhi protests-India Raped, says one young woman’s sign” by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

 

I went to India last year to give a talk on the social impact of social media in India. I was absolutely blown away by the adoption rates among women, and the near constant use of platforms like WhatsApp among the college students I got to know. There are currently 70 million WhatsApp users per month in India, and India has the fastest rate of growth in Internet access in the world. According to a UN Women’s report on cyber violence and gender, Indians also have a greater optimism about using the Internet for freedom of expression – compared to the French, Canadians, Americans, Spaniards, and Germans.

The infamous #DelhiGangRape had already happened in 2012, and people had already seen the political impact of the story’s dissemination on social media. Not only were massive protests coordinated, but rape reports proceeded to double and anti-rape legislation was passed that criminalized stalking, included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and required the creation of six new fast-track courts created solely for rape prosecutions. Experts on the ground emphasize that this is just the beginning of the process, but making an open secret the subject of public conversation is a very important step toward broader social change.

And the ramifications go beyond gender rights. According to the Nieman Lab at Harvard, the protests were a “watershed” moment for the use of social media in news gathering and reporting in India.

Cosby

cosby

Is it true, as this headline from vocativ asserts, that Cosby was brought to his knees by social media? If you’ll recall, it was a YouTube video of a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress that renewed interested in the long-forgotten accusations. Often the most powerful campaigns on social media are either triggered by mainstream media reporting, or amplified by it. In this case,  the very low-quality video of Buress’ rant only caught fire when it was posted by Philadelphia magazine.

 

Cosby made the mistake of ignoring the firestorm. In fact, he seemed so confident that no one would pursue these allegations again that he invited his fans to generate memes about him on Twitter: The result was a user-generated public relations disaster for Cosby, and a huge victory for his accusers.

cosbymeme

All of this public interest evidenced on social media platforms led to serious investigative news reporting. The New York magazine’s cover story, which featured pictures of 35 of his accusers, along with an empty chair, ended up triggering another unplanned, user-generated social media campaign. #TheEmptyChair signaled tweets from people who had been raped, but did not come forward publicly.

nymagemptychair

There are many more examples to explore, such as the #NoMorePage3 campaign which convinced the Sun to eliminate its regular topless babe spread. But it’s definitely the exception and not the rule to find a social media campaign that plays a key role in triggering obvious real-world action and shifts in the status-quo. As with all media, social media platforms provide the opportunity to put an issue on the public agenda: translating growing awareness, however, into a massive protest or policy change, is still quite rare.

When it comes to gender equality, it’s clear that an epic battle is being fought in the digital public sphere: some are using new media platforms to punish and chastise women; others are using it to empower them. But what encourages me is the fact that there’s a battle being fought at all. And I think it’s telling that in a 17-country survey, 85% of women said the Internet provides them with more freedom. If you happen to be one of those people who poo-poos the revolutionary potential of social media, I would suggest you contemplate just how transformative these communication technologies can be in the hands of people who have been shamed, bullied or otherwise discouraged from participation in any kind of public dialogue. For them, registering their existence, let alone their political opinions, can be a revolutionary act.

The Social Impact of Social Media in India

apogee

One of the more amazing side-effects of having videos on TED.com is that you receive invitations to speak all around the world. For the last two years, the intrepid organizers of the APOGEE conference at the Birla Institute of Tecnology and Science (BITS), one of the premier technical universities in India, had invited me to visit their obscure corner of Rajasthan and speak at their signature annual event. I had been warned that I would probably have a lot of difficulty traveling alone as a white woman in Rajasthan, and so I had to decline their requests until I could line up a male chaperone.  Luckily for me, he materialized last Fall at a conference at MIT – BITS Pilani’s sister university, as it were – and we planned our great Indian adventure together.

When I alerted the BITS Pilani crew to my traveling companion’s bio (John Beck had been the Director of Photography for all of NASA’s Mars missions for the last 18 years), they invited him to speak at the conference as well.

I have long been an admirer of Indian textiles, the incredible classical music and dance, and like most city dwellers, I fight with my friends about who has the best Indian take-out. But I had heard many grisly tales about the filth, the misogyny, the appalling poverty, and the deeply ingrained institutional corruption.

But the overriding reason that I decided to make the journey was because I could not turn down the chance to witness the incredible change that is afoot in India. I was thrilled when the organizers asked me to speak about the social impact of social media in India, a topic that I’ve been following closely for some time.

Even though the Internet penetration rate is extremely low in India, the 17% of Indians online already account for the third largest Internet population in the world. They will move up to number two next year, powered in part by a 91% increase in smart phone ownership by 2016.

And just in case you didn’t know, Indians are really, really social. Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn are flourishing in India, where 25% of all time online is spent on social networks.

Last year, LinkedIn celebrated luring 20 million Indians to their service, making Indians the second largest member base. Google+ has attracted a much higher share of online Indians than it has in the States (78% vs. 44%). I was greeted with loud applause when I displayed data from GlobalWebIndex demonstrating that online Indians are far more likely than online Americans to own and use social media accounts on all the major social media platforms.

Who knows what new platforms will be arriving over the next couple of years, but whatever they are, they will see an increasing share of Indians using them. And traditional media – film, TV, publishing – both in India and all around the world, will never be the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Artifical Intelligence, Gender & the Uncanny Valley

Spike Jonze’s new film Her has sparked some fascinating conversations about artificial intelligence, gender and how we might traverse the uncanny valley we experience when real worlds and virtual worlds overlap.

Liat Clark from Wired contacted me for a great piece about AI virtual assistants and he asked me why it was that Hollywood usually depicts friendly AI as female and threatening AI as male. I think that, even though we may be more aware of gender stereotypes and how limiting and self-destructive they can be, it doesn’t mean that we don’t invoke them in the stories that we tell about ourselves. We humans are caught in some very deep cultural grooves: we still tend to associate a helpful, nurturing creature with feminine characteristics and an aggressive and destructive force with male characteristics. To reverse that association would only result in reinvoking it: everyone would notice that it was “backwards.” In that respect, storytellers cannot help but invoke the tropes that define us – particularly when they’re weaving tales about artificial versions of ourselves.

Clark was also interested in why Hollywood tropes about love and romance always seem a bit retro, lagging behind the current zeitgeist. I think that the representations that define our popular culture are profoundly disconnected from reality and are more likely to reflect a marketer’s hunch about what a particular demographic craves rather than what real living people actually want. One reason I’m so excited about the prospects for social media is that it gives marketers and media companies better information than they’ve ever had before about what animates us, what preoccupies us, and what we care to share (this is the topic of one of my TED talks). I think marketers, advertisers, programmers and creators of entertainment content will need to respond to increasing pressure to supply what audiences actually want – rather than producing hackneyed stories based on primitive stereotypes.

Clark turned out to be much more skeptical than I was about just how far we can go with AI. As my friends well know, I am borderline obsessed with the possibilities of the singularity, and so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to make life-like versions of ourselves in my lifetime. For better or worse, I believe that we’ll make AI that conforms to our current notions of perfection, whatever those happen to be at the time. I also think we will undoubtedly change our definition of perfection the moment we think we’ve achieved it. We’re sort of predictable that way.

The broader question may be why we are so obsessed with humanizing technology in the first place. There’s a great scene in Prometheus in which the robot Michael (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) puts on some protective head gear which is entirely unnecessary for him. When a human asks him why he bothers, he says it’s because humans are far more comfortable with creatures that act and look like them. Bingo. Yes, we quite capable of empathy, but we are also deeply self-involved creatures, hard-wired for self-preservation, and anthropomorphism is a crutch we’ve been using for millennia.  Our virtual assistants and the robots we engineer will no doubt reflect our knee-jerk discomfort with anything elementally different from ourselves.

Women of Silicon Valley

TimeSandberg270

Since last fall, I’ve been working with Cognizant on their Women Empowered initiative, which has created a community for female executives interested in increasing workforce diversity — in particular, attracting, developing and promoting female employees. It has been gratifying work, yoking together research that I’ve done over the years about women and social media with Cognizant’s effort to increase the number of women in leadership positions in IT.

Although women are the key drivers of the social media revolution (you can check out my TED talk about this), several studies have indicated that women are reluctant to use their social networks – online or offline – to promote themselves professionally.

Read the rest of this entry »

Remixing Mad Men

One of the highlights of a recent trip to New York was attending a Mad Men Remix party hosted by Pop Culture Pirate Elisa Kreisinger. I’m a big fan of the show and so it was great fun to watch the season finale from last year with a group of knowledgable viewers, and then to see Kreisinger’s provocative remixes of the show.

Her Internet-ready Mad Men: Set Me Free is a clever remix of the women of Mad Men singing the Motown standard “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Devised to be spreadable on social media sites, I suspect this video – which was co-created with Mark Faletti – will quickly communicate to a broad audience the painful gender issues explored in the show.

And that kind of commentary is pretty desperately needed. I recently attended a screening of Missrepresentation, a thoroughly laudable documentary about problematic representations of women in film and TV. I was dismayed to see clips from Mad Men woven into its visual tapestry of media misogyny. I had believed that most viewers of the show recognized that it was quite critical of 60s sexism, depicting it as an appalling problem and creating sympathy for the women who suffered from it (including our own mothers and grandmothers). But just a few days later I found myself having exactly this conversation with a male friend who felt guilty about loving the show because it was so sexist. He said he felt terrible for the plight of women in the show, but it never occurred to him that his response might be the one the show was hoping to elicit.

All too often, I’m afraid, people equate the representation of something with its endorsement. I often used the TV show Married With Children in my pop culture classes to address exactly this issue: the selfish and reprehensible Al Bundy was not depicted as a role model for viewers – instead we laughed at him for being a bad father, and for bringing into stark relief what a “good” dad ought to do. In many ways, Married With Children was as effective at endorsing ideals about the nuclear family as The Cosby Show was.

Pop culture remixers like Kreisinger have a tricky task on their hands, remapping cultural memes in order to draw attention to things we might not have noticed in the slickly produced pop culture objects that make up our media landscape. It is their task to shake us by the shoulders and say “What if?” Such is the case (in spades) with Kreisinger’s QueerMen: Don Loves Roger remix. Whether you believe that the remix reveals a “subconscious” sub-plot of the show or not, it gives viewers the opportunity to imagine it. This has long been the strength of fan fiction, which has been taken to entirely new and enticing levels due to ever-expanding access to bandwidth and the rise of robust social media platforms.

One troubling side effect of remixes  is that the original can seem a bit less itself after viewing them: or, at least, that was my experience watching the much-anticipated season five premiere of Mad Men last night. Where were the subtle psychological insights we’ve come to expect? Maybe we have to wait for a remix to reveal them.

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