…Oops! The Insidious Illusion of Privacy in the Networked Public

By beeewrites

If you’re a regular social media user, it can be easy to forget how public the internet really is. “Following” is a typical feature offered on social media sites, letting users choose who to see content from and creating a unique mini network visible on a personal home page. Facebook’s Newsfeed is a famous example of this, showing content that is populated by friends’ online activity. Sites like Twitter and Tumblr follow this same model, but somehow users are more cavalier with the types of things they share and say – perhaps because both networks function using user created pseudonyms. It’s unlikely to see someone post a scathing, detailed rant about their boss on Facebook because there is an understanding that it will be easily traced back to the author, but that same rant on Tumblr can theoretically only be traced back to the pseudonym. Although unique usernames do provide a certain level of anonymity, the vast audience of the internet remains the same. This can foster a false sense of security for users who are so comfortable in their self made networks that they let down guards they would otherwise keep in place.

The phenomenon of feeling like the only active person in a sea of strangers is also common; it is easy for users who don’t get much direct interaction with online peers to feel like they are operating in a void. Twitter user @whateverdude alludes to this during an outage period where the site was experiencing difficulties updating: “twitter is down, so for the next hour, i’ll be scrawling shit on post-its and tossing them out the window,” he writes. People who use their social media accounts like personal journals miss out on (or dismiss) the networking aspects of these websites and behave as if they are invisible. It might feel a bit like a modern, tech infused version of the old adage about a falling tree in an empty forest, except on the internet, someone is ALWAYS listening.

Earlier this year, a teenage girl on Tumblr posted an awkward picture of herself stuck standing in a stacked tower of classroom stools. “I was alone in the art room and had the thought ‘I wonder how many stools I can get over my head,'” she wrote. “Long story short i got stuck and the class walked in to me pathetically trying to wriggle out without being knocked over.” This simple, diary-like post suddenly started rapidly spreading, with other Tumblr users sharing it as a visual joke. What was originally relatively “private” and self-deprecating suddenly became mortifying, and the original poster reposted the photo with the note “stop reblogging this.” This made the joke even funnier, and the photo and its captions were spread even more. Pleading a third time, the poster writes, “Do you honestly think I want to be known as the ‘stuck in stools’ girl[?]”

The unfortunately dubbed Stool Girl. Identity kept ‘private’ here, but extremely traceable elsewhere.

In a piece for the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Nancy K. Baym and danah boyd speak on the precarious nature of networked publics, saying

“Most of the people engaging audiences and building identities and publics through social media are not […] fortunate. Some develop a sensibility through experience; others find themselves struggling to make sense of and manage their participation in networked publics; some misunderstand the consequences of their actions and make mistakes without realizing it.”

The only kind of mistake made by the teen on Tumblr was sharing too much and taking privacy for granted; the sudden visibility of her post led to embarrassment and therefore was a lesson in discretion. Concrete mistakes with real world implications are a dime a dozen for celebrities on Twitter, however. Posting a tweet from your phone takes mere seconds, and the 140 character limit forces users to make concise statements that can often come off as offensively blunt. The short form of Twitter also makes tweets extremely easy to misinterpret.

“the challenges of differing and sometimes unknown audiences can complicate self-presentation.” Baym and boyd continue. “Having to imagine one’s audience is a fundamental human problem rather than one distinctive to social media. But social media make it particularly challenging to understand “who is out there and when” and raises the potential for greater misalignment between imagined and actual audiences.”

This problem of forgetting about ones audience can be devastating to the carefully crafted images of public figures, giving fans insight into the potential true characters of their idols.  In 2011, actor Ashton Kutcher tweeted “How do you fire Jo Pa? #insult #noclass as a hawkeye fan I find it in poor taste” in response to Iowa State football coach Joe Paterno being fired for covering up a sexual abuse scandal. Fans instantly criticized Kutcher for his insensitive remarks that prioritized athletics over abuse victims. Within a day, Kutcher’s Twitter account was officially taken over by his PR team as he had to scramble to apologize for his error. Apparently he did not know all the details of the news story and had tweeted his immediate thoughts without thinking – a costly mistake that changed some fans’ opinions of him indefinitely.

A more recent celebrity Twitter controversy involved Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, and was also apparently due to carelessly quick tweeting. After releasing a popular but polarizing video featuring women of color for her song “Anaconda,” Nicki Minaj was hopeful her video would be nominated for a coveted MTV Video Music Award. When no nomination came, Minaj tweeted, ” If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Taylor Swift, whose video had been nominated, directly responded to Minaj less than an hour later, saying “I’ve done nothing but love & support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..” Swift’s tweet was immediately met with confusion from many fans and even Minaj herself, who responded directly to clarify her disappointment was not with Swift. Even more fans pointed out the irony of Swift’s mention of ‘pitting women against one another,’ since the very video that garnered her nomination depicted exactly that. Two days later, Swift apologized and admitted her mistake in thinking the jabs were directed at her, veritably admitting that her tweet was a mistake based upon a quick assumption.  Again, this error proved to be costly as it colored fans’ perceptions of Swift and questioned whether or not her comments (and later, silence) were part of a bigger scheme to cause a stir.  Authentic or not, Swift’s ironically eponymous initial action revealed she did not fully consider her audience or the implications of her post.

“As people engage in and reshape social media, they construct new types of publicness that echo but redefine publicness as it was known in unmediated and broadcast contexts,” Baym and boyd state.  Even though the act of image sharing or tweeting can be performed alone in one’s home, the minute the content is posted it becomes public.  Whether it is the security of a pseudonym or the general ease of sharing that makes users so cavalier with their content, blunders of all kinds will continue to be made online for all to see.







Women’s Technologies: the shame of convenience and pleasure

By beeewrites

Towards the beginning of her piece “Feminine Theories of Technology,” Judy Wajcman argues that the culture and history of Western society dictates all technology is gendered male. Initially shocked, I thought it was too extreme until I realized how difficult it was to think of female technology. It’s almost impossible to think of things that aren’t socially gendered (traditionally domestic appliances like an iron or an electric mixer) unless you widen technology’s definition. Expanding it to mean ‘useful tool that helps fix a problem or aid in difficulty’ allows for much more leeway and thinking of women’s technologies becomes a little easier.

technologies tied to women’s bodies are so socially taboo, this public restroom doesn’t even want to name them!

Even though Wajcman writes “identification between technology and manliness is not inherent in biological sex difference,” the only technologies I could think of that could absolutely be considered as female were tied to the specific things that make women physically different from men. Bras can be considered technology, and certainly menstrual products like tampons and pads. Birth control is another good example of a ‘female’ technology, especially with its contentious history of being moderated by men. Finally, I landed on the vibrator, which also has a colorful and perhaps controversial history.

In the 19th century, many women suffered from a particularly vague condition called hysteria whose varied symptoms amounted to a general irritability. Doctors would alleviate this condition by manually stimulating a woman’s genitalia until she reached ‘paroxysm,’ which was supposed to temporarily cure all hysterical symptoms. Of course paroxysm turned out to actually be orgasm, and women continually returned to their male doctors to get relief from their ‘condition’ of sexual frustration. Unfortunately doctors grew tired of manually stimulating women all day, so they elected to invent a device that would mechanically do it for them- the first vibrator. For a while these were legitimate medical devices, but as soon as the secret was out about women gaining pleasure from them they became an unmentionable subject. “Women’s power, women’s culture and women’s pleasure are regarded as having been systematically controlled and dominated by men, operating through patriarchal institutions like medicine,” Wajcman writes. The moment women claimed vibrators as useful devices for themselves, they were invalidated and became taboo.

Vibrators were not socially embraced again until the late 1990s, when a Sex and the City episode revolved around a particular toy called the Rabbit. If prim Charlotte York could use a vibrator, then what was to stop everyone else? Today vibrators are more common than ever, but still considered a risqué topic. Advancements in technology mean that today’s vibrators can be small, quiet, and discreet but still pack the punch buyers are looking for. I headed over to the Museum of Sex hoping there would be a good retrospective on the history of vibrators and to check out the selection in their gift shop. Sadly, the museum’s permanent collection is on rotation and I’d missed the exhibit on vibrators, but their Spotlight gallery did feature a small exhibit on sex machines.

The focal point of the room is the Fuck Bike, which is basically exactly what it sounds like – a bike with a bunch of parts cobbled together that make a dildo attachment piston back and forth when you pedal. Since the pedaling seat and the pistoning apparatus are positioned over four feet apart, this invention struck me as more voyeuristic than actually “for women,” so I figured I would focus on the accompanying photographs of other sex machines and their inventors. Very quickly I found out that all of the inventors were men, the photographer who interviewed them was a man, and the focus was on the ingenuity of all these creators that made such wonderful devices.

Only one woman, Jessy, was present in the collection – photographed sitting naked in front of one of the machines and credited as “machine user.” I thought this was really telling and disheartening, and a clear illustration of “the gendered nature of technical expertise.” Was there not one woman who had designed a machine for herself? Jessy was quoted saying she liked using the particular machine she was pictured with because she had “total control” and it was “all about [her],” although there’s still a performative residue left over as she talks about her experience that was made possible by a man who didn’t even have to touch her, and is enjoyed by many men free to ogle her and use her story for themselves. Even though the physical experience belongs to the machine user, I’d say home built sex machines are actually men’s devices and not women’s. How exactly is crouching in front of a 6-foot long bike in order to get an orgasm convenient for a woman?!

another unhelpful implementation of technology that’s supposed to benefit women. psst.. it’s only useful if it’s stocked!

Annoyed, I went down to the museum’s gift shop to take a look at the toys they had for sale. The environment had a loud, fun kind of vibe, with blasting R&B club hits and relaxed, trendy looking employees that gave visitors knowing nods and looks. Out of the 5 or 6 staff members present in the tiny store space, there were only two female employees, one who was laughing and giggling loudly at seemingly everything her male co-worker said to her. It was like all the employees were very into the edginess of working at the Museum of Sex and not about actually educating anyone about its social implications or history.

Hyper aware of all the men in the store, I looked at all the pink and purple vibrators and compared them to the boxes of lubes, phallic sleeves, and condoms for sale. Some of the items, like handcuffs, were technically unisex but showed bound women on the packaging so I counted them towards men. Most of the men’s items were easily accessible, but the products for women required interaction – the vibrators were set up as display only, so in order to actually learn about a device you’d have to ask an (male) employee about it. After looking at the huge selection of lube for too long, I asked an employee whether the selection of items available were mostly for men or women. He misunderstood my question and proceeded to very concisely explain my own anatomy to me and how the selection of lubes would work with it. I corrected him, asking, “Do you think there are more products here in general to be used by men or to be used by women?”

“Oh, pff, women, definitely. All we have for men is this, this, and this,” he pointed to the rows of packaging in the store. “And the condoms. EVERYTHING else is for women.”

Needless to say, I left feeling even more annoyed. Hoping for a more positive experience, I headed to Babeland, a sex toy store catered to women. Though smaller than the museum store, the products here were better organized and it was a much more relaxed environment. There were two women working, and after about a minute one of them came over to me and asked in a relaxed but welcoming way if I needed any help. This was already eons better than the loud, flashy museum store with men hovering around waiting to ‘educate’ female shoppers. In addition to a wide selection of supportive pillows, strap-on harnesses, stand-to-pee devices, and vibrators, Babeland also had signage around their store promoting inclusion and safety when experimenting with sex. Best of all, there was even a vibrator called the Eva that proudly stated it was designed FOR women BY women; something I hadn’t been able to find all day! I admitted to one of the employees that I was there to write a paper and was happy to see something like it since everything I had seen earlier had a male bent to them. “You mean the packaging?” she asked. “Yeah, that’s a Thing. Let me know if you want to see any of our boxes!” Babeland wasn’t a utopia of products designed exclusively by women, but the fact that they even sold more than one item created by women seemed revolutionary. I left shortly after and was encouraged to return and take advantage of their student discount.

It’s almost impossible to write about sex toys without acknowledging the obvious gendering of the toys and how they are used, but the disparity between male and female technologies is put into stark relief in this field. The fact that products made for women have actually been designed by men seems even more insidious than usual. Anything relating to a woman’s sexuality (or inherently female anatomy) is considered gauche unless a man moderates it, and the first step to rectifying this is dropping the 19th century taboos in order to fully adopt Wajcman’s feminist perspective on technology. We’re slowly getting there, with the “feminine media” of the internet giving many women access to liberating technologies that change how they view their bodies. Online sales are still frustrating because of their discretion, but hopefully rises in this ‘secret’ arena of demand will encourage more of a movement into the public.






Neutrality at the Library: Whose Side are We on, Anyway?

By beeewrites


It seems odd to say that neutrality is something that can incite passionate debate in the world of libraries, but it’s true. The aim for neutrality -or even the question of its existence in the field- has been outlined in scholarly articles, discussed in the open forum of Twitter, and has even inspired national campaigns for improved materials. If neutrality is defined as being impartial and unbiased, how come so many library professionals feel so strongly about the concept?

“Neutrality is just being what the system asks us to be,” write Myles Horton and Paulo Friere in a piece about education and social change. Following this logic, all libraries are inviting spaces where all users can find what they seek and have no complaints about the collection, the environment, or their general experience. Of course if you’ve ever been to a library before you’d know this idyll is impossible to manage; sometimes the library you’re in doesn’t have the book you’re looking for, or maybe it does and you can’t seem to find it. Libraries struggle from the expectation of being warm yet authoritarian spaces, and the endless quest to balance those two elements comes at a cost.

Finding the right book at the library might not be as simple as whether it’s on the shelf, though- your library might not even think your interests are worthy enough for their collection. If neutrality is “a code word for the existing system,” as Horton and Friere suggest, then what word really represents is the default western white male viewpoint of what “should” be inside a library. Hope Olson writes about the rigidity of cataloging and how there is a detectable, specific point of view despite the attempt to be easily digestible by all; “One notes far more references to narrower terms under ‘Women’ than under ‘Men,'” she says. “Many of these terms draw attention to women as exceptions to a male norm.”

Similarly, Emily Drabinski writes about how controlled vocabulary “fail[s] to accurately and respectfully organize library materials about social groups and identities that lack social and political power.” Once again, the rigidity of classic cataloging practices is a disservice to queer theory and proves to be exclusionary, showing preference for a “norm” by means of aggressive classification. So which is worse, going to the library and finding something horribly mislabeled, or finding nothing at all?

Luckily, many library professionals are already aware of the imbalance in their collections, as a recent #critlib discussion on Twitter illustrates. The topic on the table was ‘critical approaches to library data and systems,’ with the first question asking whether libraries and systems can ever be neutral. Participants did not hold back, immediately criticizing the narrowness of library practices; “neutrality is the side of those in power!” wrote one user. Another chimed in and said the word neutral “sounds too close to passive,” while someone else went straight to the core of the problem with library systems. “[Can libraries be] neutral? No. Our cat[alog] languages, systems & vocabs are biased toward Western culture. True universality is a lofty goal.” Frustrations continued with other participants noting how difficult it is to build impartial collections when vendors already have limited offerings. With publishers catering overwhelmingly to Western audiences, once again a statement is made about what (and who) is thought to be the default.

Efforts have unfolded to address weak spots in library collections, like the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign, which works to bring more diverse literature to shelves in childrens’ libraries. In their mission statement, the group states, “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” Members of the WNDB team have also acknowledged the bias in the world of publishing, and aim to work from the ground up to ensure that the future of childrens’ literature is more inclusive.

Of course, goals like diversifying childrens’ literature or queering the catalog both have clear, specific objectives and cannot be considered impartial actions on their own. The key though, is that they both push back against the existing biased framework of library systems. “The system hides exclusions under the guise of neutrality,” writes Olson. “Not surprisingly, this fundamental presumption on which our practice rests disproportionately affects access to information outside of the cultural mainstream and about groups marginalized in our society.” How can libraries ever be neutral if this glaring problem continues to exist? The only way towards neutrality is to correct the imbalance already in place.

Going forward, librarians must make every effort to collect materials that reflect a wide range of worldview, with particular sensitivity to local audiences. It would be disheartening if a patron went to their library and saw nothing of themselves in any part of the collection, but it would also be a disservice to omit any other worldview for the sake of streamlining.  Libraries should not be conservative in the name of pleasing all, but liberal with their materials

to the point of perhaps even ruffling some patrons’ feathers.  In order to create a true balance, the bias of the current “neutral” system must continue to be acknowledged and combated.




Horton, Myles, and Brenda Bell. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.

Olson, H. A. (2001). The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs. Signs, 26, 3, 639-668.

Drabinksi, E. (2013), “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83(2): 94–111.




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