This social software stuff is tricky

Wow, danah boyd took me to school (without naming any names, which was kind of her) and I’m learning a difficult lesson.
Over at, she writes in sexist jokes and Orkut invites about a note I sent to the group of people there marked as my “friends.”
What happened was that I saw as people’s numbers climbed that danah was moving down the list of faces that show on my home page there, and when she dropped off completely, I realized that the remaining visible faces were all male.
I sent my joke comment

ok, you guys have now knocked .danah off my top-nine friends view on my dashboard (why can’t we order and sort other wys?), so now it’s nine guys. i may have to drop one of you guys, no hard feelings, just to improve the scenery on my orkut home page.

without thinking too hard about how it might come across. In my mind, I was cracking on the phenomenon of me being linked to so many other men. I wasn’t sure if this had something to do with the population of Orkut or with my own subnetwork there.
However, by using language that divided up men and women in terms of visual appeal or attractiveness, I totally slipped over the line. What might be taken as irreverant and ironic by my “real” friends, who are probably somewhat likely to give me the benefit of the doubt and have other inputs to use in order to judge my character or values, in this context managed to hurt danah’s feelings: the last thing I would have wanted to do.
What I crossed over into was that “unwelcome gaze” issue, not unlike in one of danah’s earliest posts to misbehaving in which she wrote about being invited to a coed hot-tub party by a professional colleague and finding that uncomfortable as well.
Orkut’s mixing of business-networking, friendship, and dating context also heightens the risk of this kind of “incorrectness” or offensive behavior.
Anyway, though danah was kind enough not to single me out by name over at misbehaving, I do want to own up to my own transgressions given that the context was semipublic. She was open enough to express her hurt feelings:

The joke hurt because it made me feel like an object, like the baseball card that Orkut encourages you to collect. If a person has more friends than all but 8 other people on someone’s list, they end up on their front page. Apparently, to this guy, the aesthetic of my fuzzy hat and False Profit T-shirt is more important for his front page than his actual friends. He barely knows me; he wants me there so that i can improve the scenery of his home page. That makes me feel genuinely gross and sad.

and for that I owe her an apology, which I’m extending here.
I can learn from my errors, but I have to ask for forgiveness if I’ve – even inadvertantly – given offense or exposed something ugly in my own thought processes.
danah, I’m sorry for joking around in that hurtful way.
It was thoughtless of me, and I especially feel bad because we don’t know each other that well and I’ve probably harmed our ability to actually become more friendly in the real world.






13 responses to “This social software stuff is tricky”

  1. Harald Avatar

    If you’re heterosexual, isn’t it logic to find women more attractive than men? Is it forbidden to express that sentiment?
    Isn’t it a compliment to be found more attractive than someone else?
    You could say she prefers to be seen as more than decoration. But is being positive about one aspect automatically being negative about all others? I don’t think so. This aspect was just highlighted for purpose of this joke. It probably doesn’t reflect the writer’s real opinion and shouldn’t be interpreted that way.
    I can see how this can be considered mildly offensive. But good jokes often do that. They mildly poke. They subtly sting. They provoke a reaction. The best response to that is to show a sense of humour and joke back – in the same stingy manner. By writing a whole article about it this woman shows she has no sense of humour and takes herself way too seriously. You could say she has a chip on her shoulder.
    This judge declares bad form on the offended side and recommends to the defense to add a smiley next time to prevent silly people from sticking out their long toes. Case closed. :)

  2. xian Avatar

    “Is it forbidden to express that sentiment?”
    No, but I think it’s instructive that a joke with more context (say, among my real-life friends who understand my politics and my sense of humor) isn’t the same as a joke sent to a spam-list of virtual friends.
    “Isn’t it a compliment to be found more attractive than someone else?”
    Not if you wish to be respected primarily for things besides your physical appeal.
    “This aspect was just highlighted for purpose of this joke. It probably doesn’t reflect the writer’s real opinion and shouldn’t be interpreted that way.”
    That’s true, but again without context, without tone of voice, without knowing me, it’s easy to take it otherwise – that’s something I should have been sensitive to.
    “By writing a whole article about it this woman shows she has no sense of humour and takes herself way too seriously.”
    I disagree strenuously. First of all, from my small amount of face-to-face contact with danah I’d say she has a fully developed sense of humor. In fact, saying that feminist women just don’t “get the joke” has been a longtime cudgel used to attack women who speak up to point out subtexts and marginalizing words, and the like.
    Plus, she is a professional researcher in the social software field and she wrote the post on a blog that is designed to give voice to women’s issues in the tech world. I think she was perfectly justified in airing the issue and her feelings that way she did.
    Remember, she’s absolutely entitled to her own feelings in response to what I said, regardless of how harmless I may have felt my words would be when I clicked the Send button.
    Anyway, please don’t criticize danah as a way of defending me. I intended this post as an apology (and an object lesson about friends vs. “friends” – ironically, the nine other people showing up on my home page are also professional acquaintances, not friends in the conventional sense of the word).

  3. apophenia Avatar

    publicly processing hurt

    At misbehaving, some of our regular readers asked us to get a bit more personal, share some of the trials and tribulations of being a woman in tech. Translation: stop being so darn theoretical. I had true hesitations about this. First, it meant putting…

  4. Harald Avatar

    I’m not saying she doesn’t get the joke, I’m saying she takes the implications of it way too seriously. People often do damage to their own cause by focusing on irrelevant details and missing the big picture. This seems to be such a case. Your little joke doesn’t look at all harmful to me. If that’s the most important thing she has to write about, what does that say about the relevance of the issue she advocates? I’m not saying it’s not a relevant issue. I’m saying that by writing about this thing you don’t do it credit.
    Of course everyone is entitled to their own feelings. But everyone else is entitled to express what they think of it.

  5. Harald Avatar

    Speaking of people going off on little jokes; seen this? (via Just Playing)

  6. Life With Alacrity Avatar

    Sexism, Social Software & the Blogospher

    A fascinating series of blog entries shows the promise and peril of Blogs as a medium in a male-dominated technocracy…[pointers to two of Dana Boyd’s blogs, and one to Christian Crumlish’s blog, as well as some commentary.]

  7. Irina Avatar

    this was an interesting discussion over a point that i, as a female that has been the “butt” of such jokes many times, consider amusing at most (the fact that you would want .danah on the page is as much evidence of her power as an individual and as a female as her subsequen comment an indication that she may not realize the precious value of that power especially in an online discourse situation. I personally love .danah to death and am extremely proud to have her on my page so I, actually, understand the sentiment slightly differetly). However, here is an interesting point. I am a friends of friends for you, yet I received your note as well. Which, yet again, points to a rather bad bug in orkut and you should be aware of it as the user of the system. just my .02

  8. Peter Avatar

    Somebody has to learn how to take a complement.

  9. Chuck Olsen Avatar

    I have to wonder if the context was different… say, a teenage LiveJournal girl who wanted a cute boy with the Johnny Depp icon on her page. We would excuse that wouldn’t we? Maybe as adults we’re supposed to not act that way. But obviously we all have attractions at any age/maturity, no use denying that. Is stating attraction without pretense also objectifying?
    I’m in over my head on this. I’d sure want .danah on my Orkut page (just like I want my actual friends to appear higher). Hey, she’s a hottie. But by calling her a hottie (or ‘scenery’ which wasn’t a good choice of words, but I think you essentially meant attractive) that puts her in a box. Part of why she’s a hottie isn’t just physical though, she’s obviously smart and tres cool. Again, I don’t have any answers but struggling with human nature – which we shouldn’t apologize for – and human respect.
    Case most definitely NOT closed… it’s an important discussion!

  10. Chuck Olsen Avatar

    btw, bravo to .danah for having the courage to speak up about it, and xian for responding in this post.
    also, let me apologize here for my own blog overflowing with sexism. please slowly distance yourself from me, and remove me from all social software lists. :-)

  11. Fer Avatar

    Does anyone grant an award for hyperanguished PC self-flagellation? If so, this post is my 2004 nominee.
    Xian, I’m afraid your primary “error”, your ultimate “incorrect” pronouncement was this disturbing affirmation of self-censorship, this fervent declaration of future self-preemption.
    And yes, I hope this comment causes offense. Hurt feeling happen. Price of progress.

  12. xian Avatar

    Fer, you write, “And yes, I hope this comment causes offense,” but I’m sorry to disappoint. You haven’t moved me emotionally at all.
    Of course “Hurt feelings happen,” nor would I expect them to vanish. Mentioning them and trying to avoid causing them seems OK to me too. I don’t know the exact type of progress that’s associated with hurt feelings but I’ll trust you on that.
    I wouldn’t say I was anguished, correct, or incorrect. I discovered I had hurt someone’s feelings, someone I both respect and would like to remain on good terms with, and I apologized. Believe it or not, this did not diminish me or really cost me anything beyond some reflection. No one suggested I be censored or punished. I did manage to redeem danah’s opinion of me to some extent, which is a nice side effect of an apology I’d have tendered for no other reason than, get this, I felt sorry.
    Try to get over your disturbed feelings on my behalf or on the behalf of free-speech rights for sexist males the world over. I think we’ll survive.
    Of course I knew that I’d be criticized either way, but aside from the strange way a lot of men have reacted to a simple exchange of ideas and feelings, what’s struck me is that I care what danah thinks of me. I don’t know you and it doesn’t really matter to me if you think I’m a pc sellout wuss or whatever.
    I’ve enjoyed the conversation, though.

  13. filchyboy Avatar

    I’d just like to point out that I received the message in question. Didn’t understand a bloody word of it and promptly ignored it as I have this amazing ability to ignore notes which both don’t make sense to me and obviously aren’t meant for me. Plus 1 to Irina for pointing out this feature bug in Orkut. On the other hand I’d like to point out that I would be proud to be considered anyone’s scenery. If you want to take pictures of me and place them on your desktop, assign me as your best friend in Orkut (keeping me on top of your screen of course), Friendster, Road Rules, etc, please feel free. If you want to have mad bodacious sex with me in your mother’s bed then so be it – allllll you need do is ask. Consider me your plaything, your turbo lover, your fin de siecle, your little death, what have you! If you think I have no brains and all I’m good for is cheesecake them dammit girl have a slice! But when you do so please write cogently and don’t call me your scenery unless you truly truly mean me to hang around. Because I will. I will.