Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dear Diary #2: "I hope my mom doesn't post this on the internet."

Along with the arrival of the locking diary — Sweet M's put the heart-shaped key somewhere I'll never find it! — my own thoughts about what to share and what to hold back have returned in full force. If she's trying to capture her thoughts under lock and key, how much of our life together should I be posting here?

Last month Sweet M and a classmate had a play date and they each left the bookstore with a large stack of books.

Both girls got The Head-to-Toe Guide to You, a Scholastic Girls' Life book. It's a good guide on questions that come up in that life course called "Puberty 101."

Sweet M and I started reading it together. We were only up to page 11 when this came up:

While seeing their "little girl" growing up may be event-worthy, you might need to remind relatives that you body is a private matter—and updates about it don't belong on the family blog. One embarrassed girl tells us "My mom thinks it's perfectly OK to share my bra size with anyone. She even wrote about it in our Christmas letter."
We won't be sharing that info here, or anything remotely similar. Still, the internet is an unusual and quickly changing site of narrative production that confounds the paper-bound rules of publication.

Last month I came across a web-based artwork called We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. If you haven't seen it, go take a look. It's a beautiful interface that mines data from thousands of blog and then provides an array of visualizations of the affective temperature from the posts it has scanned, tracked and coded. The visualizations are dazzling. The data-mining is a little scary. Ultimately, the artwork can take you back to the original post from which an emotional term or phrased was culled.

So your blog post or mine can be pulled out of context (I think of my context as the posse of autism parents who blog about their lives, challenges, and victories) into a broader context or framework sorted simply by affective phrases.

The phrase might be "I feel fine." Or it could be "I am feeling enraged" or "cheerless" or "depressed" or "delighted." And then it can appear sorted with hundreds of other similar words or phrases. So any post you or I make that has the phrase "I feel" or "I am feeling" can become part of a massive data set for Harris and Kamvar's semantic web artwork.

Part of me loves this—the possibilities for visualizing our lives together becomes so rich. And part of me is terrified of the implications. What will the uses of this technology be? How will our words be understood when they're pulled out of their original context?

Unlike traditional social science research, where data are aggregated (lumped together) and anonymity assured, in We Feel Fine the data are both aggregated, and also easily disaggregated, thanks to the powerful new tools emerging to mine the semantic web. Disaggregated means that the individual phrase or data points right back to its source: you or me on our blogs.

No one has the expectation that a blog post is a diary entry under lock and key. That would be madness. We all understand that a blog post is a publication with a reach that can extend beyond any print publication.

But I wonder (and I feel worried—that's a phrase that Harris and Kamvar's bot scans for) about how these tools will pluck our language out of context for purposes we can't even begin to imagine.

Screenshot of We Feel Fine: Worried: Murmurs, May 30, 2010

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