Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for July 2011

Jeff Jarvis starts a Twitter revolution with #fuckyouwashington

The first thing that went through my mind when I heard about Jeff Jarvis starting a revolution on Twitter tonight was “How the hell can I write a column about a #fuckyouwashington hashtag without using the word ‘fuck?'”

Then I saw somebody compare it to Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech in Network. Have you watched that clip lately? The parallel is perfect. Howard doesn’t know what to do about crime, oil, or Russians, he’s just demanding that we do something.

The same thing is happening on Twitter right now. Nobody knows what to do about unemployment, corporatism, or the debt ceiling, they just want everybody to get mad about it right now!

Watch the tag for a while and you’ll notice that half of these tweets contradict the other half. Half the protesters think we should solve this by going hard right, the other half think we should solve it by going hard left.

But Washington is gridlocked because America is gridlocked. The outrage on Twitter is random and unfocused because there are actually three different kinds of anger at work here.

First, we have left and right anger, the friction you would expect when you have 30% pulling right, 30% pulling left and 40% stuck in the undecided middle.

But there is another kind of anger layered on top of that. The right wing guys aren’t really behaving like right wing guys and the left wing guys aren’t really behaving like left wing guys.

Republicans who were sent to Congress to cut spending and fight corruption are proposing half-measures and rolling over for the very people they were sent there to oppose. And this anger started long before the 2010 congress. Obama didn’t start the bank bailouts, Bush did. The incredible ramp in deficit spending started with Bush, too.

Obama ran as a hard left populist champion, promising to rise above corporate influence and bring the troops home. Now he’s starting new wars and raking in banker cash with both hands.

So there’s our third heat. The right can’t make things go right and the left can’t make things go left. Increasingly, Washington is working from a set of priorities that have no connection to the will of the people.

If the country was going consistently right or left, at least 30% of the voters would be happy. But we’re in the middle of a serious recession and our politicians seem to be broadcasting from another planet.

Every day they go on TV to stoke the fear, scaring us with words like “crisis” and “default,” each demanding that we blame the other side.

That part is working. Americans are angry and afraid. You told us there was a crisis and we believe you. But we’re not blaming “the other side” — we’re blaming everybody.

Thirty percent of voters will blame the left for anything that goes wrong and 30% will blame the right, but 40% in the middle are ready to blame both of you.

Playing political games with loaded issues is nothing new, but this time everybody knows it’s a game. Voters aren’t stupid. They’re watching cable and reading blogs. They’re listening to talk radio and swapping conspiracy theories on Facebook.

Everybody knows you guys are running the clock out, waiting for the next election. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t go on TV to scare the shit out of us every day and then expect us to wait patiently for 2012.

You can’t use words like “urgent” and “crisis” and then waste our time with Kabuki theater.

Either the situation is urgent and needs to be solved now, or it’s all just an act that can wait for 2012. This isn’t 1954, gentlemen. The voters are on to you now. We know you’re playing a game and we know you’re using us as chess pieces.

That’s why #fuckyouwashington is trending on Twitter. We’re tired of being pawns.

Every politician in Washington needs to pay attention to this outrage and remember who they’re working for.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 24, 2011 at 03:57

Posted in Best Of, Politics, Twitter

Richard Dawkins tells feminist blogger to ‘grow up and grow a thicker skin’

This is a story about three people who abused their power, but I think all three of them did it by accident.

It starts with a blogger named Rebecca Watson who writes about science, religion and atheism on a blog called “Skepchick.”

Rebecca was in Ireland for an atheist conference. She was chatting with strangers at the hotel bar until 4 a.m. and decided she’d had enough. A man she had been talking to followed her into the elevator and invited her back to his room for coffee.

Here’s the description of the incident that Rebecca posted on YouTube:

“So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’

“Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4 a.m., in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”

Special thanks to David Futrelle for transcribing her words, and for writing the first post I saw about this.

Rebecca posted the video of her (relatively mild) comments, and the Internet exploded. I don’t think she was trying to fire the first shot in a new Battle of the Sexes but she’s certainly in the middle of it now.

Feminist blogs erupted with admonitions for men to “check their privilege” and Rebecca’s comment section was overwhelmed by a misogynist backlash.

So how did an awkward moment between two people get blown so out of proportion? Turns out one of the commenters was famed atheist and science author Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins’ reply was so provocative I’m not comfortable quoting it here. He basically compared Rebecca’s small complaint to the plight of women suffering genuine abuse in Muslim countries, telling her to “For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”

The man in the elevator didn’t understand the inherent power that men have over women. He misread Rebecca’s signals and didn’t understand the delicate nature of the situation. The fact is, once a woman is uncomfortable, it doesn’t really matter why.

Maybe something in his speech or body language felt wrong. Awkwardness that might have been overlooked at 4 p.m. is hugely magnified at 4 a.m., and if the poor guy didn’t know it then, you can bet he knows it now.

But Rebecca has power, too. A female blogger writing in a male-dominated field has tremendous power over her audience. Awkward young men get very excited when they find a woman who thinks like they do, particularly when the women go out of their way to seem attractive and approachable.

These men have exaggerated reactions to videos and photographs because they haven’t really learned the difference between reality and marketing. The girl in the picture isn’t posing for “you,” she’s posing for the camera. And no matter how insightful her posts are, she’s not writing blogs about “you,” either. She’s writing for her audience — for an anonymous, romanticized vision of an audience that may not even exist.

The Internet has created a world where geek girls can be treated like movie stars, but that attention cuts both ways. A blogger who knows how to sell herself can attract an extraordinary amount of male attention, but men who can’t tell the difference between reality and marketing can easily see indifference as rejection and take it personally.

Female bloggers inspire extraordinary levels of love and hate in the men who follow them. That leaves them open to abuse, but it also gives them a special kind of power. With a twitch of her finger that audience can be mobilized and used as a weapon.

Elevator Guy hasn’t been revealed yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The avalanche hasn’t landed yet, but it’s hanging right over his head. Awkward moments come and go, but Google is forever. If he’s lucky his name will never go public, and he’ll just have to spend the next six months worrying about it.

A man might have more power in an elevator, but a female blogger on YouTube is a hurricane in a bottle. She can destroy a man’s whole life in two seconds.

The third actor in this little drama is Richard Dawkins, and he’s the one who really should have known better. Dawkins is a recognized leader in the atheist community, an international celebrity whose every word is praised by fans and twisted by enemies.

He probably thought he was just firing off a silly comment, but he’s not some random commenter. His celebrity imbues his words with tremendous power, and he attacked Rebecca Watson like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the mountaintop.

Men need to watch what they say in strange elevators, but female bloggers need to watch their language, too. They need to watch how they market themselves and be mindful of their own power, as they decide what to share on YouTube.

Finally, Richard Dawkins needs to remember that he’s not just a private citizen anymore. He’s a public figure, wielding tremendous influence and moral authority in this community.

“Check your privilege” is good advice for everybody, no matter what kind of elevator you’re in.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 12, 2011 at 05:50

Posted in Religion

Google joins battle for soul of the Internet with Google Plus

Google launched a limited beta of their new social networking service last week, and was quickly overwhelmed with traffic as eager alpha geeks rushed to find something, anything that would liberate them from Facebook.

Love it or hate it, Facebook has now become the Internet. It’s the most popular site in the world, a one-stop shop for personal messaging, public discussion, political activism and link swapping worldwide.

Google’s new service is called Google Plus, and if you followed Google’s previous attempts at social networking, I won’t blame you for being skeptical. Google Buzz was a disaster and Google Wave broke my heart. Google Plus is starting with a better design philosophy than Facebook did, but even if they do everything right, it’s going to be an uphill battle all the way.

The Internet is basically entering its third evolution now, as expectations become more complex and the last few stragglers make it part of their daily lives.

Phase One was just about finding stuff. In the early days, Yahoo could fit the whole Internet in a series of link lists. Early users jumped on the Internet to find news, trade tech articles, and fight with a self-selected group of early adopters on Usenet.

Phase Two was about sharing stuff. Google made search engines reliable and fast, so the Internet became more about connecting with people and sharing links with friends.

Google won the battle for Phase One and Facebook won the battle for Phase Two.

Now we come to Phase Three. We know how to search and we know how to share, but now we’ve got so much crap coming at us 24 hours a day, even moderate users are drowning in status updates. We’ve got so many “friends” interacting with us in so many different contexts, we can’t just lump them all into one stream anymore.

Phase Two was about making connections. Phase Three will be about managing them.

Google Plus is built around the concept of Circles. Every friend you add to the service must be added to a circle. Plus starts with a set of recommended categories: Friends, Family and Acquaintances. Most people will immediately add a circle for work, then they’ll make a circle for “Super Friends” – the eight or nine people in the world they can share everything with.

This is the function I’ve been waiting for, the function I’ve been screaming about in this column for the past two years.

Facebook is great but modern people don’t just have one face. I follow about 300 people on Facebook and each one of those people follows me for a different reason. Some of them like the columns, some of them like my political rants, some of them knew me in high school, and some of them have known me all my life.

But the people who like the columns don’t necessarily care about politics, and the people who knew me in high school don’t necessarily like what I write. I always feel a little guilty when I post to Facebook because I know any post that appeals to ten people is likely to annoy ten others.

With Google Plus I get to make the choice, and since everybody else is free to make their own categories, too, they can choose what box to put me in. This concept is so simple, I can’t believe Facebook has botched it so badly. Facebook has lists and sharing restrictions but they’re almost impossible to use.

Human interaction occurs in context, but Facebook’s one-stream-fits-all approach encourages people to ignore that context, leading to embarrassing, even disastrous consequences. The people who follow my column are nice, but they don’t need to see status updates when I go on vacation.

My friends love me, but they don’t all agree with my politics. A link that would be catnip for economics nerds might seem boring or even insulting to them. Forcing your political opinions on strangers isn’t just rude; it’s dangerous.

Interactions in the workplace occur in a very specific social context. It was bad enough when all we had to worry about was offending people, but now the things you share at work may be a violation of federal law. In this climate you’re not just protecting yourself when you segregate your social networks, you’re protecting your boss and your co-workers from things they really don’t want to know.

Google and Facebook have just entered into a steel-cage death match for the soul of the Internet. Can Google Plus gain market share before Facebook copies their best feature? My instincts say no. I think it will be easier for Facebook to add Circles than it will be for Google to steal its users.

I think we’re up against the Grandma Factor. Facebook has become so ubiquitous, even Grandma is using it. Will parents and grandparents be willing to follow their kids to a new platform?

I’m guessing no, but maybe that’s a Plus for you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 1, 2011 at 02:56

Posted in Best Of, Facebook, Google