The Learned Fangirl @ SXSW: Part 3: Bridging Divides

I appreciate that you started your first Learned Fangirl post about SXSW writing about increased inclusiveness.

In addition to the panels you discussed, including How to Be Black Online, I was glad that there were varied discussions by and about people of difference, including about how disabled people use technology, women in technology and the glass ceiling, the GLBTQ community and technology, and about Jewish people and technology — including frum (very religious Jewish) participation. Of course, I started SXSW with my first session, a lively discussion about Asian-Americans belying the discussion title of Asians: The Silent Minority! (see also: Redefining Asians and the Internet: I Am Not Your Fetish).

I appreciated that those in the audience for the “people of difference” sessions I attended were genuinely interested in the discussion — both members of the community and those that are not members of the specific community being discussed. And that unfortunately is surprising, so I appreciate the tech community’s openness, especially in response to past criticism of lack of diversity at SXSW.

Three of the most interesting panels I attended during SXSW concerned bridging divides between different people — understanding how creative products are used differently internationally (Design, Collaboration, Pokemon: How Not to Offend People Globally), governments helping disseminate accurate health-based information — especially during a bcrisis, and informing a highly educated, tech-savvy/making audience about how and why a digital divide exists in the U.S.

Watching the panelists on When Swine Flew: Embracing Innovation in H1N1 Response reminded me of my long-ago love for public health. Panelists Andrew Wilson of the Department of Health & Human Services, Ann Aikin of the CDC, and David Hale from the National Library of Medicine discussed how they help their government agencies effectively spread accurate information — including via twitter. I appreciated hearing about how the taxonomy of terms being used is based on library abstracts for SemanticTwitter, “which focuses on semantic and natural language processing of H1N1-related Twitter posts for biosurveillance, determination of public sentiment, and targeted information dissemination.” And for the analytics lovers out there, there was also discussion of measuring effective media strategies.

This isn't the Digital Divide at issue!

But of course, I found How The Other Half Lives – Touring The Digital Divide, as presented by Jessamyn West and Jenny Engstrom, two superawesome librarians, to be the perfect capstone to explaining the ways that some are involved in the tech debates — and some aren’t. (And to get all Reading Rainbow, “you don’t have to take my word for it” — read the slides and hear the presentation). They presented on the digital divide between those with access to technology (and knowledge about the use of technology) and those without. Jessamyn’s focus is on the rural communities (specifically in Vermont) and Jenny’s focus is on the urban communities, including immigrants (specifically in New York).

I was impressed not only with the presentation — and that SXSW had such a presentation — but also that the members of the audience , the technological elite, were so interested in the on-the-ground digital divide. I expect that many came away with a greater understanding of not only their role in bridging that divide, but the importance of libraries and librarians in the difficult hand-holding information literacy that takes place in libraries daily.

And if you want to read the excellent twitter backchannel that as of this post is still continuing, the hashtag is #digitaldivide .

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Learned Fangirl at SXSW Reads a Book: Fans, Friends and Followers (Part 2 of our exciting SXSW adventures)

So to start my series of posts about SXSW, I’m starting with a discussion of one of the books focused on during one of the panel presentations, Scott Kirsner’s latest work, Fans, Friends and Followers. If you are looking for a book on living up to the 1,000 true fans philosophy, this isn’t it.

As he states in the book,

there has never been a noisier, more competitive time to try to make art, entertain people, and tell stories. Everyone is doing it, and so there is an incredible surplus of content in every art form.

Surplus of content? This strongly implies that the limiter to content is the individual, rather than the possibilility of different individualss and groups with different tastes.

While I appreciate what Kirshner is trying to do, by helping artists reach their audience — there is a reason why this blog is called The Learned Fangirl — because we are concerned about how fans are being viewed by each other and outsiders.

So how does Kirshner describe the role of fans?

The very term “audience” may be on its way to obsolescence. Some artists prefer to think of themselves as cultivating a “community,” attracting “supporters,” or organizing and motivating a “street team.” Some like the term “fan base,” while others may choose to use the terms “collaborators” or “co-conspirators.”

Unfortunately, the role of fans — both throughout the book and in the admittedly brief presentation — is to be active participants  that can be removed from the process at any point should the artist choose. He never quite says this directly, but everything is directed at the artist — nothing on what happens when fans feel (or actually have) a claim of ownership over parts of their fandom.

And perhaps its my background, but I found the “reap all of the grain from the field” approach to be shortsighted. The only mention of rights occurs briefly, within a formal business arrangement, or passing references to Creative Commons.

The interviews that are the backbone of the book are interesting, but without a larger, overall helpful structure for artists, this shouldn’t be an end-point.

Recommended: Only for those that want to read inspiring stories. Or are newly thinking about how to become a famous artist.

Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.