by Alphaville Herald on 08/05/04 at 11:49 pm
“don’t get broke off for free.” –Evangeline
people who participate in chat boards like stratics often fail to realize that they are really part of a corporate data mining project in which their posts are scanned for personal information, preferences, buying habits etc. they are, by virtue of their contributions, giving away valuable information about themselves – valuable to corporations that build video games and other tech toys. by providing this personal information, they also provide a jerry-springeresque spectacle for the entertainment of others, hopefully drawing more eyes to the board, hence more posts, hence more data for the marketing data crunchers. the participants, by giving away valuable personal information about themselves have commodified their private lives – by giving it away they have become “board ho’s”. the social structure of these boards is highly controlled to maximize this effect, with certain types of elite posters encouraged and rewarded – these are the board ho divas. these posters play a pivotal role in ensuring that the product delivered to the marketing machine will be as useful as possible. in return the board ho divas receive a kind of social capital from the other board ho’s. this essay is a history of board ho-ing, its emergence, its economy, its effects. it is also a confession, as i have been on the other side of the glass – i used to work for the suits that run the ho’s.
i. wherein humdog presents a credential from the humdogian bouquet
for several months now i have given too many hours to the sims online (tso) and its accompanying message board, stratics. i have created sims in three cities, including the test center. i have built things and i have wrecked things. i have met some nice people and i have met some fiends.
i came to tso from a background in customer relationship management (crm) tool design, a trade i learned while in exile at a huge software/database company for a few years. i look at these events through the following eyes: i am the monster whose job it was to worry about site churn, registration metrics and other horrors. my colleagues will stay up nights trying to figure out ways to get you to trade your personal information for a t-shirt or some other object of small value. my job was also to try to figure out what we should know about you, and what you should know about the corporation. my job was about trying to figure out how to get you to engage in acts of self disclosure. i am one of the shadows behind the button that says: submit now.
ii. wherein we learn some of the ways in which the business community discovered online social relationships
once upon a time there was aol, prodigy, and compuserv. these were among the earliest sponsored and moderated message board and chat room services. they were highly monitored or supervised message services – certain types of communications were allegedly not allowed, although they did take place. the aura of these places was a little prissy and one of the interesting parts of this was that attaching yourself to an aol address was a good way to get flamed in most other places on the internet if you went there. people were reluctant to mention their aol accounts, or if they did mention them, the mention was predictably either preceded or followed by some verbiage about airplane and hotel schedules and discount rates.
usenet was mostly un-monitored and before it become the last refuge of the publicity hound spammer, it was a place where people left messages about things that interested them. usenet was huge. usenet was chaotic. we mourn its decline and passing.
all of these places were mostly pre-howard Rheingold, pre-Salon, and howard was in the san francisco bay area then, in california, which as everyone knows is a wild-life preserve for idealists and romantics and where the utopians went to die. howard had a high moment of inspiration one day and it happened in the moment that he strung two words together: virtual community. when howard did that it was beautiful and idealistic and doomed, and he was doomed, too. howard was doomed because he didn’t pay attention to what he himself had pointed to about the history of telephones and television (he had been quoting isola-poole). howard was doomed because he didn’t pay attention to the way that multinational global corporations like ibm and microsoft and oracle were beginning to act like small medieval kingdoms, sort of independently and in defiance of established nation-states like the govt of the usa. all that aside, though, you have to give howard credit for saying the words ‘virtual community’.
when howard said virtual community what he appears to have meant was a world in which people would find each other through the internet. i am hoping that i don’t need to define the internet and if you still don’t know what the internet is, please go buy a copy of lawrence lessig’s code as law. you should read that book anyway if you go online. but if you don’t know what the internet is, just remember that it was created by the defense department in order to protect the integrity of communications in case we blow up the world with a nuclear bomb. the defense department made the internet and they also made change of address cards so you could go to the post office after the world gets blown up and pick up your credit card bills. but i digress.
howard was an evangelist for virtual community and as far as i can tell, he still lives there. in virtual community people find each other, learn from each other, enjoy and help each other. in virtual community there are no spammers, no griefers, and certainly nobody exploits kids sexually or otherwise. the idea was noble and idealistic. there was beauty in it, and some irony in the position: in his own way, howard, along with his mentor stewart brand, were sticking flowers into gun barrels like hippies did during the vietnam war. it makes sense that they did that: it is sort of their time and place. everything is beautiful.
in 1996 or so, after web browsers came out, a consultant/pundit type named george gilder wrote some essays and in those essays he suggested that there was going to be a battle for the internet and for what was then called cyberspace. he said that the battle was about dominating and owning that world, and about who would determine its destiny. gilder said that on one hand you had people like howard who were hopeful and nave and on the other side you had people like bill gates and mr lawrence ellison who were thinking about revenue streams. “suits v birkenstocks” he called it, and he said that the suits would win. it was in 1996 or so that stewart brand appears to have received gilder’s message and signed up on the suit side by founding the global business network (gbn ). gbn is a kind of expensive members only semi-suit-credible consulting outfit that uses the word ‘scenario’ a lot. i mention gbn only because it tells you the times.
about the same time, people began to go nuts typing words and uploading pictures onto the web. they would type extremely personal information into boards like the whole earth ‘lectronic link (the well) and usenet. on these boards people revealed absolutely amazing bits of information about themselves, including personal sexual preferences and behaviors and stories of their struggles with various substance addictions. they did this to some extent because it appears that at the moment they pushed the send button on some level they believed that nobody was actually listening or recording what they said: they were usually alone in a room & the audience was invisible to them. some people, who understood how information systems actually worked, were horrified when they witnessed these increasingly numerous acts of self-disclosure. they knew how hard it is to get rid of information. i remember talking to one of these horrified people, an engineer with a security clearance at the time. he said to me: “don’t you understand that the treasury department can get root access to anything whenever it feels like it??” in my mind, this became abbreviated as “treasury has root”. anyway i hope that the investigating arms of the us government appreciate what all these people have done to simplify the act of citizen surveillance.
other people saw these same increasingly numerous acts of self-disclosure and they were glad, because they also understood information systems and how hard it is to get rid of information. these people also knew that there was a tool called a relational database and they drew a line from the willingness of people to self-disclose to the ability of the relational database to receive, store, and play with, this information that people were so happily typing into their screens.
the business community is pretty good with language. they understand, and appreciate, the subtleties of doublespeak. consequently you will never hear anybody in the business community use the word “exploit” in a sentence. no. instead, the business community will talk about “leverage”. ok: “leverage” = “exploit”. leverage is an important word. it is a code word. it tells you where the revenue stream might be.
the business community began to understand that it could leverage online social interaction and online social relationships and this need-to-confess that seems to be such a big part of the web. the business community began to understand that it could make products that leveraged social interaction and online self-disclosure and so it began to make products.
this is how we get to datamining.
iii. wherein we learn some things you can do with personal information
in the mid 1990s after gilder wrote what i have told you that he wrote, our friend howard got his friends together and went after venture capital. this was a fashionable thing to do at that time and i do not blame him for doing it. he got a big pile of money from an asian financing outfit or kairetsu called softbank and created a project called eminds. eminds was a datamining venture dressed up in virtual community and for the most part the people who signed up for it, bought it. i signed up for it, too, but that is mostly because i like to watch. when speaking of eminds to his constituency, howard would stress social interaction and say “let’s be friends online” and things like that. he painted eminds, to his followers (who were mostly aspiring writers and such) as a place where people could be friends and be published and eventually make their reputations. when howard talked to the wall street journal, he described eminds as a place to collect early adopter demographics: it was a data warehouse.
howard’s followers on eminds either did not know or did not fully appreciate that they were being leveraged as both a content engine and as a demographics warehouse, and that they were perhaps more valuable to softbank for their ability to be a group of people that could be depended on to buy the latest version of whatever new electronic doodad in latest release that was out there in the world to buy, than they were as literati. eminds used cookies extensively to track user activity and behavior as the user moved through the site at a moment in time when cookies were still new and somewhat unexplored by the business community. at this same time, industry periodicals were running ads and articles rhapsodizing about how it was now becoming possible to narrowly target groups of consumers, or to create situations in which these narrowly defined demographics would self-identify and cluster together. leveraging this self-identified cluster is the grandmother of what we now call “mass customization”.
iv. wherein we are in babylon, weeping for zion
you may now ask my favorite questions which are: and? so?
after all if you are like me you know that there is nothing remarkable in what i have already said. if you are reading this on a screen perhaps you are yawning a little. i would be. but you must have patience with me because i have been giving you background.
if you are reading this on a screen, unless you have done some hard work and even purchased special software and/or hardware your information has been captured. you may not actually be sitting in babylon weeping for zion but you are captive and you did it to yourself. you did it when:
1. you registered to download a whitepaper
2. you bought a book or other retail/consumer object
3. participated in an auction
4. signed up to be a member of aol or another similar online service
5. you signed up for a virtual community or other similar blahblah board or game
you can not do any of these things without surrendering personal information to the database behind the application, and the marketing department monitors of the offering business community monitors all this stuff very carefully. and you know this already. think about it: explain to me why, if you are going to download a white paper, you need to give your address and phone number for any reason other than to solicit a cold call from a software sales ummmmm engineer. try to reason out why, if you want to engage in online self-disclosure you need to divulge your age or gender or approximate annual income level for any reason at all. explain spyware. explain doubleclick. i will explain it to you: social interaction online is a commodity. like bubblegum. like cheap ballpoint pens. it is also a huge illusion because it is a product that is telling you that if you use yahoo im that somehow your online social interaction will be shinier or hipper than if you use aol im when all of it is probably more or less the same technical functionality and the quality of the content is primarily affected by the quality of your head. aol and yahoo can’t do anything about your head. but you buy the illusion because you want to talk about that your mom hated you or that you love porsches or even that you want to do one-hand typing with a troll on the other side of the planet.
you buy it. you let your identity get leveraged. it is all about leveraging traffic to web and revenue streams.
of course the marketeers will not say this. the marketers will take out an ad with a suit hottie and the suit hottie will smile in the picture and talk about grave responsibilities and we want to help you and we want to improve your productivity. the suit hottie will insist that maintaining a 96 terabyte datawarehouse that tracks you and your phone bills and your bank records and your favorite sites and your frequency patterns is the most wonderful thing that her company can do for you. in the old days the suit hottie would hold focus groups in order to drag in members of the demographic groups seen as possible consumers of whatever products she was selling, but now with the web, it is much easier. now with the web, all that is required is that someone build a blahblah board or area. the demographic group will self-identify by topic and they will bring their friends so that the friends, also, may become enchanted by the possibility of free t-shirts. the other day i learned a new word: fluffer. a fluffer is a person who maintains a erection for a porn star between takes. learn to think of marketeers as fluffers: learn to think of the web as a fluffer relative to the act of maintaining excitement for and interest in the act of consuming goods and services among members of the community.
vi: wherein humdog wonders about things
i wonder why people including me go to blahblah boards, because i go to them and i see things.
i wonder why people rhapsodize online about their latest visit to rehab over their latest adventures with vicodin or something like that.
i wonder why they spell out the details of their latest sportscar purchase when they know that their x old lady is trolling for more child support and is probably smart enough to hire a detective with an internet connection for which the former sportscar owner will eventually pay (you picked her, dahling).
i wonder why they evangelize buttplugs online and sign their names.
i wonder why people freely commit text to a not-secure medium where anybody with a subpoena can help themselves and download the text. it is after all more efficient to store text electronically.
i wonder why people reveal confidential information online. it is so easy to string things together online. ridiculously easy.
vii: wherein the boardho is revealed
people do amazing acts of self-disclosure online. they do it, and i think they do it for one reason only. there is a different economy online and the payout is in attention and in time, not money attention is the big payout online.
i learned a new name for people who participate in this economy from uri. the name is board ho and i like that name very much.
every blahblah board has its board ho. the board cannot exist without the board ho. the board ho drives traffic to web. the board cherishes its board hos, and it especially cherishes the diva or queen board ho. the diva or queen board ho is untouchable and can do anything. people know this, on the board, by intuition. the board and the board ho nurture and cherish each other because the board ho drives eyeballs to the board. i am not speaking of unique visits although those are nice. no. i am speaking of repeat traffic. because of the board ho the board can dream of growth and expansion. the board leverages whatever it is that drives the board ho, unto the board’s success and growth. in return, the board ho receives attention and a following. negative or positive does not have a value relative to attention. to the board ho, attention is all good.
viii. wherein the board ho star system is examined
one of the things i see on blah blah boards is that many of the people who frequent them regularly appear to be people whose lives are not working for one reason or another. voices on the boards seem to have challenges, for example, with health, addiction, or socializing, to name a few. they seem lonely. they seem conflicted. these are voices in pain. these voices don’t seem to have people in their lives with whom they can talk openly. gail williams, now community director for salon.com once observed that:
“the key people to bring into a community are people who are hungry for friends, who don’t have any email yet – not people who already have tons of stuff to deal with online…” (wired news, nov 18 1996)
the expressed feelings and ideas brought by these solitary voices to the blah blah boards also seem to be feelings and ideas coming from secret or hidden parts of their lives.
now here is how you identify a board-ho:
on some boards, there are places where voices can join with other voices that have passed some kind of personal litmus test and have been deemed similar and/or acceptable. these voices open password protected group areas that are invisible to the other members of the board. some of these private areas are segregated by gender, others by special interest. the voices go there because they do not wish to be troubled by diversity or opposing points of view. truthfully, some areas are opened by multi-year veteran users who are just sick of reading lots of posts. the private areas opened by veterans tend to be democratic: everyone is a host. nobody is “in charge”, or, if there is a specified host, that host has either been nominated by the group, or is a voice who takes the job for a specific amount of time as a service to the rest of the group.
but sometimes a queen or diva board ho will open one of these secret conferences to place courtiers around itself. in the private area the diva auditions courtiers and trains them, by dictating the terms of the discussion. the green/throne room private area is where the board ho is vetted.
in the private area green room, the diva board ho accomplishes the following tasks:
1. testing possible new courtiers
2. nurture of existing courtiers
3. vetting rules and styles by which the board ho will operate in the public board environment
4. discussion and commentary about existing threads in which the diva board ho is displaying herself
5. score-keeping relative to public engagements
6. discussion relative to future strategy for the diva
7. receipt of praise and adulation from courtiers
8. distribution of nurture to courtiers
a courtier found, throughout this process, to be wanting in those qualities needed or desired by the diva will be penalized and possibly thrown out of the private area. the process of excluding a courtier from the diva’s group seems to include at minimum these steps:
1. recognition by the diva that the offending voice has refused to limit itself to those topics deemed appropriate by the diva
2. acknowledgement that the voice has not adapted itself to the expressive style favored by the diva
3. unspoken acknowledgement that the offending voice has not permitted the diva to exercise control over it.
the voice offending in these ways will be notified most commonly in these ways:
1. the diva may make a post or comment consisting of a warning couched in a light-hearted way but containing the serious message that the courtier has offended the diva
2. deletion, scribbling, or otherwise performing an act that destroys the offending post thereby silencing the courtier on the offending subject.
3. an email may also be sent to the offender, detailing the offense in plain language.
this offense is not generally fatal, especially if the courtier makes a display of contrition.
if the voice nonetheless chooses to disregard the diva board ho’s warning, the diva will begin the expulsion ritual. the expulsion ritual begins with the publication of a long-ish essay that generally contains the following:
1. a chronicle of the history of the private area, from its founding
2. a statement of the diva’s purposes in creating the private area, none of which will include a statement of the private area’s founding for use as a green/throne room for the diva
3. an exposition and justification of the rules of the private area, making heavy use of the diva’s world view, and diva-logic.
4. it is important to note that the diva’s world view and logic are grounded in an unconscious ideology that is totalitarian in outlook.
5. an explanation of how, in the diva’s point of view, the offender has run afoul of the diva and the diva’s worldview, and thereby offended the diva
at this point the offender has three choices:
1. the offender may make a display of contrition
2. the offender may choose to do nothing
3. the offender may choose to dispute the charges with the diva
the offender wishing to remain part of the diva’s entourage must make a display of contrition, or be expelled from the private area. expulsion from the private area is equal to expulsion from the entourage.
a person coming to a board for the first time will notice after several visits that there appear to be groups of voice that appear to be consisting surrounding, agreeing with, and defending a particular stronger voice. this stronger voice is the diva board ho. the surrounding lesser voices are the entourage or courtiers. i think of them as boardho’s in waiting.
occasionally an imperial board ho is seen on a board. an imperial board ho is a voice of such power and originality that it overshadows all but the strongest diva boardho’s on a board. these voices are rare and should be savored. in one case i saw an imperial boardho of such confidence that the voice hosted a public space that satirized the boardho system.
ix: wherein we conclude
people who participate in chat boards like stratics often fail to realize that they are really part of a corporate data mining project in which their posts are scanned for personal information, preferences, buying habits etc. they are, by virtue of their contributions, giving away valuable information about themselves – valuable to corporations that build video games and other tech toys. by providing this personal information, they also provide a jerry-springeresque spectacle for the entertainment of others, hopefully drawing more eyes to the board, hence more posts, hence more data for the marketing data crunchers. the participants, by giving away valuable personal information about themselves have commodified their private lives – they have become “board ho’s”. the social structure of these boards is highly controlled to maximize this effect, with certain types of elite posters encouraged and rewarded – these are the board ho divas. these posters play a pivotal role in ensuring that the product delivered to the marketing machine will be as useful as possible. in return the board ho divas receive a kind of social capital from the other board ho’s. At least they get something. The rest of us are getting broke off for free.