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Why are millenials workaholics?

Millenials are workaholics, research suggests. They are more likely to give up paid leave, and to see themselves as “work martyrs”, than previous generations, and the research seems to stand up to removing the variable of age from the equation. But why?

The HBR blog reporting on this latest piece of research ties the trend to an increase in narcissism, in a belief that one is an important person, as well as increased economic vulnerability: higher levels of personal debt, unforgiving housing markets, etc. So, it’s a combination both of a sense of self-importance and a fear of irrelevance? I guess millenials have got a lot of issues to work through…

I don’t really think of myself as a millenial, but technically I am (1981 feels like a really early start-date, demographers!). So I thought I would write something about loving work, and how we learn to love it.

(more…)

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When tech companies can do good in the world

‘How it Works’, #385 from the brilliant XKCD.com

Tech companies are renowned for eyes-bigger-than-their-belly mission statements. Facebook, no exception, has the mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (taken from the Investor Relations FAQ section, or you can go to their oddly meta Facebook page…)

I’ve never been quite sure about whether Facebook was doing good with this mission. In the main, it has meant Facebook pushing at the norms of ‘sharing’, seeking to transform sharing — our thoughts, our information, our data, our time — into a default mode of behaviour online. (For more, see my review of José Van Dijck’s Culture of Connectivity).

However, sometimes, making the world more open and connected means working to change norms that really do need to be changed. A few weeks ago, Facebook  made public some of its training videos about an issue that affects everyone’s daily experience and makes some of us less equal than others: unconscious bias. For Facebook, propelled in no small part by Sheryl Sandberg, making the world more open and connected is supported by a subsidiary mission: “building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organisations”. Facebook has always been bold about being the change it wants to see in the world, and often that can come at the expense of individual users, with data being exploited, users tracked wherever they are online, etc. But, in this instance, Facebook is actually trying to do an unequivocally good thing. Let’s suspend speculation about precisely why and take them at their word when they say their goal is “to achieve broader recognition of hidden biases” and offer a “framework for action” by all organisations. 

Tech in general is rightly criticised for drawing the bulk of its staff from certain groups: mainly male, mainly Caucasian or Asian. #ILookLikeAnEngineer, arising out of sexist commentary about software engineer Isis Wenger’s (@IsisAnchalee) appearance in ads for her firm, demonstrates perfectly just how far we still have to come, not only in tech but in society generally. Consequently, Facebook is not the only company looking to tackle this issue. Google has also been striving to tackle unconscious bias in a public way with anti-bias workshops and coaching sessions, as it has repeatedly been called out about its biases, including in the seemingly innocuous Google Doodles: Spark Summit did an interesting report last year about the rate at which Doodles honour white men. Google Ventures even positions itself as leading the research in this field; this is rather cheeky, given that unconscious bias has been studied academically for decades…. It will be very interesting to see whether Alphabet manages to do better at being more diverse and representative across all levels of the organisation(s), at any rate.
Although tech companies might not be breaking new ground, then, they are opening up the issue, popularising initiatives that tackle unconscious bias at organisational level, and making more readily available resources that can help educate and inform everyone. It’s also an interesting corrective to the increasingly pervasive sentiment that being mindful about everything is all we need to make improvements. David Sze at HuffPo wrote recently about the limits of what introspection can achieve. Research challenges our self-images, suggesting that we are poor judges of the sum of our behaviours, and how to correct flawed patterns of thought or behaviour.

As well as large tech firms trying to lead the way in airing these issues, there are start-ups expressly designed to act as correctives. Textio, for example, promises software that will spot gender biases in job adverts. This is an area that lends itself well to the start-up culture because the landscape is constantly changing. As certain biases are exposed — such as male candidates being more likely to apply for a job that requires a “proven track record” — others will take their place. A constant cycle of close observation and innovation are needed, and this is where re-inventive tech companies and new start-ups can offer most hope for keeping up with and tackling new problems. 

For those interested in exploring their own unconscious biases, it’s worth taking a look at Project Implicit, which is a Harvard project founded in 1998 that studies unconscious bias and offers a range of implicit association tests. The tests are completely free online and seek to measure attitudes and beliefs that one wouldn’t consciously express.

The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (José Van Dijck) — book review


The Culture of Connectivity is a few years old now (the acknowledgments are signed June 2012), but it caught my eye as an interesting endeavour to chart critically the origins of some of the companies and platforms dominating our online experiences today, and probably for the foreseeable future. 


Overall, the book is a firmly theorised version of the many critiques written about how social behaviours can be (and are) co-opted by capitalism under the guise of ‘the sharing economy’, ‘social networking’, etc. (see, most recently, yesterday’s Guardian long-read by William Davies).
Interestingly, as I was writing this review, I caught sight of Wired’s reporting of yesterday’s Science, which published a study into the impact of Facebook’s algorithms on interactions between users from different political backgrounds. However, as Wired and others note (e.g. Zeynep Tufekci on Medium), the study’s methodology is not robust enough to allow us to reach firm conclusions about how technological decisions impact social experiences, although the study suggests both that Facebook’s algorithms decrease the amount of ideologically challenging content users see and that users limit their own exposure to such content via their active choices between content.
A few brief comments on the individual chapters themselves:
I joined Facebook in 2005 and have paid attention to some of the dust-ups over Terms of Service, the introduction of Timeline, etc., but it was still interesting to read an overview of how Facebook has repeatedly pushed users to stretch the norms of data sharing. Van Dijck summarises well the various criticisms over the company’s asymmetrical attitude towards transparency (whereby it has few obligations and users many), and I think her analysis is persuasive.
The book next explores how Twitter’s filtering and weighting algorithms can produce, as well as reflect, trends, and can create a circular pattern of popularity. Twitter is the main SNS that I use currently, and the site whose future choices will most directly impact my online experience (at least in the short-term, while I’m still a loyal user!).
The latter chapters I found mainly of academic interest, as they analyse sites that haven’t attracted me as an active user. Van Dijck explores Flickr’s difficulties establishing itself as a leader through indecisive leadership and a fractious relationship with the core user base, and she identifies how YouTube, ostensibly a ‘democratic’ UGC site, has been on a convergence course with PGC (professionally generated content) producers, tracing users’ own conversations about the lines between self-expression and marketisation.
The chapter on Wikipedia was surprisingly fascinating. Van Dijck teases out the nuances of Wikipedia’s user levels, including the increasing bureaucratisation of the site behind the scenes, with strict control over the content of the site exercised in a veiled layer of interactions below the familiar layout of which page. I have previously dallied with editing Wikipedia, but doing so is not particular intuitive for a newbie, and I have been genuinely anxious about incurring the wrath of other users for ‘not doing it right’, so I’ve not bothered.
From a personal perspective, I find looking at the impact of embedded, often invisible structures — including language (“friending”, “sharing”, etc.), algorithms, and “logged-in experiences” — in forming our online experiences is an intuitive approach to exploring this new social ecosystem in which many of us live. Her Foucauldian exploration of the “power of norms”, and how social media has changed online norms around privacy and sharing information, seems productive. She finds (unsurprisingly, although nonetheless usefully) that platforms are “mediators rather than intermediaries: they shape the performance of social acts instead of merely facilitating them”.
What is most interesting in the book is how it clearly debunks some of the myths about the utopic potential of social media, which elide the technological and human choices involved in constituting social practices online. Only a few days ago, for example, Accenture’s “Pulse of Media” argued that “consumers are now both kings and kingmakers, fully in control of which bundles, which brands and which content succeeds”, naively suggesting that the bundles being offered, the brands “promoted” and advertised through personalised ads, the content encouraged to “trend”, have no impact on consumer choices. Van Dijck goes some way to shining a spotlight on software which, as DM Berry (@BerryDM) has argued, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and yet “also withdraws”. The research on hard data that is being undertaken by researchers with access to data held by the big SNSs, such as the Science article mentioned above, is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done.



Van Dijck‘s book offers chapters on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Wikipedia, as five of the major players in various digital niches (social networking sites (SNSs), user-generated-content (UGC) sites), although she steers clear of addressing either trading and marketing sites (TMSs) like Amazon or eBay, or play and games sites (PGSs) such as FarmVille or Angry Birds. Her individual analyses are interesting for anyone who hasn’t actively followed the development of these sites, but at times the chapters are dry. Organising the book this way makes sense, allowing Van Dijck to focus on chronological historical analysis, but I wondered several times whether a thematic structure (e.g. considering governance as a whole) might have been more productive. 






Around these five central chapters exploring the growth, development, governance and users of these platforms, Van Dijck offers a methodology for writing such histories, combining [academic nerd alert!] actor-network theory and political economy. The main aim is to draw together theories about the social and the technical in order to develop a theory of how they can be mutually constitutive. 



Despite finding the book informative and persuasive, I also found myself frustrated as a reader. In her search for a more objective historical narrative voice, Van Dijck doesn’t tackle the impact of the structures and strategies that she is charting. Although she offers the example of the Alvin family to describe different user reasons and strategies for engaging with social media, she tries to stay away from offering any value judgments. At various times, the book refers obliquely to privacy concerns as though the reader would be so thoroughly familiar with the arguments that they could be taken as read. This is probably true of her intended audience, but the book could benefit from a greater focus on the individual and the specificities of individual experiences, even if this might make the text more polemical.

At the risk of a hackneyed metaphor, there can be something Kafkaesque in the increasing technocracy of leading platforms, in the diminishing freedoms for the individual user who interacts online only through increasingly closely mediated channels. As platforms grow, commercialising or merely becoming more complicated, the rules for users interacting with them grow more detailed and more unfathomable. Wikipedia, for example, still open to (almost) all, is nevertheless more complex for a first-time user who wishes to modify it than it once was.

Breasts, breasts, breasts…

Society does seem obsessed with them, when we stop to think about it. If this title caught your eye, then consider yourself part of society, and ask yourself why while reading this excellent article over at The F-Word, which I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Bold and wonderfully open, it can’t help but be a little troubling as well, particularly this paragraph, which I present to you now, teaser-style (somewhat ironically, given that it’s about breasts…):


Nowadays things are much better. I’ve got better at dressing to make my breasts look smaller (not that I should have to, although I would choose to anyway), and looking older means that I get less unwanted attention (not that I should have received unwanted attention when I was younger either, and not that I am exactly geriatric at 25). I no longer feel like a sex object every waking moment. I no longer hate my breasts and I no longer feel that they’re unwanted appendages. I would definitely like them to be smaller and I won’t pretend otherwise, but they feel like part of me, rather than the disembodied udders that they used to feel like. I’m still not happy though. Why should I ever have felt that way? Why should I have had to have struggled so hard to be respected and taken seriously?

An interesting question…

My Spanish class, in the interest of tracing Spanish modernity into the now (or close enough), watched Todo sobre mi madre. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful film, and I love Almodóvar. But that is not where I’m going with this (although maybe I will make a post later about such things!)

Instead, we had the following interesting exchange in class:

Girl: But, I don’t understand how he could have gotten the nun pregnant while dressed as a woman.

Professor: (after a classroom-wide pause) Well, how one’s dressed is probably the least important thing when one’s having sex.

Now, I think it’s probable that, as we were talking in Spanish, she simply lacked the words to say what she actually wanted to say. On the other hand, such a literalist interpretation of performativity is certainly something I’ve never thought of before (at least as-relates to the actual physical world, rather than to fictional narratives).

(And I asked the professor later; apparently there is no word for ‘performativity’ in Spanish that isn’t considered a barbarous Anglicism, and he was criticised for trying to create one in an article he wrote. Languages are definitely tricky but fascinating.)

La modernidad and public transport

This semester I have perhaps the most interesting Spanish class I’ve yet taken: an investigation of the history of modernity in Spain. It crosses some departmental borders—Romance languages (obviously), history, literature, and sociology—so I sometimes feel out of my depth, but the class is riveting and strikes chords with both life and my own academic work.*

In particular, today the border of public/private existence was the topic of conversation. How do we interact with strangers when forced into close proximity with them, i.e. on public transport? Are we allowed to look at them? Are we allowed to talk to them? How do we interact with them?

Personally, I’m extremely reserved in most public situations, on public transport, in the street, etc. The tacit rules of ‘don’t look, don’t touch, don’t speak’ should be firmly upheld. I’m instantly suspicious of people who wish to talk, deeply annoyed by people who seem unaware of their own personal space of mine, and, I suppose, mildly annoyed/embarrassed by people who wish to watch me. Even though they are public spaces, I feel that they are private ones too. I’m not sure entirely how that works, but the existence of the tacit rules mentioned suggests that there is a general consensus that this is the case. It’s an interesting conflict/dichotomy that, if I had more time, I’d probably like to research.

Sadly, living in the modern world also means that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do that…

* A focus of the class, naturally, is religion in/versus modernity, and el amor profano/sagrado—somehow, in English, ‘sacred/profane love’, feels like it has a different meaning—although it didn’t immediately strike me at first, seems to suggest so many fruitful links (many of which I’ll probably never have scope to explore) with my thesis work on Guinevere, adulteress-cum-nun, and chivalric love that borders on/transgresses the border into adulterous love.