Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2012 Aug 23 | Load Out

In 2004 a physical therapist told me that my shoulders were askew and that I should use a traditional backpack. Hence, I would have to surrender my supply of single-strap conference schwag (free promotional merchandise) and return to the double straps of my boyhood. Fortunately, I found a backpack that has served me well in the subsequent years. Like a few other cherished items, this one was purchased at a thrift store. It’s cast-off swag, a promotional item for “Brio Technology” (a software company acquired into non-existence). However, much like my “Cambridge NanoTech” fleece, this product is as good as the brand names, if not better. The bag is comfortable, lightweight, has pouches on either side for a water bottle and umbrella, and the appropriate number of pockets for my gadgets. Most importantly, it has loops for elastic webbing and to which I can attach key rings and carabiners. Unfortunately, such novel finds at a thrift store are not repeatable. Despite my forensic efforts, I’ve never been able to identify the original manufacturer. And as the bag has slowly deteriorated, I’ve been ever more frustrated with not finding a successor. However, sometimes one’s scholarly interests also have private benefits.

As noted, product reviews are numerous and popular on YouTube. Indeed, high-tech unboxings and reviews are only the tip of the iceberg. One can find product reviews for silly putty, the egg genie, pancake pen, and the double bullet (a sex toy). Via a blog post I was introduced to the reviews of the survivalist “Doomsday Prepping” community [KWillets2012sap]. (There are an estimated three million “preppers” in America, some spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, have their own dating sites, and are now portrayed in a National Geographic series [Brady2012mpu; Ellis2012cpd]). The reviewers are, typically, white Christian American men concerned with big government, gun rights, and the collapse of civil society; their slogan: “pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” As hipstomp’s original posting noted, these folk are “completely obsessed with both gear and the idea of self-sufficiency. They prize durability and functionality in a product because their fervency makes them believe their lives will depend on it.” [hipstomp2012wsm]

Many of the reviews are for Maxpedition products, a reputable but expensive brand that caters to emergency responders and the military. However, their market expanded when their FR-1 medical pouch was adopted by survivalists. A rural survivalist’s bag will likely include maps, cash, flashlights, a handgun, hand sanitizer, a compass, GPS, knives, toothpaste, bandages, food bars, water filters, Neosporin, and parachord – among many other things. (And flashlights and knives are also fetishized objects with many reviews.) A more urban survivalist will also include a battery charger for their varied gadgets. Like any subculture, they have their own lingo. For instance, a “bug out bag” is a pre-packed bag that you can immediately grab out of the closet or car trunk, and serve you for the next 72 hours. (Discussion about what exactly is necessary is extensive.) An “EDC” is an “everyday carry bag.” A “load out” is much like an unboxing, except that the reviewer exhaustively unpacks the bag while discussing his loading strategy and the merits of each item. Many of the reviewers have a military affinity, or experience, and speak freely of PALS webbing and MOLLE compatible attachments.

The bag I purchased, the Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon-II , has dozens of YouTube reviews, some of which are 15 minutes long. My favorite review and “load out” is by a charming young man who begins the review by testing its stability while attacking a martial arts dummy and jumping rope. (He sheepishly admits the rope jumping was not a good idea as the pack is coming down when he is going up.)

During his unpacking he pointedly encounters the Bible, Declaration of Independence and an anti-Obama tract within its pockets [mokyan72011mpf]. These type of reading materials are common across the reviews and is reminiscent of the Crystal champagne rappers often have chilling in their refrigerators on MTV’s Cribs. Reviewers take their task seriously, though sometimes I cannot help but laugh at the bravado. In one odd juxtaposition, an Amazon reviewer reports “this product is well made, I bought this for my 5th grader [and it] works very well.” It even can fit anM4 assault rifle though “It does not get a five star because the drag handle is small if you needed to drag a wounded team mate while wearing gloves and under fire” [Kodiakbear2011rmp]. And while I thought it was only a carrying handle, a fifth grader shouldn’t weigh that much! One can even find the rare humorous review, where rugged survivalism is replaced with domesticity.

I originally bought this for a go-bag. How often do you need a go-bag? Well, so far, never. But it did become my favorite diaper bag…. The adjustable straps make for a comfortable fit, and quick to adjust between my wife (Small) and myself (XL)…. The rear compartment can fit plenty of diapers, a full size package of wipes, and bottle of anti-bacterial gel…. There are 2 water bottle holders, which is perfect for carrying a water bottle for you, and a sippy cup for your kid. [B2011rmp]

My quandary, shared by many survivalists, was what color? There’s black, khaki, green, and foliage green. Like the survivalists, I didn’t want anything too military or “tactical.” For “sheeples” like myself, I want something that fits in at the office. For the smart survivalist, he knows that during a crisis the government targets and seizes the weapons of those who look the part.

2012 Jun 20 | FIRST and Vine

I’ve been surprised by the increasing dominance of customer reviews from the Amazon Vine; this program gives select customers free “new and pre-release items” from participating vendors. For instance, of the ten most helpful reviews (the default view) for this laser pointer six are Vine reviews. We might be cautious about accepting the reviews of those who get products for free, but at least it is clearly disclosed. (I also wonder what the vendors pay to participate?) However, are these reviews really the most helpful? Not necessarily, as one of my interviewees notes “the early bird gets the (first reviews (and first review votes)) worms”.

In 2003 I recognized this phenomenon as “the rush and slash effect”: “the best that can be said for the Slashdot system is that it selects the most popular comments within the period most readers are likely to spend their moderator credits, which is probably within a few hours.” In analyzing the statistics of comments’ age I concluded that “Given that I read Slashdot with a threshold of ‘4 or higher’ this means that the average elapsed time of comments I read is just over an hour, and I can not see a comment that is more than 8 hours old!” Hence, and sadly, lower quality comments, especially FIRSTs, get more attention than they merit. When you combine this phenomenon with the possibility that Amazon Vine reviewers are too kind, it’s plausible that reviews are inflated – and that companies are wise to participate.

2012 Jun 11 | The Feedback of “Tiger” Moms and Women in Computing

Earlier I noted that feedback to children is associated with larger cultural debates. Amy Chau, a Yale Law Professor, prompted much discussion when she bragged that her children have never had a sleepover or play-date, do not choose their own extracurricular activities, and are expected to be the best student in every subject, except gym and drama. They must also play a musical instrument, provided it is the piano or violin. Chau notes the following cultural divide:

I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently. [Chua2011wcm]

Researchers have also found differences in the way parents approach the performance of their children. In one study, Chinese and American mothers’ responses to their 4th and 5th graders’ performance were observed in the laboratory. In a break between tests, children were reunited with their mothers. While American mothers spent the time talking about something else, Chinese mothers were more likely to say “you didn’t concentrate when doing it” and “let’s look over your test”. The Chinese mothers did not act harshly or cruel, and smiled and hugged their children as much as the American mothers (and were no more likely to frown or raise their voices). However, the Chinese kids’ scores on the second test jumped 33%, more than twice the gain of the Americans [NgPomerantzLam2008eac, “European American and Chinese Parents’ Response to Children’s Success and Failure”].

Again, what is important is one’s conception of self and performance: is this a matter of innate intelligence or diligent effort? This also manifests in a (seemingly) unrelated issue: why do so few young women enter the computing field? Female participation is much higher in cultures where computing is seen as a good career path and a skill to be learned (e.g., in Palestine, Qatar, and Malaysia) rather than a masculine or personality-driven type activity [BlumEtal2008cpg; Lagesen2008cup].

While I cannot speak to Chau’s larger parenting philosophy, I am especially hesitant about “being the best” as only one person can do this in any group, we can have high expectations, provide constructive feedback, and stress that improvement and growth can be had.

2012 May 22 | Comment Culture Abstract

A short abstract of my research on feedback and comment:

Comment Culture: Feedback, ratings, and reviews in the age of the Web

Our world today is permeated by comment: ratings, rankings, and reviews are inescapable, on-line and off. Granted, as long as humans have spoken, we’ve been commenting about the world, especially about other people. Yet, today, the extent of our engagement with comment (from teens asking “am I ugly” on YouTube to an annual performance review at work) is an under-appreciated aspect of our lives. This book is an exploration of cultures of comment both offline and online, with a larger concern of how this might be changing our relation to ourselves and others.

I employ multiple approaches in this exploration. First, I engage with language of comment by distinguishing the terms and practices of feedback, criticism, critique, and assessment. I also trace the historical emergence of comment. How and when did the genre of the review begin? What of Michelin’s three stars? How has the psychometric likert scale (i.e., 1-5 rating) shaped our understanding of ourselves and society? Most of the work is ethnographic. For instance, when it comes to feedback, comments that go back to the person they are about, there are many communities with different cultures of comment, be it a public speaking classroom, online fan-fiction “beta-reader” group, or software collaboration. Finally, I am asking critical questions of this topic. For example, what validity do the many measures we employ (e.g., Netflix’s stars or Facebook’s “like”) actually have? Or, is our preoccupation with rating less about objectively quantifying our lives and more a reflection of insecure selves in a competitive world?

Hence, this book will be review the discourse, history, and cultures of comment and ask, does comment in the age of the Web makes us more informed and/or ill-at-ease?

2011 Oct 14 | Feedback Inaugural Talk

On Friday I’ll be speaking about my new research project on communicative feedback:

The goal is to explore a premise that an under-appreciated aspect of contemporary life is the ubiquity of communicative feedback. At the interpersonal and group level I will explore how people perform and make sense of the giving and receiving of feedback via ethnography and interviews. Specifically, I hope to learn from communities with different cultures of feedback, such as a writing group, design studio, software collaboration, or a classroom. This will be complemented by a concern with how comments, ratings, and reviews pervade our contemporary media experience though sites like Yelp and TV shows like American Idol. How might we frame this shift historically and is it for the better or worse?

My slides for the interACTIONS event are below.

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle