Queering the social network

Thefacebook.com circa 2004 (screengrab from Archive.org)
Thefacebook.com circa 2004 (screengrab from Archive.org)

I’m a little perplexed by the publicity juggernaut surrounding the new movie The Social Network—it doesn’t look very good, nor, by all indications, does it offer a particularly accurate account of the origins of Facebook. Given that the movie’s hard to avoid, though, read Rebecca O’Brien’s Daily Beast piece “My Classmate Mark Zuckerberg,” which does a good job correcting some of the liberties it takes and explaining the circumstances in which Facebook (or Thefacebook.com, as it was known then) first appeared at Harvard in 2004.

One additional piece of context that I think is important, based on my recollections of the site’s early days, is its quick adoption by many members of Harvard’s LGBT community. This owed something to Chris Hughes’s role in launching the site, I’d guess. Just as significantly, in those early days, when membership was limited and there were fewer worries (like those raised by Jose Antonio Vargas at the end of his recent New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg) about one’s extended family reading one’s profile, the site offered gay students like me something both appealing and disconcerting: with a simple search on the “interested in” field, a list of everyone at the college who chose to identify himself or herself as gay.

Among my gay friends, the “men interested in men” list was a regular topic of conversation, fodder for our casual gossip about our classmates. Who was new to the list? Oh, had he finally come out? What about that ambiguous guy… no answer to the “interested in” question? Well, that spoke volumes. Those guys whose profiles listed “men” and “women”: were they bi, or were they just “looking for friends” and not understanding what the (admirably) open-ended prompt really meant? And that seemingly-straight athlete in section? He was just “interested in men” as a joke—right? Facebook placed a new overlay of information onto mental maps of Harvard’s gay community.

I don’t presume to know how everyone used Facebook then, and I certainly don’t presume to know how all 500 million of its members use it now. Within a few years, as the site expanded and was redesigned, it became harder to search along these lines, and my friends and I graduated and moved on with our post-college lives. I, like many of my friends, don’t even answer the “interested in” question on our profiles anymore. But when some historian writes the twenty-first-century sequel to Martin Meeker’s Contacts Desired, trying to understand how queer people forged connections to one another and built communities in the early years of the new millennium, Facebook ought to be part of that story.

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New England roundup #16

Screengrab from 1974 WGBH report on anti-busing rally in Boston (click image to link to video).
Screengrab from 1974 WGBH report on anti-busing rally in Boston (click image to link to video).

After an irritatingly persistent illness, I’m getting back into action:

New England roundup #15

Entry for John Adams's Koran, from 1917 "Catalogue of the John Adams Library in the Public Library of the City of Boston" (click for full text)
Entry for John Adams's Koran, from 1917 "Catalogue of the John Adams Library in the Public Library of the City of Boston" (click for full text)

Apologies for the delay:

  • In the Globe, Ted Widmer examines Islam in early America. He begins with John Adams’s Koran: “Despite its foreign air, Adams’s Koran had a strong New England pedigree. The first Koran published in the United States, it was printed in Springfield in 1806.”
  • New England’s public colleges and universities have long existed in the shadow of its private institutions; budget cuts at the University of Massachusetts, Tracy Jan reports, have left it at a further disadvantage, compared to the region’s other state universities, when it comes to attracting the state’s top students. If you put any stock in the latest U.S. News rankings, New England’s state universities fall out in this order: UConn, UVM, UMass, UNH, UMaine, URI.
  • Meanwhile, a new report in The New England Journal of Higher Education asserts that two thirds of the jobs created in the region over the next eight years will require a post-secondary degree. In 2018, the study’s authors write, 68 percent of jobs in Massachusetts will require such a degree, the highest percentage in New England; in Maine, the figure will only be 59 percent. Local coverage from Maine here, and Rhode Island here.
  • Sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy, who helped to popularize the idea of New England as “Red Sox Nation,” declares Patriots quarterback Tom Brady New England’s “Brady Gaga” due to the obsessive attention he wins from “regional media.” Shaughnessy own employer, of course, eagerly feeds the frenzy. But I somehow doubt this coinage will catch on.
  • A warm spring means apple picking begins early this fall.

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

Whither the academic’s office in the digital age?

Office door and nametag (cc photo by vikasiamoto)
(cc photo by vikasiamoto)

In this video from Book TV, Brown University historian Gordon Wood discusses his research and writing practices while offering a tour of his home office… and his campus office… and his private study in Brown’s Rockefeller Library.

Caleb McDaniel comments that the video makes him “thankful for the post-notecard era.” I concur—for any number of reasons, but in large part because, between my laptop’s hard drive and its external companion, basically all of my dissertation research can accompany me where ever I go. This is handy, since I don’t have an office to work in.

But the Wood video, in addition to making me long for the day I (hopefully) do, also made me wonder what happens to the real estate devoted to those boxes of notecards when they’re replaced by Zotero, and to those shelves of books if/when they’re replaced by e-readers and tablets. What will academics’ offices become if they no longer need to serve as storage areas for lots of printed material?

This post at Inside Higher Ed by Herman Berliner raises some related questions and calls for “a new model of space utilization,” but doesn’t suggest what it would look like. (The commenters, in defense of the status quo, raise compelling points about privacy, student meetings, and FERPA guidelines.) What should this new model look like? And how should it address perhaps the most vital issue of all: enabling professors to impress and inspire their students without the aid of intimidatingly—but tantalizingly—crowded bookcases on every wall?

Update, 9/10: Fixed broken link—sorry about that.

New England roundup #14

  • Flyer advertising 1923 Labor Day rail excursion to Peaks Island, ME (Broadside Collection, Maine Historical Society, click for details)
    Flyer advertising 1923 Labor Day rail excursion to Peaks Island, ME (Broadside Collection, Maine Historical Society, click for details)

    Happy Labor Day! The Maine Historical Society—which, John Quincy Adams’ tweets notwithstanding, outdoes its New England peers in its embrace of social media—calls attention to a 1923 Labor Day celebration documented in its digital archives: a rail-and-ferry excursion to Peaks Island, with “attractions for everyone,” ranging from “base ball” to a trapeze act.

  • Out next month: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston, an account of the city’s nineteenth-century urbanization taking an environmental history perspective, by Brooklyn College’s Michael Rawson.
  • In an interview, Clyde W. Barrow, of UMass Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis and its New England Gaming Research Project, forecasts that expanded gaming in New Hampshire, Maine, and especially Massachusetts would result in declines in patronage and revenues at Connecticut’s casinos and Rhode Island’s “racinos.” Nevertheless, Barrow is bullish on “one of New England’s largest growth industries.” (Although the UMass center is fully state-funded, the same does not seem to be the case for the first-ever New England Gaming Summit, scheduled for September 20-21 at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut.)
  • Meanwhile, New England’s biggest industry—tourism—was buoyed this summer by “perfect weather,” the Associated Press reports, citing state tourism officials, highway tolls, hotel occupancy rates, and other barometers. But tourist traffic isn’t necessarily translating into greater spending.
  • It can only help, though, that Earl spared Cape Cod, and the rest of New England.

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future. If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post. Click here for previous roundups.

The color of Scouting during World War II

Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)
Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)

This year marks the one-hundredth birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. In a new guest post up today over at The Lazy Scholar, I discuss my nagging interest in the Scouts’ history and suggest some ways the digital archive can allow historians to pierce the organization’s own mythology and examine its place in American life. Have a look. (And my thanks to Stephen for the platform.)

One archival resource that I ran out of room to discuss in the post is the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog of the Library of Congress (LOC), which offers several hundred images of Boy Scout activities. Many of these were created by Office of War Information (OWI) photographers during World War II, and they hint that at how Scouting’s social composition became part of the government’s wartime propaganda effort. A 1942 image, taken by an OWI photographer at the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago, depicts the African American members of Troop 446. Others depict a multiracial group eating dinner at a Scout camp in New York and Portuguese American boys in New Bedford, MA.

Most striking are the two seen above. On the left: “colored, white and Chinese Boy scouts in front of the Capitol”, holding a poster celebrating the Allied coalition. On the right: a second photo of the same scene, including only the white boy. (The LOC metadata suggests a July 1941 date for the photographs, but that doesn’t seem right: both the OWI and the term “United Nations” originated in 1942.)

Although I don’t think he examines these specific photographs, George H. Roeder’s vividly-illustrated book The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (1993) establishes their context. The OWI made sophisticated use of photographic imagery—and distribution channels segmented by race and region—to celebrate social harmony on the home front without upsetting existing social arrangements. This pair of images offers powerful evidence that the Boy Scouts participated in both prongs of this effort.