Social software: fiction, action-at-a-distance and dolls

(Nancy Mauro-Flude)


1.0 Intro

I am interested in the relationship between public and networked space, and the relevance of selfhood. These new social spaces created by 'social software' programmers allow them to actively shape the meaning of the spaces in which we find ourselves and in turn challenge us to reconfigure the limits of our sensory perception. According to Mathew Fuller’s [2003] definition, Social Software is ‘built by and for those of us locked out of the narrowly engineered subjectivity of mainstream software’. There is an emerging importance of new technologies within both social and fictional spaces created by ‘social software’. These developments require a rethinking of just how far the ‘public sphere’ extends, what our notions of how we see ourselves are. The development of atranslocal public sphere requires further consideration in regard to not only the concept of what constitutes the public sphere, but also in regard to the ‘empirical attunement with out means or ends’, brought to light by Grosz:

"Perception, intellection...the technologies they spawn proceed along the lines of practical action, and these require a certain primacy in day-to-day life. But they leave something out: the untapped, nonpractical, nonuseful, nonhuman or extra-human continuity that is the object of intuition, of empirical attunement without means or ends (Grosz, 2001: 187).

Free Software has a huge potential, if you think a feature is missing maybe you are the one it takes to initiate it, but how can you if you have no contact with the Free Software community? As Fuller (2004) also states, the biggest problem is "Free Software is too internalist. The relation between its users and its developers is so isomorphic that there is extreme difficulty in breaking out of that productive but constricted circle.” It is not a new thing that when particular groups and classes interface with one another conflict or suspicion is usually aroused. Social stratification and mobility in software is still not free.

2.0 Social software and fictional space

What I am most curious about right now is the contribution of artists, women and other minority groups to social software and the various morphologies that may develop as a result. The /Eclectic Tech Carnival (/etc) is a week-long meeting and skills-exchange between women who work with computers and women who want to learn more about computers. The emphasis is on technology, craft knowledge and an imaginative way of understanding software and hardware. Just to be present and hang out in the environment of the computer lab hearing the jargon, being with people in action is basic research, an important part of one's first engagement with technology and the start of a path towards understanding the role it might play in their life. The motivating factor for this initiative is to overcome the digital and technical divide, and support women interested in computer technology, in using computers and potentially contributing to software development. /etc's hope is that they contribute to developing a more open free society and will support women by being more self-sufficient through the use of non-corporate tools.

However, women’s only space is often a contested site of discussion. This in turn raises all sorts of questions concerning the efficacy to a women only space. Furthermore, Weiden (2005) from Debian women problematises that we must occupy space differently, outside the terms of separatist refusal,

"…the role of the women's groups, to offer a friendly interface for women to get their feet wet and then join the community. The problem is when these groups don't have a clear target, in the end they turn in Barbie worlds that don't exist in reality. Instead of integrating the women into the community, they serve as ghettos, re-creating existing groups in the community with the only objective *being more friendly* for women…"

With this comment in mind, specifically pointing to the denouncement of “Barbie worlds”, I want to validate creative play in such environments. Winnicott (1971) a British Psychoanalyst discusses how ‘playing has a place’ (1971:41); he emphases the space where we play. The space of potentiality that opens up paradoxically links and disjoins the fiction and reality. The creativity at work corresponds to the shaping ability the player has over her playing space and the elements imported into it. Some rules of etiquette apply to that potential space; exterior agents will only come into play if they are accepted (for instance the /etc is a women only event), the shaping ability of the player must not be patronised (no question is too foolish, although /etc encourages a DIY approach we never say RTFM. This hidden contract is broken every time the player is reminded that she is evolving in a space established by the other: often when a ‘male’ programmer interrupts the playing activity. For instance, in /etc 2005 hosted by ESC in Graz for the first time there was a large male presence welcome on the IRC #etc channel, they were commenting and providing insights into the content of the workshops. An IRC chat room was projected onto the overhead of the wall at medienKUNSTLABOR Lab. Men were participating virtually with women facilitators and participants via the chat room. It is interesting as automatically on entering the chat they assumed the role of authority, giving constructive critical feedback such as: content of the workshop being taught, security protocols of the live email links on the website that perpetuate ‘evil’ spammers and secure IRC chatting and so on. One instance of this was in a discussion just before the KeyWorx workshop, was about the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of the software and how it is not respected because it uses Java (not a truly free software), and is not as fast in comparison to Pure Data Programming Language. The men automatically assume the role of providing helpful technical critique, even though, the writing was of an informal nature and it is still visual and emotional (the incorrect grammar and spelling), it is clear that the women intrinsically use the channel instead to bounce creative ideas around.

About the presence of the men, mainly developers and programmers, in this case, the ‘player’ senses that she must adjust and adapt herself to the exterior world, and at times more importantly at times it felt ‘as if [she was] caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine (Winnicott, 1971:65)’. Indeed constructive criticism also has its place, nethertheless this did intervene upon the creative flow of some of the women participants. The /etc events I would say give a seamless structure of the real flowing into a dream and back again. If we keep this in mind the doll featuring prominently in many female children's lives, serving as an integration object and Weidons comments referring to an inconsequential female ghetto or ‘Barbie world’ are mooted. Some women who attend have barely used a word processor and indeed I have witnessed hands shaking at the keyboards etc. For some it takes time to integrate different sets and settings and this is an initial step for some to pathway of understanding. On the other scale many women are perfectly capable of solving computer related problems, but often lack knowledge and access to peer networks. Indeed, it is usually the case that most FLOSS GUI’s appear less advanced; DarkVeggy (2005) groups the friendly GUI Mac with a Doll and complicated PC with a fireman :) To become a programmer or understand coded environments outside of a GUI, some women (and others) need a lot of integration with these languages and interfaces. Very subtle discriminations are hard wired into particular contexts. Thoughtful play provides practice with meaning and direction; practice enhances play and offers ideas a concrete expression.

The absence of female developers is a disadvantage for social software’s development, this extends to the way we communicate in an increasingly mediatised society. The lack of women involved in information technology, either too intimidated, or chastised in ways that are very subtle but strong ego trips. In order to create new public spheres that engage with and build on feminine identified ideas and visions. It is also ironic that a lot of free software programming discourse which talks the most about the de-centered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to challenge. If radical thinking is to have a transformative impact, then a critical break with the notion of authority in as mastery over must not simply be a rhetorical device (Hooks; 1994). It must be reflected in the actual habits of programming community, including styles of coding, communication, as well as chosen subject matter. Reminding us about the people on the periphery, the precarious elements of the social body, giving hopeful insights into the inclusive potential of what freedom may mean.

3.0 Software: dreaming, creation and development.

By now, I have pointed out some of the difficulties for women (and other minorities) and their involvement in software development, which primarily requires developing the skill of coding in a non-graphical user interface environment. It can be said that social relations of gender within the programming world are reflected in and shaped by the design. Freedom in general I believe is the ability to speak for myself, the ability to define myself, and the space to represent myself based on my own needs and experiences that rather than on an externally prescribed idea of me that serves somebody else’s needs, dogmas or fears. Although social software seems willing to bring together technological creativity and computer knowledge with ethical considerations and political practices I would say even within Free Software that there is a real lack of female perspective in software discourses, design and use. This turn does restrict women’s entry into and participation in the development and design of software. More precisely, I see the potential direction for social software, the use of systems thinking and design principals that provide the organising framework for implementing a particular communities vision.

I would like to understand social software as consciously designed landscapes, public spheres that mimic social patterns and relationships. If people and all the complex emergent ways in which they organise themselves are central, social software has the potential to evolve into a very creative yet sustainable culture. Indeed software has produced new public spheres and spaces for information, debate, and participation that contain both the potential to invigorate emergent structures and to increase the dissemination of critical and progressive ideas – not withstanding new possibilities for manipulation, social control, the promotion of conservative positions, and intensifying of differences between haves and have nots.

The political battles of the future might again be fought in the streets, factories, parliaments, and other sites of conflict, but politics today is already mediated by the media and will increasingly be so in the future especially if software patents act and the subsequent privatisation of code is enforced. Those interested in culture of the future should therefore be clear on the important role of social software; its relationship to free software and its development of associated public spheres, and intervene accordingly. Artists and activists cultural output is usually a product of marvelous concoction of pleasure and politics. I maintain that people who subscribe to an economy of mutual-aid and co-operation and are committed to the non-commodification of software must also embrace freedoms of experience, and expression; acceptance of difference could spread from here.


The /etc draws together diverse ideas, skills and ways of living, which need to be rediscovered and developed in order to empower us to provide for our needs beyond economic rationalism. Social software development makes transparency of human organization possible, often-invisible structures. Those principals deal with physical and energetic resources, as well as the public sphere. However, how do we incorporate and provide a container for the uncertain and variable nature of that process of integration? I believe that women identified software developers might be able to provide the answer or at least begin to nurture a space for exchange of experience that has not been circulated, or articulated into Language (or code), as we know it today. Nevertheless, for the moment feminine activities in social software are mainly conceptual spaces, collaborative virtual places where information, skills and experience are exchanged in a collective manner. The type of events such as the /etc are fundamentally about a new relationship between communication, education, craft knowledge, programming, art, and activism. This is a space in which all these people come together.

Moreover, it is acknowledged that there is a relationship between the real space of the event and myths where fictional places are evoked. The /etc is a transferable sight which carries its meaning to other places -places which as yet can only be imagined. It nominates a region which lies under the shadow of -but is still, for the moment, outside of patriarchy. The /etc project allows an involved engagement with the participants as collaborators, where the constant shift of positions, roles, pronouns, selves, discourses and non-linear stories takes place. The event continually intersects and works at the edge of many genres.

I am excited about the next step for the /etc, as often real revolution takes place not in the bloodied streets but in releasing the ideas from the realm of the imagination. I believe only then these will emerge onto the street. I will leave with a quote from Arthur Rimbaud (1871) who dreamt of recreating life through his words. When he decided that women would be the great poets of the future.

...These poets shall exist when the age long slavery shall have ended when, she will be able to live by and for herself, when man hitherto having given her freedom, she will be a poet. Women will discover the unknown. Will her word be different from ours? She will discover things that will be strange and unfathomable, repulsive and delicate. We shall take them from her and we shall understand them.

[1] Debian is a free operating system (OS) for the computer. An operating system is the set of basic programs and utilities that make your computer run. Debian uses the Linux kernel (the core of an operating system), but most of the basic OS tools come from the GNU project; hence the name GNU/Linux. For more information about the Debian Women project
[2] For a concise description of the DIY ethic see:
[3] RTFM stands for the well worn statement "Read The Fucking Manual for more info:
[4] IRC conversation. July 13 2005 /eclectic tech carnival 05
[5] KeyWorx [9] is a Multi-User Cross Media Synthesizer multi-user/multimedia features real-time sharing.
[6] For more info on Pure Data see:
[7] UpStage [10] is a web-based venue and tool for artists.