Thursday, December 4, 2014

Computer Engineer Barbie: New Media, Citizen Authorship, and Audience Participation

Pamala Ribon's blog critiques computer engineer Barbie book
Pamela Ribon's blog,

Two weeks ago, a blog post by TV writer, novelist, and screenwriter Pamela Ribon became a viral sensation, spreading across social media channels, spawning dozens of blog posts and news reports on other media sites, and drawing attention to the very real problem of sexual stereotypes in the tech industry. Her piece, a critique of a children’s book in which Barbie works to become a computer engineer, has resonated with her readers, many of whom have contributed to the ongoing development of the narrative by crafting spin-off stories and social media posts. Ribon’s blog entry illustrates the powerful and disruptive nature of Web 2.0 tools in the creation and dissemination of contemporary news stories.

Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer
Computer Engineer Barbie: sound concept, flawed execution
Ribon may not have written her piece with the intent of serving as a journalist or creating a firestorm of controversy that would lead to broader social change, but her blog has itself become a news story and has already generated a response from both Mattel—the parent company which owns the Barbie brand—and Amazon, the online retailer that sells many Barbie-related products, including the book in question. New media platforms enabled this story to be developed in the first place, helped it reach a widespread audience through social media sharing, and even facilitated audience participation in the creation of a crowd-sourced reimagining of the original storyline. Ribon’s blog post—and its subsequent influence on other digital communications platforms—provides a compelling illustration of how new media have changed who authors content, how it is distributed, and how the audience is able to actively participate in the continuing development of the narrative following its original publication.

Although the Barbie book was originally published back in 2010, initial criticism of the story was not powerful or widespread enough for the matter to be picked up by traditional media. Ribon’s article not only reported the story but created it, generating the public interest (or outrage) that fueled the spread of the news and made Ribon herself the focus of other blog posts and media reports about the growing popularity of the scandal. While traditional media failed to recognize and report on the matter for four years, a mere blog post has generated immense interest in the story over the course of a few days. It’s not that the topic is obscure, either; a Business Insider story about Silicon Valley and gender equality problems ran back in February, noting that “only 12.9% of Silicon Valley engineers are women,” and the blog of the San Francisco Gate drew attention to a Twitter photo highlighting the lack of women at an Apple developer conference in the summer of 2013. Although professional journalism remains relevant and important, it is no longer exclusive; with new media, the authorship of newsworthy stories is not relegated to the ranks of news reporters.

Twitter came alive with responses to Ribon's blog post
Major blogs picked up Ribon's story on Twitter
New media channels have also impacted the distribution of news stories, which are no longer primarily shared through the source article itself. While there is no public counter for the number of views Ribon’s original article has received, it has generated a relatively small number of comments—only 178 as of this writing. By contrast, links to the post have been tweeted over 2,300 times, and it has received over eleven thousand Facebook likes. A trio of posts on have garnered over 9,300 combined shares, and similar stories have appeared on other blogs and traditional media outlets including TechCrunch, CNET, BuzzFeed, Slate, Time, ABCNews, USAToday, NPR, and the BBC. The synergistic effect of various new media platforms working in conjunction contributes to the spread of the story in ways not possible with traditional print news alone.

Users can revise computer engineer Barbie text on the Feminist Hacker Barbie site
Feminist Hacker Barbie site allows users to remix the book's content
Finally, new media outlets invite audience participation to an unprecedented degree. Ribon’s contribution to the blogosphere has demonstrated this in several noteworthy ways. First, her post has inspired others to revise the text to correct perceived problems with the original. Programmer Kathleen Tuite, for instance, has created the Feminist Hacker Barbie site to enable users to select a page from the original and enter their own text to create a remix, and a Tumblr account allows these mashups to be shared to a wider audience. Furthermore, the backlash again the book has led to the release of an official apology from toy manufacturer Mattel, and the book is no longer available for sale on Amazon. For a short time, the link to the book's Amazon page brought up a “404 – Document Not Found” error on the web site; now, the page appears to be available again, displaying 154 one-star reviews out of 171 total—with all but a handful of those coming in the few weeks since Ribon's blog entry was posted. Because many of Ribon’s readers quickly became vocal activists, real change took place in short order.

Amazon reviews of computer engineer Barbie book are overwhelmingly negative
While traditional media have always enabled transformative social change, the degree to which new media extend and amplify that influence is remarkable. As the case study of a simple blog post and its cultural impact poignantly illustrates, new media outlets can serve as powerful tools for creating, sharing, and interacting with news stories, encouraging citizen authorship and reader participation.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tesla Science Center Gets Another Boost from "The Oatmeal" Cartoonist

Wardenclyffe Tower, 1904. Public domain photo.
Nikola Teslathe inventor, engineer, and visionary thinker who famously rivaled Edisonmay soon be honored in a proposed science center and museum to be located at one of his former laboratories, the New York site known as Wardenclyffe. First, however, the group behind the project needs to raise funds to clean up hazardous materials and begin renovations of the buildings on the property.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Multimedia Tools: A Case Study

Image courtesy of CURSORCH

New media are still primarily driven by text-based content. McEachern (2013) notes that “Social media are, in many ways, inherently written media […] even those that do not rely primarily on text do have important textual elements” (p. 280). Nevertheless, audiovisual and interactive materials are increasingly being used to supplement and enhance web and mobile content; photographs, charts, infographics, music and audio, movies, widgets, and even font selection can enhance a reader’s experience and focus his or her attention on key elements of a message. “The real trick,” Sniderman (2010) explains, “is adding multimedia that enriches your site, product, or brand without taking away from your company’s core message and aesthetic.” (para. 2). Done effectively, multimedia techniques can complement the written material in a digital document.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Eleven Blog Best Practices

Clip board and pen
Image courtesy of Dave Crosby
Best practices

There are at least eleven aspects of web log creation the inclusion and optimization of which could be described as best practices for blog authors looking to improve their contributions to the form, grouped in three key areas: content and style (substance); layout/design, widgets, links, and informational sections (function); and title, body, labels/metadata, URL/permalink, and images (form).

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Quiet Storm of the Heads-Up Display Market

Cotton Google Glass close-up against red background

While Google Glass has captured most of the recent press about head-worn computing technology, there are nearly two dozen similar digital display devices in development or already available for purchase. The heads-up display market is quietly and rapidly becoming a diverse, growing sector of the wearables space, with dozens of players ranging from upstart entrepreneurs to well-established tech firms. Some of these companieslike Recon, Epson, and Sonyhave had consumer-ready visual display products on the market for years and are releasing second- and third-generation devices.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What's Your Favorite Reading Rainbow Memory?

After a 23-year run and reincarnation as an iPad app, Reading Rainbow is now poised to come to the web. A tremendously successful Kickstarter campaign launched yesterday seeks to expand the existing pool of interactive books and video field trips in its digital collection and make a specialized classroom version available for free to cash-strapped schools.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Running a 50-Mile Ultramarathon with Google Glass

In my 50-word #ifihadglass application essay, I wrote that I would, among other things, "record mudpit crossings during a 50-mile ultramarathon." At that point, I had run a dozen road marathons and several difficult trail events—including a trail marathon with a 3,900-foot elevation change and a pair of 50K (31-mile) ultras—but a full fifty miler would be 19 miles further than anything I'd ever run before. I treated my application as a promise, though, and resolved to run the Dances With Dirt 50-mile trail run in Hell, Michigan when I was accepted as a Google Glass Explorer.