Monday, May 03, 2010

An Open Letter to danah boyd (an Ethnographer Who Does Not Capitalize Her Name)

Dear Dr. boyd:

Congratulations on achieving position #1 in the "Social Media Ethnographers" tab of every reporter's Rolodex. As April's Facebook F8 conference approached, I predicted an electronic avalanche of danah boyd, and the media did not disappoint. Your ubiquity is confirmed to me not only by Google News search but also, no doubt dearer to your heart, by re-posted snippets of your wisdom bubbling through my Facebook "stream."

Now, if I may, a small anecdote:

I once attended the recital of an Arnold, Missouri dance school, and discovered that one of the older girls had listed herself in the program as simply "Essence." Essence was in several numbers, and for each one the billing read something like, "Mary Jane Jaworski, Erin O'Sullivan, Joanne Simmons, Essence." And I have to say, Essence was a pretty good dancer. But instead of thinking "how nice for this girl that she dances so well," all I could think was "you do not get to call yourself 'Essence' in the recital program of an Arnold, Missouri dance school."

Essence came vividly back to mind some twenty years later, as I encountered the following sentence in an October, 2009 article:

Ethnographer danah boyd, who does not capitalize her name, said she watched the class divide emerge while conducting research of American teens' use of social networks in 2006.

Any insights I might have been developing on the subject of the article (socioeconomic stratification in social media use) flew through the windshield as my attention screeched to an abrupt "wait, what?" A quick reversing, then, again: "Ethnographer danah boyd, who does not capitalize her name." It was now time for me to Google you, because anyone who "does not capitalize her name" to the point of instructing a CNN reporter that she "does not capitalize her name" must surely maintain a personal website on which she she explains why.

And you do. Visitors can learn that you legally changed your name to "danah michele boyd" as the result of a "mental tangent" in which you pondered:

What's in a name? What's its worth? Why is it so valuable that it is to be capitalized? Down this path, i started thinking about names as descriptors versus separate entities. Isn't a name simply another unique adjective for me? A label? I am not my name; my name is simply another descriptor of me. Should i weight that descriptor as anything more valuable than the other adjectives used to describe me?

Well, danah, to begin with: no, your name is not "simply another unique adjective" for you. As it happens, names are not adjectives at all. They are proper nouns, which we capitalize in English probably to reflect the special attention that humans like to pay to other humans, the places they live, the groups they form, and the unique objects they create. Surely an ethnographer of social media knows that.

What interests me more is that your "mental tangent" was an outgrowth of an earlier decision to stop capitalizing the pronoun "I":

I was always bothered by the fact that the first person singular pronoun is capitalized in english -- i always thought it was quite self-righteous. . . . Ever since i was a kid, i was told that the world does not revolve around me, yet our written culture is telling me something entirely different. . . . i gave up on giving it such a special level of importance -- it is referring to me, right? I thought an attempt at minimalizing the individualization could start at home.

In order to test the sincerity of your belief that "the world does not revolve around" you, I suggest an experiment. First spend ½ hour or so poking around Then report back as to how many other names appearing on that site require explanatory parentheticals in order for editor, reader, and reporter to clarify that pretension, rather than slovenly proofreading, is at work.

Here is the list of people who get to spell their names without capitalization:

1. Celebrity poets of the 20th Century

2. Lesbian Vegetarian Canadian country music stars

3. Postmodern chroniclers of the Black female experience in America

Oh, I'm sorry... it looks like "ethnographers of social media" is not on the list.

Yours Sincerely,
Holy Prepuce


  1. what are the examples of 1-3?

  2. Oooh! I know that one.
    But I am not going to spoil it for everyone else who wants to play along at home. I'm going to leave it as a comment on your blog to confuse others.
    Also, allow me to point out with a little wryness that the guy who criticizes the lower-case-letter lady (and I get it; I love db's work but it drives me bananas, too).is a guy I only know by a name with an exclamation point. Just saying.

  3. Dear Holy Prepuce!,

    Your points are well taken, and I very much agree with your necessary and sufficient conditions (well, a list, actually) for getting to not capitalize one's name. However, correct me if danah boyd has already touched on this issue, but shouldn't you call her Dr. boyd? Or at least dr. boyd?

  4. bzzzgrrrl: (1)right you are. (2) And why do you think that I framed the post as a letter, if not to conclude it with the irony of my pseudonymous signature? Though I might point out that I know you, too, only by a vowel-less moniker. (Actually that's not true, I know your real name, but only through a complicated series of connections.) Anyway, neither of us has asked that people in the real world take us seriously under our nomes-de-blog.

    Anonymous: Ah, good point -- a closer look reveals that she has completed her Ph.D. Edit made.

  5. I don't think the poet counts since he rarely failed to capitalize his own name and is on the record telling his publisher her preferred it be capitalized. Because he occasionally wrote poems without capital letters on any of the words, lots of other people wrote his name sans caps, but he almost always used caps himself.
    Apparently the issue is addressed in the Chicago Manual of Style's latest edition:

  6. Holy Prepuce I enjoyed this post. And your comment letting me know you sometimes read my blog. I am back in action having actually progressed to the point where I can pilot my study. Whoopee. PS in real life I capitalize my name.

  7. So, authors of programming books don't get to do it, either?

  8. Thanks for this post, HP! I've run across ms. db many times, as she used to run in various San Francisco circles I was once a part of. Contrary to her stated belief that the world doesn't revolve around her, I've rarely met someone with an ego as bloated as hers.

    danah is a thoroughly narcissistic egomaniac. her work and studies may be interesting, but are they as worthy of so much media focus as another PhD student's work?

    The reason for her sheer ubiquity seems to be that she writes about "of the moment" social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook. And instead of a privileged white guy writing about these topics (which would presumably be less interesting), she is a privileged and thoroughly self-impressed white woman.

    When reporters today need a comment about Facebook's privacy horror or the use of Twitter, they seem to jump right to danah. She's basically whored herself out to everyone, with the sole apparent goal of making herself ubiquitous. Rather than, say, focusing on her work and letting it speak for itself.

    I don't think she would be interested in a topic of research unless it would lead to more a) privileged speaking engagements at conferences around the world, b) citations in national media, c) requests for comment by an 'expert' (who just earned a PhD, so hasn't been an expert for long).

    This may sound cynical and angry, but the truth is, having interacted with her semi regularly in person for a few years, I found her to be unbelievably arrogant, and particularly good at inserting herself into social scenes that she seemed to think would improve her cool cred.

    danah is all about danah. And that whole lower case thing is merely another way to make herself stand out in a crowded media world. I don't know if she is as important as she thinks she is. All I know is that she thinks she's VERY important.

  9. I suppose my comment was inspired by her latest injection into the mainstream media, namely this headline article that featured her grinning mug:

    A pretty lame article, larded through with faux outrage that gives no real insight, and in-the-know words like "digerati" and "blogosphere". Oh, and the phrase "Well, duh".

    This isn't news, its CNN attempting to look relevant. And danah boyd is more than happy to jump in and spout about that, while becoming more ubiquitous. Complete with an in-article link to her own site.

    Oh, and she closes with a quote from Spiderman?!? "With great power comes great responsibility..." Nice.

    Expect the danah boyd pearls of wisdom media avalanche to continue unabated.


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