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by Kim Witten on July 8, 2011

Yesterday was my first day of the LSA Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I’m signed up for 4 classes, and auditing 4 more. The first class, starting at 8:30 in the morning somewhere in the labyrinth maze of sprawling campus, is Robert Malouf’s Probability and Information Theory. So far, it’s a fantastic primer on statistical analysis and other handy goodies. We spent the morning reviewing logic, set theory and how to calculate probabilities of dice rolls and poker hands. Hey, math is fun again!

Next, I dropped into William Croft and Richard Blythe’s Mathematical Models of Language Change. I originally thought I’d audit this one, but turns out that it is exactly what I need to know for my research, so I swapped out something else to get in. It’s a lab class, so enrolment is necessary if I’m going to get a space at a computer to learn Python and do the assignments.

This morning’s lecture for that class was theoretical, reviewing a history of biological and linguistic evolutionary theory that account for replication, reproduction and change. We spent a bit of time on Dawkins’ idea of memes and replicators, as illustrated in his book, The Selfish Gene. While the theory has its flaws, the term is here to stay in some form or another. And both the lexeme and the concept are extremely relevant to my research. And so it has been useful to get a biologist’s and linguist’s perspective on what the theory brings to the field, as well as where its shortcomings are. Which brings me full circle back to MetaFilter.

Over the years I’ve extensively followed and participated in gender threads on MetaFilter. The site has a long and storied and mostly productive history of gender debate and awareness. This has led to a lot of positive change, a few closed-account tragedies, and much, much, much, much, much, much, much discussion, to sample just a few. This ongoing dialog most definitely influences and is influenced by language use. It’s been something I’ve been intent on exploring further. The two classes I took yesterday afternoon address this directly…Sociolinguistic Variation by Penny Eckert, a linguistic legend in her own right and Language, Gender and Sexuality in the Material World, co-instructed by Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz, two more heroes of the third waves.

All of this intellectual stimulation inspired me to write this post, paying heed to the unignorable and often funny meta-ness of my MetaFilter research. It seems there’s always another layer, where it all folds back in on itself. Almost as if to point and laugh. It’s delightfully poetic, in the Roman Jakobson sense of the word. So meta. Or maybe meta-synchronic.

Case in point: a few days ago, another epic 1,100+ comment gender thread (and corresponding MetaTalk thread) was posted to MetaFilter. The thread on the blue was about Rebecca Watson’s thoughts on being propositioned at 4am in an elevator by a fellow conference attendee at the World Athiest Convention, where she gave a lecture about why women may feel uncomfortable coming to conventions because of the frequent occurrence of unwanted attention or sexist behavior. Dawkins dismissively commented on the incident, which became its own side story (see links in MeFi post for more backstory).

On MetaFilter, this was the impetus for a Dawkins-bashing and prompted a 200+ comment MeTa post yesterday, asking the community to explain its stance on Dawkins. In addition to the ire, the comments include a range of MetaFilter perspectives on The Selfish Gene and memetic theory. Incidentally, my supervisors had recently and wisely cautioned me about referencing Dawkins in my dissertation writing, with the caveat to tread lightly, as both the theory and its creator were rife with contention in various communities. So, between the Institute and MetaFilter, I’m getting more information to explore than I could probably ever hope to gain by directly asking.

It should also be noted that prior to all of this, I randomly borrowed The Selfish Gene from a MeFite friend (although I had to return it before I got a chance to finish, as I was leaving the country). And the word ‘meme’, being phonetically variable and starting with ‘me’, is on my M-Set likeforms list. It is both semantically salient and has a unique social history on MetaFilter, including but not limited to the impassioned stances against Dawkins.

So that’s the relevance of Dawkins these days to me. I shall write the ‘memes’ chapter of my PhD dissertation quite informed and very carefully.

There are other examples of strange confluence. The Krishnamurthy MetaFilter mystery comes to mind. Krishnamurthy’s paper was a case study of MetaFilter, demonstrating the role of a community weblog in the digital news space. Within this paper, one of the earliest and oft-cited weblog classification schemes was presented. Weblogs were divided along two dimensions (personal vs. topical and individual vs. community), yielding four quadrants – today’s current, updated model of ‘Filter blog’ vs. ‘Diary blog’ is clearly based on this scheme to some extent (Herring, 2004). I also do not know whether the term ‘Filter blog’ originated from this paper (Krishnamurthy’s innovation) or through the research of others. The next obvious question is whether the name MetaFilter had any influence/relation to the term ‘Filter blog’. Finding and reading the article, or understanding his relationship to MetaFilter would probably clear a lot of this up, but it’s been surprisingly difficult.

I’ve done quite a bit of emailing and researching to find this article or anything related to it. Krishnamurthy was a MetaFilter member, but his posting history (and other google results) are somewhat odd and further complicate things.

I know MeFites like a good mystery, and have successfully unraveled a few, but this one seems destined to remain unsolved. And it’s probably better that way, as it’s not always so great to poke into people’s pasts. Were this something wanting a resolution, emails wouldn’t go unanswered as such.

Let me just say here that it was amusingly odd to run into this MetaFilter connection while reading through Computer-Mediated Communication articles. It’s like, “Hai! Somebody put some MeFi in my CMC!”

You see, even though I presented it here in this post as if I found the Krishnamurthy article first, that was absolutely not the case. Just another happy accident.

And one more: When I conducted the March 2010 MetaFilter pronunciation survey, I was fortunate to have learned from two prior pivotal events. The first was lewistate’s dissertation research, titled: What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking: Ethos at Work in an Online Community, much of this work was based on a site questionnaire. I participated in his data gathering and then somewhat regrettably over-participated in the related MetaTalk thread. Those comments aside, the experience allowed me to see how I might like to conduct my own survey and how the community might respond. lewistate’s research resulted in a wonderful dissertation, which I’d encourage anyone to read here (link, again here).

The second event was the November Favorites Thread (caveat: this post has 2700+ comments and therefore slow-loading). It’s a monster, but it allowed for several positive outcomes, personal and otherwise. The community response to this temporary site change was incredibly eye-opening. It inspired what has now been years of pondering the notion of favorites, as they relate to semiotics and pragmatics. Which in turn inspired my linguistic feature tattoos, which serve as dogwhistles to both wordnerds and MeFites alike. I should also mention that, for whatever reason, pics of these tattoos have been circulating lately…I’ve now had three people come up to me in the last three days at the Institute. They want to know whether the picture they’ve seen on the internet of my wrists is in fact me. I raise my right arm for affirmation. Oh, fun with signs.

Back to favorites…moderators pb and cortex conducted post-fiasco site survey, which allowed me to read MetaTalk comments about the survey and community thoughts on data collection in general. It familiarized the community with the process of taking another survey, as well as provided the framework for the code-mods to build my survey pages on the shell they’d already created. I am so grateful for those small and unintended outcomes.

Additionally, that favorites thread is the data source for some wonderful research by MeFite DiscourseMarker and her colleague, who are examining discourse strategies surrounding online conflict.

Which has all led to cortex, lewistate, DiscourseMarker & her colleague, and myself to presenting a MetaFilter-themed panel at the upcoming Association of Internet Researchers conference (AoIR12), this October in Seattle, WA. Each of us will be drawing upon our research in these areas, to collaborate on an interdisciplinary panel that satisfies this year’s theme of Performance and Participation.

And lastly, another fun meta circularity is found in the word ‘beans’. The notion of ‘beans’ and the idea of ‘beanplating’ is a meme that began on MetaFilter on April 2, 2007, via this comment. Since then, the frequency of ‘beans’ and its likeforms has skyrocketed, indicating a specific enregisterment on MeFi. I’ve been scrupulously counting beans, in measures of frequency over time. For fun at first, but now quite methodically.

I’ve also been teaching myself R Project. After the Institute, I will be attending Stefan Gries’ R Project Bootcamp, at University of North Texas. R Project is an open-source statistical package that will allow me to do, among many other things, model the frequency of memes like beans. Did I mention that the charts I will be using to display this data happen to be called beanplots?


Herring, S. C., Kouper, I., Scheidt, L. A., and Wright, E. (2004). Women and children last: The discursive construction of weblogs. In: L. Gurak, S. Antonijevic, L. Johnson, C. Ratliff, and J. Reyman (Eds.), Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs. University of Minnesota.

Krishnamurthy, S. (2002). The Multidimensionality of Blog Conversations: The Virtual Enactment of September 11. In Maastricht, The Netherlands: Internet Research 3.0.

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2 Comments
  1. k8t permalink

    I took my R classes with Gries too. :)

  2. Fantastic, have a great time at Boulder. I wish I was there :(

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