First ritual

Inspired by my bemusement over Benjamin Burroughs’ seemingly contradictory claim that Facebook is at once “less about networking and more about broadcasting” and “a salient example of digital third places”, I decided to challenge it—that is, my own bemusement—with this week’s ritual.

I haven’t been active on social media for a few years now. My usage peaked after I moved to NY for my first job: I was a naive, introverted Midwestern girl, barely 22-years-old, newly single, with no friends and no social skills outside of the classroom; I naturally turned to Facebook and Instagram for human connection. Becoming reliant on social media basically means developing a hardcore addiction to its fickle yet relentlessly available stream of validation. It was devastating if my posts went ignored; I deleted the ones that accumulated less than double-digit likes, and continued posting more of what had been celebrated previously. The act of posting itself came with its own sick thrill (a mix of terror and pride), which could be reproduced to a degree by compulsively checking back in on the post at every opportunity, watching the “likes” count rise (or not). “Broadcasting” really is the best word for what I was doing: broadcasting evidence of my existence to everyone I’d ever known, then hoping for collective approval in return. I was like a boring, self-absorbed comedian with severe stage fright, returning to the mic day after day, desperate to trick everyone in the audience into laughing as if it was the only way I could feel good about myself.

So I was a pretty dysfunctional user, to say the least, and unfortunately didn’t realize how detrimental this was to my mental health until it was too late. That’s the thing about depression: even when it’s spiraled to a point where you hate everything about yourself and suicidal ideation is the only thing playing on every channel, at the end of the day, the truth is that you are obsessed with yourself. And social media is truly the best and worst outlet for the self-obsessed: best, because it’s essentially a big ol’ stage chanting your name; worst, because the audience never laughs hard enough.

Four years later, I set out to see if I could use Facebook completely differently—as a “third space” rather than a tool for broadcasting. Sure, Messenger isn’t exactly made for broadcasting, but it’s also not what makes Facebook, Facebook—it’s just a knockoff of the American Online paradigm. What I wanted to see is if I could somehow co-opt the Newsfeed into a third space; the broadcasting feature would just help to bring people into it.

My plan was simple: a collective gratitude practice. Every night, I would post a list of what I was grateful for that day, and beseech readers to do the same in the comments. I thought this would be an effective exercise because

  1. it had the potential to foster intimacy by…
    • requiring a little vulnerability (posting publicly is no small thing)
    • encouraging people to share joy and feel joy for others
  2. it shifts the dynamic between user and their audience
    • the content would be mundane in contrast to the big life announcements that are usually reserved for such broadcasts, thereby making it feel disarmingly low-pressure (theoretically)
    • it turns the focus on the audience and their participation, rather than me and my big announcement

Before submitting the first post, I had a moment of complete regret/panic for what I was about to do; it felt like I was about to text That Greenpoint Guy (you know, the unkempt but witty musician who only told you he loved you after the sun set and he’d had a couple to drink, which was somehow enough to keep you emotionally attached for six years. Yes I made terrible decisions in my early twenties) and fall into an emotional, codependent black hole all over again.

But then I just hit “Share”, for science.

Things of note from the fallout:

  • More people liked than commented
  • Two comments were just praise and didn’t answer the prompt
  • One comment was a gif and didn’t answer the prompt
  • One person DMed me instead of commenting
  • Thanks to a bizarre Facebook feature that displayed my post as a chat box whenever there was activity happening on it, I was able to witness in real time as “a friend” typed something, then stopped, then restarted—this continued for several minutes without actually producing a comment in the end, suggesting that perhaps even simply commenting on a post is as nerve-wracking as sharing the actual post itself:

It’s for these reasons that I started to scheme a different approach: same exercise, but through Messenger. I know, I know, but the broadcast-y nature of the Newsfeed seemed to be a major pain point in the way of engagement. Also, posts seem to get completely buried under ads (when did fb start serving so many ads?). I hypothesized that most, if not all, of my friends would humor me with their participation if I contacted them through a direct message. It would also afford for longer conversations, which are tedious and thus entirely avoided in comments sections.

Plus, the public interest in this experiment fizzled out nearly immediately:

Note the dreaded SINGLE DIGIT “LIKE” COUNT. Yeah, I was pretty done with this daily act of public humiliation.

So instead, I wrote a python script that collects moments of gratitude throughout the day in a json file; at 10:30pm, it launches an npm package called Messer (a command-line interface for FB Messenger that required me to author a few issues before it was working properly for my purposes), chooses a friend at random, and sends them a message requesting a shared gratitude practice.

Messer botched the first message it attempted to send (hence the bug reports), but it still led to a really wonderful conversation with an old co-worker of mine—from my very first job— that I hadn’t spoken to in four or five years. We caught up, shared our good things from the weekend, and at the end even made plans to meet up. It was so sweet and made me really happy—such a conversation would have never occurred if I’d kept up with my daily gratitude broadcast. In fact, he was one of my friends who’d “liked” my posts, but didn’t comment—even though he said my post made him miss me (which I like to think confirms my foregoing theories):

As much as I loved the idea of a mass gratitude practice, where everyone could benefit and feel a little closer to each other, this ended up being much more fulfilling for me.

Here’s the message it’s currently sending:

As my soft opening for this ritual, I’m only drawing from a pool of friends who had “liked” or commented on my gratitude posts. Later, I may expand it to my entire friends list.

electronic rituals wk2 class notes


  • “showing of a doing”
  • portions of the ritual do not immediately address the need of the situation
  • Types:
    • rites of passage (baptism, prom, weddings)
    • seasonal/calendrical (halloween, new year’s)
    • political (elections)
    • religious (prayer)
    • interpersonal (greetings, gifting)
  • functional taxonomy
    • solidarity and social cohesion
    • collective effervescence and communitas
    • construction of power
    • negotiation (courtrooms, elections)
  • rituals build social cohesion
  • rituals: infinite actions > steps that give the world meaning/allow us to inhabit a place
  • rituals help people figure out, divine, even construct a cosmos

assignment: find an artist and find a contrast between your and their rituals; 7 hours

Electronic Rituals wk1 reading

Facebook and FarmVille

  • the architectural design that intertwines FB and FarmVille is heightened by the formal and informal participation in ritual practices, ie digital rituals; identifying an underlying ritual structure in social gaming can help us better understand how they sustain levels of engagement and social solidarity
  • Boyd and Ellison (2007) social network sites: “web-based services that allow individuals to
    1. construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system
    2. articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection
    3. view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (p. 2) which they distinguish from “social networking sites.”
      • “networking” emphasizes “relationship initiation, often between strangers”
  • Facebook can be used both as a social network and social networking site; however, when friends reach to hundreds/thousands, it becomes less about networking and more about broadcasting
    • newsfeed can be a form of mass communication used to circulate content
  • Social gaming focuses on a smaller group of users to for a social network within a social network

Magic Circles

  • distinction between the space of game-play and the norms of everyday life; magic circles have their own set of rules, norms, and practices
  • magic circles as a ritual space


  • it is the nature of rituals’ ambiguity, “rituals’ oscillation between timeless history and contingent adaptation that allows us to believe in their overriding ‘truth’” 
  • The enacting of mediated rituals helps to legitimate that myth and instigate its accompanying symbolic power. Ritual becomes an active process of engagement and meaning making.
  • Members of social networks enacting ritual scripts through mediated technology, who then feel a sense of belonging or social cohesion through that behavioral action, enact a real sense of belonging that operates like a myth to make the collective seem real.
    • If people take something as real, it is real in its consequences 
    • ritual enactments in social networking casual games meld the real world outside the chalk line with the game space in new and meaningful ways
  • Couldry’s three basic definitions of ritual
    1. habitual action (any habit or repeated pattern, whether or not it has meaning
    2. formalized action (regular and meaningful pattern)
    3. action involving transcendent values (ie, holy communion)
  • A habit is not unimportant just because it is not “transcendental”
    • habitual actions can reinforce and deepen the larger ritual experience
    • gradations of ritual, with each passing gradation producing a stronger articulation of ritual
  • third places: communal spaces within the public sphere
    • media research has often focused on the perceived threats of media to communities; media such as TV began displacing time normally spent in third spaces (ie bars and coffee shops)
    • MMOs could be categorized as third spaces; even social networks???????????????

Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage

  • religious “nones” in advanced industrial societies: bricoleurs drawing from several “exotic religions” to construct customized, individual spiritual practice without identifying with a specific faith
    • doctrines and practices reflect privileged participants’ preferences; bricoleurs help determine the content of successful exotic faiths
  • Religious exoticism, according to Altglas, reflects fragmentation and reinterpretation of non-Christian religious traditions so that they will resonate with Western seekers. Because it revises and decontextualizes them, this cultural appropriation involves idealization that simultaneously denigrates and romanticizes non-Western faiths.
  • Spiritual seekers with prior religious affiliations look to spiritual traditions that are as different as possible from the ones in which they were raised in order to find their core identities and connect with a higher power. 
  • Individuals who become affiliated with exotic religions dedicate themselves to self-discovery and spiritual expansion by every means necessary, and they are pragmatic in judging spiritual paths by their immediate results. It is not surprising, according to Altglas, that the exotic religions that she has studied offer workshops and customized courses that are modeled on Western personal growth therapies.

Superstitious Rituals with Technology

  • When humans know just a little bit of how something works, the rest of it gets relegated to the realm of mystery and magic.
    • Today, technology is our magic: as increasingly complex and capable devices fill our lives and begin to perform more instantaneous tasks for us, your average consumer understands less and less about how these miracles are performed.
  • Blowing into video game cartridges, despite the fact that it caused more problems
  • closing apps in a smartphone for a “clearer mind”, despite it being a myth that closing background apps makes phones run faster
    • faith is stronger than the truth
  •  A phone, Nova suggests, is very nearly already a “magic wand” that can summon food—expect software developers and service providers to reduce the number of steps and interactions between our desire and its result.

The Future of Data Analysis, Tukey 1962

“Individual parts of mathematical statistics must look for their justification toward either data analysis or pure mathematics.”

Large parts of data analysis are (but as a whole is larger and more varied than):

  • inferential in the sample-to-population sense
  • incisive, revealing indications imperceptible by simple examination of raw data
  • allocation, guiding us in observation, experimentation, or analysis

How can new data analysis be initiated?

  1. seek out wholly new questions to be answered
  2. tackle old problems in more realistic frameworks
  3. seek out unfamiliar summaries of observational material, and establish their useful properties
  4. still more novelty can come from finding, and evading, still deeper lying constraints

data analysis is a science because it has 1) intellectual content, 2) organization into an understandable form, and 3) reliable upon the test of experience as the ultimate standard of validity

(Mathematics is not a science: standard of validity is an agreed-upon logical consistency and provability)

Data analysis, and the parts of statistics which adhere to it, must…take on the characteristics of science rather than those of mathematics:

  1. must seek for scope and usefulness rather than security
  2. must be willing to err moderately often in order that inadequate evidence shall more often suggest the right answer
  3. must use mathematical argument and mathematical results as bases for judgment rather than as bases for proof or stamps of validity

data analysis is intrinsically an empirical science

data analysis must look to a very heavy emphasis on judgement:

  1. judgement based upon the experience of the particular field of subject matter from which data come
  2. judgement based upon a broad experience with how particular techniques of data analysis have worked out in a variety of fields of application
  3. judgement based upon abstract results about the properties of particular techniques, whether obtained by mathematical proofs or empirical sampling

a scientist’s actions are guided, not determined, by what has been derived from theory of established by experiment

scientists know that they will sometimes be wrong; they try not to err too often, but they accept some insecurity as the price of wider scope; data analysts must do the same

“Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.” Data analysis must progress by approximate answers, at best, since its knowledge of what the problem really is will at best be approximate.

electronic rituals wk1 notes

phenomenology: not necessarily observable; what can’t be observed but only recorded by the person experiencing it

bracketing/epoche: act of setting aside whether the world exists in favor of focusing on subjective experiences; no need to prove what happened

hermeneutic(s): ways of experiencing something; methods of interpretations; approaches of extracting information; ie different tarot readings of the same hand

ethnography: methodology for conducting social science; emphasizes field work and case studies, rather than lab experiments and statistical conclusions

“the numinous”: set apart space, working with a different set of rules, in order to evoke a phenomenological experience; labyrinth Rituals:


  • rites of passage (baptism)
  • seasonal/calendrical (halloween)
  • political (elections)
  • religious (prayers)
  • interpersonal (TNO)

Rituals are related to performance, play, gesture, discourse, studies, etc.

Divination: ritualized practices of finding things out; “subjunctive”

  • cleromancy: casting and reading (dice, cards, i ching)
  • augury, prophecy and prediction: interpreting natural phenomenon
  • mediums and messages: reading at a distance; Ouija board
  • spells, hexes

How New York are you? [documentation]


“So, do you feel like a real New Yorker yet?”

How can a recent transplant possibly answer this question without sounding like as much of a jerk as the other recent transplant who just asked it? For the past six years, my go-to has been “fuck that, I’m from Chicago”—but as a wise friend recently advised me, if you don’t have anything nice to say, just respond with a number.

How New York are you? is a voice-controlled browser game where two players compete to be crowned the realest New Yorker. The computer volleys hot topic keywords from the past year, and each player will have one shot per topic to prove how aligned they are with most common New York opinions. The quicker and closer the response, the more points earned.

In order to make this game, I first used twint, a twitter-scraping python module, to gather tweets originating from New York during 2018 that were relevant to popular topics on Twitter this year. Then I used this corpora to train word2vec models for each topic using gensim.

When building my initial idea, I had uploaded word2vec models directly to the browser with tensorflowjs/some code stolen from ml5js, then used tensorflowjs’s tsne library to reduce the vectors to two dimensions for visualization (beware your array types when using this library!). However, these calculations proved to be too burdensome to perform before each game, so for the final iteration, I ended up doing the tsne reduction in python (adapting a script from Yuli Cai’s workshop last year)—then uploading the two dimensional vectors to the browser instead. On Gene’s suggestion, I plan to reduce the models to three dimensions instead, then reduce to two dimensions with tensorflowjs during gameplay, in order to get more accurate results.

I used Chrome’s Speech Synthesis API to announce the topic for each round, as well as their Speech Recognition API to capture each player’s responses (recognition.interimResults is everything). I hope to someday make a version for Firefox as well.

Once a player responds to a topic and the API transcribes the response, tensorflowjs calculates the distances between each word in their response and the original keyword, then averages the distances in order to calculate a final score for their turn. The longer the distance and slower the response, the lower the score.

d3js then plots the respective embeddings in the browser. At the end, if the winner’s score surpasses the tenth highest score in history, they can add their name to the high score board for eternal fame and glory.

Play the game here.

NLP (neural aesthetic class notes)

skip-gram: predicts next/prev word(s) based on present word

CBOW: opposite of skip-gram; input is a sequence of words, output is the next word

embedding size = possible relational directions

universal sentence encoder: colab, arxiv

hierarchal neural story generator (fairseq): repo

tracking the drift of words

wiki-tSNE: groups wikipedia articles by topic

python library wikipedia

  • text ="New  York University")

spacy: better than nltk? can parse entities, ie organizations (New York University) time (12pm), etc

Final Project Proposal

For my final project, I’d like to create a browser game in which two players compete to think of words as unrelated to each other as possible, as quickly as possible. The browser will keep score, which is determined by 1) the distance between two words as defined by word2vec models, and 2) the time it takes for the player to think of their word. The browser will also map the players’ words based on a tsne reduction of the word2vec model, in order to provide a visual indicator of performance.

Collect inspirations: How did you become interested in this idea? 

I love the idea of statistically analyzing text, and have really enjoyed building Markov Models and training LSTMs in the past. Word2Vec is especially interesting because it’s able to map words semantically, and does this solely through the analysis of large amounts of corpora. Depending on the dataset, visualizing these relationships can reveal a lot about how the source perceives the world.


Collect source material:

  1. text sources: Wikimedia dump, Google News (pre-trained word2vec), kanye tweets, wiki-tSNE for different topics (art movements, periods of history, celebrities, movies, etc)
  2. nltk + punkt to clean data, remove stop words
  3. gensim to train word2vec model
  4. tensorflowjs to calculate distance
  5. tensorflowjs tsne library to visualize


Collect questions for your classmates.

  • What should the title be?
  • Game features?
  • Text sources?

What are you unsure of? Conceptually and technically.

  • How to use pre-trained GloVe models with tensorflowjs/ml5?
  • Is this a fun game??

Class Notes:

  • show averages between words (as explanations)
  • narrative