Sunday, December 31, 2006

non-disclosure agreements

Everyone makes you sign a non-disclosure agreement these days. NDAs are all the rage.

It’s not as if they tell you anything once they make you sign an NDA. No secrets are imparted. No arcane knowledge is transmitted. No shape-shifting is discussed. They just don’t trust you enough to tell you anything, in spite of all of this legal ass-covering.

I went to have lunch with a friend who works at an unnamed Silicon Valley company – not the one where the cafeteria is free, but another one, one you've probably never heard of – and I had to sign an NDA. The receptionist gave me a look full of significance and disgust when I tried to opt out. Once. Twice. Three times. I buttoned "Decline" each time I was offered the NDA to sign and would have to start over.

It turned out that the system that creates visitor's badges wouldn’t produce a printed badge unless you signed the NDA.

The man behind me, a vendor, waiting not-very-patiently, echoed the receptionist’s icy glare.

“Just sign it! For godssakes!” I could see it in both their expressions. “Sign it already! What's the matter with you?”

The vendor showed solidarity with the receptionist by flirting his way through his own sign-in process. He signed away his right to disclose as if it were pillow talk, part of an elaborate mating ritual. They smiled a secret smile of collusion at each other. Was that a wink?

So I signed an NDA to eat lunch at Company X's cafeteria. Now I won’t be able to tell you what Company X has in its salad bar. Whether or not there are pickled beets. If the tofu cubes are fresh. How many kinds of crunchies there are to sprinkle on top of your greens (hint: 3). If there’s grilled asparagus on offer (“Asparagus? There goes the golden showers weekend!” as they say at the Eagle Tavern). Or even whether Company X's cafeteria had incorporated Yoram's revolutionary idea: A gravy bar ("An employee smothered in gravy is a happy employee").

Nope. I’m going to have to keep it all a secret, as promised in writing.

NDAs don’t just keep trade secrets and business strategy safe; they also hide embarrassing facts from the light of day. Google’s agreements with the university libraries, the ones whose books they’re madly scanning?


Salaries? Severance agreements? Out-of-court settlements?

Secret. Secret. Secret.

It’s a wonder that other establishments besides Silicon Valley corporations have not adopted this kind of legal document. It seems so useful. Perhaps one day the whole of US foreign policy will be covered under an NDA.

I thought about NDAs again and again during our annual Xmas holiday excursion to LA.

In a way, the whole experience should be covered by an NDA. Who wants to hear about other peoples’ holiday trips?

No-one, really. No-one. You wouldn’t be reading this if I’d been coerced into signing an NDA. You pay a therapist to listen to shit like that. In fact, there's an entire genre of cartoons -- I'm thinking the Lockhorns, Howard Huge, or Family Circus -- all based on the idea that no-one can stand seeing anyone else's vacation slides.

But I haven't signed this time. You're gonna hear all about it. Like a Girls Gone Wild commercial, I'll even turn up the volume.

First you have to know that I’ve spent every Xmas vacation of my life in LA. So I have nothing to compare it to. I love LA at Xmas time. It’s seductively warm and sunny and blue-skied. It’s the LA of my youth, where everyone’s friendly and dachshunds trot double-time along the Strand wearing Santa hats on their little pointy-snouted heads, mindful to avoid the dangerous roller-skaters and the surfers crossing the last sidewalk between them and the waves. Arf! Arf-Arf!

It’s an Angelyne billboard, LA is. A Randy Newman song. A Three's Company episode.

If I had signed an NDA, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how swell it is. Nor would I tell you that all of my attempts to move to significantly colder climes – Connecticut, Massachusetts, and beyond – were foiled by spending the Xmas holidays in LA. I’d go for a visit at Xmas, spend a few warm afternoons walking on the beach, pretending I didn’t want a tan when I really did. ("Oh, that? It was an accident. I forgot the sunscreen. Who'd have thought it'd be so sunny?") And I’d be sucked back in again. I’d invariably move back in February, Joan Didion, Big Doughnut, and X on my mind.

Each time, I’d use the same excuse: I don’t want to change dentists. You choose your dentist for life and my dentist was in Gardena, just off Alondra Boulevard.

But if we were all under NDAs, it'd be a lot simpler.

“How was your trip to LA?” friends would ask.

“Can’t tell you. I’m under an NDA.” you’d answer.

And that would be that. No-one else would’ve moved to LA and LA wouldn’t have gotten so damn big and the 405 wouldn’t be moving at a crawl day and night.

Metering wouldn't ever need to be on.

For the last 15 years or so, during our Xmas visit we’ve stayed at a sleazy little motel on the Strand in Hermosa Beach called The Sea Sprite. The Sea Sprite. “Stay at the beach; play at the beach” – that’s the imprint on their free postcards. The Sea Sprite used to be something of a secret, and you could usually get a room. On busy days, it was filled with French tourists and surfers who’d grown up in the South Bay and moved somewhere else. But mostly the Sea Sprite wasn’t too busy.

It was a dingy little pink motel on the beach with a flickering sign and no-slip strips on the stairways.

Now – thanks to the efficacy of our communications system and the fact that The OC, Monk, and Gilmore Girls all filmed there – you have to scramble to get one of their old-fashioned motel rooms with their lumpy mattresses, sticky indoor-outdoor carpeting, unlightable wall furnaces, and that mildewed smell that beach houses always have. You send ‘em a check months ahead of time to hold the room (the deposit is one-half the room’s total cost) and they cash it right away. They’re serious. You’re unlikely to get that earnest money back if you chicken out at the last minute. Doesn't matter what the reason is. If you weren’t serious, you shouldn’t have been making a reservation.

And now the motel is a tasteful light blue with dark blue accents and the sign doesn't flicker.

The Sea Sprite should have its own NDA, given the current state of affairs. The Sprite is so busted by websites like tripadvisor ("What a dump!") and hotelchatter ("Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?"), because not only is the Sea Sprite no longer a secret; the people who stay there expect it to be something other than what it is.

You can tell: the Sea Sprite ranks #7 of 7 hotels in Hermosa Beach in TripAdvisor's popularity index. It’s not well-loved. Fruiter from Seattle tells his story:

So the first night we were there, I closed the sliding glass door and pulled down the latch, thinking it was locked. At 2 am I wake up to my wife yelling at me that someone is in bed with me. I look down and there is an asian [sic] girl, about 25 laying next to me dry heaving, or at least I thought she was dry heaving. She was wasted. I lifted her up and steered her out the door, which was now open. She finished up and banged on the door. I had pulled the curtain and locked the door. She saw me, realized she had gone to the wrong room and left. None of this is the hotel's fault, obviously. The problem was that she had gotten some puke on the bedding, the nightstand, and the carpet. When they cleaned they didn't change the wole [sic] bed, just the sheets, the [sic] didn't clean the nightstand or the carpet. We complained. The guy at the front desk blamed us for leaving the door unlocked and told us we would be charged for the extra cleaning!!!
So ol' Fruiter didn’t lock his sliding glass door. Some people would pay extra for a young Asian woman to slip in their room under cover of the night, crawl into their bed, and vomit on them. He didn’t have to. In fact, I'm certain there are whole acronyms devoted to this fetish on Craigslist. Get with the program, Fruiter!

Then there’s KatieScarlettO from Salt Lake City:

This last visit we had two drunk men on the other side of the wall beating each other all night, even throwing the TV down the hall stairs. There is no nighttime desk coverage (which is a whole other building anyway) and we were afraid if we called the police that these guys would know who had called. So we sat up terrified all night and there was nothing we could do about it.
KatieScarlettO is unfamiliar with the old Hermosa Beach, a place where surfers lived in garages without plumbing and TV-throwing was a popular mode of self expression. The Mermaid – a dive bar where the barflies’d sit in the dark just footsteps away from the blinding beach sunshine, not caring whether it was 5am or 5pm – occupied prime real estate at the end of Pier Avenue. Either/Or Books – the LA equivalent of Kepler’s – was right up the street.

The TV throwers – they’re extra too. KatieScarlettO, you’ll see a charge reflected in your bill when you check out.

The Sea Sprite would’ve benefited from an NDA. If they’d had visitors sign one upon registration, none of these stories would’ve been told.

What happens on the beach, stays on the beach.

Then too, no-one would know that each Xmas day, the staff exchanges gifts in the tiny courtyard. They set up a miniature Xmas tree on top of a picnic table and stack all the gifts under it. Each person has drawn a “Secret Santa” name out of a hat a few weeks earlier, so everyone gets something; some of the younger staff members even squeal with delight at their presents. Everybody seems to know each other pretty well: the head maid has been there 17 years; some of the other maids have been there almost that long. We always watch the gift exchange from the anonymity provided by being inside a sliding glass door.

Certainly the NDA would cover that added bit of sweetness too.

When I was growing up, I remember the Strand in Hermosa as being lined with funky little beachfront cottages, bits of shells and broken blue and green glass pressed into their front walls. A couple of beater bicycles chained up in the yard. Surfboards with a light crust of Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax and sand leaning on the rails of upstairs balconies. Sand everywhere. It was by no means opulent. When I was 9, I couldn’t imagine anywhere better to live.

Like everyone else who lives along Hermosa Beach, any stray moments during the Xmas holiday we spent strolling up and down the Strand – promenading from 10th Street to 1rst Court; from 1rst Court to 35th Street; and back to 10th Street (and the Sea Sprite) again. I strained to see remnants of the old cottages. It’s hard to find even the remotest trace of those old beach shacks.

But our memories play tricks on us. Were there ever beach shacks in Hermosa? I found a memoir recalling the early 1940s: the houses built on the prime Strand real estate were substantial and the lots were expensive, even then. The lot at 2500 Strand, where 25th Street meets The Strand, was $500 in 1910 and the house pictured was $3,000. Not cheap. Not funky. A good, solid, place on the beach for a good, solid family to enjoy a breezy escape from the rigors of a Pasadena summer. Not bohemians. Not a shack.

I’d like the facts to sign an NDA with my memory: no need for the facts to screw up a perfectly good bout of nostalgia. The fin de siecle Cathy couldn’t afford a place in Hermosa Beach either.

The most natural thing to do as you walk along The Strand in the darkness of a perfect winter night – careful to avoid hints of dog shit left over from the day’s walking of the pooches – is to look in the windows. Walkers are the only ones who can really look in, unless a stray seagull or sandpiper wants to peek, so the residents seldom obstruct their views with curtains. Normal rules of etiquette and good taste are suspended on The Strand.

The funny thing is, you hardly ever see people when you look in. You’d think they’d be staring off at the distant lights of Palos Verdes and Malibu, perhaps like Jay Gatsby looking at the light at the end of the dock across the bay. I don’t see the blue light of a TV screen, so maybe they’re in one of the back rooms – the media room, according to real estate ads – watching something they’d TiVo’d earlier in the day.

But what I wonder is, are the people who live in these glass houses still glad they have a piece of coast once they’ve lived in full view for awhile? Once they’ve gone through a cycle of seasons. A noisy summer. June fog. The hottest day of the year. A major drinking holiday. A rainy season.

You know that the realtor who sold them the place used every cliché about location. Even Frank Bascombe, realtor extraordinaire, said stuff like, “Real estate’s always good by the ocean. Inventory’s my problem. If I had a house like this [to sell] every day, I’d be richer than I am.” You can’t disagree with him: they try to manufacture more coastline, but it just doesn’t work very well.

“I wish I’d bought that Italianate villa in Malibu. 180 degrees of ocean view in an exclusive gated community. All the privacy you could hope for.”
That’s what today’s Strand dwellers say in my mind. They’re chock-a-block with buyer’s remorse. They see the dog urine (and perhaps human urine) on the wall separating sand from cement. They can hear the shrieks of revelers all summer long. The endless promenade of beach-goers pass their front porches. The sun bleaches everything that’s anywhere near the west-facing windows.

“I wish I’d bought that mid-century California Rancher in Lunada Bay.” I can hear the homeowner mutter from his media room.

Is it schadenfreude?

The NDA would cover schadenfreude. Oh yeah, I could experience schadenfreude; I just couldn’t gloat publicly. My public attitude would be one of amazement at your great good luck.

“Oh, you live on The Strand. Oh lucky you.”

And now I’ve returned to San Francisco/Silicon Valley/Northern California, land of the NDA.

Did I have a nice Xmas?

I’m not telling.

Am I moving back to LA?

Dr. Kawahara retired years ago; my dentist is in Palo Alto.

So have a happy New Year, one and all. Just don’t tell anyone, okay?

Friday, December 22, 2006

but is it art?

[Warning: this post is dense with Caltech trivia and unabashed nostalgia. Proceed at your own risk.]

I didn’t have a lot of walking-around money when I was an undergrad. I had squirreled away the proceeds of several summer internships, internships that I approached with a fair amount of stoicism but little real enthusiasm. How could you be enthusiastic about spending the summer in the confines of a windowless building like R6 (or its even uglier fraternal twin, M5) writing Fortran code you knew no-one would ever use?

That money always felt hard-won. It made me into an unrepentant cheapskate. It made me think twice before I bought anything.

To be honest, I don’t remember how much those big fat indelible El Marko pens that I coveted cost. Maybe they were cheap. Maybe they set me back as much as a bottle of Night Train Express, an amusing -- yet unpretentious -- little full-bodied wine with a nose reminiscent of Sheila Shine Stainless Steel Cleaner, an odor ripe with methyl ethyl ketone and other fruity solvents and a taste only slightly more appealing than Aqua Velva. Come to think of it, Night Train Express smelled suspiciously similar to the black El Marko pens.

But even excessive thrift couldn’t keep me from buying my very own complete set of El Markos, one where none of the colors had dried out. A set where the yellow marker hadn’t been muddied by coloring over a blue patch with it to make sea green. A set where red hadn’t gone missing. A set where none of the tips were smushed into pulpy blurs. I wasn’t willing to submit to the vagaries of the communal pens that were stored in the Alley 1 hallway cabinet along with the pyramid of spent Whip-It cartridges.

I didn’t buy the markers all at once. The Caltech bookstore had the basics: black, red, green, blue. [Now I regret not having splurged on one of those euphonious "I'm a Caltech Beaver" women's t-shirts while I was shopping, since they seem to no longer be available.] I gradually found the jazzier El Marko colors -- purple, brown, yellow, and orange -- at places like Vroman’s. There were other brands of pens with sexier colors like turquoise and magenta, but El Markos were the only pens with sufficient stamina to write on the rugged Dabney House walls. When those pens were fresh, the colors were sweet and pure.

At first, I was reluctant to add my marks to the walls. There were still old Darbs around who knew Paul Re, the artist who painted The Birth of God (from an early photograph) in the Dabney entryway. That mural (only the facing side is shown here) set the bar awfully high. Then there was Adam Melch’s classic re-rendering of S. Clay Wilson’s Lester Gass, the Midnight Misogynist up in Alley 2 (“Phaw! These skinny cigars taste like shit!”). And Dave Webster’s tiny but meticulous psychedelic noodlings on the interstices of the Alley 1-2 staircase, the drawings that were at eye-level for me on the fifth step or so.

It was like those freshman physics qualifier problems: I felt daunted. Subdued. Overshadowed by the talents of my classmates. How could someone who’d blown Qualifier Problem A, messed up on second chance Qualifier Problem B, watched Qualifier Problem C whiz by (“aw c’mon now” my frustrated physics TA Mark Zimmerman said), and was quickly approaching the outer reaches of the Physics Qualifier Problem alphabet possibly have enough self-confidence to use indelible markers on the sacred alley walls?

You can’t get by on partial credit when you're drawing in public.

Gradually the Dabney graffiti was democratized. Gesine drew a Tender Boof in Upper 7. Mark Parisi inked a big “HARF” above one of the door frames. The ever-quotable Paul Wagner wrote something alluding to Finnegans Wake’s Anna Livia Plurabelle outside Room 45.

My inhibitions waned, especially after I took a hearty whiff of blue marker. The solvents associated with each ink color were slightly different; I remember blue as being a pretty good buzz. Even today, I’ll find myself writing something on the whiteboard at work and I’ll stop for a minute and whiff the marker. It’s an old habit, one that dies hard, one that’ll sometimes leave me with tell-tale blue nostrils.

Ring around the nostril. Ring around the nostril.

Meanwhile Erik Brune and Vickie Roberts had painted the two Alley 2 doubles in insomnia-inducing red and orange and yellow enamel flames. Any empty space was considered fair game – you didn’t have to be Diego Rivera to embark on a mural project. And after awhile, you’d learn some tricks. Green and blue were mutually soluble and blended into each other pretty well. You could mix some of the other colors too with not half-bad results.

Funny that I remember only a fraction of my own graffiti; I was so invested in it at the time.

You might be thinking: that’s what comes of whiffing solvents. Brain damage. Singed nerves, frayed axons. But perhaps the drawings just weren’t that memorable.

I covered the west wall in Room 15 with ink; I must’ve been a senior by then and Dabney House Secretary to have such a swell room pick. Earlier, when I was a sophomore, I might've drawn something under the stairway in Alley 1. My roommate Audrey and I might’ve worked together on a design opposite the Alley 2 showers when we were frosh. Some years later, I even noticed some familiar artwork in Real Genius, that I thought might’ve been a reconstruction of something I’d drawn, but by then it could’ve been someone else’s graffiti just as easily.

There’s something distinctive about this kind of graffiti and something generic. In the immediacy of undergrad life, I’m embarrassed to say that I was mightily pleased by my efforts. Now they seem ordinary, and I’m not sorry to see them go.

One of the hardest tricks of preservation is to know what to save and conserve, what to deliberately toss (“deaccession” in library parlance), and what to simply leave to benign neglect to determine its fate.

When I heard that the walls were being repainted (and that was quite awhile ago now), I thought, “It’s about time! Probably every square inch is covered. Where would you draw now?” And Caltech generations are short: even someone who lingers over their undergraduate education, savoring every last incomplete and UASH petition, is hard-pressed to make it last more than a decade. E2 – who I think of as the record-holder – only spent 12 years as a student.

Graffiti rife with intense sentimental value in 1974 is apt to be mysterious by 1984 and in the realm of the Lascaux cave paintings by 1994. By 2004, the Alumni Association could be selling pieces of the student houses as if they were chunks of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps they do.

I had so much fun with all that pristine enameled wall space and my eight perfect El Markos; I’m glad other Techers will be able to pull all-nighters in Upper 7, drawing on the walls with a full palette of fresh El-Markos (taking a whiff now and then), an unwilling audience to a fifth consecutive playing of Dark Side of the Moon (or the modern equivalent), celebrating what will surely turn out to be a failing score on the Math 1b final.

As it turns out, neither Dabney House graffiti nor Math 1B’s winding numbers are eternal. And perhaps it’s best that way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

folksonomies and folksingers

Ironically I didn’t blog last week because I was at a Social Software Symposium. I was too busy socializing about social software to actually use social software.

A Social Software Symposium? I can almost hear you sniggering. Stop it! Stop it right now! I went to a Social Software Symposium at UNC and I was delighted to be invited to it.

You think too loud. I can still hear you:

“You’re too cynical to be hanging out with the Digg and crowd. You, Cathy Marshall, you open up your leopard-spotted umbrella when a tag cloud darkens the horizon. You think it’s funny when martyd plays fast and loose with Wikipedia truth. You’ve already accused LinkedIn of being the new Amway (Ask not what your contacts can do for you, but what you can do for your contacts).

And what’s this about folksonomies being about as useful and entertaining as folk singers? I heard you mumble that on Friday; don’t pretend you didn’t.”

Folksonomies. Folk Singers. Folksonomies. Folk Singers. They’re not all that different. I can see it on the marquee. Appearing tonight: Peter, Paul, and Jimmy. Singing Little Boxes Annotate the Hillside, Little Boxes Made of Wiki-Wiki and If I Had A MySpace, I’d friend you in the morning, I’d friend you in the evening, all over this LAN. I’d defriend strangers; I’d defriend wannabes; I’d defriend links between my exes and my to-bes all over this LAN.

Yeah. I know. It doesn’t scan. Maybe you could hum a few bars and I’ll fake it. I never promised you a rose garden.

Folksonomies are indeed like folk songs and folk singers: it’s hard to dismiss this kind of earnest populism without feeling like something of a cad.

If I know you, you suspect my motives in showing up at a Social Software Symposium. You think I only went so I could visit The Real Paul Jones, Gary Marchionini, Deborah Barreau, Cal Lee, Barbara Wildemuth, Kristina Spurgin and the rest of the gang at SILS. That I was checking up on how Fred and Terrell are doing with ClaimID (I believe the answer to that is “mighty well”). That I was, in fact, doing some social networking of my own. That I drank tumblers full of Maker’s Mark and pretended it was sweet tea. That I stayed in the Carolina Inn and soaked up that Southern hospitality. That I ate Moon Pies and filled up on trans fat while it’s still legal.

Okay. I’m going to put my fingers in my ears. I don’t want to pick up on any more of your negative vibes. Neener, neener, neener, I can’t hear you! Take your bad energy and go hang out on Yahoo Answers, where all the other smartasses hang out.

Anyway you’re wrong. I didn’t stay at the Carolina Inn: there weren’t any rooms left. I stayed at the Siena, with its faux European decor and Italianate student renderings of famous Renaissance paintings. Unfortunately, the Siena is lavish with the paintings, but not with the in-room coffee. It’s another one of those hotels that believes that its guests must actually leave their rooms to get coffee in the morning. No in-room coffee maker; not even a Signature Gourmet Micro, a product which I just invented, but would’ve been all too happy to buy on Thursday morning. I spent three groggy jet-lagged mornings trying to fake it with Wal-awake Alertness Aids. How can you even find your way out of a hotel room that doesn’t have a coffee maker?

Perhaps that’s why I approached the Symposium with such a positive attitude: I spent most of the daylight hours blissfully asleep on my feet.

Before the actual event began, many of us attended a talk given by David Weinberger from Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. His premise may or may not be that everything is miscellaneous. It's a snappy title for a talk and it just so happens to correspond to the title of his new book. But does David Weinberger believe it?

The title is a red herring. He’s not saying that there are no categories as I would’ve inferred. He’s saying that social tagging democratizes categories. So – far from being miscellaneous – he’s saying everything’s exactly what we say it is. No more and no less.

But it was a great talk, illustrated just the way I like it. For example, he used a terrific picture of a steer lecturing about cow parts; the steer is giving a chalk-talk about how to cut along the dotted lines and turn a complete and substantial cow into steaks and roasts and tails and tongues. It’s not unlike my favorite pig picture, painted on a shop wall in the Mission, which shows a pig cook, a pig cooking, a piggie butcher, and a butchered piggie. Four pigs, all with great big smiles on their snouts.

David Weinberger’s point seemed to be that folksonomies and social tagging can cut up the world in more and different ways than the more authoritative taxonomies (say, Linnaeus’s taxonomic trees that classify the species according to observable characteristics). That folksonomies are fluid and can record important distinctions. That by shaking all the leaves so they fall off the trees, you can pile them up in new ways that makes more sense. And that authoritative categories can turn on you: Pluto can be a planet one day, then defined out of a job the next by virtue of its lack of two essential characteristics (that it rounds itself and that it clears space around itself).

Everyone knows Pluto was ripped off. It’s a planet, okay?

This business about the way we sort things out and the consequences of doing so is a familiar (and very well explained) argument. From a technological point of view, it bears more than a superficial resemblance to our 15 year old rationale for developing spatial hypertext.

We'd probably beg to differ about the implications of this everything is miscellaneous argument. We’d say that these untidy heaps have local meaning, but that they don’t necessarily scale to a folksonomic universe.

And that they’re not likely to be a way, as David Weinberger would have it, to “stick it to the man.” I had an uncomfortable moment when I realized that this whole phrasing – and, by association, the argument for social tagging – reminds me of the classic scene from The Wild Angels, where Peter Fonda (as Heavenly Blues) is asked what it is that he and his biker gang want. He pauses as if no-one’s ever thought to ask him that before. He misses one beat, then two. And then he says, with all eyes upon him:

“We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride. And we want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we want to get loaded too.”

Yeah. I’m afraid I don’t see folksonomies as particularly subversive (although upon closer examination I have enormous difficulty envisioning Peter Fonda as subversive). Sure, they could be subversive. It’s important how we break what we know into categories. What gets lumped with what. Who sits next to whom on the bus, even if it’s the short bus. What everyday things are called. What embossed labels emerge from the Dymo Labelmaker.

Who you callin’ a ho?

But the tags I see in my travels don’t do much to subvert authority. They just don’t. Nor do they strike me as nearly as useful as advertised. They’re nice compendia of slang; they’re the words we actually use. But as it stands, tagging is just narrative description without the verbs and convergence seems to mean little. It’s a stage of linguistic development, consonant with a two year old pointing a chubby finger at the four pigs on the wall. “Piggies,” he says, and drools. And like a two-year-old, tags are only cute if they’re yours. Otherwise you think, “disease vector.”

It’s likely that I would’ve been more susceptible to this tagging argument ten years ago. Observation reveals just how difficult it is to describe things appropriately for future use – whether it’s for retrieval, to establish provenance, or even just to describe something in a clear way. It’s just harder than it looks. And even if you go for the argument I did – that it’s harmless to have more tags – you run the risk of increasing entropy rather than adding order.

So it’s best to take a look at real tags without getting distracted by the abstraction. Abstractions can lead you astray. In the eighties, I fell hard for The Death of The Author; I was a sucker for The Death of Text. So perhaps what we’re seeing now is simply The Death of The Verb.

The Death of The Verb. I like it. Tags are, after all, nouns, and very occasionally, adjectives. And coming up with good verbs is what makes writing difficult. I’ll stew over a verb long after all the nouns are in place.

Before we go any further, I have a confession to make: I didn’t take that pig picture. I stole it. I remembered it from my wanderings in the Mission and I went looking for it. In my experience, every photo you would’ve taken if you’d had a camera with you has already been published at least half a dozen times. There’s really no point in taking pictures any more; you can even find one that’s as out-of-focus as anything you would’ve taken yourself. Thumbprints on the lens. A hair straggling across the photo. Bad lighting. Blurry. If you can shoot it, you can find it.

The pig picture was on Flickr. In fact, I found 4 versions of that picture, all snapped by different photographers. One had tags mural, mission, cuisine, and san francisco; it was called “happy pigs” and described as “from start to finish.” Another had tags signage, painted, pigs, mission, sf; this one was called “-toda” and not described, but had several comments alluding to the severed head. And here’s one tagged mission, Mission District, carniceria, pigs, and 24th street; this time the title’s “Carniceria Mural Detail” and the description is “Cannibalism on 24th street. I love the smiles!”

Good thing that I’m patient. It took me quite awhile to find the photos. And my feeling is that I could’ve found more. Many more. In other words, it’s not the quality of the tags; it’s the quantity of the photos. There are a lot of people who thought the same mural was worth documenting.

At first I remembered the mural as graffiti. It turns out that there are a lot of photos tagged graffiti and pig. Next page. Next page. Next page. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Then I went off and looked for butcher shops. Good thing my Spanish is so poor. Carniceria doesn’t turn up the desired photo until well after you encounter some pictures sufficiently stomach-turning to put you off meat – and off your photo quest – for now and possibly forever.

Click. Click. Click. The hours passed. I poured myself a cup of cold Signature Gourmet coffee and drank it fast.

Are these tags better than narrative coupled with intrinsic metadata? I’m certain most descriptions of the picture would’ve involved pigs and I knew the photo would’ve been snapped on 24th Street between Van Ness and Potrero. I’m not convinced that social tagging’s democratizing influence helped me find my photo faster.

But I’m not sure that anyone else believes that, as evidenced by our discussions the first morning of the symposium. Tags, said Thomas Vander Wal, are the geometric intersection of objects, metadata, and identity. And folksonomies are tags one assigns for oneself. So the identity element is crucial. As long as people I know and trust are looking for carnicerias too, I’m in great shape.

I felt like an infidel.

As long as we’ve got tags on the brain, let’s look at the tags people assign to themselves. That’ll combine the symposium’s morning theme of social tagging with the afternoon theme of social networking software. Was it Thomas who said that community arises when there are others who refer to things the same way you do?

Let’s see how people describe themselves – where are the lines MySpacers draw to segment themselves into communities?

Let’s start with Zachary. He lists Ham Radio, figure drawing, piano, guitar, camping, hiking, fishing, reading, model railroading, anything geeky really!!! And some more: coffee or a movie with a friend, playing with my cat Peaches, daydreaming, Christian theology, sunsets, chickens, tea, massage, philosophy, cats, eBay, fountain pens, mountains, people watching, cigars, San Francisco, singing, music composition, quiet time, warm baths, hot showers, science and religion debate, cheesy love songs, wine tasting, cooking, hugs, waterskiing, long drives, coffee shops, and Airsoft.

He’s friended Eduardo, who lists reading books from post-modern writers, drinking coffee at Coffee Cat, Golf, boating. Riding my motorcycle that I don't have yet, but hope to get once I talk my wife into letting me get one. Hiking, walking with my wife. Eating pizza.

Perhaps Zachary and Eduardo have bonded over coffee. They’re both fond of drinking coffee and don’t hesitate to tell us so. Eduardo has 40 friends and Zachary has 141. But Brookers, whom I met in YouTube, has 27,249 friends, up two since I looked a few minutes ago. I doubt, however, that Zachary and Eduardo are in Brookers’ list of friends; she – we find out on her MySpace page – doesn’t drink coffee at all, since it’s “bad for your teeth and makes you spaz out like this. erw3tr agergergy i really need all that extra energy ???”

We learn during the afternoon that this friending business is serious stuff, but not nearly as serious as defriending. It’s easier to accumulate 27,249 friends than it is to explicitly sever these social ties. And it’s easier still to make a misstep if you engage in drunk FaceBooking, which would seem to hover somewhere between drunk dialing and drunk driving on the spectrum of social taboos. Did you really mean to tell EVERYONE about who you friended last Friday night? Really? Did you know, like, he friends anything that moves?

After all is said and done, what I wonder about this flurry of social networking activity is what we’ll want to keep twenty years from now. I’m not worried so much about the shared bookmarks and the language of the tags – those surely will have changed. But what about those FaceBook pages? Are they transient? How about those YouTube videos? How about the comments on your MySpace page? Do those even belong to you?

I have a certain amount of stuff I’ve saved from earlier periods of my life. I didn’t save this stuff intentionally, but it’s just the sort of ruminations and connections that you might record in FaceBook. Some photos a friend took when we went to the beach in Santa Cruz together and rode the merry-go-round. Clippings from that Hot Tuna concert at the Starwood. All kinds of things I might’ve forgotten.

I’m delighted to see them.

But there’s so much stuff on the social networking sites. How much of it will the social networkers of today even want? Will a forty-plus year-old Brookers want her lip-synced video of My United States of ... WHATEVA (which has amassed 617,032 viewers)? Will Zachary care that he favored warm baths in 2006? (It sounds much snarkier to be interested in cold showers.) Will Eduardo care about the comments his friends sent him while he was in Maui? (“You're in Maui!!!!!!! I'm SOOOOO JEALOUS!!!!!! Okay, and I love your video- hilarious! It reminds me of my days in cheer- only they're probably way better than I was! Hahahaha!!! I miss your family!! Have an amazing vacation! Love you guys! Blessings!”) Will the weight of 24 exclamation points be evocative in 2026?

Does Eduardo even own his friends’ comments?

Social software brings with it unaccustomed baggage and artifacts. They’re perhaps weightier than they are worthwhile – luggage you would check and not care if the airlines lost it. But these artifacts may be all we have: they are the postcards we used to send; they are our vacation photos; they’re notes the notes we passed in school; the mix tapes we made for each other.

I bet we’ll want to save some of this ephemeral stuff.

And I bet – unless we do something right now – we’ll lose most of it. We already cede rights to it to corporations that make no promises about what’ll happen to it if the next quarter sees a downturn.

How are you saving your identity? Your social noodlings? Your video blogs? Your friends and defriends (“Oh no! I friended a slimebag”)? Your data and your metadata? Your nerve profiles and your lifehacker lists? How else will we remember that Susan Lucci is the daughter of Phyllis Diller?

What I fear most is that out of all of this recorded ephemera -- every documented bit of our real social interactions -- the artifacts that will survive are not yours and mine, but the commercial ones, the lonelygirl15s (but not the 10ne1ygir1l5s) and that goddamned Mouse.

That Goddamned Mouse.