Blog Justice on the Wild Web

SXSW speaker's stolen purse sparks online race war of words

Someone steals your purse. You live and learn. Cancel your credit cards. Move on.

Not danah boyd. The blogging scene is still hot with debate about what happened weeks ago during South by Southwest Interactive 04. When boyd, a Berkeley Ph.D. student studying electronic social networks, visited Austin to speak at the Festival, she co-hosted a party, where the contents of her purse were stolen. She didn't suffer much: a stolen cell phone and credit card charges at gas stations and Whataburger. In addition to the APD treating this as a felony fraud case, boyd has launched her own investigation by tracking down and posting on her Web site a fellow partyer's cell phone photos taken of the people she considered to be the suspects. Maybe someone will know the guys and turn them in, she thought.

Boyd's readers at first encouraged her wily camera phone revenge-of-the-nerds tactics. "And so we witness the power of social networks," wrote Jim Barrett, a Swede who posted to boyd's blog. "These guys are living free on borrowed time with 'The Network' now on the[ir] asses. ... Good luck Danah!"

But what about the suspects in the photos? They're six African-American guys, and boyd's a white woman. Is it fair to cry virtual lynching?

Accusations of racism, unanticipated by boyd, proliferated on her site. "This is great," posted the anonymous "Wow." "A bunch of pictures of black people. ... Maybe the poster is merely angry because the black men came on to her, and she wants revenge for this perceived slight?"

Boyd stresses that when she originally announced the theft, she made no mention of race. The picture simply spoke for itself. Still, focusing on the six men – who were not invited to the party – remains common sense to boyd. "Everyone in the room knew that these guys were not part of our work community," boyd said. "These guys made it clear in their questions that they didn't even know what a blog was."

Chuck Olsen took the photos that boyd posted. "When these guys first appeared in the apartment, I was like, 'uhhh – who the hell are these guys?' ... Let's face it, bloggers are a tight-knit, mostly white, mostly affluent bunch. These guys immediately stuck out like a sore thumb."

But aren't stealing and blogging equal opportunity sports?

When it comes to SXSW, Olsen doesn't think so. In another post to boyd's site, he said he only knew of three black bloggers, including a man named George Kelly, who attended SXSW this year. "I looked at George's Orkut friends, and gasp they were mostly black," wrote Olsen. "I regret not talking to George at SXSW about blogs and race. ... SXSW truly is mostly white and affluent and male and cliquish."

I caught up with George Kelly, an African-American copy editor for the Contra Costa Times in San Francisco over e-mail and asked him what he had to say about Olsen's statements. "Reading what Chuck said annoyed me and actually sent me to my Orkut friend-roll to do some counting," wrote Kelly. "44 were white, 39 were black, 12 were Asian or Pacific Islander, 1 was Latino. ... It's a misconception that minorities don't blog, and anyone who says so isn't fully using their browser or their brain."

So does Kelly, who encountered boyd at SXSW, agree with boyd's skeptics? Was it fair to assume black men do not belong at a SXSW blog party?

"The accusations of racism make me want to throw up my hands in several different directions," wrote Kelly. "From the moment the photos were posted, it was impossible to have a civil discussion. ... What's that Simpsons quote? 'There's no justice like angry-mob justice'?"

To read the thread in question on danah boyd's blog, go to 2004/03/22/pictures_of_my_robbers.html.

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