Writer, performer, producer, researcher, presenter, artist, provocateur, deep-thinker – and dare I say badass – Creatrix Tiara is one phenomenal woman in tech. Her projects act like a galaxy of ideas orbiting around the sun of social change.
One planet might be debunking Ello’s privacy manifesto. A star cluster might be the numerous articles she’s written on topics like pop culture pagans, examining the surprisingly cross-cultural phenomenon of storing sewing kits in cookie tins (who knew?), and pointing out that Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. isn’t far-fetched (it’s already happening).
What does this have to do with tech?
Tiara is one of those rare, wonderful people who take the way we define “tech” and stretch it, re-shape it, and make it better. This isn’t just my opinion. She was invited to the White House LGBTQ in Tech Summit in 2015; she was part of Al-Jazeera’s invitation-only Media in Context Hackathon in 2014; and she’s worked on website content and social media for organizations including Global Fund for Women’s IGNITE project (about women in STEM). Whatever her projects may be, most bridge the very wide gap between art and science, creativity and code, and make the rest of us question why there’s a divide at all.
I asked Creatrix Tiara to talk about tech as a means for social change and got so much more. I’ll let her take it from here in her own words.
Thanks for reaching out. What a pleasant surprise!
So about me: My background is largely in the intersections of arts, media, tech, education, activism, and community cultural development. Unlike most “people in tech” I’m not much of a programmer or even a visual designer, though I have been tinkering around with code since my classes in Pascal when I was 8-9. Rather, I create, educate, and build community online: whether through highly successful blog and social media projects, moderating and managing online communities, helping people figure out best practices for social media, or using social media and blogging as a creative medium as well as a social justice outlet. I grew up on the Internet; it has been integral in so much of my life, from my educational pathways to my careers to even my love life – I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without computers and the Internet, especially as an isolated kid growing up in Malaysia.
I’m really big on the use of technology to create, build, and maintain culture, as well as looking at ways that the tech world can better co-exist with other realms rather than assume it’s solely important on its own. For example, I wrote a piece for Model View Culture’s Quarterly about breaking down the arts/tech divide, after being frustrated at the tech-antagonism of my artist peers as well as techy people thinking I’m only good for marketing. I also co-created the game Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers, which is kind of a parody of Papers Please but shows the tedium of the immigration process from the POV of the applicant – using minigames that are deliberately difficult and mind-numbing to make a point. We (ironically) won the Diplomacy award at the GXDEV Game Jam.
My other areas of interest are:
Ways that cultures and communities are built on the Internet. One of my biggest avenues into tech was fandom – as a teenage fangirl, I learned how to create/code/design/host websites, design graphics and digital art, build & moderate online communities, and even work with social media long before “social media” as we know it was a thing (e.g. Diaryland or Livejournal). I was doing some research into the ways that fandom becomes a gateway for young people to learn and teach themselves particular skills, including techy skills like coding or design, and heard from a lot of fans young and old about how they too built skills in HTML, media editing, or even games development thanks to fandom.
* On a related tangent, mostly in my mind because Homestuck just ended its 7-year run I am super SUPER fascinated by how Homestuck in particular references and uses geek culture to build a sprawling creation myth based around video game conventions. It’s like a time capsule of 90s-Contemporary Millennial culture: data structures, programming nerdery, Con Air, Neverending Story, Pan, Vine, Instagram, Trillian, AIM, god there’s probably a ton more references and allusions in there that’d make sense to anyone who was a nerd of some fashion in the last 30 years. There’s actually a small group of us with similar interests in the academic side of Homestuck getting together to create AcademicStuck, and we’re hoping to experiment with the whole notion of academic writing & publishing throughout the process – so if this appeals to you come join us!
Tech as a means of social change, centering on the needs of marginalized people. Firstly, omg, I am SO TIRED of “disruption” and can’t stand for-profit companies that try to market themselves with “manifestos” and promises of “revolution” (ahem Ello).
But anyway – while I am frustrated at my social justice peers for being just as antagonistic to tech as their artist peers (often one and the same) I can understand why they’re frustrated – it’s because tech culture is mostly dominated by straight/White/cis/guys who think only the concerns they personally face are important to fix and who are very parochial in their mindset.
Last year I got a lot of press for co-founding Screet, a proposed app for on-demand discreet delivery of sexual health products that was going to be feminist and queer-centric. People LOVED the idea, and I got some momentum from it, but due to visa issues I had to leave the US and drop the project. Hopefully it’ll start up again – the response to it, including by typical white-dude investors, showed that people are more than willing to support apps made by and for marginalized folk.
Emphasizing other aspects of interacting with tech that don’t involve coding or visual design. For instance, writing gets really underappreciated, as does research/fact-checking. It all gets thrown under “social media management,” yet in my experience, when I’ve tried to find paid work for similar roles – using the Internet and social media to research, collect, curate, and educate people on particular topics – the only people who are even the slightest bit interested want social media managers to talk solely about the company.
Even some new-media journalism sites expect reporters to also be dab hands at programming – which means that a wealth of stories, information, and knowledge ends up going unreported because the best people to write about them don’t have enough technical knowhow (or interest) to code up an interactive infographic from scratch. But then you also have YouTube channels like PBS Idea Channel or Crash Course work, or even how Metafilter works when people make really deep multi-link posts: they’re both enabled by tech, they probably couldn’t exist without tech, but they’re not often thought of as “being in tech” because they’re mostly informational. (I highly doubt Mike Rugnetta or the Green brothers do any sort of coding to make a YouTube video, and the only code I have to deal with to make a Mefi post is basic HTML.)
Now there seems to be more recognition of online culture mostly through discussions of comment culture and online harassment, as well as the growing concerns about how online-based creatives should get paid for their work (especially when regular paying work that utilizes the same skills can be hard to find – see earlier rant about “social media manager” jobs) – and I’d love to keep that going.
But, because we (women, human beings, creatives) aren’t just what we do professionally, I wanted to ask Tiara one more burning question: What brings you joy? Her response, well, I think you’ll love it as much as I do.
What brings me joy – there’s a reason my tagline is “signs up for anything that looks interesting”. I seek out or keep an eye open for opportunities and experiences that seem intriguing, whatever the field or topic, and try them out. Sometimes this leads to whole new career paths – for example, my foray into performance art started after taking some burlesque classes on a whim. Sometimes it’s purely academic: one time I got really into perfume design, read a ton of books about the perfume world, and did consider going into perfumery before I found out that I needed a stronger chemistry background.
Sometimes it’s a dare – a dare from my dad to apply for Harvard’s MBA (he’s a HUGE fanboy) eventually led to me enrolling in HBX CORe, their new 3-month online business fundamentals course (analytics, accounting, economics). I sat for its final exam last week, and somehow, despite having far less direct business experience than my classmates, I’ve built enough of a reputation as a strong and helpful student that my classmates are asking me for help! Yet I probably wouldn’t have even thought about joining HBX CORe if it weren’t for my dad’s snarky suggestion.
The things I sign up for may seem arbitrary on the surface, but there is some kind of internal logic powering them. My therapist called this “following your developing question”: there’s something I’m interested in knowing, which leads to research and exploring that point of inquiry, and through that exploration I find some other branching point to continue on.
Self-expression and identity is also important: how does this experience allow me to express and develop myself, and how does this experience allow me to change up who I am at will?
“Let’s stop assuming artsy people and tech people are two separate groups. Tech and art should be holistic, creative, all-round ventures — let’s actually make them that way.”
That’s a message all of us in tech need to hear a lot more often.
Creatrix is always looking for more opportunities.