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Post-Interstitiality

Bill Gibson:

…New York having been in those days seemingly not a part of the United States but something simultaneously autonomous and interstitially abandoned.

When I first visited New York as an adult (so to speak) at the start of my writing career, it seemed to me that it couldn’t possibly go on, that way. All of it, I suggested to the supposedly futuristically-concerned New Yorkers I was meeting there, would one day be equally unaffordable, post-interstitial. As Jack would soon have it, Regooded. At which suggestion I was invariably recognized as a hick from Hickograd.

But lo.

Not just an I-told-you-so moment, this brings up an important point – every interstitial is followed by a new solidity; every post-____ism concedes its ism the status quo, and acknowledges that it will be, one day, the same as what came before: irrelevant.

This is something to keep in mind during our current transitive, liminal, interstitial moment. Terrible and wonderful things are happening, will happen, but out on the other side of tomorrow things will be different. Whatever else happens, things will stabilize into something, better and worse and mostly else.

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Nicole Ellison has a good post on the uses of Facebook as identity affordance over time, and puts very nicely the sentiment that,

this expanded social network of people from one’s history as a supportive presence that enables individuals to stretch, knowing that they have links to their past should they need them.

Ongoing research I’m doing with Terrell Russell examines user perceptions of time and the life-cycle of information, and this adds another useful perspective. But there’s yet another aspect to keep in mind: the way in which our networks don’t limit who we are, but keep us honest on who we hope to be. I haven’t seen research quantifying this, and I’m not quite sure how you’d do it at any rate. But it’s my big hunch that one of the best aspects of explicating social networks online, and making behaviors public and observable (even if we’re modulating privacy settings) is that we are aware we’ll be held accountable for who we think we should be by those closest to us. It doesn’t even have to be explicit, just the knowledge in the back of our minds that we’re being watched on some level by those we we have chosen to support the norms of our created communities is, I think, an important function.

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Do Something Good

Rob Walker has a recent column in Slate with a provocative suggestion:

Why do agencies need to go find a client that has ideas about social or environmental responsibility? Don’t the smart folks at the agencies have any such ideas of their own? Well, then, pick one, forget about finding a client, and go out there and use your persuasion skills to make a positive change in the world.

Such a campaign might actually help the overall image of your profession—you know, how mostly what you do is create the endless barrage of sales pitches that encouraged Americans to spend way beyond their means. (Congrats on your success with that, by the way.) Maybe you’d have a convincing case study to point to that shows your profession—or your agency, at least—has something going for it besides innovation and smarts: actual values.

This picks up on an idea that he floated in his own blog that I’d been meaning to discuss further, earlier, and will now. The basic thrust is an important one for all of us to internalize as the structure of our economy and society, er, “re-arranges.

Robert Putnam made far too much of the collapse of community in the United States by tracking the decrease in bowling leagues and voluntary organizations. But there’s certainly something going on there, and part of what it is, is a shift in the sense of community and responsibility from a very local, conservative and exclusionary one – my town, full of people like me – toward a more global awareness and sense of responsibility. There’s a trade-off here, to be sure, but I think it would be difficult to argue that the rise of the non-profit sector in the United States over the last generation is a basically bad thing, even if it may owe something to the decline in Elks Lodges.

But this can go too far, and as with many other things there’s been a tendency for “responsibility” to become just another consumption line-item: put your donation to WWF/ACLU/MoveOn/NPR/etc. on the plastic, get your bumper sticker and tote bag as public display of responsible citizenship, and move on to other things.

There’s been a growing awareness in the non-profit community for some time – even before the current economic downturn (the bursting of the first dot.com bubble was a big wake-up for many non-profits) – that while a membership-driven responsibility-consumption funding model does disintermediate the gatekeeper function of the big foundations, it also leaves something to be desired in terms of long-term sustainability.

Our current predicament illustrates this quite nicely. While the marginal value – and need – for charitable donations is never higher for non-profits than in times of trouble, the exact opposite is true for citizens. When you have a red-lining credit-card bill – credit limit decreasing every time you pay dow the outstanding balance, and minimum payments and penalties increasing – teamed with increasingly-unsustainable mortgage paymenets, rising food costs, and the threat or reality of unemployment, the decision to cut out feel-good charitable donations or buy enough dried beans for the week is not a tough one.

But our current predicament also illustrates the need for more good works, not fewer – for a mindset focused on tangible human capital rather than illusory financial capital. A societal focus on maximization of dollar-value has landed us where we are, and jsut scrapping by on the crap-end of that stick is not going to get us out. Not in any way we can be proud of, at any rate.

I will not pretend for a second that this is a silver-lining situation: real pain is here for many people, more is coming, and the bottom is not in sight, yet. But a simple fact that nearly all of us share is this: whether through involuntary un(der)employment or tighter budgets for entertainment and restaurants, most of us are going to have more free time on our hands. So: do something good with it. Build something – use whatever talents you have to bring something good into the world that wasn’t there before, to share it with people and to encourage others to do the same. It could be something big, like Rob suggests – a marketing campaign or a new good product – or something small, like making food for your friends.

But do something. One of the true virtues of times of disruptive change is that barriers to action and new ideas are much, much lower. When things are going fine, most people would just as soon let them be, but when the fundamental tenets of society are called into question on a daily basis: well, why not do things differently?

Postscript: It’s snowing again in Carrboro, and that doesn’t mean anything in particular, but there’s a nice picture from my back porch this morning. snow-day

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American Journalism 2009

Just in time for the New Year comes this heartbreaking account of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s impending demise:

Then, on Friday, the e-mail message from Oglesby. It was a body-less e-mail, the only text being that foreboding subject line: “Please join me in the newsroom for a few minutes for an announcement.” People in both newsrooms by now had a sense that it wasn’t going to be good news for the P-I.

There’s nothing to purchase,” Lewis said. “We’re a room of people in a rented building. I’d happily offer my services. But I don’t know what they’d buy. I guess they’d get a letterhead and some pretty battered laptops, but there’s just not a lot there to buy.”

That roomful of people is worth more than nothing, but I’ll return to that in a minute.

Lots of newspapers are going to go out of business this year. “Dying industry” has become a popular catch-phrase but that’s not quite right – newspapers in American cities are going out of business for the same reason that the United States’ steel industry went mostly belly-up: poor management and an inability by said management and ownership to react to a changing world. Just like it wasn’t previously-well-paid steelworkers’ fault that their employers got it wrong, so it is not journalists’ fault that their bosses have screwed up so royally. Online it’s become popular to criticize the not-getting-it tendencies among American journalists, their knee-jerk anti-blogger sentiments and predjudice in favor of the status quo ante. I’ve indulged in it myself. But that’s not too useful and, at this point, kind of cruel.

That’s in no small part because the effect of lots of newspapers going out of business, is that many of the nation’s finest reporters will be without a job (bad for them) and without a forum (bad for us). The economic downturn is acting as an accelerant on pre-existing trends – newspapers that were already seeing declining revenues (from fewer subscriptions and less advertising) now see those revenues go through the floor as their advertisers batton down the hatches for a potentially long recession. And as the PI reporter notes, with many newspapers there’s not that much to “buy” – except for the capacity to report on the news, which right now doesn’t make that much money, at least in text-version. It will, sooner than many think, as advertisers abandon print entirely and realize the value of online advertising in local contexts (Google, of course, will continue to be the big winner here), but that’s an aside.

What’s available right now for the right investor – and given the economy, that’s a big ask too, but this is a real bargain – is a burgeoning national network of world-class reporters who’ll be desperate to continue in their chosen profession. Let’s say over the course of the year a major newspaper goes out of business in 20 of the United States’ 30 biggest cities, and that there’re half a dozen truly world-class reporters at each of those papers (this is probably both too conservative and too liberal depending on the city). Hiring at their previous salaries probably won’t be tenable in any construction, but let’s say $50,000/reporter, for $300k per city; add health insurance, expenses, equipment and call it $500k for a city bureau. If there’s 20 cities, that’s $10 million for the shoeleather.

Infrastructure, however, doesn’t need to be that expensive – you can start publishing each city’s Bootstrap Newspaper on a Drupal engine, and editors and fact-checkers (who are also finding themselves increasingly jobless) can do double-duty for  a few cities, with several tech-heads to keep the servers up (easy to scale up as the enterprise increases). Give reporters a decent digital camera (or give good photogs a laptop and let ’em write) and you’ve got pictures. Call that another $3-5 million/year for personnel and infrastructure, and for $15 million/year (which is $1 million more than the Post-Intelligencer alone lost last year) you’ve got a national journalistic enterprise of unprecedented scope and quality.

The real question – could it make money? I would say yes but in the short-term that’s not necessarily that important. $15 million is both a lot of money and really not that much – given the right leadership and local buy-in, this is an effort that could be supported both by local communities who want to keep reading their favorite reporters, and by the increasingly large number of people who get their news online exclusively regardless of it source – but who have a very keen interest in quality journalism. Yes, (some/many) bloggers would support this. And an increasingly formidable local/national news site would be a great place for even those advertisers feeling the pinch of recession.

No, it’s probably not going to happen. But really it should.

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THE_REAL_SHAQ

via Jesse Taylor, I discovered that Shaquille O’Neal has a Twitter feed. I heartily agree with Jesse’s assessment that it’s “a thing of terrible beauty, like a fresh lilac, standing in the midst of a raging fire” and want to also deconstruct the whole project of Shaquille O’Neal having, you know, a Twitter feed.

There’s been some commentary over the last year or so of the increasing prevalence of celebrities participating in social media – Martha Stewart’s blog is a pretty great exemplar of this – and a lot of the focus has been on their utility as marketing vehicles. And of course that’s right – they allow celebrities to give their most dedicated fans even more content in what is, or what appears to be, an unfiltered and more intimate context. In addition to Martha and Shaq, you can point to Rosie O’Donnell’s often-incomprehensible blog, John Cusack’s direct involvement with several modes of media in promotion of War, Inc., Gilbert Arenas’ blog (check out especially his absurdly long Nov. 15 entry) and many others. This is purely anecdotal on my part, but it seems as if after an initial period where many celebrity blogs were heavily vetted and often rather obviously not written by their purported authors (but by, e.g., executive assistants), many more celebrity blogs really are written by said celebrities. Maybe that’s not true in every case or even most cases but I can say with confidence: Shaq is definitely writing his Twitters.

That’s pretty damn interesting. And per Arenas’ blog, he’s not the first star athlete to dialogue in this way with fans. But Shaq in particular is an interesting case for me. He’s a guy who was for a couple of years one of, if not the, biggest stars on the planet. He’s pretty clearly on the downside of his career, and there are a lot of other NBA stars who (justifiably) get more attention than he does these days. Is a Twitter feed just a way to get some more attention back for a guy so used to it? Maybe, but I’m not so sure – let’s look at some of his Tweets:

Cant sleep, the lakers embarrassed us, im pissed

Is the new james bond movie any good

THOSE R NOT TYPOS, JUST SAVN MONEY, MORE U TYPE MORE U PAY, LOL

I need help subway or schlotsskys for lunch, big game tonite

Stuart scott from espn said greg oden looks 42 , lol dats funny

Those are… exactly the kind of Tweets you would expect any other Twitter user to write: expressing frustration around life events, sharing pictures, soliciting feedback from the community, referencing shared external media, and even meta-commentary on the medium. Shaq’s not just using Twitter, not just getting some attention or marketing himself (seriously, does Shaq ever need to market himself?), he’s entirely authentically participating in the discourse of the medium. And: why wouldn’t he?

This is I think the key point: celebrities, and athletes during their seasons especially, actually live pretty lonely and socially disconnected lives. There are thousands upon thousands of fans following them but a star can’t very well actually engage with one fan in particular, without opening the floodgates. So they have to be aloof, detatched, and close in their social worlds to the team, the production crew, the hotel room. That’s very isolating, but a medium like Twitter is actually perfectly designed to inject sociability into that kind of a life. For a small investment of time and social energy, Shaq can broadcast his frustrations, desires and observations to the large universe of people who care about him and what he has to say, and receive social affirmation in return. Looking at his feed you can see that all the entries are via txt – unsurprising, as the cell phone and texting practice has become ubiquitous in both the NBA and youth culture more generally. And given that he’s got his cell phone with him everywhere, he’s able to transform the isolated social life of a star into a more intimate one. He’s following 114 people, a large but not unmanageable number to keep up with, and so creating a social universe in what could otherwise be an alienating space.

Long story short: Shaq is on Twitter and it makes total sense. That’s pretty great.


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Gamers

As Fred noted, there is a new, excellent-as-always report out from the Pew Internet & American Life Project – “Teens, Video Games, and Civics.” [PDF] To get it out of the way up top – no, not really, there’s not much positive correlation in terms of civics and game-playing. Nor negative. This is in part because being a teen means playing games today – 97% play some games, 99% of boys and 94% of girls. But also (and as the report points out), a single data point often isn’t enough to really draw out relationships between categories of behavior – you need longitudinal data for that, to see if, e.g., long-term people substitute civic activism for game-playing, vice versa, there’s a positive correlation between the two, etc. As of now, a first study is a good place to start.

There’s a lot to pull out here, but a few points bear mentioning especially. Teens today continue to follow the general pattern of all Internet users for as long as there’s been an Internet in one key way: a very small minority of them are involved in virtual worlds/IVEs/MOOs. For as long as there’ve been stats on this, somewhere between 5-10% of those online have participated in these worlds – for teens today, it’s 10%. That makes it by far the least popular genre of games, no contest – by contrast, 74% play racing games, 72% puzzle games, 68% sports games. MMORPGs are the next-least-popular genre of games, with only 21% of teens playing one.

I have a hard time not saying again and again, “I told you so,” here, and won’t resist the urge with this data. As fascinating as IVEs and MMORPGs might be, it is beyond a doubt at this point that they represent intensely exceptional behavior in terms of any possible population. The future keeps not being MOOs, MUDs, the Metaverse or Second Life. Because more or less everyone is online, now [87% of teens in the last Pew study], it’s not for lack of opportunity – they just want to do other things. And what they want to do is play all sorts of other games with their friends – 65% of teens play games with friends in the room with them, 27% with friends online, and only 24% play games only alone.

All of this adds up to a number of conclusions, but chief among them is that the portrait of Internet users and/or gamers as reclusive loners is more or less a total figment. Games are social, because people are social. Some people aren’t social, but most are – and in a population who all play games, and almost all of whom are online, those who play games or are online non-socially are the exceptions, not the rule.

Which is not to say that there aren’t interesting things to ask and find out about those people who are exceptions – from other data Pew collected here, it’s clear that users of IVEs and especially players of MMORPGs are different and different in interesting ways from other teens, generally. What this data calls for is more thorough ethnographic investigation of the communities of practice within the group “gamers” which is at this point synonymous with the group “teens” and, increasingly “people.” And I want that research to happen! But it shouldn’t be generalized – it should be contextualized.

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Media Lab!

Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to join the rest of the Berkman summer interns on a tour of MIT Media Lab, and hang out with some of the Scratch team. It’s pretty hard not to be a total fanboy about this place (my heavily-laden bag from MIT Press’ bookstore [{amazing} clearance rack!] being an obvious cue), and I can say with confidence that it’s even more awesome than I thought.

Many thanks to Becca Tabasky and Lexie Koss at Berkman for putting the field trip together; to Jay Silver and Andrés Monroy-Hernández for their time showing us the Cube and talking about Scratch, and double-thanks to Andrés for giving us a look around the rest of nerd heaven.

And now, pics! More available here.

Media lab 17

Media lab 8

Media lab 1

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Google Book Search has inspired passionate feelings and responses from many people since Google announced the project. Some, like Larry Lessig, view its scanning and indexing of copyrighted books as a legitimate activity under Fair Use. Others, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, are more skeptical of Google Book Search (and in Siva’s case, Google generally).

Either way, there’s no doubt that Google Book Search is a big deal. A key fact to keep in mind is one that Lessig makes repeatedly; namely, that

Google’s “Book Search service” aims to provide access to three kinds of published works: (1) works in the public domain, (2) works in copyright and in print, and (3) works in copyright but no longer in print. As some of you may recall from the presentation I made a while ago, about 16% of books are in category (1); 9% of books are in category (2), and 75% of books are in category (3).

And today there’s been a key advance in determining the often-difficult-to-divine status of whether some books are in category (1) or (3) – also courtesy Google:

For U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963, the rights holder needed to submit a form to the U.S. Copyright Office renewing the copyright 28 years after publication. In most cases, books that were never renewed are now in the public domain. Estimates of how many books were renewed vary, but everyone agrees that most books weren’t renewed. If true, that means that the majority of U.S. books published between 1923 and 1963 are freely usable.

How do you find out whether a book was renewed? You have to check the U.S. Copyright Office records. Records from 1978 onward are online (see http://www.copyright.gov/records) but not downloadable in bulk. The Copyright Office hasn’t digitized their earlier records, but Carnegie Mellon scanned them as part of their Universal Library Project, and the tireless folks at Project Gutenberg and the Distributed Proofreaders painstakingly typed in every word.

Thanks to the efforts of Google software engineer Jarkko Hietaniemi, we’ve gathered the records from both sources, massaged them a bit for easier parsing, and combined them into a single XML file available for download here.

This is, whatever your other feelings are about Google Book Search more generally, a wonderful advance in public accessibility of information. The list of what books are in the public domain can and will be used not just by Google Book Search in its ongoing (and arguably proprietary) book-scanning project, but also by other efforts like Brewster Kahle’s Open Content Alliance. Google comes in for a lot of criticism, but it’s worth acknowledging those times when they follow through on their stated goal of “organizing the world’s information,” and this is one of them.

One of the great challenges/opportunities that we face with digital information is the interface with print and analog information. There’s a danger – implicitly addressed by Book Search and the OCA – that our great knowledge resources from the past are ignored or left to molder, and the difficulty of determining copyright status has been something of a hurdle to digitization efforts thusfar. Recency bias will always be with us, but the possibility of making the great (and undiscovered or underappreciated) works of the past just as accessible to tomorrow’s students as the latest blog post or journal article is a goal to work towards.

(cross-posted at Digital Natives)

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Clay Shirky, in discussing his new book at TPM Café, concludes with the following question(s):

I can imagine that however unjust it may be to be relegate to the status of a despised cubicle rat, it’s gotta be worse to be a d.c.r. who doesn’t kick ass at WoW. The question it leaves me with is this: if we have a way of increasing people’s satisfaction with their activities in flexible social spaces, is that a net gain, because it increases satisfaction, or is it a net loss, because blissing out on our local social contexts lowers our sense of injustice, in a way that makes us less likely to fight against it?

Also at TPM Café, danah responds:

It is possible to gain satisfaction from achieving high status in World of Warcraft, even if popularity there is quite niche. In our ethnographic study of new media and youth culture, the Digital Youth group at Berkeley and USC also found that many youth involved in interest-driven digital practices rejected traditional status markers in preference for those that could be achieved in subcultures… [But] just because status markers can be rearranged does not mean that they universally are.

For most teens, the status that matters is that which is conferred in everyday life. Everyday friendship and dating matter more to them than the connections that they make online. This isn’t that surprising because, for as much time as teens spend online, they spend very little engaging with strangers and far more connected to people that they know. Finding interesting music videos or gross-out content online may heighten status amongst peers if this content is valued, but becoming popular with strangers online does not transfer to popularity offline.

I agree with danah here, but think there’s also more reason for hope regarding the value of online popularity. For introverted – nerdy, geeky, etc. – kids, online activity can be a source of validation absent elsewhere in their lives, and sometimes that affirmation can transfer back to their off-line lives either as greater self-confidence or, in some cases, more local social capital. In the upcoming Born Digital, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser focus on the case of one introverted teen who was not classically popular – until word made it back to his school that he was a successful and popular video mash-up artist online.

Certainly there’s a n=1 danger here – most nerdy, socially awkward kids will remain, as ever, at the lower rungs of the social totem poll in high school (saying this as a proud alumnus of the class of nerdy, socially awkward kids), and danah also relates the thoughts of,

Dominic, a 16-year old from Seattle: “I don’t really think popularity would transfer from online to offline because you’ve got a bunch of random people you don’t know it’s not going to make a difference in real life, you know? It’s not like they’re going to come visit you or hang out with you. You’re not like a celebrity or something.”

Bringing this back around to Shirky’s original question – will this dull our sense of injustice? I would ring in here with a full-throated “NO.” What Shirky is really talking about when he says “blissing out in our local social contexts” is a very old idea, and a powerful one – you say esprit de corps, I say solidarity. Building social capital is a good thing, no matter how local it might be, because the alternative (could be) a society atomized down to the most basic component level of the individual. That doesn’t work, Thatcherite critiques notwithstanding: we’re social creatures, happiest and best when we’re most social. ICTs at their best can be a tools in creating greater solidarity among citizens: more people with a sense that working together and towards a common purpose might, as a general principle, be a good thing. And in my book, there are few goals more worthy than that. A generation raised with practice building solidarity – even if it is with “random people” (indeed, perhaps especially if it’s with random people) – is a hopeful sign for society.

(cross-posted at Digital Natives)

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Technology

Jan Chipchase:

If technology is everything that was invented after you were born, then technologies that have been superseded are historical artifacts. Except here in this time warp of a courtyard – where the ancient typewriter continues to be nothing less than a computer with a built in printer and an unlimited power supply. Oh, and it sings with a clack, clack-clack, clack, ting.

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