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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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Reading the following passage from this paper brought me back to the lobby of a hostel in Thessaloniki :

Figure 7

The Finnish network in Figure 7 is qualitatively different. It continues the trend observed in the Portuguese network in that it is smaller and looser, but unlike the previous networks, it lacks an apparent center. Rather, each seed journal and its friends constitutes an independent cluster. Moreover, rather than appearing mainly on the margins of the network, English appears in the centers of the clusters, and even in positions bi-directionally bridging between Finnish journals. This pattern is suggestive of a high degree of Finnish-English bilingualism among Finnish Live-Journalers; indeed, most of the English journals in this network appear to be written by Finns. Thus Finns have conversations on LJ in both Finnish and English, but mostly among themselves. [emphasis mine]

It was in that Thessaloniki hostel lobby that I came to a banal-but-then-amazing realization – while watching a Swedish gent chat up a Japanese lass, I consciously realized, perhaps for the first time, that every day there are probably somewhere in the dozens to hundreds of millions of people speaking to each other in English, for whom English is not a first language. And in the years since (that was in 2002), English has since become not only the default international lingua franca (ironically, mostly not in the Western Hemisphere, where Spanish is increasingly dominant as an international language due to its increased penetration Stateside) but basically the default language of business in the EU. Not due to British cultural imperialism, either – just because it’s easier.

Indeed, English instruction starts so early in most Northern European countries that it can hardly be said to be a non-native language. Especially or the Finns and the Swedes, their export-and-knowledge-based economies (Nokia based in Finland, Linux born in Sweden) demand fluency not just in multiple languages but specifically the international language – and language of the Western internet – English [the Sino-Nipponese-Korean corner of the Net is another story entirely].

I often think about what impacts this will have long-term on the English language – the many divergent strands of slang and local dialect that are emerging among non-native English speakers even as American, Canadian and British regionalisms and colloquialisms are drowned in the ongoing homogenization of our national cultures.

Will an international English-language culture emerge? Has it already – is in fact the (Western) Internet just that? Is the emergence of a more-or-less global language a consequence of transnational trade harmonization – an outfall of GATT, NAFTA, EU, etc. – or does it set the stage for them? Or am I just part of an informational elite that makes it seem like there’s increasing internationalization when for most people, there’s not, and English is just the latest in a series of lingua francas for the transnational global elite? I’m not rightly sure, about any of these things. But it’s something, ain’t it?

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