Suppose you are one of the diehards spending a couple hours browsing through the stacks of a bookstore and come across the following titles: Life on the Screen, The Second Self, and Alone Together. You might reasonably assume that you have stumbled into a section on movies and, maybe more specifically, what it’s like to be a Hollywood actor.
In some ways, you’d be right if you consider each of us to be actors on the world’s stage as we go about living our lives, interacting with others, and trying to project a self that rings true — or not.
Yet each of these three books is not about movies, but about what has happened to our lives in the age of computers, the Internet, and the Web 2.0 media.
The books are about how we go about defining ourselves, to ourselves and others, in the age where RL meets VR in the MUD.
For the yet-uninitiated, that means Real Life meeting Virtual Reality in the Multi-User Domain.
The books are all written by Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor of Technology and Society, and they span the years of 1997-2011. Taken individually or together, they show how our current age is different from any previous era humankind has ever encountered.
A nicely written excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly presents the gist of Turkle’s latest work, Alone Together, which has the provocative subtitle, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
“Turkle argues that people are increasingly functioning without face-to-face contact. For all the talk of convenience and connection derived from texting, e-mailing, and social networking, Turkle reaffirms that what humans still instinctively need is each other.
“She encounters dissatisfaction and alienation among users: teenagers whose identities are shaped not by self-exploration but by how they are perceived by the online collective, mothers who feel texting makes communicating with their children more frequent yet less substantive, Facebook users who feel shallow status updates devalue the true intimacies of friendships.”
A sobering thought
The disturbing conclusion is, “Turkle ‘s prescient book makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.”
On several levels, that seems so. Anytime we see two people who are presumably on a date at a restaurant, yet there they sit more engaged in their I-phones or Droids, we get the picture.
Indeed one of the funnier commercials on television depicts two of these individuals. The woman is trying to have a real conversation with her date while suspecting he is more involved in checking game scores on his smart phone. And the reason it is so funny is because it is so true. We’ve all been a part of this scene, no?
Things that aren’t real
Carl Hays, a writer for Booklist, notes the following irony found in Turkle’s examination of the interface between humanity and technology:
“Turkle suggests that we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.
“In her university-sponsored studies surveying everything from text-message usage among teens to the use of robotic baby seals in nursing homes for companionship, Turkle paints a sobering and paradoxical portrait of human disconnectedness in the face of expanding virtual connections in cell-phone, intelligent machine, and Internet usage.”
When we are in the presence of a friend or loved one yet choose to focus our attention on the machine in our hand, we are in fact treating the machine with more respect; treating it as if it is more real than the person sitting next to us.
What makes Turkle’s observation more intriguing is that she has been making them for so long. Life on the Screen was published in 1997. How computer-savvy were you fifteen years ago? Did you even have an Internet connection in your home then?
Still, in that book Turkle posited that the Internet, with its bulletin boards, games, virtual communities, and private domains where people meet, develop relationships or emulate sex, is a microcosm of an emerging “culture of simulation” that substitutes representations of reality for the real world.
What we had in 1997, Turkle said, was a new way of developing an identity. This new pathway was “de-centered and multiple,” meaning it was created outside of our beings; that we used multiple Internet means and models for creating a sense of who we are as unique individuals.
If it was true then, especially for the more malleable minds of the young, how much more true might it be today as the Web has gone through mega-changes since 1997?
As one college student put it, “RL is just one more window, and it’s usually not my best.” The haunting thing here is that he is considering the worlds he inhabits through his computer as real life. He is discussing the time he spends as four different characters – avatars – in three different MUDs. Add in the time he spends doing his homework on his computer, and he lives more of his life there than apart from it.
This kind of life requires people like this student to split themselves into different selves, turning on one self and then morphing into another, as he cycles from window to window on the screen. He believes it allows him to explore different possibilities of who he might be.
Some simply say, “The Internet lets you be who you pretend to be.”
A 2001 flashback
And, in an unsettling flashback to older generations of scenes from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we seem to be losing our self-control to computers. As those space travelers did, we no longer give commands to our computers; we have dialogues with them.
And often, the computers seem to have the last word.
One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, that neo-classic tale of the West by Texan Larry McMurtry.
Although he has a passion for writing westerns of both period and modern vintage, McMurtry explodes the stereotype of what a writer of westerns is all about. That’s one of the reasons I like his books so much.
Books in his saddlebags
I’ve never been in McMurtry’s home but, I bet that in place of a Winchester rifle and crossed branding irons above a massive fireplace, you would find rows of books packed into wall-to-wall shelving.
I get that image because Larry McMurtry is a guy in love with books.
How do I know that? Because the guy owns one of the larger antiquarian bookstores around, called Booked Up, that comprises four buildings and contains some 400,000 books. That’s bigger than a lot of college libraries, and it’s not found in Houston or Dallas but way out in Archer City, Texas. If that town sounds vaguely familiar, go check out McMurtry’s breakthrough novel, The Last Picture Show or its sequel, Texasville.
This is one literate cowboy.
A vexing question
Because I admire McMurtry the author so much, I plopped down $6.95 plus tax for the current issue of Harper’s Magazine at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport the other day. The article catching my eye was one by McMurtry asking the provocative question, “Will Amazon kill the book?”
Since this is one big-time bookseller asking the question about another, I thought McMurtry might just be the right guy to answer that question.
He did, and the answer is no.
This, despite the Amazon CEO’s apparent desire to see books go to the back of the shelf. Keep in mind we’re talking about the kind of printed book that the world has known for the past 500 years or so, ever since Johannes Gutenberg started cranking them with his movable type.
Reviewing Richard L. Brandt’s book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com, McMurtry is quick to give credit to Amazon’s founder as a creative genius. In fact, his review begins by noting the following:
“If the late Steve Jobs was the Thomas Edison de nos jours, perhaps the ever-present Jeff Bezos of Amazon is our Henry Ford. Both Bezos and Ford had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.”
The Kindle: Year 4
McMurtry is referring not only to the creation of the gigantic online flea market we know as Amazon.com, but also to the new kind of electronic book reader that Amazon launched in 2007 that we know as the Kindle.
But McMurtry disagrees with Bezos that the e-book is going to render ink-on-paper books obsolete as we all migrate to the e-screen of Kindle and – although Bezos might not acknowledge it – the Barnes & Noble version called the Nook.
I wrote about these new technologies a couple years ago in this blog, asking the question, “Will the e-book catch on?” Certainly the sales that Amazon is touting of Kindle seem to indicate they are indeed catching on. But my own personal observations, made over the past year on my college campus of 5,200 undergrads, indicate otherwise. I just don’t see that many students sitting under the trees reading e-books.
Doubting the worst
McMurtry, doubts that e-books will wipe out traditional tomes. Keep in mind, however, he has a financial interest in the health of the printed book. He does have to pay the utilities for all that bookstore space out in Archer city. Nevertheless, he writes:
“Less attractive about Bezos is his obvious irritation at the continued existence of the paperbound book, which provides, still, serious competition to sales of his e-book device, the Kindle.
“He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks it’s time for those relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”
Bubbles can burst
Acknowledging the opening-weekend kind of success the Kindle is having, McMurtry cautions, “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever. It might be a bubble.”
Those of us who have felt the deep satisfaction of taking our time to browse through a bookstore – large or small – and walking out with more than we expected to buy, can appreciate where McMurtry is coming from.
And that kind of customer satisfaction, especially of finding the unexpected volume that had long eluded us elsewhere, is not always such an accident. Again McMurtry writes, “Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”
Is older better?
Every time I cast my lot with traditionalists who say the older is better than the newer, I know I run the risk of sounding my age. In fact, the older is not always better. As a writer and a college professor, I know what research used to be like in musty old libraries vs. what it is like now with the library sitting on my lap as those needed references appear in seconds rather than hours.
Still I hasten to add that reading from the printed page in a nicely bound book that you can keep as a reminder in plain sight after you’re finished, is nothing to write off so easily.
At least it doesn’t require a battery or a frantic call to the Geek Squad if the e-reader refuses to waken from its zzzzzzz’s.
Like a lot of young university researchers, I once placed almost total confidence in numbers as the basis of knowledge.
If a research study were done properly, the variables were all brought under control, the observations all reduced to numbers and those digits were crunched properly, then the results formed a stronger basis for knowledge than anything else on the planet.
Those results were stronger than anecdotal evidence, stronger than what your mom or dad told you, stronger than common sense. In fact, a researcher once convinced me common sense didn’t even exist. I believed it until a good friend — herself a scientist — pointed out one day that everytime I came in from across a muddy yard, my shoes would leave tracks on the carpet. So take off your shoes.
That, she rightly noted, is common sense.
Since then, I’ve had new respect for that concept. I still place value in well-executed quantitative studies, but I also place a lot of value in common sense.
For example, media researchers will often tell you there is no body of research that proves violence on the Internet, television, video games, or in the movies leads to real-life violence. If young Edgar witnesses a spate of bodies dropping in prime time, it doesn’t follow that he is going to become the next Jeffrey Dahmer. But it is also true that the two young Colorado shooters who left 12 bodies in their bloody shooting rampage at Columbine High School were extremely heavy players of Internet games.
New York Daily News health advice columnist Dr. Dave Moore recently told a reader that the gaming habits of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were contributors to their bloody Columbine act, and explained why their favorite game of “Doom” was so dangerous. Doom was the hottest 3D action game of the time, launched in 1993 and named video game of the year in 1994 by PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World.
Video Game Addiction
Still, Dr. Moore told the advice-seeker, “You, and unfortunately parents, are clueless about what creates the video game addiction. What separates Doom from other video games and toys is one big point. They are deliberately programmed to make the player a ‘first person shooter’. You are not controlling a character, YOU ARE the character. Parents can see that transformation start in their video gaming kids – what addiction specialists call negative developmental changes.”
A quantitative researcher would say there were other variables involved with Klebold and Harris that would not be found in an across-the-board sample of teenagers. That’s true, but there are still a healthy number of kids out there with the unhealthy tendencies and vulnerability of these two, waiting to be triggered by mediated violence. Communication researchers have identified what they call an Aggression Stimulus Theory or Aggressive-cue Theory that shows the media violence can prepare someone — condition him or her — to act violently.
A Literal Defense
On the other side are defenders of the video game, Doom, now in its third iteration. This observation comes from a site called Old.doom.com: Choosing to take a more literal approach to the connection between the features of Doom and Columbine, the unnamed writer says:
“I personally believe that Doom had nothing to do with the Columbine High School attack. I seriously doubt that Kelly Fleming was running at the shooters hurling fireballs from her hand when she was shot or that Corey DePooter was chrarging them with a shotgun. In Doom, Hell Knights don’t comfort each other under the table crying. Humans have been killing each other since the beginning our of existence, before Doom was ever around. Harris and Klebold were going to shoot up their school no matter what.”
Good News, Bad News
Some parents might breathe a sign of relief to discover that heavy television viewing has decreased somewhat among teens, and that some video stores are having trouble keeping the doors open because of lower sales. The bad news, of course, is that young people are flocking to the Internet instead to get their kicks — literally when it comes to violent online video games. So the influence that may have helped propel Dylan and Eric is still there; it has just changed platforms.
Check These Out
If you want to attach some weight to statistics, try these from the Web site, Enough is Enough:
* American teens are more wired now than ever before. According to our latest survey, 93 percent of all Americans between 12 and 17 years old use the internet. In 2004, 87 percent were internet users, and in 2000, 73 percent of teens went online.
* 20 percent of teens have engaged in cyberbullying behaviors, including posting mean or hurtful information or embarrassing pictures, spreading rumors, publicizing private communications, sending anonymous e-mails or cyberpranking someone.
* 48 percent of K-1st reported viewing online content that made them feel uncomfortable, of which 72 percent reported the experience to a grownup, meaning that one in four children did not.
* 63 percent of teens said they know how to hide what they do online from their parents.
* 65 percent of high school students admit to unsafe, inappropriate, or illegal activities online
And the prevalence of Internet gaming?
* The most common recreational activities young people engage in on the computer are playing games and communicating through instant messaging.
Here’s what the site, Teen Violence Statistics says about internet violence, its methods and influence:
“While most people think of teen violence occurring at school or in the teens’ neighborhoods, some teen violence occurs or starts on the Internet. The Internet can both encourage and prevent teen violence, depending on who pays attention or speaks up.”
And the ways that can occur? The same Web site notes:
Teen Internet violence and cyberthreats can occur in many ways. A teen may use the internet to:
- Directly threaten to hurt someone
- Indirectly threaten someone, like saying, “You’d better watch out at school tomorrow”
- Manipulate someone by threatening to hurt their loved ones
- Write about hurting him or herself, wanting to end it all, or feeling that life isn’t worth living
- Read or publish hateful information about a certain person or group of people
- Talk about wanting to hurt or kill other people
- View or post threatening pictures, songs, videos, or other forms of media
- Play games that encourage violence. Studies have found connections between playing violent computer games and acting violently toward other people.
- Visit web sites about violence or self harm
- Engage in cyberbullying
The Best Math
As I think about it, probably the best means of gaining knowledge about issues like this is to combine statistics and common sense. When it comes to the dysfunctional aspects of Web addiction, that’s when the numbers really add up.
I taught at Northeastern University in Boston in the 1980s, sandwiched between two men who would become famous there. One was crime writer Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser and Jesse Stone detective novels, who served on the English faculty at Northeastern until 1979, three years before my arrival.
The second was Shawn Fanning who was fooling around in his dorm room while a student in 1999 and came up with a little music file-sharing system called Napster. That was 12 years after my departure.
I could be bitter about not finding the fame these two did, but I have a consolation: I don’t have to worry about how to spend all that money.
Brainstorming in Boston
My thought this week is about what Fanning created: that first popular file-sharing system. I also find it ironic that a few years later — just across the Charles River — Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg would create Facebook before he and the Crimson administration would part company somewhat abruptly. I’ll leave you to see the current film, “The Social Network,” to see how and why that parting occurred.
Fanning’s Napster was, of course, the online music peer-to-peer file sharing service that operated successfully for, albeit a short two years before the courts shut it down in July 2001, calling it copyright infringement on the music industry. Napster’s technology allowed users to share their MP3 files with other users, passing right by the long-established music and film distribution system. The band Metallica sued, then A&M Records sued, and the race was on to the courtroom.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Although the original Napster was closed down, Fanning’s creation pioneered the idea of decentralized peer-to-peer file distribution programs. And these have been much tougher to shut down or even control. Even the name Napster is still around, after the brand and logo were bought and the service turned into a pay music download service.
It is interesting to note the connection between music file-sharing and information file-sharing which, of course, is done all the time on the Web. A journalism professor at Ball State University, Brad King, wrote this month in MediaPost Magazines that the newspaper industry can learn a lot from the Napster story.
King writes that, after Napster was shut down, more than a dozen music-selling Web sites secured rights from the record companies and seemed poised to take us into a new digital entertainment era.
“But looks can be deceiving,” King writes. “With Napster no longer a threat, the labels scaled back their licensing initiatives and within a year most of those 12 sites weren’t around. Instead, the labels pushed forward with MusicNet and PressPlay, digital retail stores they wholly owned, creating a walled garden where consumers needed to subscribe to both … If someone wanted to purchase a song, that ran another $2.50 per track.”
King continues, “The move showed an incomprehsible misunderstanding about the reason for Napster’s success. Predictably, the two digital stores faded into obscurity while file-sharing networks continued tothrive. And herein lies the fundamental problem facing nearly all traditional media companies as they move into the digital age: identifying the problem customers have already solved.”
And the problem was …
According to King, the music industry was just flat wrong when they didn’t think people would be willing to pay to download songs. The problem was they just didn’t have an easy way to pay for them, let alone find the music in the first place.
“The Web showed them they could access information quickly, yet when they tried to find music online in 2001, it was nearly impossible, because the record labels steadfastly held music back. but the customers didn’t, ripping their CDs into digital files, which Napster made searchable.”
“The fact that Napster was free was incidental. The fact that Napster was easy, wasn’t.”
Under this thinking, the music industry went wrong when it tried to protect its franchise, by putting up walls between content and consumer, rather than adopting a customer-friendly solution. In the end, instead of protecting its business model with MusicNet and PressPlay, they damaged it severely.
So what can the news industry learn from this?
King asserts that the news industry confronts a similar scenario where file sharing has been replaced by user-created content on blogs and Twitter as well as social networks.
“The story of Napster … gives modern media executives an interesting roadmap for successfully building communities and tapping into the user-generated involvement that can open up new growth and revenue opportunities if they understand one simple idea: User-generated content isn’t the problem. It’s the solution ot the problem the traditional media didn’t know it had.”
Slashdot solves a problem
King cites Metafilter, Boing Boing, and Slashdot as successful examples of user-generated content information sites. And Shashdot has even taken a good stab at solving the credibility problem that many user-generated sites have. Shashdot is one of the key Web sites of choice for those interested in techno geek culture. Users post information from around the world, and that data is a mix of information from traditional sources, blogs, and personal experience. There, however, King notes Shashdot diverges from similar sites like Boing Boing.
“Once a user submits a story, the Shashdot crowd helps determine which ones are ‘greenlit’ … a story is pushed to the front page by voting the story up or down, by giving a particular story an up or down rating. That ranking helps the Shashdot section editors determine which stories are promoted to the main Slashdot pages. It’s a rather ingenious scheme … to create a trustworthiness scale … That scale is even more important considering the site has 5.5 million readers each moth, each of whom can submit stories.”
To make this site even more amazing is to note that, if Slashdot were a newspaper, it would rank as the second largest news organization online, according to to the Newspaper Association of America.
“Yet with millions of readers submitting content, Shashdot retains strong editorial oversight with the help of its ‘karma’ system,” King says.
The BSU professor concludes, “The traditional news industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, are facing a similar decline (as the music industry). Like the music industry nearly a decade ago, executives have a choice. Do they follow the music industry, erecting walled gardens around their content, fighting consumers and forcing them to segment themselves? Or do they embrace what their readers, who are also their paying customers are doing?”
As a writer, I often find it easier to communicate via the written word than orally, so I tend to write long. I want to be sure my meaning comes through as I plan it. That works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when I give thought to an e-mail and produce one that runs a few paragraphs, then get back a quick one-liner in response, I wonder, What’s up with that? Isn’t this guy treating my thoughts seriously? Is he angry with me for some reason? Or am I just being paranoid?
Apparently others are in the same boat, too. A few months ago I posted an entry that drew some discussion about the shortcomings of e-mails, text messages, and Facebook messages in conveying true meanings of the senders. I cautioned against trying to resolve disputes via e-mails, for example, because of this very problem.
So I wasn’t too surprised this week when I picked up a copy of the Ball State Daily News and found an interesting, albeit disturbing article from Kelly Dickey, about how serious electronic messaging can be.
Lost in translation
Entitled, “Conversations being lost in translation,” the article quoted students and counselors about the damaging effect these kinds of messages can have on individuals.
For example, one victims advocate noted: “From what I’ve seen and experienced, technology can be a wonderful resource to connect but, on the flip side, it can be a communication gap. If you’re texting back and forth via e-mail and Facebook, (the other person) may not know how to take what you’re saying.”
A loss of humanity
Therein lies the rub. The victims advocate, Michele Cole, said a decrease in human connection takes place when two people communicate through technology, and it can definitely have negative effects on relationships. One reason is the oft-stated fact that most electronic communication is devoid of that all-important nonverbal communication.
Cole continued that, in the Ball State University Counseling Center, “We strive for better communication with partners and conduct programming on healthy relationships. We focus on interaction. The nonverbals are such a large component of our everyday communication that, if you’re trying to just text back, and forth there’s that communication gap.
You don’t have to have counseling credentials to recognize the problem. Sophomore speech pathology major Laura Albers sees it, too.
“There’s a disconnect, and it’s just going to get worse,” Albers said. “You can be in a room with your friends, and there’s no point being there because they just text other people.”
Another student, Freshman Jordan Oppelt said she’s bothered by this, too.
“When that happens I just think, ‘What? You don’t want to hang out with me? I’m not good enough?” she said.
Another vexing issue concerning the flood of Facebook and Twitter communications is the public exposure or private matters involving the sender or other individuals. This comes under the heading of, “When does interpersonal communication become mass communication? When it goes on Facebook or Twitter.”
The domino effect of Facebook message distribution thrusts a knife into the heart of one-on-one messaging. There is an illusion that you are only communicating to a few close friends about yourself or someone else, but the audience is often much larger than you anticipate.
Even a simple act by one person of expressing her love for a guy she’s dating, can be very embarrassing for the guy if she hasn’t asked him first if it’s okay that she posts that message on Facebook. Suppose he doesn’t feel the same way but just hasn’t told her yet? Or suppose she hasn’t even told him yet, but thought it would be less stressful on her to pop it onto his Facebook page rather than telling him face to face?
Before Facebook, this act would be like hiring a pilot and his plane to trail a huge banner across the sky over the neighborhood where the guy lives.
Michele Cole of Ball State notes a lot of people assume a false sense of security when they send messages via text on or on Facebook.
“It goes back to, ‘I would text it but wouldn’t say it to your face.’ You get that false sense of courage.”
I’ve been teaching at the university level for many years, and it has been interesting to watch the evolution of students’ feelings regarding their privacy. As late as a year or two ago, many of my students didn’t seem to care if they were abandoning their privacy by posting private facts about themselves or others on the social media.
But lately I’ve been seeing the opposite: more and more students are thinking less and less about rushing onto Facebook with a revealing personal message unless they convince themselves they know who is receiving that message.
And that, by the way, is harder and harder for any of us to control in this age of the virtual unknown.
“The social media is the biggest change in society since the industrial revolution,” proclaims an eye-popping video posted recently on YouTube.
After reading the support for this claim, I am inclined to agree. And, like a lot of you, I’m wondering where these changes will lead us in the future.
We’re talking about media rituals here, or any lifestyle habit we succumb to that is created and/or influenced by the media.
Turn the radio on
For example, radio altered the lives of most Americans when it began offering nightly entertainment and news programming. Families who had previously spent the evenings talking or reading, came to spend them clustered around the big furniture cabinet spewing out the comedy of Fibber McGee and Molly or the daring adventures of The Shadow.
Television did the same thing, as did the Internet, and the social media of Facebook, twitter, flickr, YouTube, Myspace, et al, are doing the same thing now.
Marshalling a thought
The late media guru Marshall McLuhan would be telling us from the Other Side, “I told you so! The medium is the message!”
And that brings me back to this YouTube video produced by a futurist named Erik Qualman who has written a book called “Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business.” It’s found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFYPQjYhv8&feature=related
Qualman is a 38-year-old Michigan native who graduated in business from Michigan State University, where he played basketball, and then got an MBA from the University of Texas. He is now global vice president of Digital Marketing for EF Education, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland, and is a professor of digital marketing for Hult International Business School.
As a columnist and blogger for Search Engine Watch and ClickZ Magazine, he spends a lot of time doing essentially what I do with this blog, only he gets paid more for it. Amazing what an MBA will do for you.
Fasten your seatbelt
Here are a few boldface observations Mr. Qualman makes about our world and the way social media are changing our lives. Because I can’t help myself, I’ve added a comment to each of his insights. If you’re not sitting down, perhaps now would be a good time to do so.
• Over 50 percent of the world’s population is under 30. For those of us toward the other end of the life cycle, this is depressing news enough.
• 96 percent of Millennials have joined a social network. And, BTW, a lot of their parents and grandparents have done the same thing.
• If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third largest. I’m still searching for a word to express my amazement at this. “Wow!” just doesn’t quite cut it.
• Facebook tops Google for weekly Web traffic in the U.S. This isn’t bad for a media site that had to have Leslie Stahl explain its basic workings to America just two years ago. It’s also not a bad startup venture for a guy named Mark Zuckerberg who is now all of 26.
• Social media have overtaken pornography as the #1 activity on the Web. If this is true, then it shows that not all new media rituals are bad for us.
• 1 out of 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met via the social media. Like several of Mr. Qualman’s observations, I don’t know how this one was established or what it’s based on. But I do know one thing: This is how I met my wife 10 years ago.
• Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users; TV 13 years. The Internet took only 4 years, and the iPod did it in 3. We are becoming fast learners, no?
• Facebook added more than 200 million users in less than a year. I wonder if Mr. Zuckerberg has bought him a real bed yet with all the money he’s raking in. Two years ago he told Leslie Stahl he has only a mattress on the floor.
• The U.S. Department of Education revealed in a 2009 study that online students outperformed those receiving face-to-face instruction. OK, now this is a study I would really like to see for myself. I find it just a tad hard to believe, as well as being overgeneralized.
• 1 out of 6 higher education students are enrolled in online courses. This I do believe, and I teach some of them.
• The fastest growing segment of users on Facebook is females age 55 to 65. I learned long ago not to make pronouncements about the lifestyle habits – and motivations behind them — of women. This is pretty startling, though.
• Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears have more Facebook followers than the entire populations of Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, Ireland, Panama, and Norway. Well, these two celebrity icons are easier on the eye than parts of Belfast or the Gaza Strip.
• Generation Y and Z consider e-mail passe’. And this news comes at a time when my public library is just starting a new class for seniors on how to log on to your e-mail accounts.
• What happens in Vegas says on Facebook, twitter, flickr, and YouTube. Vegas aside, I think I wrote a couple posts a few months ago on what the social media are doing to our private lives.
• 100+ hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every 4.5 minutes. And the YouTube monitors take down an equal amount, some of which are movies I was hoping to see before they were deemed to have copyright problems.
• If you were paid $1 for every article posted on Wikipedia, you would earn $1,712.32 per hour. Interesting, but tell me again how the owners of Wiki are making any money at all?
• There are over 200 million blogs. Which, of course, is why no one is reading mine.
• 78 percent of consumers trust peer reviews of products and services; 14 percent trust advertisements. This is another way of saying we have all become advertising execs, without the pay or other perks of the Mad Men.
• Kindle eBooks outsold paper books last Christmas. Again, I would like to see the source of this assertion. Just too hard to believe.
• Successful companies in social media act more like Dale Carnegie and less like Mad Men: listening first, selling second. If so, this is a change that is long overdue.
And the final observation is one that any journalist or media executive should turn into a screensaver for his or her laptop. As for trying to divine what the implications are, good luck. It goes like this:
• We no longer search for the news. The news finds us. And we no longer search for products and services. They will find us. And they will find us on the social media.
In the summer before college, Dad took me to a big discount store for government employees we used before there was anything like a Walmart. The goal of this shopping trip was to buy me a portable tape recorder the size of a small suitcase – I think it was a Wollensak – that I could take to college in my freshman year and use to record in-class lectures. I could then play them back later in my dorm when I was studying.
This turned out to be one of those buys that sounds like a good idea, especially to parents envisioning a future scholar in the family and to the kid himself who thinks he will actually take the time to listen to the same boring lecture twice.
If I had held on to the tape recorder over the years, it would be in mint condition because I don’t think I ever used it. It would be the star of the Antique Road Show.
I was thinking about this old Wollensak one afternoon this week when I was at an electronics discount house and saw what today’s dad would probably think was a good idea for his college-bound son:
A smartpen. Officially, the Pulse Smartpen.
Part ballpoint, part microphone, part tape recorder, and part computer, this seems a worthy entry into all things new. And it doesn’t even come from Apple.
The secret’s in the glow
The smartpen is an interesting concept, if no other reason than it combines high-tech digital communication thinking with one of the oldest forms of communication: the pen, previously the quill, previously the hunk of charcoal that Cro-Magnon shamans used to draw pictures on cave walls 30,000 years ago. Although in place of the charcoal tip, there’s a laser light pulse aglow, recording what you write.
In between the very old and very new, there’s a touch of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone in the smartpen or even James Bond utilizing the latest brainchild of that crafty gadget man known only as Q. Clicking this pen three times will not result in a massive time-delayed explosion, however, as Bond’s pen once did.
The latest iteration of the writing stick was developed by a company called Livescribe which touts its company and product this way:
“Livescribe is fundamentally changing the way people capture, access and share information with pen and paper. Founded in 2007,Livescribe has developed a breakthrough low-cost mobile computing platform which includes the award-winning Pulse smartpen, dot paper, smartpen applications, Livescribe Desktop software, Livescribe Online Community, and development tools. Since its launch in April 2008, the Pulse smartpen has won multiple awards, including Popular Science’s Best of What’s New 2008, Popular Mechanic’s 2008 Breakthrough Award, and MacWorld’s Best of Show in 2009.”
Links audio to writing
In short, what the smartpen does is to record and link audio to what you write so that you can play back the recording later or even playback your handwritten notes on your computer. Or you tap it on a special part of the paper and it records like an audio tape recorder. The Livescribe software allows you to search your handwritten notes for specific words to find exactly what
you’re looking for, and it allows you to share those notes and audio online for others to see. It even lets you transform your note, drawing and recordings into Flash movies.
Whew! A lot to ask from a ballpoint pen.
So far, reviews of the Pulse Smartpen have been pretty good. Laptop Magazine (www.laptopmag.com) tested it out and assessed it this way:
“During a meeting we simply began writing on the paper. There are no controls to start and stop the digital capture of handwriting; it begins when you power on the pen and press it to the paper. It stops capturing when you stop writing. However, if you want to record the audio as well, you have to press the Record circle on the bottom of the paper; the recording timer will pop up on the pen’s screen. After activating it, we no longer felt the pressure to write down every word spoken, which was a relief.”
“Three audio-sensitivity settings are available: Conference Room, Lecture hall, and Automatic. Using the Conference mode, the Pulse did a great job picking up the presentation made in our company’s conference room. However, we did hear the scraping of our pen against the pages in the background of the recordings. It wasn’t too prominent and we could still make out the spoken words.
“The pen’s scraping noises went away when we opted to use the Pulse’s included 3D recording headset, which plugs into the top of the pen. The headset functions like a normal pair of headphones, and on the back is a pair of binaural mics that enable 3D audio recording. If you are wearing the headset, the pen records from both mics, resulting in a surround-sound recording.
“When we played back the audio recorded from the headset it sounded just like were in the meeting again; when a person to the right of where we were sitting spoke, we could hear them in our right earbud. The surround sound didn’t transfer over to the 3D recording on the computer.”
The Pulse Smartpen comes in 2GB and 4GB sizes, ranging from about $150 to $190, maybe less depending on where you buy it. Both are available from stores ranging from Target to Best Buy. Like any pen you have to replace the ink cartridges when they run dry, and you can buy a pack of four for $6.
Sean Connery’s Bond would have found one of these things indispensible. But that bomb application would have been essential.
If Narcissus had tweaked one of Socrates’ famous teachings just a tad, he could have come up with a pretty good one-liner carrying a double meaning. It would, of course, be simply:
The more time I spend on Facebook, the more I wonder about narcissism. There seems to be a lot of talking and not all that much listening, and so much of the talk centers on what the poster
is up to or what great thought she/he just had. My own posts are usually no different. I recently concluded a cross-country road trip from California to Ohio and felt duty-bound to publicly journal it on FB all the way.
Self-love to the max
Narcissism is defined variously as “self-love,” or “an exceptional interest in and admiration of yourself.” One definition notes that it is “self-love that shuts out everyone else.”
Giving myself and a lot of other FB posters the benefit of a doubt, I don’t think we’re there, at least not yet, because there is a lot of interacting with others that takes place on the site. There are a lot of congratulatory messages, notes of concern and support, a lot of happy birthdays and happy anniversaries. I’ve even got at least one FB friend who uses her posts to extol the virtues of God. And it’s only natural that we post what we know best, and that is often news about ourselves.
But there are times when you see nothing but photo slide shows of individuals that look like they were taken at a Glamour Shots studio over at the mall and, when you compare them with the snapshots taken from every unflattering angle possible, you wonder if you are looking at the borderline between narcissists and everyday people.
Or could it be some of us just remember what Mom advised: “Always look your best!” I mean, have you never asked for a second or third click for your driver’s license or school I.D.? And how may people are ever even going to see that mug shot?
This subject of self-love and the social media has not escaped the attention of psychologists, and I came across an interesting study the other day that looks at it. The researchers are Laura Buffardi, a grad student in psychology, and W. Keith Campbell, professor of psychology, both at the University of Georgia. Their work appears in the October issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (http://psp.sagepub.com)
Buffardi says narcissism is not just drawing attention to oneself or wanting to be liked. Clearly a lot of us fall into those parameters. Instead, she and Campbell say it is more severe than that and is characterized by an inability to form healthy, longterm relationships.
In the way it’s used
Buffardi noted, “Not everyone who uses Facebook is a narcissist. We found that people who are narcissistic use Facebook in self-promoting way that can be identified by others.”
So the two researchers gave questionnaires to 130 FB users, analyzed the content of the pages and had untrained strangers view the pages and rate their impression of the owner’s level of narcissism.
The team discovered, after analyzing the results, that the correlates of narcissism are the number of FB friends and wallposts that individual have on their pfile pages. Buffardi feels this is similar to how narcissists behave the in the real world, accumulating many relationships, most of which are very shallow.
And to my question about the kind of pictures FB users post of themselves, the researchers offer this: “Narcissists are also more likely to choose glamorous, self-promoting pictures for their main profile photos, while others are more likely to use snapshots.”
Hmmm … better re-evaluate my own profile picture, shot one evening in the Austrian Alps. Too much?
Impressions of impressions
Back to the Buffardi/Campbell study where they write, “Untrained observers were able to detect the narcissists also. Observers used three characteristics (quantity of social interaction, attractiveness of the individual, and the degree of self-promotion in the main photo) to form an impression of the individual’s personality.”
The study seems to find what we would think to be true: Some FB users use the site in narcissistic ways, while others just use it to stay in touch with friends and keep them informed about their lives.
Says Campbell, “Nearly all of our students use Facebook, and it seems to be a normal part of people’s social interactions. It just turns out that narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships: for self-promotoion with an emphasis on quantity over quality.”
Couldn’t it be that some people are just more extroverted than others and choose to have larger circles of friends? Just because you fall into that category doesn’t make you a follower of Narcissus.
So all this is interesting to speculate about but, of course, if we start focusing too much on ourselves and how we look to others on Facebook, aren’t we in a de facto way becoming narcissistic?
In the last post we talked about some tragedies resulting from texting, a habit that young people have especially embraced. As promised, however, this time we’ll look at the more innocent aspects of this phenomenon.
But first, I can’t help but feel that the late media seer Marshall McLuhan might well be surprised – if not shocked – to see that this recent iteration of the digital age has actually brought young people back to the written word.
And he would be downright speechless over the fact that many prefer it over audio-visual communication. For it was McLuhan who, among other things, predicted that what he called “the electronic age” (television then) was taking us back to the pre-literate tribal era of oral — and aural – communication.
Not so, according to nearly all my college students here at California’s Azusa Pacific University. This week I opened up a lively discussion in two of my classes about preferences of texting vs. calling.
The hands-down winner among these young 20-somethings? Texting.
When I asked how many students send and receive at least 20 texts a day, the room broke out in laughter. “Are you serious, Dr. Willis?” one student asked. “How about 100 to 200 a day?”
I thought she was kidding until others joined in agreement. Turns out the average fell between 100 and 150 texts sent and received in a given day.
And I’m still reeling from that, because I haven’t even made it close to the 20 mark myself.
The most common answers to the question, “Why is texting so popular?” were that texting is quicker and more convenient.
More convenient to type out a 20-word message than to punch in a seven-digit phone number? Yes, they said, especially if you are doing something else at the time … like sitting in class, trying to look like you’re attuned to what your prof is saying. Blackberries and I-phones fit snugly into one’s lap, after all.
One student said her mom used to try to call her several times during the day, and that often those calls would come while she was in class. So the student negotiated a deal with her mom to text her instead.
One senior told me that she will answer texts quicker than she will answer phone messages. During our discussion away from class, her phone did ring, and she ignored it. “See?” she said. “If that had been a text, I might have answered it right away.”
This same student then said that texting has become the preferred way for a young person to show interest in someone he or she has just met.
“It’s a lot less threatening than risking face-to-face rejection,” she said. “And,” she added, “how long it takes for the other person to respond to that text is very important. If it takes more than an hour or two, forget it. He’s just not that into you.”
Texting = Flirting?
In fact, she said many young people have come to equate the term texting, as in “John is texting Jennifer,” to mean John and Jennifer have romantic interests in each other, or at least that they are flirting. On the other hand, to say John has texted Jennifer refers more to a simple exchange of information.
Another student agreed that texting is used as a preferred way of meeting people, estimating that, “Ninety percent of all new relationships begin with texting.”
Have times changed since I was 22 or what?
One sophomore said he texts some people “who I would just find it weird to talk to.” Weird? “Yeah, you know. Some people you just have a hard time talking to. But texting them is different and it often works when talking doesn’t. It’s just not as weird.”
What we’re talking about here is the chilling effect that non-verbal cues can have on a communication exchange. In the world of texting, e-mails, and chat rooms, no such non-verbal cues need exist.
That’s fine, unless you believe you can really know another person without experiencing their non-verbal language. Because you can’t. Most of us care more about how someone says something than what they actually say. That goes for how they laugh (and how often), too.
Still, the first time I realized students come alive more in text is when I taught my first class online, some 12 years ago. After worrying about how a text-based system of real-time communication would work in a virtual classroom, I was pleased to find that online students open up much more than when they are face to face.
I remember one particular moment when a colleague passed by my open doorway and did a double-take when he heard me laughing out loud at the computer screen. The textual exchange had reached the point of hilarity, and I couldn’t contain myself. From that moment on, my fears about online teaching disappeared.
One of my students at Azusa Pacific informed me yesterday that a word now actually exists for the person who can open up online, but has trouble doing it in person. The word is “textrovert,” or that person who is an introvert in the flesh but an extrovert in texting.
It’s a great word and an accurate one. I have taken the same students who sat speechless in a regular classroom, put then in an online room and watched them explode into textual commentary on what I was saying.
Another student posited that texting allows us to focus more on ideas themselves and less on the person we’re talking to. For certain kinds of communication, that’s not bad.
Oops … Make that “s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g”
One problem with texting, opined another student, is bad spelling. And, she said, it is often not seen as a problem by the person guilty of it. “They think they’re getting their message across, but what they don’t realize is others may be making fun of what a bad speller they are,” she said.
And another problem? The occasional student who uses texting language in a college paper. It is not that uncommon to find an occasional “cuz,” “omg,” or other textual shortcut show up in a term paper. Results are predictable and are usually contained within the single letters of D or F.
One other surprising finding from my students: they aren’t that much into tweeting. Twitter seems to have captured only about 10-15 percent of them. Texting works just fine for short-burst messages of 20 or so words, while Facebook or e-mails take over nicely for longer messages.
Is it a different world out there? You bet. But hey, for me and a lot of other college profs like me, it’s just great to see kids falling in love with the written language again.
Sorry McLuhan. You were right about so many other things.
When I was in grad school at the University of Missouri (refusing to become a Tiger fan, especially when the Sooners were in town), I learned some stuff that was useful and some that was not.
One of the useful things was that often “common sense” is more of a personal perspective than a common one.
I learned this one night when I was out getting a beer with a newfound friend from New York City. At one point on the drive home in his convertible, I asked him what he noticed most when he came to Missouri.
Without hesitating, he said, “The sky. I never got to see the sky growing up in Manhattan. Too many tall buildings.”
For me, however, it was the trees and hills that caught my attention. We didn’t have that many of either in Midwest City when I was growing up.
So here we were, both in the same new state now and yet seeing it differently because of our backgrounds. You might say because of our tribes.
I learned some other useful things from a guy I never met but came to know through readings. His name was Marshall McLuhan and he was this quirky (at the least) Canadian English professor who became the darling of the media world when he started weaving into soundbites all these neat pronouncements about us and television in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among McLuhan’s more famous lines were, “The medium is the message,” and my favorite, “The medium is the massage.”
The first thought connotes that the media that bring us the messages are just as influential to us — maybe more — than the message itself. The second thought suggests that the media don’t just deliver messages; they take hold of us, shake us up, and leave us in a different emotional or mental state than when they found us.
Additionally, each different media form massages us in different ways. We can read about a traumatic event like 9/11, following the thread of trauma from one thought to the next and forming a mental and emotional opinion. Or we can watch that same event on television and become instantly and emotionally rocked. Television delivers not just a message but all the jarring shock of the experience itself.
McLuhan also had a lot to say about the tribes that the new media — as he knew them in the 60s and 70s — were creating. These observations composed some of his best “flips” of thinking. For example, he said the original media forms of writing created a literate society of humans who could come together in a common place, socialize and trade a wide variety of perspectives and ideas.
But the “new media” of television (and he later added rock music) split that community into bits and pieces, creating a myriad of tribes often within the same family. Each member would pursue his or her own interests and traditions, and even speak their own language in a way.
In short, he said the mass media were sending us back into tribalism.
Some of McLuhan’s ideas have not panned out as the decades have passed, but this one about tribes has. Whatever McLuhan envisioned to be true about TV creating new tribes has become exponentially more true when it comes to the Internet and especially those sites we call social networks. By this very name, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are tribal-forming.
We may call members our “Facebook friends” but we could also call them our tribe.
For years now, I’ve been wondering if the mass media area in which I teach has moved beyond that description. There is nothing really mass about a person’s Facebook site which consists of a select few, like-minded people. I have something like only 30 Facebook friends. But even accounting for one of them who has 1,400, that still doesn’t fall into the “mass” category.
We’re talking tribes here; we’re talking personalized media and not mas media. There are a lot of plusses to that for those of us so mobile that our tribal members are scattered all over the country. But we also still need that central pool of information, knowledge, and awareness that is found in what we would now call the traditional media of newspapers and television.
In other words, it’s okay for me to look out there into the Missouri night and see the trees and for my friend to see the sky as long as we both know those are only parts of the whole and that there is much more to learn and discover about this new place we’ve landed.
To help meet that goal, maybe we should go buy a newspaper.