The world is a dangerous place for journalists trying to get the story out about places that don’t want the story told.
Witness the dramatic story of Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, two French journalists trapped inside the besieged Syrian rebel district of Bab Amr for a harrowing week last February with two other colleagues.
An excerpt from the March 19 edition of Time Magazine depicts the problem especially for Edith. Her left leg had been broken in a rocket attack in a Syrian home where she and her colleagues sought momentary refuge from an ongoing firefight between the Syrian army and rebel forces protesting President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime.
“The four survivors (two other journalists were with them and managed to escape quicker) were ushered into a new hideout: a single room with one small window, surrounded by taller houses and hidden from the street. For the next four days (they) were trapped there, listening to rockets and shells exploding from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and sometimes during the night. ‘Some days there were 300 bombs,’ Daniels says.”
The situation was dire. Two of their journalistic colleagues had been killed in the rocket attack that broke Edith’s femur. They all risked their lives to report on the conflict after being smuggled in, the government was upset about that, and military forces were hunting them down. If found, they didn’t expect to survive.
Turning to YouTube
That’s when Williams and Bouvier turned to the social media for help.
Sites like YouTube and Facebook which we take for granted and use so frivolously at times, were looking like the only chance that these refugees in a war zone had to stay alive on the night of Feb. 22.
Williams and Bouvier, who was in pain and bleeding from her wound, needed to contact the outside world to seek help. But their options were greatly limited. While they could use cell phones, those phones could be used against them as Syrian military could pinpoint their location simply by triangulating the phone signals.
Journalist Vivienne Walt writes of Daniels’ decision to try another communication platform:
“With the media center destroyed, the closest Internet connection to the new hideout was a hazardous 10-minute walk through Bab Amr, which was ringed with government snipers. The journalists recorded a video and handed it to activists who braved the route and uploaded it to YouTube.
The video runs 6 minutes and 32 seconds, is done in French, Arabic, and English, and features Bouvier speaking of her injuries and need for evacuation as she lies in bed with the fighting going on outside the walls of the hideout.
Walt explains: “Seen throughout the world, the video showed Daniels (photographer Paul Conroy) and Bouvier appealing to French authorities and the International Committee for the Red Cross to evacuate them. Terrified that Assad’s forces would find them, they lied about heir location, saying in the video that they were far from the hospital … Their living conditions, however, were growing worse.”
Courage pays off
Ultimately, it would not be YouTube that resulted in the evacuation of the small band of Williams and Bouvier; it was their own bravery and creativity in throwing in with a group of fighters from the Free Syrian Army who spirited them across the border into Lebanon on March 1.
But the notion that, given a little more time the social media exposure could have done the trick, is a fascinating one. It is only a short distance from an uploaded video on YouTube to the re-posting of it on Facebook and the tweeting of it on Twitter.
Individual stories count
The Kony 2012 video showed us all how fast this viral exposure can work in awaking the world to an issue that needs attention.
Even if that issue is just four European journalists trying to survive through another night as they try valiantly to get a story out about a rogue government trying to kill its own people.
Because, in the world of the social media, individual stories, plights, and faces can capture the world’s attention and produce action to help those in need.
I remember when a million dollars was a lot of money.
So much so that CBS rose to the top of the ratings on the nights it aired the hit series, “The Millionaire,” from 1955-1960. This was a show where a guy named Michael Anthony would travel the globe bestowing the golden sum on anyone his boss, John Beresford Tipton, deemed worthy of it.
If a network were to resurrect that series today, however, they would have to call it, “The Multimillionaire,” since that million would be worth just over $10 million in 2012 dollars.
Money and media
But you may be wondering, since this blog is about the digital media, what does money have to do with the price of pixels?
A lot, as it turns out. And for starters, $10 million is a vastly outdated sum of cash in the game of buying and selling social media sites.
Billion Dollar Baby
I’m talking about the $1 billion (yes, with a “b”) that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg just paid this week for another social network – Instagram – that wasn’t even around two years ago.
Instagram was launched way, way back in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger as a free photo-sharing application. To access it, all users have to do is shoot a digital picture, add on a filter, and then share it on several social networking sites include the Instagram site. The photos appear in squares, harkening back to earlier-day Kodak Instamatic cameras.
According to an article today in the online site, TechCrunch, Instagram was starting to be too much of a rival for Facebook to ignore.
“At 27 million registered users on iOS alone, Instagram was increasingly positioning itself as a social network in its own right — not just a photo-sharing app,” writes Josh Costine and Kim-Mai Cutler.
“And it was clear that some users were doing more of the daily sharing actvities on Instagram rather than Facebook’s all-in-one mobile apps, which had to be cluttered with nearly every feature of the desktop site.”
Instagram has just launched an app for Android phones and was on track to pick up as many as 50 million new users. According to TechCrunch, it had already picked up one million in the first week of the Android launch.
Under the terms of the deal, Instagram will remain a stand-alone app under its own name, but there will be increased ties and crossover possibilities with Facebook for users of both networks.
Here’s the kicker
But it was the writers’ next observation that shows – let’s see, how shall I put this – that smoke and mirrors only have value in the world of interactive digital media.
“Whatever you think of the price given the fact that Instagram had no revenues, the reality is it was going to be worth whatever Mark Zuckerberg felt like paying for it,” the TechCrunch writers say.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about a two-year-old company that – as Costine and Cutler say – has no revenues. Like other social media sites, the value of Instagram lies in the fact it draws such a huge critical mass of eyeballs to its site.
Visions of sugar plums
As we’ve seen with other sites – most notably the Facebook phenomenon – that is a scenario that makes advertisers salivate as they contemplate the exposure for their client companies.
As for Zuckerberg himself, here is his take on what the acquisition means:
“For years, we’ve focused on building the best experience for sharing photos with your friends and family. Now, we’ll be able to work even more closely with the Instagram team to also offer the best experiences for sharing beautiful mobile photos with people based on your interests.”
And if you’re still trying to wrap your mind around how much a billion dollars is, it is $344 million more than last month’s Mega Million jackpot of $656 million, which was the largest payout in lottery history.
And, once again, this billion dollars went for a company that made how much money?
“As someone who has dabbled in multiple social networking sites, I have to say, Facebook seems to be losing its allure, at least for me … At the moment, Instagram is my choice for social networking.”
This comment comes from Senior English major Tara Donavanik, writing in the student newspaper The Clause,at California’s Azusa Pacific University.
She is uttering what some are wondering about Facebook and Myspace: Are they losing their allure, at least to young people?
Some 2010 data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Social Network Site Survey indicates the answer is yes. The answer seems clearer that college students have moved away from MySpace (only 12% of undergraduates and 6% of grad students use it), but the data for Facebook shows declines, too.
For a site that was started by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg as a way for college students to connect, fewer students appear to be using Facebook.
According to the Pew results, only 1 in 5 undergrads regularly uses Facebook, while only 15% of grad students use it.
Data for both MySpace and Facebook seem stronger at the high school level, with more than 1 in 3 (35%) of high school students using MySpace, and 26% using Facebook).
A possible reason
Offering up her own take on the data, Donavanik notes, “Maybe as we get older, time becomes of essence and curiosity about an ex or an acquaintance becomes low on our priority list.”
According to the Pew data, age influences the choice of an individual’s social networking site. For example, Linkedin is a popular network site that people use to develop and maintain career connections, although it is also used to exchange social information as well. But because it is more career-oriented (and even career-enhancing), some 37% of undergrad college students and 38% of grad students were using it in 2010. One would assume those numbers are even higher today.
Twitter accounts for 21% of college student use, while other SNS sites like Instagram, account for another 14% of college usage.
Although Facebook logs a smaller percentage of college students than Linkedin, the Pew study does show FB to have the largest share of daily visits by its users, while LinkedIn users visit the site once a month or even less.
35 and older growth
Indeed, the growth among users of social network sites has been in the post-college generation of older adults. The Pew Center study summarizes this as follows:
“Internet users of all ages are more likely to use a SNS today than they were in 2008. However, the increase in SNS use has been most pronounced among those who are over the age of 35. In 2008 only 18% of internet users 36 and older used a SNS, by 2010 48% of internet users over the age of 35 were using a SNS.
“This is about twice the growth experienced by internet users 18-35; 63% of whom used a SNS in 2008 compared with 80% in 2010. Among other things, this means the average age of adult-SNS users has shifted from 33 in 2008 to 38 in 2010. Over half of all adult SNS users are now over the age of 35.”
Usage still strong
Overall, the Pew Research Center data shows the following about the demographics of all Internet users, as per its August 2011 survey:
* Percent of all adults who use the Internet: 78%.
* Men outnumber women slightly (80 to 76%).
* White, Non-Hispanics outnumber Black, Non-Hispanics, 80-71%. Some 68% of Hispanics use the Web.
* Ninety-four percent of those 18-29 use the Web; 87 percent of those 30-49; 74% of those 50-64, and 41% of those 65 and older.
* For household incomes over $75K, Internet usage is almost 100%; for household incomes less than $30K, usage is at 62%
* For those with no high school diploma, Internet use is at 43%; for high school grads, it is 71%; for college grads, usage is 94%.
The tone of comments
The Pew Center has also studied the overall “tone” or mood of comments on social networking sites (SNS) and has found the following:
* 85% of SNS-using adults say their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind.
* 68% say they have had an SNS experience that made them feel good about themselves.
* 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person.
* 39% say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users.
Nevertheless, Pew says that “notable proportions of SNS users do witness bad behavior on those sites and nearly a third have experienced some negative outcomes from their experiences.”
For example nearly half of SNS-using adults say they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others at least occasionally.
When it comes to teenage SNS-users, Pew discovered that 95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online, and that 80% of those online teens use social media sites.
Further, the experiences teens have concerning the tone of the comments posted on the site is different from adult experiences. For example, only 69% of teens think their peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites. Another 20% say peers are mostly unkind. Only 5% of the adult SNS-users reported people to be mostly unkind.
Cruelties on the sites
Further, Pew says 88% of teens using social networks have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on an SNS, and 12% reported those incidents to be “frequent.” Only 7% of adults reported seeing this kind of treatment frequently.
When it comes to the sensitive subject of bullying, nearly 1 in 5 teens (19%) said they have been bullied in the past year, often online or via text.
According to Pew, teens who use social networks say, “People most often appear to ignore the situation, with a slightly smaller number of teen saying they see others defending someone and telling others to stop their cruel behavior.”
Other Pew studies have revealed the following effects of SNS-sites on users, which go toward balancing the scales some from last week’s post on this site. That post discussed the isolating effects of the social media, but Pew data show there is also a socializing effect as well.
Some of these conclusions are:
* Facebook users are more trusting than others.
* Facebook users have more close relationships.
* Facebook users get more social support than other people.
* Facebook users are much more politically engaged than most people.
* Facebook revives “dormant” relationships. (22% of those are from high school years, in fact.)
I say I don’t want or need love in my life. Truth is, I lie to myself because I’m afraid to end up alone. – Anonymous.
There isn’t a time of day I don’t think about killing myself … I try to be the fun-loving, lighthearted nice guy. But who is it I’m trying to deceive? – Anonymous.
Question: What might happen if we were to use the worldwide public stage of the Web, in all its openness, to expose our deepest, innermost secrets? Would anyone actually do that?
Answer: Yes Many Web users are venting their personal longings, embarrassing moments, quirkiness, complaints, fears, and angst on sites designed especially to reveal secrets. The two comments that begin this blog post are two of those actual secrets posted within the past two weeks on sites set up for this purpose.
Anonymity is key
The caveat is that they are revealed under the promise of anonymity.
It is ironic that the world’s most public forum which can and often does embarrass people by making private facts public, is also the same forum that people are relying on to keep their identity secret.
Among the web sites that are available for bean-spilling is PostSecret, which seems to have started the trend, or which as least is one of the most popular of the public secret sites. How popular? As of today, more than 1,066,000 Facebook users alone have “liked” this site.
It’s mission, simply put: “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.”
The site administrators do the rest and post the cards.
An artistic element
Alongside the compelling lure of looking in on other people’s secret lives, the various secret-posting sites also offer the artistic element of seeing how well the secrets match the selected visual elements of the e-cards posted on the site. So these are not just secrets, but expressions of art, as well.
Among the secrets posted on this site’s e-cards are the following:
• I slept with someone so they wouldn’t commit suicide.
• I don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t become a military wife for fear that you will die.
• I loved giving birth, but I hate being a mother.
• Every time I get into a taxi, I check to see if the driver is the man who killed you … I want to ask him how he didn’t see us.
And the secrets go on and on.
Recently, the concept of posting secrets has moved to Facebook, a site where all wall posts come with names and photos of persons posting them, right? Only partially so when it comes to special “postsecret” Facebook group pages. Like any FB page, you have to ask to become a friend and the person running that page can either accept or reject your request. In the case of a “postsecret” page, the site administrator serves as that gatekeeper.
Postsecret sites on Facebook are catching on at a number of institutions, including college campuses. Earlier this month, for example, some students at California’s Azusa Pacific University set up PostSecret Apu. Within the first two weeks, the site had accepted more than 1,750 friend requests. Some 200 secrets have been sent in already.
The administrator of the site is kept anonymous, along with those who choose to create “postcards” and send them in for posting. However, the identity of those individuals commenting on the secrets, is revealed just like on regular Facebook pages.
College students adapt it
Here is how PostSecret Apu describes itself and its mission:
“This is a student project and in no way reflects the direct values or opinions of any faculty or staff of Azusa Pacific University.
“A place to share. A place to be. A place to express the things holding you back. A place to seek help. A place to help get you to a place of freedom.
“You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to Azusa Pacific University’s PostSecret. Secrets can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. This is meant to be an outlet you might not otherwise have.”
Since Azusa Pacific University is a faith-based liberal arts university, the new site is probably more controversial than it would be on a state university campus. There have been some concerns about the kinds of expressions that might come forth and the possible impact these might have on the university and its efforts at creating a community spirit of believers.
Nevertheless, the site administrator has stated that the only caution the school has issued is to not use the APU logo or to state that this is a university-sanctioned site, which it is not. The administrator also advises users not to name any APU employees in their posted secrets.
Wide range of secrets
The secrets posted on this Postsecret Apu page, cover a wide range of personal aspirations, regrets, complaints, and revelations. Some are lighthearted and thankful like the following:
• Not a day goes by that I don’t miss calling you my best friend.
• On most days I’m too lazy to brush my teeth.
• Come friends. It’s not too late to seek a newer world.
But there are many darker secrets, too, like the two at the top of this blog post and the following:
• People assume I dress modestly just because I’m a Christian. The truth is, I’m ashamed of my body.
• I know I’m as worthy of love as anyone else. But after so many years of telling myself otherwise, I don’t know if I’ll ever really believe it.
• I lost 35 pounds in an effort to be healthy and desired. I’ve never felt worse about myself in my entire life. Life was easier when I was fat and guys left me alone. Since then I have been sexually assaulted … Being thin is not worth this hell.
• On most days I feel … so alone.
The poignancy of these secrets is enhanced by the creative visual imagery that serve as the background for these e-cards. The fact there are so many such secrets posted in such a short window of time is an indication of the private world of pain and longing that many college students carry beneath their smiling faces. Happily, others attest to the positive adjustments other students are making in the world as they grow into their early 20s.
Troubled find support
But several of the secrets are dark ones, and the darkest are those that bespeak thoughts of suicide and of those grappling with their own gender identification.
On the up side, most of these expressions garner many comments of support and offers from others to listen and to be friends with those students feeling lost in their pain and confusion.
One of the 16 people who responded to one secret confessing suicidal thoughts said this: I am so sorry you are hurting right now. I’m so sorry that you feel you have to wear a mask when you are in so much pain. Please know that you are not alone in this place, that you are not the only one who has felt this way.
The site administrator has also posted contact information for a local suicide prevention center.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed some of the positive ways which the social media have been used to help people in need. None, however, may be as useful as what transpired after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti.
Although estimates of the death toll vary to this day, more than 300,000 perished in this disaster, according to the Haitian government early in 2011.
In the days and weeks after that country’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, many people used social network sites like Facebook and Twitter to get information about the damage, try to connect with family and friends caught in the tragedy, and find the most effective charities to send money to.
Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook, told PCWorld Magazine the rush to social media was immediate.
Instant FB response
“Moments after the earthquake hit, we started seeing a response on Facebook. It was very organic. People were posting status messages about Haiti at about 1,500 per minute.”
Noyes added, “The big picture here is that Facebook and other social networking sites are offering a lifeline to Haiti that the Internet has never seen before. This is the first disaster of this magnitude where the Internet has played this big of a role.”
One Facebook page in particular, was created the day of the quake by a family to find a missing relative, believed lost in the collapse of Haiti’s five-star hotel, Hotel Montana. Today the page has more than 16,000 followers, many of whom have been using it for the same purpose and others using it to show support and find out how to help.
The page states its reason for existence: “Keeping the people of Haiti, and those who lost loved ones, in our thoughts and prayers.”
A gallery of grief
In addition to the page-after-page-after-page of posts, the site contains nearly 4,000 photos, most of them of family and loved ones lost in the earthquake and the hotel’s resulting collapse.
The site also hosts 57 different topical discussion groups, ranging from “How You Can Help Haiti Now,” to “Grief,” to many discussion pages for individual families who lost loved ones in the disaster.
Hotel Montana story
An especially gripping story about that Hotel Montana online family born out of the hotel’s rubble was written by Rukmini Callimachi, West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press. Callimachi went to Haiti three months after the quake to write a story about how survivors were coping.
Last week, Callimachi won the Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism writing Award for her article, “Haiti: Hotel Montana,” presented by the Journalism Department of Ball State University.
Writing on the wall of the “Haiti Earthquake Hotel Montana” FB page, Callimachi wrote this week:
“Hello everyone. I’m Rukmini, and for several months last year I had the honor of getting to know you. On Wednesday night, I shared your story with students at Ball State University, some of whom wiped away tears as they listened to the journey all of you endured. It was hard for me to re-read the Haiti: Hotel Montana story and to remember your enormous loss … You are not forgotten.”
Other friends felt compelled to comment on Callimachi on the same page. One wrote, “Our hero, Rukmini, made it back from the Ivory Coast and kept her appointment at Ball State after all. She’s continuing to tell the story of this amazing HM (Hotel Montana) family. Still here. Still grieving. Yet still filled with hope.”
Other posts on the Haiti Earthquake Hotel Montana page show the intensity of feelings being expressed on this social media site, well over a year after the quake. Some of them also show the power that a journalist can have in telling a story like this to the world. Among the thousands of posts:
- “Hey HM family – almost bed time for me, and all I want to do right now is find the Haitian people who helped my brother survive the earthquake over a year ago and hug them.”
- “More than writing “about” this online family, Rukmini became “part” of this online family, and many of us are honored to have met her here.”
- “Hello everyone. Just wanted to let y’all know I’m thinking about you … This family is in my blood, and I have been blessed so much by it. As always, holding you in my heart.”
- “The earthquake in Japan has brought our emotions soaring high again. We miss Jim every day, but it’s been extra tough this month watching the news and seeing the devastation. A lot of us here know somewhat of they are going through.”
- (Stopping in to let my HM family know you are never far from my thoughts. I pray each of you is doing well and remembering the good times you shared with those you love.”
- “Love and prayers to my Hotel Montana family. Still taking things one day at a time. Praying for the people of Japan and all families affected by this terrible tragedy.”
It may well be that, in times of tragedy like those experienced by Haitians in 2010 and Japanese in 2011, these are the moments when the social media plays its most positive role in the world.
Indelible memories of those innocent years of grade school, awkward years of junior high, the posturing years of high school, and the challenging years of college are found between the covers of your old yearbooks.
You remember: those are the tomes filling that 60-pound box you’ve been hauling around all your life, transferring unopened from one attic the next, defying you to actually set them out on the curb on trash day.
One of the annual rituals of school days was the yearbook signing when you passed the books around to sign and be signed, getting back the most intimate comments from people you didn’t even know you knew, and getting rather bland sentiments from friends you thought were intimates.
Later, as a parent, you were eager to see the book that set you back $25 or more, only to find your Valicia had forgotten to have her class mug shot taken and was seen only once in the book in the blurry background of a pep rally shot.
And, of course, you hoped if young Terrence were voted something like “Most Likely to Succeed,” that he wouldn’t wind up disappointing American society and becoming a Charles Manson later in life.
So school yearbooks can be anxiety-provoking, but they can also be a lot of fun. Sadly, however, yearbooks are also among the victims of shrinking school and family economies. The good news is that help has arrived from the digital era of communications, which we are calling the Virtual Unknown.
At the university where I teach, Indiana’s Ball State, the award-winning Orient yearbook has been gone for several years now. At my former university, California’s Azusa Pacific, the Student Government Association would like it dropped and for student money to go elsewhere. Only a president nostalgic for a past era, is keeping it alive.
For awhile, many schools tried shifting from the expensive hard-cover books to video yearbooks. Some still are using that and publishing books digitally on CDs or DVDs, choosing to forego printed yearbooks altogether. The thought is that videos, sights, and sounds are better — and save more trees — than printed books.
But a lot of schools are taking digital to another level and letting students customize their own books.
Print on demand
Some of these schools, like the Chahta-Ima Elementary School in suburban New Orleans, are going to a new kind of print-on-demand yearbook to save costs. Companies like TreeRing Corp. , based in
Redwood City, California, use Internet-based technology that saves schools money by letting them print only as many copies as needed while letting a wider group of students, faculty and parents collaborate in the process.
Other companies offering these print-on-demand services include ones like Lulu, Ziblio, and Lifetouch.
Casey Gleason, principal of Chahta-Ima told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We wanted the school to be able to have a yearbook for its historical significance,” said Gleason, whose school has served several generations in Lacombe, La. “We wanted to do it at a reasonable cost, but not sacrifice instructional funds for the school.”
TreeRing is a start-up company featuring a publishing model that is catching on in the book industry of printing only the number of books needed by a customer.
It’s too early tell if this model will challenge the traditional school yearbook market, in which publishing companies like Taylor and Jostens dominate. But with more schools abandoning traditional yearbooks, it could.
The publishing of the yearbooks is done entirely online, with students, faculty, and parents able to contribute elements to the book. The class mug-shot pages and student organization pages remain pretty standard, but much of the rest of the book uses the “crowdsourcing” technique of having individuals upload pictures of themselves involved in school or family activities to other pages, for which templates are provided. They can even pop in pictures of news or cultural events during the year that were meaningful for them.
The result is a kind of personalized yearbook that insures your kid doesn’t have to lay out money to buy a book in which he/she is only pictured once or twice. So each book may be somewhat different from the next, but you pay for only your personalized book; not someone else’s. Another plus is that TreeRing pledges to plant one tree for every yearbook printed.
Very Californian and very cool.
No unsold books
It’s also cool for the schools and their budgets, because instead of being stuck with a couple thousand dollars of unsold books at the end of the year, there are no unsold books because a book doesn’t get printed by TreeRing until they receive payment from the student or family. The books are actually printed by an Indiana company contracted by TreeRing. Most of them are done in soft cover and costs can vary from roughly $10 to $15 each, which is cheaper than most traditional hard-cover yearbooks.
With these new publishing options available, yearbooks will hopefully be around for many years to come.
A silent prayer
But you still hope that “most likely to succeed” will refer to your young Terrence doing well in an endeavor that is considered legal and, who knows, maybe even ethical.
A further reminder that individual privacy is hard to maintain in the Web 2.0 era came two weeks ago when a Rutgers University freshman committed suicide after seeing his sexual activity broadcast over the Web. It had been secretly recorded over a Webcam in his bedroom Sept. 19.
Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge shortly afterwards. Two Rutgers students – one of whom was Clementi’s roommate — stand accused of secretly webcasting the sexual encounter involving Clementi and another man who has not been identified.
It’s the latest tragic episode in what many are calling cyber-voyeurism.
In an ironic twist, Clementi leaped to his death apparently over this webcast and yet used the same Internet to announce his intention, according to ABC News. His message, posted to his Facebook page Sept. 22 at 8:42 p.m. read simply, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
The attorney for one of the two students charged with invasion of privacy said in a statement Tuesday that his client, “committed no crime,” and described her as a “wonderful, caring and talented young woman with a bright future.”
In New Jersey, it is a fourth-degree crime to collect images showing sexual content or nudity without the subject’s consent, and it is a third-degree crime to transmit the relevant content.
Although invasion of privacy laws exist in every state, the application of those laws vary from state to state. And, unless those cases lead to wrongful death charges or civil claims, the punishment can be fairly light, especially in cases where suicides result from the humiliation caused by the unwanted exposure.
One university English professor, Brian McNely, has noted about this Internet overkill, “You have the capacity to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theatre, but there would be consequences of some legal ramification. Things that students say online publicly like Twitter and Facebook, they should assume those things are going to stay forever. People have to be very wary about what they post.”
This is the fourth time the focus of this blog has been on either self-disclosed “sexting” or on individuals suffering the consequence of others posting sexual messages or other revealing information about their friends. What some people have seen as a passing fad is apparently more than that. What some people feared to be a damaging application of the social media has proven to be just that.
The fact that nearly all of the suicides that have occurred so far involve teenage victims make the problem even more egregious.
The medium is the massage
The late Marshall McLuhan often spoke of how each media form “massages” us differently and has different effects on it. For example, watching a traumatic event like 9/11 on live television produces a different effect on us than reading about it the next morning in the newspaper.
The same is true with the Web and the social media found on them. We can feel a real invasion of privacy when unwanted messages, photos, or videos are posted about us, and rightly so. And that sense of embarrassment – which reached the point of humiliation with Tyler Clementi – can lead to tragic consequences.
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?”
In our spotlight-crazy age, it’s hard to imagine an individual relatively unknown to that spotlight engaging an audience as much as a celebrity. But that’s what happened Friday night on the Indiana campus of Ball State University.
The relative unknown was Biz Stone, not exactly a household name but who nonetheless is co-founder and creative director of a Web 2.0 enterprise with a name you may have heard of: Twitter.
The celebrity was David Letterman.
An intimate chat
Ball State’s most famous alum and the boyish-looking Stone were on campus to have an intimate conversation (with some 3,500 students, faculty, and staff listening in) about the impact that the three-year-old Twitter and the rest of the social media are having on all of us. The event was part of the Late Night entertainer-funded program called the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series.
“We had a vision of a flock of birds grouped around a bird in flight,” Stone, 36, said of his start-up venture Twitter. If you’ve wondered why the Twitter logo is a bird, that’s the reason. It’s an image that mirrors the human essence of that interactive service.
Boredom pays off
“I was working on a different startup at Google,” Stone explained. “I was getting a little bored and we took two weeks off to work on something else.”
That was in 2006, and that something-else evolved into Twitter and grew out of Stone’s focus interest in combining texting into an interactive Web service. Stone, together with friends Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, worked on the prototype for nine months and realized they were having a lot of fun doing it, so they must be on the right track.
Today Twitter has some 160 million users around the world, and its owners turned down a purchase offer of $500 million for it last year. Stone himself was named one of Vanity Fair’s 10 most influential people and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential.
A site about nothing?
Not bad for the co-founder of a service that many discount as meaningless and who are confounded about its popularity. Even Stone acknowledges that.
“Twitter has been called the Seinfeld of the Internet,” Stone said, referring to the immensely popular TV series of the 90s with little plot structure but great characterizations. “It’s about nothing. Right on!”
About nothing? Really? If so, then how do you explain Stone’s assertion about how helpful it has been to people around the world?
Not about technology
“Twitter is not about a triumph of technology,” Stone said. “It’s a triumph of humanity.” He told Letterman, “In Silicon Valley there is this thinking that technology is a solution to all our problems. But it’s not. It really has to do with what people are going to do with technology.”
Stone added meat to that appetizer by noting that, “People have used Twitter in ways we never anticipated.” For example:
• In the earthquake that rocked Haiti, the only communication many people had with victims in that country, and vice versa, was through Twitter. It helped greatly in getting news in and out of the island nation about who was alive, who was missing, who was dead, and what was needed.
• People from around the world were tweeting messages like, “Keep hope alive,” to the victims in the devastated areas.
• The same has been true with the more recent flooding of Pakistan.
• Last fall, when the world was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Germans established a “Twitter Wall” where people from around the world could post tweets about other walls of oppression that still need to fall. Many Chinese were the first to post such Tweets, before the Chinese government blocked access by their people to that site.
• Some of the 2008 presidential debates incorporated real-time tweets from the public in a crawl along the bottom of the screen, showing what America was thinking about the give-and-take of the candidates.
When Twitter is used to aid disaster victims, it may be showing its most valuable feature, Stone believes.
“We get in touch with our empathy … and think of ourselves as global citizens who care about others,” he said.
Nevertheless, the amount of time people spend on Twitter on a day-to-day basis causes many critics to wonder if all the short blurbs about who is doing what when, is really necessary or just a waste of time.
In his on-stage conversation with Stone, Letterman admitted he does not tweet, nor is he sure he understands why he should.
“I would be tweeting but I feel I don’t have anything to say,” Letterman said. “Moreover, why should I care that Justin Bieber is at the 7-Eleven right now?”
Find your own interest
Stone replied that people don’t need to tweet to get value out of Twitter. He suggested using it to get the information that is relevant to you. If you’re interested in baseball or, more specifically, the Red Sox, dig out those tweets to see what people have to say about your team.
“Twitter is not a social network,” Stone said. “It’s an information network.”
Stone also surprised the audience by noting that 90 percent of all tweets are accessible by the public and that all tweets are archived by the Library of Congress. Other stats he revealed are that 78 percent of all Twitter usage is through Twitter.com, while the other 22 percent come through mobile phone usage. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why Twitter messages are kept to 140 characters, it is to keep it within the 160-character maximum length of cell phone text messages, allowing for the adding of a username.
Although Letterman couldn’t resist being Dave – he once noted he was wearing socks he had borrowed from the husband of BSU President Jo Ann Gora and took them off on-stage at the end of the program – he did turn serious in displaying his interest over Twitter.
Damage to language?
One of his more serious questions to Stone was asking whether such heavy usage of Twitter would affect people’s use of the English language and subtract for their ability to write well.
Stone responded, “When you’re given less to work with, you often have to be more creative.” He noted that Twitter forces users to come to the point and be concise in their writing. He also noted that many people provide links in their tweets to longer-form messages.
No boredom here
As interesting as the on-stage conversation was, however, it was just as fascinating to watch how the audience of young people responded. It is rare that a speaker event on campus doesn’t result in scattered groups of students talking among themselves and seeing several of them get bored and leave before the end.
But few did that on Friday night, and the silence during the program and standing ovation welcoming Stone and Letterman to the stage showed the degree of interest college students have in the social media phenomenon.
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.