Picture this: Hollywood unleashes an unknown actress in a film, she becomes an international star, and it dawns on you that this woman is perfection personified.
Therein lies the rub: She is not a person. She is a digital creation of a down-and-out director who has nowhere else to turn but to fantasy.
Such is the plot of the visionary – yet largely forgotten – 2002 film from New Line Cinema called simply, Simone. As it turns out, though, it’s not so simple because this Simone stands for “Simulation One.
To be utterly clear, the movie is actually called, S1mOne, but that would be anything but clear to most moviegoers. Nevertheless, Al Pacino plays director Viktor Taransky, and Canadian model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts plays Simone.
The dramatic tension in the film arises from the thing Taransky doesn’t tell the world, or even his ex-wife studio head, about Simone: That she is not real. To make it work, Taransky uses the cover story that Simone is reclusive, prefers to act alone and have her screen parts digitally inserted into the film by Taransky.
Can we back up a sec?
Left unanswered is exactly how this would work, even in the GGI-crazed world Hollywood.
The point of dredging up a decade-old movie is that right now, in Japan, fiction has become fact. In this case, the digital phenom is a pop singer and not a film star, but that may not be far off, given the popularity of this creation.
The virtual pop star taking Japan by storm is called Aimi Eguchi. She is the latest addition to the popular all-girl band AKB48. But, in 2011, fans of the band were surprised to learn — after a week — that Aimi is not real. She is a computer-generated avatar, made for a commercial touting the band and Japanese technology in general.
And she is made up from features of six of the other 58 girls in the band that is responsible for eight chart-topping hits in Japan. Fans had become suspicious about Aimi before her management revealed she is a digital creation, because she bore such a striking resemblance to some of her band mates.
Aimi has her own web site, and in 2011 stated she was just a normal 16-year-old girl living in a town north of Tokyo and liked sports — especially track and field events. No hint that she is a digital creation.
Like Simone, Aimi is is someone her fans thought was real. The fact that she is still a phenom, after the Wizard’s curtain has been raised revealing her as fake, raised questions about whether “real” matters to fans, or what that term means today, especially to young people.
“She is real,” CNN quoted one avid fan of Aimi. “She exists in our hearts.”
The bottom line, at least to the digital masters of these stars is this: Does reality really matter if consumers are buying it?
Aimi joins Hatsune
Aimi is not the only virtual pop star in Japan. Miku Hatsune is a digital creation who performs on stage in giant hologram form at concerts that attract thousands of adoring fans.
Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, wrote this about Hatsune in a March article:
“She never misses a beat, fluffs a line or messes up a step. But then she doesn’t really exist.
Hatsune Miku is computer generated, based on a voice-synthesizing program developed by the company Crypton Future Media that allows users to create their own music.
Her image was produced by the company, but her music is a creation of her fans, Her best songs – the ones headlined at her concerts – have emerged from more than 20 different people.
The fans know what the fans like.
All 10,000 tickets for the digital diva’s four shows in Tokyo – two on Thursday and two on Friday – sold out in hours despite the $76 ticket price.”
And it’s not just the pink bubble-gum groupies, for whom Miley Cyrus is over the hill, who are chewing up what Hatsune belts out. Again The Globe and Mail notes:
“Hatsune Miku (surnames are reversed in Asia) was projected onto the stage at the shows while thousands of other fans packed into 24 cinemas to watch live.
‘It was absolutely amazing, it’s like my heart is still dancing. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep,’ 21-year-old Yuya Ofuji said as she came out of a concert.”
The lure of unreality
For those wondering how any teen or young adult could get so worked up over a CGI image who they know exists only in the virtual world, the answers lie in this strange new era we are now exploring.
Even a casual observer of the changes in Hollywood films would notice that virtuality has replaced reality on the screens, and that the biggest films are those that incorporate digital characters.
What began with the benevolent watery creature in the 1989 film, The Abyss, has morphed into standard fare in today’s films like Battleship, Prometheus, and the recent Avatar.
And then there’s Ted
And, for those grown men who find a private solace in still having a teddy bear for a nighttime pal, there is the
upcoming Mark Wahlberg film, Ted, which is about just that. Only this teddy bear has come to life. But hey, don’t they all?
What is working in digital Hollywood has not necessarily worked so well in the music industry, digital as it is as well. In the music world, some purists still exist. Several years ago, for example, critics took a music producer to task for digitally inserting the voices of pop singers to create a couple duet albums with Frank Sinatra.
Return of the king
But that wall seems to be crumbling as well, as witnessed by the recent announcement that Elvis may be returning from the dead, courtesy of Digital Domain Media Group Inc., the CGI studio that developed the visual effects for such films as Tron: Legacy, and Transformers.
That studio has inked a contract with Core Media Group to create and produce a series of virtual Elvis images for a string of different entertainment projects. Included will be Elvis “appearances” in stage shows, films, and TV specials.
As a closet Elvis fan, I have to admit I find this idea entertaining. I saw a concert in Memphis marking the 25th anniversary of the death of the king and loved it. Live members of his backup group accompanied a big-screen audio-visual image of Elvis performing, and you could swear the king had returned.
And that, plus the fact I can’t wait to see Ted, shows where my own dividing line exists between reality and the virtual unknown.
If you’ve ever visited a major indoor shopping mall, you’ve probably seen a store called, As Seen on TV. It’s a phrase that has often been a part of some print ads and suggests that, because a product has been advertised on television, it must be good.
But if philosophers are fond of hypothesizing that we are in the postmodern era of thought, mass marketers might mention that we may be nearing the post-television age of advertising.
It’s not that TV is still not a major player as an advertising venue; it’s just that the Internet is growing in influence at a much faster rate of speed.
Low cost, long reach
Here’s how Ad Age describes it:
“The theory is that wary financial investors will applaud spending on social media because of its lower cost and growing reach.”
The leading magazine on the advertising industry is quick to point out that the single largest share of advertising bucks still go to television, but that more and more advertisers are pulling dollars from print and radio to pursue social media marketing.
Not an equal playing field
But only the big players in that world are deriving the greatest benefit of the shift to social media.
Ad Age continues, “Online advertising appears vigorous but look under the hood and you’ll find it’s running largely on Google and Facebook.
‘The rich are getting richer,’ said one digital-media executive, referring to the two giants, which continue to put distance between themselves and the pack. ‘All our clients call me and ask, ‘What is our Facebook strategy?’ — despite a wide lack of agreement on the effectiveness of social-media advertising, the exec said. ‘We are seeing increases in spending motivated less by financial evidence than a belief that “they have to be there.’
“Facebook, of course, is only too happy to foster that belief, as marketers described an aggressive push by the social network as it looks to ring up ad sales before its initial public offering. Brian Weiser, analyst at Pivotal Research, estimates that Facebook grew 46% and Google 22% in online display in the first quarter.”
The Age of Google
Google outruns all other search engines in popularity. Every second, so many people visit Google that advertisers willingly pay large sums for on-screen advertising space on pages with search results. This is targeted marketing at its best.
Someone who is looking for information on vegetarian diets, for example, is a more likely customer for a store like Trader Joe’s than someone who is a meat-and potatoes customer.
The algorithms that Google’s search engine uses provide an unrivaled linkage of products and potential customers. And that is a dream come true for advertisers. It’s not a bad dream come true for Google, either, which sees much of its $23 billion income originate from advertising.
Slicing and dicing
Says media scholar John Vivian, “In effect, Google slices and dices the mass audience in ways that give advertisers unusual efficiency in reaching the people they seek. In advertising lingo, there is less wastage. Why, for example, should a marinara company buy space in a food magazine whose readers include people with tomato allergies when Google offers a targeted audience of people looking for spaghetti sauce recipes with nary a one among them who’s allergic to tomatoes?”
If Google is king or queen of the search engines, then Facebook leads all social media sites in advertising lure, according to Vivian and Ad Age.
Facebook focuses more on behavioral targeting, collecting personal information on its users who are, coincidentally, the potential buyers of advertised products. The personal data of Facebook users is organized and catalogued in ways that offer a mother lode of targeted consumer data for mass marketers.
Vivian points out in The Media of Mass Communication, that each month the 200 million+ users holding Facebook accounts post some 4 billion bits of information, 850 million photos and 8 million videos, all of which says a great deal about the behavior, likes and dislikes of these individuals.
Members offer it up
“Facebook has incredible potential to deliver customers to advertisers based on information that members submit themselves … when they communicate with friends, identify their ‘likes’ … and share their interests,” Vivian notes.
“The ‘Likebutton’ introduced in 2010, allows advertisers to shower anyone who clicks it,
as well as their Facebook friends, with messages. Within a year the button was on 2 million websites. The button is a vehicle for what’s called “referral traffic.” Advertisers and other sites report huge increase in traffic.”
Of course, many worry about the further erosion of privacy that comes from simply clicking a “Like” button, because it sends an instant message to advertisers that here is a potential target. As a result, many Facebook users are more judicious in deciding when to hit that button.
For its part, Facebook says it doesn’t pass on information to other parties without the user’s permission, although it does use the aggregated data. Few of us actually read the legal agreement which we agree to on Facebook but, if we did, we would find this: “We serve the ad to people who meet the criteria the advertiser selected but we do not tell the advertiser who any of those people are.”
Like so many other aspects of the Internet, the social media seem destined to be here for a long time to come. And anytime a couple hundred million people decide to flock to a media site, you just know the advertisers are going to be there in the midst of them.
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?
It is sad that sometimes an important story is lost in the media focus on something peripheral to it.
A case in point would be the “Tebowmania” that accompanied the feats of (now former) Denver Bronco’s on-field achievements last fall. So you get stories focusing on Tebow’s theology instead of his quarterbacking.
That’s a harmless example, but it’s easy to find others that are more significant and disturbing. A current example is the story of mass murderer Joseph Kony in Uganda and surrounding East African countries.
A history of violence
Various reliable sources have shown that, over the years, Kony and his officers have ordered the abduction of children to become child sex slaves and soldiers. An estimated 66,000 children became soldiers and two million people have been internally displaced since 1986.
In 2005, Kony was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, but has evaded capture.His so-called Lord’s Resistance Army operates in Uganda, the Congo, Sudan, and other nearby areas in East Africa.
Like other international stories of genocide (Rwanda and the 800,000 deaths there in the early 1990s, for example) the atrocities of Joseph Kony have gone largely unnoticed by Americans until a group called Invisible Children decided to put his misdeeds on our radar screen.
The organization has done this in a number of ways over the past few years, but none has been as resoundingly effective as the Kony 2012 documentary that was hoisted onto Youtube a couple weeks ago and – to date – has been seen by about 85 million people.
Most of these viewers never even knew these atrocities had been occurring in Uganda for years.
The stated purpose of Kony 2012 is to bring worldwide attention to Kony – in fact to make him a household name. The goal here is obviously not to make us love him but to feel such revulsion for him that the efforts to find him and bring him to justice will succeed this year.
With the court of public opinion weighing so heavily on those who have the power to conduct that search and capture Kony, the idea is these power brokers will have to listen to the millions calling for Kony’s arrest.
Certainly the story of how the social media is being used to disseminate this message is fascinating. It provides a groundbreaking example of the pro-social value of social media outlets like Youtube and Facebook. It also shows that, while traditional media may have done stories in the past about Kony, a single Youtube video has been more effective in spreading the story than all of those network news reports and newspaper stories put together.
Therein lies the rub, however: the makers of the Kony 2012 video were so successful in reaching so many people in such a short period of time, that the focus of stories about the Kony video now is that phenomenon itself … and not Joesph Kony.
Last week, after the Kony video hit 40 million viewers, each of the networks did stories that night, and the focus of each was on the viral success of the video. Not Kony’s atrocities.
A day after the viral focus wore off, the focus turned to allegations that Invisible Children was not passing through its donations to the victims of Kony.
The problem with this focus and these allegations, of course, is that Invisible Children’s goal is to bring attention to the genocide and not to provide funding for the victims. In this regard, they are a different kind of relief agency.
Again, their goal is to bring the issue of kidnapped and murdered children to the attention of the world. And that kind of publicity costs money, which is where many of the donations go.
The next day, the focus of the story turned to something else – something more titillating and – again – off the focus of Kony. This time the focus of the media was on amateur video showing the Jason Russell, filmmaker of Kony 2012, behaving erratically in the nude on a San Diego neighborhood street.
He was taken to a hospital and was later diagnosed with a condition known as brief reactive psychosis.
“Though this is new to us, the doctors say this is a common experience given the great mental, emotional and physical shock his body has gone through in these last two weeks,” his wife Danica Russell told reporters.
Brief reactive psychosis is a condition caused by extreme stress, something which fits Russell’s experience. He will remain in the hospital for several weeks and undergo treatment for it.
3 chances, 3 misses
So, we’ve had three rounds of high-profile stories over the past two weeks on the efforts of the Invisible Children organization, but none of them has had to do with Joseph Kony, his atrocities in East Africa, or the need to find him and arrest him.
Am I missing something here?
Recently the U.S. Secretary of Defense made an ominous prediction: “There is a strong likelihood that the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyberattack.”
Leon Panetta was not alone in his assessment of threats to the United States.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has said, “I do believe that the cyberthreat will equal or surpass the threat from counterterrorism in the foreseeable future.”
A ticking clock
And Mike Rogers, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives has warned, “We will suffer a catastrophic cyberattack. The clock is ticking.”
Cyberterrorism is not a new concept, but it is not one widely discussed, understood, or even feared by most Americans. We seem much more concerned – justifiably so – about another massive physical attack like 9/11.
The weapon exists
What’s even more worrisome, is that the virus that could wreak such havoc has already been developed, tried and found successful in another part of the world. Worse yet, that malware can be copied by others, may have already been done so, and could be repurposed and used for just a couple million dollars.
That cost is obviously not a factor by a large terrorist group or a failed country’s regime wanting to exact revenge on America.
The latest and most sophisticated “worm” or malware is called Stuxnet and was discovered accidentally in 2010 as it was attacking the controlling computer in Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment facility.
That attack had been underway for a year before discovery and had rendered thousands of the plant’s centrifuges – devices used to enrich uranium – useless. Estimates are that Iran’s nuclear production process was set back several years as a result.
A new era
Retired Gen. Mike Hayden told reporter Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, “We have entered into a new phase of conflict in which we use a cyberweapon to create physical destruction and, in this case, physical destruction in someone else’s critical infrastructure.” That infrastructure could be nuclear plants, massive electrical power grids, water treatment plants, air traffic control facilities, and so on.
As former director of both the CIA and national security, Hayden should know what he’s talking about. He left the CIA in 2009 and refused to speculate to Kroft on any possible CIA involvement.
Although no one has taken responsibility for developing Stuxnet, the only two countries with the capability and motives for damaging Iran’s nuclear efforts in this way seem to be the United States and Israel.
Not surprisingly, neither country’s intelligence agencies are taking responsibility for it.
Stuxnet is unlike the millions of other computer viruses in existence. It is not designed to steal passwords or individual identities, and it isn’t out to unleash its attack on all the computers it infects. Instead, it was designed to target and infect one particular computer and to perform a specific task in that computer.
The computer is the main one at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, and the task was to cause the plant’s centrifuges to spin much faster than they were designed to do, destroying them in the process. If left unchecked, Stuxnet could totally halt the plant’s ability to enrich uranium.
According to Wired Magazine, Stuxnet uses a rare “zero-day” exploit to spread the virus in a computer.
“Zero-days are the hacking world’s most potent weapons: they exploit vulnerabilities in software that are yet unknown to the software maker or antivirus vendors,” writes Kim Zetter. “They’re also exceedingly rare: it takes considerable skill and persistence to find such vulnerabilities and exploit them. Out of more than 12 million pieces of malware that antivirus researchers discover each year, fewer than a dozen use a zero-day exploit.”
Another difference between Stuxnet and other computer worms is that this one masked the fact that it even existed. Generally, when a virus attacks a computer, the user is the first to realize it. Not so with Stuxnet. It is left free to do its damage without being readily detected.
In the case of Stuxnet, it was doing its work in the Natanz computer for a year before a computer security firm in Belarus discovered it. By then, thousands of the nuclear enrichment plant’s centrifuges had been destroyed and needed to be replaced.
If all the concern over Stuxnet were related to its ability to halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, few in the world would be concerned at all. It would be hard to find any Americans, in fact, who wouldn’t cheer its development.
A reusable weapon
The problem is that a cyberweapon – in this case the Stuxnet malware – doesn’t destroy itself when it is used in the way a missile, bomb, or rocket would. A cyberweapon does its damage and continues to live on.
That means the weapon is still available for use by anyone who can access it.
“There are those out there who can take a look at this, study it and maybe even attempt to turn it to their own purposes,” Gen. Hayden said.
The phrase, “unintended consequences” was used more than once by the sources. In short, it could be used against the United States.
A genie named Pandora
So the genie appears to have escaped the bottle, although repurposing and using it would require a lot of intelligence and a lot of work.
Ralph Langner, a German industrial security expert, said, “You don’t need many billions; you just need a couple of millions. And this would buy you a decent cyberattack, for example, against the U.S. power grid. (And you can access it) on the Internet.
Pesky thing, that Pandora’s Box.
“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.)
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.
Remember the “Where’s Waldo?” books, challenging kids to find the not-so-subtly dressed namesake in the midst of an equally colorful and crowded setting? Oddly enough, I was thinking about them last week while talking to my students about the coverage of international news.
What do Waldo and foreign news coverage have in common? It could be that although neither Waldo nor the events and people of the world are easy to find at times, they are both there if we take a little time looking for them.
The traditional lament is that the nation’s news media have cut back drastically on the coverage of international news. That is an accurate statement. There are fewer eyes on the world from the likes of the network news companies and newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, which collapsed all their foreign bureaus and let their sister paper The Los Angeles Times staff them instead. Of course the LA Times is also cutting back, too, as are all newspapers around the country.
The reason, however, is not that journalists don’t believe the world is a pretty good story. In this age of globalization, it is more a story than it ever has been. The problem is that the media exist in the same market-driven economy as every other business. So they will turn their attention to the places and stories that interest readers and viewers.
Local news comes first
And Americans are more interested in America than anywhere else. The international media scholar Jaap vanGinneken writes about the unwritten rule of news priorities in America when he posits that 10,000 deaths on another continent equals 1,000 deaths in another country, equals 100 deaths in another state, equals ten deaths in the capital city, equals one celebrity.
That’s a little paraphrased, but you get the idea. As John Cougar Mellencamp sang, “Ain’t That America?”
Yet there is another side, or I should say sides, of this debate on cutbacks of international news coverage. You could make a strong case that the only cutbacks are in those media we’ve traditionally looked to for world news. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few other windows to the world and these portals have been mushrooming. Like the following:
* The World Wide Web. Remember it? That’s the portal that features a lot more than Words With Friends and Facebook. Hard to believe, but true. Did you know there is even one site, sponsored by the Newseum in Washington D.C. that allows you to scroll through today’s front pages of 626 newspapers from 60 countries around the world? And did you know you can find virtually any newspaper in the world simply by going to a listing like onlinenewspapers.com and clicking on the paper you want, some of which have English translations available?
* Alternative News Portals. Although they may take you out of your comfort zone in reading about or seeing the world through the prism of Western eyes, some significant alternative news agencies have developed over the past 20 years or so. The most significant of these — by far — is Al Jazeera. This is the independent news agency out of Qatar that offers both a newspaper and video stories of the world’s news, and it offers them through the prism of the Middle East and not the West.
Al Jazeera had the most profound effect on the flow of international news of any news organization in recent memory. Entire regions of the world now feel their story can be told through non-Western eyes, and that’s a big thing for them. We may not agree with the Al Jazeera viewpoint, but it is interesting to have an alternative view of world events.
In looking at world news impact, you could also make a strong case for CNN as well, especially if you’re talking about CNN International and not Domestic. The former has a lot of non-Western correspondents.
* New Models of News Media. Into the hole left by closed foreign news bureaus of traditional media have stepped some new kinds of news media organizations. On the international scene, one hopeful sign is Globalpost.com. It’s mission, straight from its Web page, reads: “The GlobalPost Mission is to provide original international reporting rooted in integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling that informs, entertains and fills the void created by diminished foreign coverage by American media.”
It is staffed by a network of foreign correspondents who live in the regions of the world they cover and who contribute their reports as freelancers to Globalpost, which has only 18 full-time staffers at its Boston headquarters. The funding comes from a small group of private investors who believe in the importance of international news. Globalpost also accepts advertising and offers subscription services to members who join.
The job is ours
Ultimately, the responsibility for keeping up with world news lies with each of us as individuals who should want to be informed citizens of that world. It’s not that hard to find news of the world; it’s just located largely in places where we aren’t used to looking.
But then, Waldo wasn’t always where he was supposed to be either, was he?
Experts in intercultural communication remind us of the importance that narratives and rituals play in our lives and in orienting us to our own identities, history, the norms and expectations of our society. Each society uses rituals and narratives for this purpose, and they combine to form powerful tools to teach us.
I’m thinking of the opening scenes of the Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It, where Norman MacLean describes beautifully how he and his brother learned at the feet of their father, a Presbyterian pastor who taught them the value of faith, fluid writing, and fly fishing, in equal measures.
As Norman said:
“We were left to assume, as my younger brother Paul and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John was a dry fly fisherman.”
Learning the values
Hours of painstaking practice, on a daily basis, reinforced their father’s instructions on these three values which had long been central characteristics of this Montana family of the early 20th Century. Norman and Paul learned the lessons well.
When I see that film, I can’t help but think of the times my own grandfather took me trout fishing, and of the times I took my own two sons to hunt for the big bass on Indiana lakes. Then I think about the much greater amount of time the three of us have spent apart, glued to the computers.
The stark truth
Let’s face it: You don’t get much connection to the family or your own identity from the Internet. You may learn about them, but they don’t become ingrained in your DNA as Norman’s and Paul’s lessons did.
Instead, our time spent in the virtual world of the Web provides us with narratives that are snippets or soundbites, constantly interrupted by hyperlinks to “related stories” to which we happily leap, distracting our attention from the main story or narrative that — frankly — was getting a little too long anyway for our short attention spans.
Welcome to the virtual world
And instead of the rituals of the family dinner, learning writing or fly fishing from Dad, we spend hour after hour vicariously living others’ experiences, often with a stand-in avatar for us as we get lost in some online video game or doing armchair traveling around the world.
We already know we have become more splintered as families as everyone heads off to their own laptops to explore their virtual worlds which may not be representative of the corner of the world we inhabit at all. That being so, how do we expect to understand that culture as our parents and grandparents did?
It’s not just family members going their own way, but also members of the same culture or society doing the same thing. The younger we start out exploring the world on the Web instead of the real world in front of us, the more time we spend away from the rituals and narratives that teach us about that culture.
And, since we learn a lot about our own identity from our culture, we make it harder to discover that identity.
No mall directory
Is it surprising that we wake up one day to discover that, like the first-time shopper in a huge shopping mall, we have no idea where we are in relation to the places we want to be or how to get there? There is no mall directory, because there have been no narratives and few real-life rituals to point us to our destinations.
The other day I was watching a TV commercial for one of those online services that helps you track your family tree. Something like Ancestry.com. There was this woman who was talking about her great-grandfather as if he were someone from an alien planet whom she knew absolutely nothing about until she paid this online service to discover his identity.
Then I realized, I don’t even know who my own great-grandfather was. As a child raised on television, I can tell you the name of Tonto’s horse, but not the name of my grandfather’s dad or mom.
A telling sign about how we’re losing our sense of our own culture? Wouldn’t our grandparents chide us for side-stepping the importance of knowing our own family history?
Is our time spent in the virtual world, as opposed to the real one, exacerbating that disconnect from our own culture? At best, it doesn’t help.