Let me just say that I had a blast reading for this week’s class.  Yes, this course sort of does rival those I encountered in law school in terms of required pages per week.  The good thing is, the pages actually have words on them that form sentences and paragraphs and chapters that say something I actually have an interest in.  Or at least, sentences and paragraphs and chapters I can get through without daydreaming of all the other things in the world I’d rather be doing.  I’ve also really enjoyed the links on the class blogs, which brings me to this week’s post.

 My favorite reading for this week was the Jarvis blog on what online friendship actually means.  If anyone else was on Facebook during its infancy, you too probably long for the days when not every person on your friend list knew every move you made at all hours of the day.  There was a sort of mini-revolt when Facebook introduced the feed that now announces when someone makes a friend, when someone writes on a friend’s wall, when someone receives a gift and, my personal favorite, when someone ends a realtionship.  Dumped via Post-It?  Just wait, it’ll get way worse!  Facebook will let everyone in your life know you’re a party of one with a sad little pink broken heart. 

Despite its annoyances, though, I far prefer Facebook to Myspace.  It’s become the classy elder statesman in the campaign for online social networking dominance.  I never get hit on by creepy old men in Florida on Facebook.  No “hot chicks” who “never do this type of thing” send me “messages” asking me to check out the “sexy pictures” they “took just for me, just now!” on Facebook.  I don’t think I’ve ever dated someone I didn’t check out on Facebook first (identifying an obscure literary/musical/cinematic interest on their profile and working a reference into the dinner conversation has proven to be a rather useful tool).  I like being able to send a message to my cousin, my Congressman, my boss, my 6th grade lab partner or my current crush in one convinient location that doesn’t carry the skeevy reputation Myspace does.  

Although the “uncomfortable juxtapositions” Jarvis mentions have in the past have given cause for concern (sometimes I just really want to use the f-word in my status message and can’t, on account of my [Mormon] cousin, my Congressman and my boss all having access), I think Facebook provides enough practical and entertainment value to warrant a bit of self-censorship.

Of course, not all e-stalking is as well intentioned as mine (shut up, it’s totally well intentioned).  I do think that a Bill of Rights for users of social networking sites would be valuable, if it could, in fact, be implemented.  While ownership of one’s personal information is of obvious importance, I would think control of access to that information would be a more pressing concern to the average user of a site like Myspace or Facebook.  Sure, we’d all like to own the information about ourselves that we share with others online, but of greater concern would be regulating access.  I noticed this weekend, for instance, that Facebook now provides a link to photo albums that allows users to share their pictures posted on Facebook with non-Facebook users.  That not only gives the owner of the photos ultimate control over who sees them, it provides the sort of reciprocal benefit suggested in the “Plaxo’s Personal Card” blog by making Facebook a more open and thus more attractive central repository for its users. 


Gimme More Google?

February 13, 2008

Way back when I was a freshman in high school, circa 1996-1997, the Internet was fairly “new,” or was at least a few years away from being the constant presence it became for many or most by the time I was a freshman in college (math has never been my strong suit, but if memory serves, 2000-2001).  Oddly, my school district decided its students could be trusted with unfettered web access.  This led to the predictable searches for topless Jenny McCarthy, topless Leonardo DiCaprio or, for the more daring kids who smoked outside during lunch and skipped pep rallies (I will only confess to the latter), topless Jenny and Leo getting bottomless together, in the sort of really super awful Photoshop jobs that could only possibly be considered authentic by teenagers.  In 1996. 

Eventually, the school got wise and implemented “Bess, the Internet Retriever.”  Bess, a sort of Lassie (if Lassie reported back to James Dobson instead of Timmy), saved all of us from finding…well, anything.  We went from unlimited access to a sort of controlled censorship that would’ve frustrated Mao.  No one could figure out quite what happened.  Surely no one knew what we’d been searching for!  We (and by we I mean the bad kids) minimized the screen when the marms trolled by!  We cleared our Internet history after each use, then promptly looked up a bunch of smartsy, goody-goody sites to cover our tracks!  What could have been the flaw in our brilliant cover-up attempts?  That cleaning your Internet history actually accomplishes nothing?  Damn it.   

I am not one easily prone to paranoia or conspiracy.  OK, I think there was probably someone on the grassy knoll, but I don’t think Prince Philip took out a contract on Lady Di or that Bush imploded the World Trade Center.  Still, part of me has always been slightly uncomfortable with the idea that some little goon locked in a basement far, far away knows everything I’ve ever done on the Internet.  Or, could know, if ever they were motivated to look it up by forces of good or evil.  That part of me was a little freaked out by Battelle’s “Database of Intentions.”  His idea that it is a “massive database of desires, needs, wants and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked and exploited” seems rather precise.  

The Internet provides ultimate freedom.  One can explore the darkest parts of ones soul (which sounds like a more nefarious place than I imagine it actually is, for most) or the lightest.  Regardless of where an expedition takes someone, the journey no doubt began under an illusion of presumed privacy and security provided by being alone, behind a screen, with little or no thought given to just how many were living behind that screen, accessing or desiring to access every thought turned into type.    

For whatever reason, when considering this week’s topic, I was reminded of the latest Rolling Stone, which features a Britney Spears cover story.  The writer, Vanessa Grigoriadis, eventually concludes that Britney is “the canary in the coal mine of our culture.”  She’s living out all the nightmares and embarrassments of the human experience in the public eye, going places but for the grace of God and Google (or are they the same thing now?) goes the mild-mannered school teacher searching for love on match.com, or the aspiring strucural engineer using a library computer to figure out just how a skyscraper reacts to a bomb.

Has the Internet and the “Database of Intentions,” the digital master catalog of all our most inane and our most significant wants, needs and curiosities turned us all into canaries, walking further into the cultural mine undisturbed by or unaware of the inane and/or significant burst of gas just around the bend?   

Me Too

February 9, 2008

Me Too

Drowning in The Long Tail?

February 5, 2008

Despite my liking to think I am a political progressive, I am, on a personal level, resistant to change and a fan of tradition.  There is one restaurant back home at which I have, at each visit since 1988, ordered exactly the same thing.  I use the same alarm clock now that woke me up at 7 AM each morning for my duties as an elementary school AAA Safety.  I am determined to keep my 1999 Dodge Neon until it explodes (even if I bought a Saab 9-3 in 2007).  In a world in which 100 years of certain ways of life have been swept away in the past 10, I believe there is comfort and reassurance to be found in a burger that survived Reagan, an alarm clock that survived Bush I and a Detroit-built economy car that still runs.    

Still, to (badly) paraphrase the great scholar Madonna, we are living in a lazy world and I am a lazy boy.  During my time in law school, when my writing professor said the class would have to do an assignment utilizing print rather than electronic resources, I almost had a heart attack.  I did, in fact, later respond to an exam question which asked how I would research a situation using print resources, “I have no idea, because I would never do that.”  I very much enjoy having the entire world inside a portable box I can take anywhere and I did get a kick out of researching Supreme Court decisions in my underwear (which, surprisingly, you CANNOT do in a law library).       

There is no doubt that “the long tail” has done much to improve many of our lives, even if I’ve only had less-than profound experiences of which to speak.  As an undergraduate student I worked at Borders for two years and couldn’t possibly count the number of times I directed customers to Amazon when I couldn’t locate a book in the store’s database.  As big box stores and corporate merger become the norm, the “real world” is increasingly designed for fans of Oprah’s Book Club, and the “virtual world” is increasingly the habitat of the proverbial hipster record store clerk (and nice they have a habitat, since they no longer have a job).

Still, everything has a price, and I wonder if we’re not trading the ability to find obscure books or movies for less human interaction?  As our lives grow more dependent on electronic means, will we eventually end up at a point where we shop but never leave the house?  Will friendships be defined by Facebook and AIM?  Will romance become inextricably linked to Match.com or eHarmony (or craigslist, if you’re really, really out of the mainstream)?  Slippery slope arguments usually drive me insane, as they’re often built around insights such as “if we let gays marry, then next people can marry their dog.”  In this case, though, what direction does our already deep personal involvement with the wired world, combined with a likely increased dependence on the new model of commerce suggested by Chris Anderson, have us hurtling in?

On what must seem a rather unrelated note at this point in my entry, I chose to listen to a Sarah Vowell podcast.  As many probably know, she’s a contributor to “This American Life” on NPR and wrote one of my favorite books, “Assassination Vacation.”  While I’m not quite as interested in presidential death tourism as Sarah, we do share the same odd, unexplainable, unfortunate affection for John Wilkes Booth (which should maybe be an entirely separate blog entry).  I laughed my ass off reading the portion of the book she reenacts in the podcast, but hearing it in her own expressive voice made me laugh even harder.  For anyone interested, here is the link: