Friday, April 30, 2010

Downfall's Downfall

Okay, I've written about the "Downfall meme" a lot on this blog. (Here is one example.) Now, apparently, YouTube takedowns by the owners of the intellectual property rights to this German film about the last days of Adolph Hitler are now on the verge of forbidding the hundreds of subtitled parodies on the web.

Check out Slate magazine's coverage of "YouTube vs. Der Führer: Why you shouldn't blame the video site for removing all of those Hitler videos" for more about the latest developments in attempts to police these remixes in the face of their even greater proliferation.

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Goldman's Less Than Golden Moment

Having written about the role of e-mail in the Enron scandal in the Virtualpolitik book, I have been -- of course -- closely attending to the role of e-mail in the official exhibits of the congressional investigative committee examining how Wall Street firms exploited buyers of their derivative products who were unaware of how the instruments functioned and the fact that they were tied to mortgages with high interest "liars' loans."

As points out, "E-mails come back to haunt Goldman Sachs," and the Boston Globe
notes that the firm seemed to be well aware that Harvard University was among the institutions it was defrauding.

The New York Times has assembled a number of documents from the Goldman Sachs internal e-mails that illustrate the portraits that they draw of impetuous traders, including the self-described "Frankenstein" Fabrice Tourre. Many of these high finance digerati are so confident that e-mail is a one-to-one rather than one-to-many channel for communication that they make a number of gaffes that my students of digital rhetoric would avoid.

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Schools Out Forever

As an instructor who has assigned digital video projects, it is interesting to consider the digital rhetorics of the "Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge" on the White House website.

Obviously media-production is important in the three online videos from finalists Clark Montessori Jr. & Sr. High School in Cincinnati, OH, Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, MI, and Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver, CO. I'm currently writing about the relationship between reality TV and online video, so this contest in which compelling videos earn viewer votes that might bring President Obama to their campus to give the school's commencement address.

The three finalist videos all use music, editing, personal testimony, and other conventions recognizable from the mix of professional and vernacular videography that indicates many successful Internet commodities.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Governing Principle

A new Pew study on Government Online indicates that the audience has been steadily growing for government-related content.

Government agencies have begun to open up their data to the public, and a surprisingly large number of citizens are showing interest. Some 40% of adult internet users have gone online for raw data about government spending and activities. This includes anyone who has done at least one of the following: look online to see how federal stimulus money is being spent (23% of internet users have done this); read or download the text of legislation (22%); visit a site such as that provides access to government data (16%); or look online to see who is contributing to the campaigns of their elected officials (14%).

It's useful, however, have the interpretive analysis presented in "Government Use of Social Media - 'In Addition to' not 'In Lieu of,'" which argues that it is important to realize that the Pew data also shows that most of the interaction with e-government is oriented around a desire for efficient transactions not social networking, and the fact that "two in five Americans believe that the use of social media is a waste of government resources" shouldn't be overlooked in a time when the "Gov 2.0 community" should be "focusing a LOT less on getting more Facebook fans and Twitter followers."

While plenty of Americans are are going online to contact their government – 82% of internet users (representing 61% of all American adults) looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the twelve months preceding the survey -the total proportion of Americans who prefer online communications has actually remained the same since this survey was last conducted back in 2003. For these internet users, government websites/Twitter accounts/Facebook fan pages/blogs/podcasts have become critical supplements – not replacements – for more traditional forms of communication. The majority of online government users interact with government agencies using multiple channels, both online and off.

It wasn't the concern of the Pew researchers, but I might have liked to have seen more rhetorical analysis of the data. Understanding the ethos of the state and the online behaviors that enhance it -- as well as the online behaviors that undermine it -- can be important. Given that so many Internet users also got their information about the government and participated in political discussions off the platform of government domains, it seems like there were also some interesting questions about credibility that weren't asked in an otherwise rich and engaging study.

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Looking Pretty in Geocities

Obviously, I love web generators and the kind of interactive paradigm of both automagical creativity and constrained stupidity that they represent. I've written at least one peer-reviewed scholarly article, which plays homage to the genre. Now, here comes the Geocities-izer, which promises to "make any webpage look like it was made by a 13 year-old in 1996." Geocities may be defunct, but its aesthetic lives on. Look at how much better my page looks.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Richard Rorty Archive Conference Website Goes Live

There has been some great press for the Richard Rorty Archive conference, "Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't," from Bruce Sterling at Wired and Ian Bogost in a posting on his blog. You can check out the full schedule below. The conference website is now live. Thanks to our generous sponsors, there is no fee for attendance, so I would encourage people in the Southern California area who are interested in philosophy, critical theory, the digital humanities, rhetoric, or archival politics to attend.

Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't: In Memory of Richard Rorty

A Celebration of Richard Rorty's Archive

May 14, 2010

Humanities Gateway 1030, UC Irvine

Irvine, California

Rorty’s Legacy 9:00 - 9:30 AM

Elizabeth Losh, UC Irvine: Welcome
David Theo Goldberg, UC Irvine: Opening Remarks
Mary Rorty, Stanford: Memory, Ethics, and Literary Custodianship in the Era of Computational Media

Michelle Light, UC Irvine: “Designing the Born Digital Archive” 9:30-10:00 AM

Cultural Politics and the Born Digital, Michelle Light, Chair 10:00-11:00 AM

Dawn Schmitz, UC Irvine: “The Born-Digital Manuscript as Cultural Form and Intellectual Record

Mark Poster, UC Irvine: “Digital and Analogue Archives

Erin Obodiac, UC Irvine: “Digital Immunity

Tom Hyry, UCLA, Respondent

Break: 11:00 - 11:15 AM

Christine Borgman, UCLA: “The Digital Archive: The Data Deluge Arrives in the Humanities” 11:15-11:45 AM

Rorty, Philosophy, and The Question Concerning Technology, David W. Smith, Chair 11:45 AM - 1:15 PM

Mark Wrathall, UC Riverside: “Responding to Rorty: Heidegger's ‘Academic Parochialism’ and the Technological Age

Iain Thomson, University of New Mexico: “Rorty, Heidegger, and the Danger and Promise of the Technological Archive.”


Margaret Gilbert, UC Irvine: "Rorty and Human Rights" 2:15-2:40 PM

Rorty as a Public Intellectual, Jonathan Alexander, Chair 2:40 - 4:45

Ian Bogost, Georgia Tech: “We Think in Public

Steven Mailloux, Loyola Marymount University: “Rhetorical Pragmatism and Histories of New Media: Rorty on Dreyfus on Kierkegaard

21st Century Scholarship from Ali M. Meghdadi, Brian Garcia, Tae-Kyung Timothy Elijah Sung, UC Irvine: "Content Confronts Context"

Break: 4:45-5:00

Closing Speaker: Michael Bérubé, Pennsylvania State University: “Reading Rorty Rhetorically” 5:00-6:30

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Bursting their Bubble

Another nice piece by Evgeny Morozov, who I've written about before here. In "Think Again: The Internet," Morozov tackles the seven deadly virtues of Internet wishful thinking by debunking each one of the following propositions.
  • The Internet Has Been a Force for Good.
  • Twitter Will Undermine Dictators.
  • Google Defends Internet Freedom.
  • The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable.
  • The Internet Boosts Political Participation.
  • The Internet Is Killing Foreign News.
  • The Internet Brings Us Closer Together.
What's interesting about his rhetoric is that he doesn't name names in his criticism of Internet boosterism and political techno-utopianism. As he puts it, "They told us it would usher in a new era of freedom, political activism, and perpetual peace. They were wrong." Yet he doesn't say who the "they" are.

Thanks to Geert Lovink and Jeff Brazil for the link!

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Washington Goes to Mr. Zuckerberg

Given this timeline of "Facebook's Eroding Privacy Policy," it is not surprising to see Senators Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Mark Begich, and Al Franken writing to the social network's site CEO, Mark Zuckerberg that their could be legislative consequences for the company's shifting attitudes about user agreements with customers. According to a Reuters story, "Senators tell Facebook: tighten privacy policy," new corporate guidelines "would allow personal information to be viewed by more than friends, and options on other websites that would allow third parties to save information about Facebook users and friends."

Senator Schumer's website prominently featured his objections, which he explains lead him to pursuing the matter with the Federal Trade Commission as well:

Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide guidelines for social networking sites, like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter on how private information submitted by online users can be used and disseminated. Schumer’s call to the FTC comes on the heels of recent reports that Facebook has decided to provide user data to select third party websites and has begun sharing personal profile information that users previously had the ability to restrict access to. These recent changes by Facebook fundamentally change the relationship between the user and the social networking site. Previously, users had the ability to determine what information they chose to share and what information they wanted to keep private. Recent policy changes are fundamentally changing that relationship and there is little guidance on what social networking sites can and cannot do and what disclosures are necessary to consumers.

Under new policies, users must go through a complicated and confusing opt-out process to keep private information from being shared with third party websites. Additionally, Facebook has also created a new system whereby ‘interests’ listed by users on their personal profiles are automatically aggregated and shared as massive web pages. Users used to have the ability to keep this information private if they chose. These new common interest pages are a gold mine of marketing data that could use by used for spam and potentially scammers, intent on peddling their wares.

“Hundreds of millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter every day,” said Schumer. “These sites have helped reconnect old friends, allow families from far away to stay in touch, and created new friendships; overall they provide a great new way to communicate. As these sites become more and more popular, however, it’s vitally important that safeguards are in place that provide users with control over their personal information to ensure they don’t receive unwanted solicitations. At the same time, social networking sites need to provide easy to understand disclosures to users on how information they submit is being shared.”

Franken's website also highlights the issue. In contrast Begich and Bennet gives little of the virtual real estate on their websites to the dispute.

You can read the actual letter to Zuckerberg here. The letter notes that the company's stated goal at one time was to create "open and transparent communities." Although they are taking up the matter with the FTC, they encourage the company to take "swift and productive" action beforehand. Note also the number of times that the word "concern" appears in the document.

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Untangling Afghanistan

Since I have an entire chapter in the Virtualpolitik book about PowerPoint, which specifically addresses the function of this new digital genre in military culture, I was interested to see "We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint" in the New York Times.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

Despite such tales, “death by PowerPoint,” the phrase used to described the numbing sensation that accompanies a 30-slide briefing, seems here to stay. The program, which first went on sale in 1987 and was acquired by Microsoft soon afterward, is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.

“There’s a lot of PowerPoint backlash, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” said Capt. Crispin Burke, an Army operations officer at Fort Drum, N.Y., who under the name Starbuck wrote an essay about PowerPoint on the Web site Small Wars Journal that cited Lieutenant Nuxoll’s comment.

In a daytime telephone conversation, he estimated that he spent an hour each day making PowerPoint slides. In an initial e-mail message responding to the request for an interview, he wrote, “I would be free tonight, but unfortunately, I work kind of late (sadly enough, making PPT slides).”

The lead example in the New York Times piece is a slide about military strategy in Afghanistan that was shown to General Stanely McChrystal, who opined that "when we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

The slide in question was actually developed by the PA Consulting Group. Not addressed in the NYT article is the role of global consulting firms that specialize in a mix of IT, strategic planning, and public relations in shaping new digital genres and cater to the U.S. military, which I also write about in the first and second chapters of the Virtualpolitik book. I also argue in the third chapter of the book that military culture is also attracted to virtual reality simulations, because they offer a similar sense that reality can be controlled and ordered by computational media.

The Guardian's Datablog has challenged its readers to see if they can "do any better" in representing such complex information with a more elegant solution. They reference Julian Bolger's reading of the graphic in his Global Security Blog, which delivers the following witty opinion and caveat about informational distraction.

The diagram has an undeniable beauty. Done the right way (embroidered perhaps) it would make a lovely wallhanging and an ideal gift for the foreign policy-maker in your life. But it is a bit of a red herring.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

E-Diplomacy Update

I've been thinking a lot about the changing strategies of the State Department when it comes to social media this week and the limitations of my own expertise as a rhetorician who has been situated in a particular context as a U.S. academic that makes me well aware that my policy recommendations will be informed by certain biases.

As regular readers know, I've been studying institutions as digital media-makers for over a decade, an area of research that started with national digital libraries and led to my first book on the digital rhetoric of governments, Virtualpolitik. Although much of that book was about the failures of the Bush administration, I argue that there is an inherent conflict between regulation and content-creation for institutional media-makers and so I find many of the same anxieties playing out in the Obama administration as well. Having worked in e-government and e-learning for over 20 years on the local and state level, I may have a more jaded view than big-picture utopians with more resources and grander plans.

My theorizing on this subject was first influenced by Jane Fountain, who developed the concept of the "virtual state," which was initially imagined as a bureaucracy that maintained files, following the theories of Max Weber about the constitution of authority by modern states. In reality, of course, digital files don't function like file drawers in government offices. Things are a lot messier in a networked world, and it is understandable that government policy makers would have major anxieties about digital files that can reach unintended audiences and be used for unanticipated purposes. "Transparency" and "access" sound like noble ideals, but as I'll be arguing in "If You Can't Control the Data, Consider the Message" at the Gov 2.0 conference this year, there can be many unpleasant surprises created by e-government.

My book is also about how official, carefully produced, high-tech forms of communication and other kinds of mediated, strategic interactions with foreign "others," often says more about our own anxieties rather than the needs of audiences abroad, so that the messages of e-diplomacy are actually far too often addressed to domestic rather than foreign audiences. My chapter about the web presence of the State Department after September 11th directly addresses those concerns.

I've also thought a lot about the claims of people who write about the persuasive power of so-called “propaganda games” that supposedly represent the "military-entertainment complex" that keeps political subjects docile and uncritical. I'm not convinced that digital persuasion operates in a simple push-button manner, and so I often find myself disagreeing with critics of the government as much as I do with the agents of the government itself.

I tend to believe that software (like videogames) operates according to a set of rules, and when we interact with software as users, we become aware of how those rules operate. These rules, Ian Bogost argues, constitute a kind of rhetoric, which he calls “procedural rhetoric” that carries often implicit messages. Sometimes these messages are actually different from the state-sanctioned message.

I have many friends and colleagues who are exploring how virtual worlds can be used for public diplomacy: Bill May, Joshua Fouts, Ren Reynolds, and David Denton. They've spent enough time creating and interacting with computational media that they understand that media often send multiple messages. Like me, many of them have also thought about how games can be played from both sides and how artists can retask components of games and simulations developed to further U.S. military agendas as tools for protest and dissent.

I've also thought about the opinions of a group of scholars who study "participatory culture" in civic education and civil society initiatives, many of whom are part of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Central group, with which I am also loosely and sometimes contentiously affiliated. Although some of these critics are cyber-utoipians, the fact that they recognize the unintended consequences of practices of informal learning and its politically subversive character makes them an important reference point for the limited expertise I can claim.

Like Geert Lovink of the Institute of Network Cultures and the Video Vortex project, I often feel like the outsider at the policy table, as I look at things like how YouTube gets used for public diplomacy.

I suppose one could say that I have two major areas of concern:

- A concern about how four strategies -- Public Diplomacy, Social Marketing, Risk Communication, and Institutional Branding -- cause the government to borrow persuasive techniques from the advertising industry and how this communicates approval for subconscious messaging and the ideologies about race, class, gender, sexuality, age, consumerism, etc. that the advertising industry represents.

- A concern about what Siva Vaidhyanathan has dubbed the "Googlization of government." With the expanding use of commercial Web 2.0 technologies by government agencies, Vaidhyanathan and a number of scholars have also expressed concern that in the name of "participatory culture" the government may risk compelling its citizens to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, to submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, and to divulge private information to commercial vendors without their consent.

I often feel like I'm an odd person to be acting as a consultant, since I use tactical media and am particularly attracted to satire as a way to get my point across, whether I'm giving out my annual Foley awards for bad government websites or doing a full-fledged parody of the DipNote State Department blog.

I also have a tendency to be perhaps a little too frank in some of my entries in this blog, like this one, for example.

The painful Briefing 2.0 with U.S. Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack was apparently intended to emulate aspects of the popular YouTube/CNN debates by having Internet users submit questions to powerful stakeholders and government experts, but this twenty-nine minute spectacle of cluelessness received fewer viewers -- by a factor of seven -- than this spontaneous video of my kids playing the Atlantic City Pipe Organ. Forget skateboarding dogs, this video was trounced even by bad Sponge Bob impressions, high school poetry readings, and "How to Plot a Point on a Graph." It would have been bad enough if McCormack was performing solo for a webcam in his bedroom, but there was an entire room full of dumbfounded reporters present at the event, who were apparently forbidden from asking questions themselves, even though this was ostensibly a press conference. It's really cringe-inducing to see McCormick struggle with his statements about "fun" and "foreign policy" and take credit for "something I started three years ago," as though that made him an savvy old hand.

Looking at the State Department social media offerings again with fresh eyes, I first of all wish that they would revise their website for kids, which has some good research resources, the reason that children actually go to government websites when writing school reports, but also some idiotic content that follows the "fun" paradigm of drivel devoted to bad puzzles and games.

I also wondered why video content on the State Department website doesn't facilitate downloads, when White House videos can be easily downloaded as MP4s. Recent content on the State Department's YouTube channel featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to no longer allow comments, which were available -- although moderated -- during the Condoleezza Rice era. This is certainly understandable given the online phenomenon of "Hillary haters" that I observed during the 2008 election. However, many users expect to be able to comment on and remix online video, so this use of YouTube as a one-way channel of communication may give it limited appeal.

In addition, it was interesting to think about which State Department videos fell into the "most viewed" category on their YouTube channel.

In first place was the infographics video for the townhall-style component of the Summit of the Americas. Of course, there are problems with the rhetoric of infographics and the simplification that it reifies, since as Bogost argues the dictum that "Information is Beautiful" should be interrogated.

In second, third, and fourth places was commentary about the investigation of the Daniel Pearl murder, which made me wonder how many YouTube viewers landed there while searching for gruesome beheading videos. In addition to briefings, there were also PSAs on their YouTube channel, such as this one featuring Jane Goodall. Among them were also some very low view videos. Middle East Digest seems to get very few views.

I'm still wary about the quality of institutional blogging from government agencies. The State Department's Dipnote is definitely better than it was during the Bush era, but I can't see it attracting a large audience while it is still largely dry PR announcements and its experiments with first person commentary, like "Why I Went to Kirkurk," are far too bland to draw readers to its prose.

Finally, Dipnote on Twitter updates far too slowly for the fast-moving Twitterati. It could be much more site-specific and time-specific. In other words, is it fast enough to be persuasive? (Of course, when they were engaging in rapid-fire exchanges that engaged directly with other policy-oriented tweeting, there could be problems, as in this case.)

Update: It looks like their Twitter feed was just relaunched here and is getting more site-specific, time-specific rapid updating.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

We Are the World

I'm not sure how I feel about the White House's celebration of "World Intellectual Property Day."

To give the Obama administration credit, they have a range of viewpoints to their comments website, which range from a litigious rodeo photographer to a graduate student in historical musicology, but the emphasis on enforcement and the powers of the Justice Department don't seem to bode well for free culture attitudes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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A New Game in Town

Now that "Justices Take Case on Video Game Law," it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court understands the limits of free speech with respect to representations of violence. Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which involves a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors, will be heard by the court in Fall. (See coverage of the 9th Circuit decision on Virtualpolitik here.) It's difficult to predict the outcome. Recently, in a decision on so-called "crush videos," United States v. Stevens, the court ruled in favor of free speech, even in a case involving violent entertainment. I've also said in some choice words about Leland Yee that I don't have much respect for the author of the original bill or his rigor as a conscientious policy maker. But it is called a "conservative court" for a reason, which might be more enthusiastic in defending hunting as recreation, which was an issue of concern in the Stevens ruling, than in defending playing videogames.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Read Me

Clearly, nobody at the Obama administration cares about the proliferation of federal government URLs that don't have clear representative functions in relationship to government agencies and the long-term institutional support that a formalized branch of government receives. Just a few weeks ago I was noting the appearance of Although we don't yet have, we do have, which actually forwards to I do like that the site links to the Library of Congress's Ask a Librarian page, but I do have concerns about the government's naming conventions.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Indonesia Amnesia

In "Debate on Internet’s Limits Grows in Indonesia," a New York Times reporter describes how sites like Facebook are being used for political protest in Southeast Asia. The article notes that cheap cellphones have also made rapid adoption possible in this multi-class, multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic society. As in many countries, including our own, government actors worry about how political subversion might undermine existing political institutions.

Proponents of greater freedom view social networking as a vital tool to further democratize this country’s often corrupt political system. Skeptics, especially among politicians and religious leaders, worry about mob rule and the loss of traditional values.

In its latest move, the government recently proposed a bill that would require Internet service providers to filter online content but was forced to shelve it after vociferous protest online and in the mainstream media.

It is interesting to think about what has and hasn't changed in the country since the publication of "Lost in Transition: the Internet and Reformasi in Indonesia" in Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society in 2006.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Neural Nets

Yay! A nice review of the Virtualpolitik book in Neural, which is available in both English and Italian. This is my second review of the book in the Italian press, but it looks like Italian university libraries have yet to buy a copy, according to WorldCat.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Put Me in Charge

As the UC system contemplates founding an "11th campus," a "virtual campus," and the UC Commission on the Future explores outsourcing more of its teaching to distance education, potentially of foundational courses, the history of the difference between "distance learning" and "hybrid learning" can be painful to recall. At one time, in the pre-Yudof era, the UC Office of the President was interested in hybrid approaches, on the assumption that they offered the best of both words, but now the logic is of substitution not supplementation. Mid-decade the now defunct Center for Teaching, Learning & technology championed uses that were meant to encourage faculty creativity and a range of collaborative approaches engaging different campuses rather than the false efficiencies proposed by IT "experts" promising efficiency through centralization in which faculty would easily port-in "content" without much pedagogical reflection.

For another viewpoint, check out John Seely Brown's "Blended Learning Revisited" for his perspective on the present moment in "blended" education.

The typical college lecture class frequently gathers many students together in a large room to be ‘fed’ knowledge, believes Brown. But studies show that “learning itself is socially constructed,” and is most effective when students interact with and teach each other in manageable groups. Brown wants to open up “niche learning experiences” that draw on classic course material, but deepen it to be maximally enriching.

In basketball and opera master classes, and in architecture labs, he has seen how individuals become acculturated in a “community of practice,” learning to “be” rather than simply to “do.” Whether performing, creating, or experimenting, students are critiqued, respond, offer their own criticism, and glean rich wisdom from a cyclical group experience. Brown says something “mysterious” may be taking place: “In deeply collective engagement in start to marinate in a problem space.” Through communities of practice, students’ minds “begin to gel up,” even in the face of abstraction and unfamiliarity, and “all of a sudden, (the subject) starts to make sense.”

What the UC system seems to be contemplating is very different from this communities of interest model.

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Thanks for Sharing

"For Web’s New Wave, Sharing Details Is the Point" reports about a new form of computer mediated communication based on sharing details from credit card purchases, which is being promoted by sites like Blippy and Swipely. Although marketers and credit agencies often share purchasing information in the business context of consumer tracking, making it part of informal social exchanges among peers may seem an alien practice still.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fast Talk

At the #140conf NYC, I was disappointed that speakers didn't actually confine their comments to one hundred and forty characters. It could be like the Residents' Commercial Album for academia. Some explanation of the conference from Practical Theory is here.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lame Brain Game s

Several conferences on videogames, notably the ACM-sponsored ACE 2008 in Yokohama, have featured speakers championing the benefits of so-called "brain training" games. Now, however, an NPR story on how "Brain Training Games Won't Pump Up IQs" explains how a new study finds no research to support the rhetoric of boosters of such games. TIME Magazine has also covered the story and admitted that not very long ago it published what seemed to be scientific findings that supported the idea that the right kind of videogames could reduce the likelihood of dementia.

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Texty Cop

In City of Ontario, California, et al., Petitioners v. Jeff Quon, et al the Supreme Court is taking up the tricky questions of privacy involved in employers who snoop on the personal electronic communications of their employees. The appeal of a SWAT officer, his wife, his girlfriend, and his friend complains of privacy violations, because prolifically produced and sometimes sexually explicit text messages to and from Officer Jeff Quon were examined and found inappropriate by his bosses. The Ninth Circuit is known for its free speech liberalism when it comes to computer-mediated communication, and their decision that both upholds and reverses the disciplinary action of Quon's employers will give the high court more than it may know what to do with, given Chief Justice Roberts apparent befuddlement with high-tech electronic devices. For more information about the case, you can check out coverage on Scotus Blog and The Volokh Conspiracy.

Because Quon is a public employee, any precedent set by the case may be limited, but a recent study on Teens and Mobile Phones by Amanda Lenhart indicates that more texters will soon be entering the workforce.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Pixel Past

Thanks to Jenny Cool for the link to retro, urban, mixed reality pixel fun.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010


NASA Goddard Flickr site often links the view from high above or toward places far away to contemporary events. This week scientists have been featuring the eruption of the Icelandic volcano that has caused havoc with air travel.

Update: Now they have added the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill to their sets.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Private Matter of Fact

Apparently those who announced the "end of privacy" spoke a bit prematurely. A new paper on "How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?" shows a more complex set of social practices, as the abstract below indicates.

Media reports teem with stories of young people posting salacious photos online, writing about alcohol-fueled misdeeds on social networking sites, and publicizing other ill-considered escapades that may haunt them in the future. These anecdotes are interpreted as representing a generation-wide shift in attitude toward information privacy. Many commentators therefore claim that young people “are less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people are.” Surprisingly, though, few empirical investigations have explored the privacy attitudes of young adults. This report is among the first quantitative studies evaluating young adults’ attitudes. It demonstrates that the picture is more nuanced than portrayed in the popular media.

In this telephonic (wireline and wireless) survey of internet using Americans (N=1000), we found that large percentages of young adults (those 18-24 years) are in harmony with older Americans regarding concerns about online privacy, norms, and policy suggestions. In several cases, there are no statistically significant differences between young adults and older age categories on these topics. Where there were differences, over half of the young adult-respondents did answer in the direction of older adults. There clearly is social significance in that large numbers of young adults agree with older Americans on issues of information privacy.

A gap in privacy knowledge provides one explanation for the apparent license with which the young behave online. 42 percent of young Americans answered all of our five online privacy questions incorrectly. 88 percent answered only two or fewer correctly. The problem is even more pronounced when presented with offline privacy issues – post hoc analysis showed that young Americans were more likely to answer no questions correctly than any other age group.

We conclude then that that young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy even while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Feature Creep

I've been thinking about the work of Virtualpolitik friend Chris Soghoian this week, as I traveled to Northern California for an all-day meeting about writing program policy in the UC system and Cal State. As I prepared to board my United flight, I noticed that Soghoian's complaint that online check-in boarding passes were never checked electronically at the same time that they were authenticated with IDs had finally been remedied. A machine that verifies the electronic information about the ticket holder had finally been installed at the head of the security line. Of course, on my return trip, it was clear that the machine wasn't in service.

While I was in meetings, I also thought about his point about "feature creep" and how authentication systems used for one context are often transported into another without reflection. The classic example is how social security numbers intended to keep track of social security benefits were reused by credit bureaus to track irresponsible creditors. Soghoian became famous for interrogating the use of boarding passes generated by commercial companies for airline security purposes under the purview of the federal government. Now educators in California are facing another form of feature creep with the Early Start program , which takes an instrument intended to be a placement test and turns it into a de facto admissions test.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Away Game

The HASTAC 2010 conference, like previous conferences from the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory emphasized new modes of digital learning, online collaboration, and scholarship in the age of big data. This year the plan was to hold a "virtual conference" featuring discussion carried on through Google Wave. The schedule indicates that there were a number of Virtualpolitik colleagues on the roster, including Craig Dietrich, Vanessa Vobis, and Nicole Starosielski from the 2009 NEH-Vectors Summer Institute on Broadening the Digital Humanities.

In the main message about "The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age," David Theo Goldberg of the UC Humanities Research Institute and Cathy Davidson of HASTAC explore when "virtual means collaborative" and draw attention to their own historical context in which "the White House asked the public: what does 21st century learning mean to you?"

In explaining why they "frame the conversation in terms of thinking not of learning," they argue that "thinking is the largest category." As Cathy Davidson notes, "education" and "learning" may be related categories, but "thinking" is central to the humanistic enterprise. David Theo Goldberg observes that "technical components" of "reading, writing, and 'rithmatic don't always prioritize "other modes of encouraging" thinking, which might include "modes of judgment" or "modes of reflection." They explained that their mission comprised more than "technical or technicist things," because their collaborative work reshaping educational institutions was about "capacities not simply technical skills."

They also introduced the issue of "modes of attention. Davidson talked about the famed "gorilla suit" study and Goldberg noted how the rise of PDAs could have consequences for the neuropsychology of attention that represent "opening and closing" of opportunities that involves rethinking of simple "expanding vs. trading" models.

Davidson said they were "both skeptical about 'digital natives'" and the assumption that young people were naturally more facile with technology, as noble savages who did not need any instruction. But she did note that when working with a class on the concept of "digital literacies," she observed a "look of terror" when they were asked to contemplate a "world without the Internet" and a "lack of digital sources," which she believed reflected on their "thinking about thinking." For Goldberg, what is critical is the "notion and nature of literacy itself" and the "self-reflexivity" and "ability to use capacities" that the term implies.

As a pragmatist, Davidson also discussed the importance of "assessment" in understanding the "ecology of knowledge systems," which might be "associative," "iterative," and "process-oriented," in ways not imagined by the No Child Left Behind legislation mandating standardized testing but misses the fact that what is "in the outcome itself" can't be so easily captured.

Goldberg also explored the "notion of contribution" in telling about how he had asked graduate students to produce collaborative products in a seminar and engage in syllabus building collectively, much as they would be expected to participate in "teamwork throughout life." For him the "radically individualized" idea of standardization is proved false by lived experiences in "collaboration and laboring together," even if the "common end" may not always be clearly defined from the beginning.

At one point Davidson even suggested that Mozilla might be putting forward the "philosophy of our time."

Then Goldberg explained how "institutions" could serve "as mobilizing networks," so that "institutional walls" were understood as "reforming" even as they are "crumbling." and the classroom becomes about "engagements between the virtual and the material" world.

Goldberg did acknowledge, however, that there could be conflict about this mixing of frames of reference, as was the case in the controversy about the presence of laptops in the classroom, which had even become an issue at the DML. In defense of laptops, Davidson described how "somebody needs to Google jockey this" in certain live classroom interchanges to highlight how "diverse the answers are" when the "affordances in the classroom" are fully explored. Goldberg argued for awareness of the "temporality and closing off" involved in such pedagogical moments, and cited how Eszter Hargittai controls students' laptops from podium. (In my own use of smart classrooms, I like having all students' laptop screens projected, although I have no direct control over their displays.)

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Heart Robots

As someone who really needs my own Rosie the Robot to clean my home, I could watch videos of robots making things neat all day. It's also interesting to think about the rhetoric of the demo that robotics lab videos represent and the interest in breaking down and optimizing everyday tasks -- like humans folding t-shirts -- to Taylorist perfection for which a robot is necessarily imperfectly equipped.


North Vs. South

There's been some talk in the community of activists and scholars monitoring Krgyzstan's revolution, which now has ousted the president of the company, after anti-corruption protests turned into violent riots. In a piece on "Kygyzstan: The 'Archived' Revolution," commentator Alexey Sidorenko opened by explaining the North-South division of a country that is split by mountainous geography and the continuing role of Russia geopolitically in the region before moving into his analysis of how new media functioned in the eventual political upset in which a former reformer was overthrown by the masses on the street.

The role of the new media changed slightly this time compared to other dramatic events (like the protests in Moldova or Iran). Blogs and Twitter didn't serve as serious means of public mobilization since the Internet penetration rate is relatively small in Kyrgyzstan ( just 15 percent in 2009). However, new media were agile enough to cover all the main events giving detailed footage of initial protests in Talas, rampage in Bishkek and looting that followed. At the same time, new media were efficiently used by the opposition attracting the attention of international community and shifting public opinion to the side of the protesters. The opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva (@otunbaeva), for instance, registered her account as soon as she became the head of the provisional government. On the other day, son of president Bakiev, Maxim opened a LiveJournal account to express the pro-government point of view.

As Gregory Asmolov concluded [RUS], it was not “journalists 2.0″ who were the most efficient in covering Kyrgyz events but the “editors 2.0″. Bloggers who both knew the region and were outside the country to see the big picture and collected the photographs, videos and Twitter confessions. Two most informed bloggers in this situation were people outside the country: US-based Yelena Skochilo (a.k.a. LJ user morrire) and Kazakhstan-based Vyacheslav Firsov (a.k.a. lord_fame). They managed to assemble the most complete collections of photos, videos and timelines.

Another “winners” in the coverage are the local blog-portals,, (as well as traditional news sites like, and, forum and a wordless webcam showing Ala-Too square (its screenshots were captured and transmitted by many bloggers). Twitter hashtags #freekg (the major hashtag of the event), #bishkek, #kyrgyzstan and #talas, although filled with re-tweets and various provocations, made it possible for English-speaking audience to follow the events as well.

However the official government website of the country continues to be dark, as institutional authority is still in flux. Five years ago I offered this snapshot of the nation's government web design strategies. What will take its place is yet to be seen.

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Another Cat Caller

For several years running, I've been giving out the Foley Awards to recognize exceptionally bad design by government agencies in creating digital media. It seems that this year someone else is getting into the act. The website that brought us "The Graphic Design of Al Qaeda," now gives us "The Best and Worst of Government Web Design."

I am not sure that I agree with all their picks and pans, however, since the Obama administration might be going overboard by creating so many new URLs divorced from government agencies, and their information graphics aren't always picture-perfect on the various initiatives.

Thanks to Jeff Brazil for the link!


Sound Advice

Although the group zero dB has been around since 2008 to protest the use of rock music as auditory torture in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, a more recent video is making the rounds on YouTube to draw fresh attention to the issue of sonic abuse. While zero dB uses the mute testimony of musicians on its website as its main form of digital rhetoric, this Massive Attack video created by photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin of "Chopped Liver" shows a graphic demonstration in a scientific setting that presents a number of familiar conventions to YouTube viewers, who may be accustomed to seeing experiments with particles and fluids in the context of entertainment.

Thanks to Susan Morse for the link!

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Twitter Quake

A local radio broadcast, "Caltech earthquake rumor shakes Twittersphere," shows how a rumor that "Caltech was sending employees and students home because seismologists were predicting a major earthquake was about to hit the Southland" could by magnified by dissemination on the popular social network site Facebook. Commentators pointed out that there were two significant factors to the story: 1) the fact that many local Twitter and Facebook users weren't exposed to the story might expose the weaknesses of these distributed platforms as a means for risk communication and 2) the fact that Internet fact-checking practices are as central to user behavior as uncritical message forwarding might indicate that the Internet may be as important for checking rumor as for spreading it.

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What If We Lost Loss?

The presentation by the University of Iowa's John Durham Peters yesterday about "God and Google" made some of the same rhetorical moves as recent talks by Virtualpolitik friends Benjamin Bratton (about the idea of a Google Caliphate) and Siva Vaidhyanathan (about Google's universalizing mission). Like these other scholars, Peters also traces back the history of "new media" far further back than its seeming computational origins.

He opened by enumerating three distinct functions that the computer performs: recording, transmission, and organizing, the last of which would prove to be the subject of his talk. He argued that media studies was far too focused on cinematic, photographic, or audiophonic origins and far too often ignored the history of indexical media, which he said was part of a "deeper history of media." He took issue with my UCSD Digital Higher Ed colleague Lev Manovich not for the part of The Language of New Media for which I have taken Manovich to task: his assertion that "[w]hile it is probably possible to invent a new rhetoric of hypermedia that will use hyperlinking not to distract the reader from the argument (as is often the case today), but rather to further convince her of an argument's validity, the sheer existence and popularity of hyperlinking exemplifies the continuing decline of the field of rhetoric in the modern era." (Manovich has since developed his thinking on the subject with interesting observations about "database rhetorics." Instead, Peters criticized Manovich's dichotomy of narrative vs database media, which make the novel and the cinema appear as hegemonic forms. (This is a position upon which Manovich also now takes a much more nuanced view.) As Peters asserted, almanacs and bibles are not read front to back.

Furthermore, Peters argued that there were many forms of "logistical media" oriented around indexing. In answering the familiar question, "what is new about new media?", he pointed to the work of Harold Innis in explaining his choice to explore "God and Google" and the "oldest and newest media." For Peters, Google's ambition to omniscience was explicitly indexical. He also pointed to the work of Hans Blumenberg and how technik was always opposed to nature. Using the categories of techne and physis, which were so important to Heidegger, Peters asked, "where is God?" He challenged the idea that "pure religion was only unmediated," when Luther's "sola scriptura" doctrine was so important in intellectual history.

Then Peters showed a number of examples of "logistical media," such as prayer flags and bells, and paid homage to the work of Alain Corbain. He noted that such bells could serve as an "auditory signature to orient you in time and space, and reminded his audience of how the Jewish shofar was imagined by Jacques Lacan as "the voice of god as a dead animal." He followed with a brief disquisition on the history of clocks, the Muslim Qibla, and his own religious tradition, which was organized around the Mormon temple

He argued that the "three ethical monotheisms are all media religions" and that writing is "the mother of all media," notale for its capacities for convenience, access, and tracking, even though "writing is radically unnatural." (Here he pointed to the research of Stephen Pinker and the role of language communities. He insisted that writing is "dangerous" and "mysterious," although histories of writing as a medium for preservation and transmission might be radically different, depending on if writing was first imagined as a vessel for poetry like Homer's or of ecomic records with primarily quantitative functions.

To understand the "use of writing in name," Peters emphasized two distinct traditions. In "Tradition 1" "the book holds everything " as in the case of the book of life or liber vitae through which God serves as writer and "everything tracked" in a "book of the living" or a "book of judgment." "Tradition 2" is primarily "bureaucratic" and is epitomized by the rule of Philip II and the royal register. (As a departent chair, Peters at this point joked about his own identification with Philip's view that "if it is not on file, it does not exist.) Peters also discussed the Doomsday book and the covergence of heavenly and earthly bookkeeping that such documents might represent.

Before moving to an exploration of the advent of the digital, he showed a slide of a beautiful Gijsbrechts paper machine. In retracing the origins of the digital era, he discussed Leibniz as a royal librarian and how for him "1" symbolized creation, while "0" symolized void. Then he pointed to the inventor Charles Babbage and his pre-quantum belief that the air itself is one vast library in which nothing is lost. He also acknowledged how the title of his talk drew on Norbert Wiener's God & Golem, who was primarily concerned with artificial life not AI, he argued.

At this point, he turned his attention to the rhetoric of Google itself, and how "white space means class" on the home page, which was also full of divination and randomizers, like other theological entities. In the assertion on the site "I feel lucky," he asked "who is I" and raised the role of interpellation as a concern. Then Peters noted that when Google announced their initial IPO offering in 2004, they chose the mathematical constant e to determine the price. He also illustrated his talk with the appearance of slogans like "In Google we trust" and "What would Google do? In his AoIR talk, Vaidhyanathan ran a search on "God" on Google, to demonstrate some of his claims about how the search engine worked. In Peter's talk, he ran a search for the results of a "God" and "Google" search. (Peters cited his friend Darin Barney as the inspiration for some of his thinking about Google in this section of his talk.)

He closed with what he considered to be a few essential distinctions about the search engine company:
1) Google is a content organizer not a content producer
2) The page rank algorithm is about a network logic of reading links with co-citation analysis in mind, which treats the Internet as an implicit voting system
3) Google orders by indexing not arranging and by tagging not trying to organize the entire web
4) Google is not omniscient, since most of the Internet is dark matter
5) Google is not omnibenevolent, as shows, which essentially throws away part of the card catalog.
6) We should be wary of the Platonic fantasies spoofed by the famed 1993 "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog" cartoon.

He showed the "Parisian Love" Google Superbowl ad, not only to note the oddity of the company doing a mass media ad, which Google is famous for avoiding, but also for the reproductive narrative that it represents in which Google can actually make babies too. Thus the homosocial space so famously defined by Alan Turing can enable heterosexual coupling. Of course, I've written about Google Search stories before here on Virtualpolitik, but Peters reference made me look at them again on YouTube, and also find all the amazing parodies, most of which are tediously about planning a murder or dismemberment (see here, here, and here), but some of which are actually more developed like the "Is Tiger Feeling Lucky Today?" parody or "Google: Parisian Oops."

In concluding with a slide of Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus, Peters insisted on the importance of the fact that none of them wrote although all could write.

In the question and answer session he talked both about the "erotic weirdness of new media." (It is worth mentioning that Peters is recently writing about pornography as well as new media.) He also asserted that "loss is part of the program" and "not incidental." He even expressed "two cheers for attrition!" and asked "what if we lost loss?" For those who haven't read Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, check out this review, which also mentions the Virtualpolitik book.

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I've Got a Lot of Plain Friends

Yesterday Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield gave a talk about "Digital literacy and play in MMOs/Virtual Worlds for children." She described children who generally had about two hours a day of media use in which family may "scaffold children's emergent digital literacy," but children also show "growing independence" and are even able to map their own literacy practices for researchers. She noted that other researchers, notably Sonia Livingstone, have demonstrated that children may move from one media platform to another as computational media become more popular in patterns of displacement rather than aggregation of hours spent. Marsh showed a broad continuum of digital media behaviors engaged in by young children, who may be pretending to text in pre-school, from "playing" to "controlling," although many forms of behavior are not ones of "productive and analytic media use." She also criticized the notion of the "digital native" and asserted that research had shown that "access and use was not just about class" because birth order and more complex forms of socioeconomic interaction could play a role.

Marsh's research focused on Club Penguin and BarbieGirls, although she noted that "children are always aspirational" and may quickly outgrow sites perceived as juvenile in favor of more adult virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel or migrate to ones that are seen as more trendy like Moshi Monsters. She defined basic characteristics of these virtual worlds, which included a "customizable avatar," a "home for the avatar," a "persistent space," an "in-world currency," and -- in the case of such kids' sites -- "chat," "moderators," and "link to an offline world of toys and texts." She cited the 2009 work of Maaike Lauwaert about the "geography of play" and the link between online and offline friendship. She explained how many of the sites rely on user policing of behavior, which she described as "cheap," because in playground play kids are eager to report on each other.

In discussing Club Penguin, she talked about various forms of capital, which have been enumerated by Pierre Bourdieu, which she demonstrated by contrasting the split-level igloo of a paid member of Club Penguin with the iglo of a participant limited to free services. She also discussed the "logographic capability" of children who recognize icons, although they also engage in more sophisticated literacy practices involving postcards, books, and newspapers.

These themes continued in her discussion of BarbieGirls, although she said this world -- which was in pink rather than primary colors -- had no even tokenistic mentions of boys as potential members. She showed the "butchest you can get your avatar to look" and noted the lack of choice in skin color and the fact that you might be frequently reminded that you are not a member during play. She also expressed her bemusement at the "heteronormative" character of "my crush" or fortune-telling forms of interaction that seemed strange to her as a "fifty-one year old lesbian." In this world she said, "children and parents are co-constructed as consumers," and companies like the Mattel empire make their pitch to parents by marketing their anti-predator credentials and their trustworthiness as a "safe" brand.

Marsh explained that she had conducted a small study in comparison with the giant Whyville study, which included 175 children from the ages of 5 to 11 who were surveyed, 26 interviewed, and 3 eleven-year-olds who were filmed. Shopping and consumerism were big themes for girls, while boys were concerned with games, but she said that some children did have critical thinking about the constraints of virtual worlds. In one example, a child complained about not being able to wear a wig and tiara separately, and another expressed distress that virtual pets could run away so easily. Many children found workarounds both playing solo and with siblings, relatives, and classmates. In thinking about playground rhymes and games and the potential for a more comprehensive study of play practice, Marsh observed that it still was not clear how virtual parties and other social rituals online functioned: if they only thickened existing social ties or invited children who would not be otherwise included into play.

One of her informants, Sally, age 11, explained that it wasn't all about "clothes, hair, and posh houses," since "I've got a lot of plain friends." Marsh described may genres of play, which included fantasy play, games with rules, rough and tumble play, and social drama play. She also described their delight in transgressive discussions of discos and getting drunk or throwing mudballs at security cameras. She cited the work of VP friend Tom Boellstorff (on disinhibition) and online friend Constance Steinkuehler (on rituals and performances) for related findings about the pleasures of doing bad online.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Nameless No More

Speaking of reader comments, which were the subject of the last posting, it is interesting to note the findings of this New York Times story about how "News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments."

What is interesting to see is that the paper's rhetoric connects this policy decision to the so-called "end of privacy" argument at the end of the story.

If commenters were asked to provide their real names for display online, some would no doubt give false identities, and verifying them would be too labor-intensive to be realistic. But news executives say that merely making the demand for a name and an e-mail address would weed out much of the most offensive commentary.

Several industry executives cited a more fundamental force working in favor of identifying commenters. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions — to say nothing of personal details — with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.

"There is a younger generation that doesn’t feel the same need for privacy," Ms. Huffington said. "Many people, when you give them other choices, they choose not to be anonymous."

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Map Flap

Okay. I really want to save the Los Angeles Times. I really do. Look, I have even tried to give them some polite suggestions for how they could save themselves. As much as I love having a wealth of material to blog about when it comes to the Los Angeles Times and its profound stupidity about Internet journalism, I really do think my hometown should have a decent newspaper, and I care about the fourth estate in the digital age.

But when it comes to "interactive content" I can't help but think that the LA Times is hopeless, truly hopeless. The most recent example I can point to is the paper's "Homicide Report," which takes the form of an interactive map, in which readers can browse photos of murder victims, check out the history of murder near their zip code, or activate pinpointed spots of crime scenes on the map. For really morbid crime enthusiasts, you can also browse by "age, gender, cause, day of the week, jurisdiction, neighborhood, race/ethnicity, circumstance or crime scene."

The LA Times has had some prior history with map-based initiatives. Mapping LA Neighborhoods became a laughingstock among geographers and cartographers. They also published a map of local pot dispensaries called -- I kid you not -- "Where's the weed?," which may have been in questionable taste. After criticizing the accuracy of the LAPD's crime map, the newspaper launched a crime map of their own.

But once you drill down into the information, you can see how truly terrible their homicide map is. Beyond its lowest common denominator ghoulishness, it indicates an utter misunderstanding of either interactivity or user-generated content. It makes sexual predator maps look good by comparison. Let's click on one of the photos in the gallery of death -- one of Ryan Gonzalez -- to see some of its weaknesses.

The reader is invited to tweet the posting on Twitter or share it on Facebook, because really that's what everyone wants to do with a murder story. Right? The citizen policing/neighborhood watch/social surveillance/public shaming aspect of the site gets even more complicated when you look down the page to where the reader is encouraged to "share a memory" about the deceased, who in this case was killed after intervening in a law enforcement officer's messy dispute, one which would seem to invite some actual investigative journalism by the paper that is sadly lacking.

Of course, asking for reader comments on a crime story is often asking for trouble, whether it is a rape case or a knife fight. All kinds of agendas come into play in which moderating public comment can be ethically tricky. In this case, however, the reader asks a pithy question that one would have hoped that the writer would have asked, even if the tone has less of the somber decorum that characterizes most online memorials that developed out of "memory gardens" and other forms of remembrance in cyberspace.

Wait, so he was holding a gun, grabbing the marshal AND punching him at the same time? Amazing he could do those three things at once, yet not get one round off before the marshal draws, aims AND fires a half dozen times. Nice investigation by both the LAPD and the LA Times.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hands Down

This afternoon Virtualpolitik pal Mark Marino put on a staged performance of his story A Show of Hands, which originally appeared as a hypertext novel about three sisters, a family drama of murder and daily labor, and the May 1st 2006 pro-immigration demonstrations that mobilized tens of thousands of migrant laborers of all classes in U.S. cities.

Marino had a series of questions for audience members: "were there portions that you did not need or want to hear?" and "which story lines left you wanting to see more dramatized?" and "what questions do you have about the plot?"

I've written about questions raised by adapting traditional dramatic works to new media genres, so it was interesting to see the reverse process in play.


It's My Tea Party and I'll Mispell If I Want To

This "Teabonics" slideshow on Flickr makes fun of the spelling errors on signs of anti-Obama protest marchers. In the era of spell check, it's not so surprising that analog writing practices may suffer.


Common Sensible

"Teaching About Web Includes Troublesome Parts" from the New York Times includes commentary from my fellow Digital Media and Learning Central blogger Constance Yowell, who serves as Director of Education for the MacArthur Foundation. The piece includes analysis of materials on Common Sense Media, which is one of a number of organizations posting ratings and parent guides for movies, videogames, and web-based entertainment. I've written about Common Sense media before here, here, and here. According to the website, the group is creating a Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum

Our curriculum includes five distinct units. Each unit is mapped to ISTE Digital Citizenship standards and can be used as an integrated digital citizenship curriculum or as standalone units.

* Digital Life. How the anytime-anywhere-everywhere nature of digital media requires responsible choices.
* Privacy and Digital Footprints. How to manage privacy online.
* Connected Culture. How to build respectful one-on-one, group, and community relationships online and protect against cyberbullying.
* Self-Expression and Reputation. Who we are in various online contexts and how to protect your reputation in the process.
* Respecting Creative Work. How to get credit for original creations and respect other’s creative property.

As the article points out, some are unhappy with Common Sense's lack of corporate criticism or societal critique. As the last bullet point indicates, like many "Internet education" sites, the language of "respect" is used in connections with copyright issues rather than challenge.

But some media experts say that in focusing on social issues, Common Sense misses some of the larger, structural problems facing children online.

“We can’t make the awareness of Web issues solely person- and relationship-centered,” said Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Children should learn things like what a cookie or a Web virus is, and how corporations profit from tracking consumers online, he said.


The Sixty Million Dollar Man

Virtualpolitik friend Kembrew McLeod recently wrote in the Atlantic about "How to Make a Documentary About Sampling--Legally."

While we raised the money to license about two-dozen songs and some footage, our film nevertheless contains over 400 brief-but-unlicensed uses of copyrighted material. When I can't sleep at night, I sometimes count how much we'd be liable for: up to $150,000 in statutory damages, per infringement. 400 x $150,000 = $60,000,000. Sixty. Million. Dollars.

Why did we use so many clips? Ben and I wanted the film's aesthetic to reflect its subject matter: collage, hip-hop sampling, and the rise of remix culture. Copyright Criminals documents how hip-hop producers have, since the genre's origins, cut and pasted portions of old records into their own music. For years, hip-hop stayed beneath the commercial radar, which gave producers a lot of creative freedom to make their art however they wished. The music that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s often featured densely layered musical collages that were groundbreaking.
. . .

Fun fact: If they sue us, the case would be called Bridgeport v. Copyright Criminals. Something is fundamentally wrong when a professor who studies copyright has problems making and distributing a documentary because the film's subject matter stands in the way. But after a lot of hard work, our film made it into the world.

So, how did we pull it off? Two words: fair use. This U.S. statute allows you to quote from copyrighted works without permission for the purposes of education, commentary, criticism, and other transformative uses. In 2005, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Social Media worked with documentarians to develop and publish an influential document that helped strengthen fair use. The Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use provides clear guidelines for quoting copyrighted content in ways that documentarians considered fair.

Given that courts pay attention to a particular community's standards when deciding copyright infringement cases, this was a key factor in successfully persuading broadcasters, DVD distribution companies, and insurers to relax their stringent rights clearance policies. This made it possible for Copyright Criminals to air on television. In fact, fair use might very well apply to the many examples of transformative sampling documented in Copyright Criminals; even music industry attorneys have privately admitted this to me. One major irony of our film is that if fair use had been more firmly established for sampling twenty years ago, things might have turned out very differently for Public Enemy and others.

It's a rhetorically interesting piece in which McLeod wants to distance himself from "the rant of a spoiled child" and uses the language of civics to make his point, as when he says that the public needs a "democratic system of checks and balances developed by real people."

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Digging (through to) China

Kudos to the UC Irvine History Department for creating The China Beat, a blog about contemporary China that is regularly updated with pithy blog posts with concise descriptions of scholarly projects, films, books, blogs, current events, digital cultural practices, and conferences about China.

Launched in early 2008, The China Beat provides context and criticism on contemporary China from China scholars and journalists. Based around a group of active contributors at the University of California, Irvine, including co-founders Kenneth Pomeranz and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the blog draws on a global group of China watchers in the U.S., China, the U.K., Australia, Japan, Canada, Taiwan, and many other locations.

With the UCI Outreach program to K-12 educators, the UC Irvine History Project, the group has also created a great resource list of blogs for classroom use.

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