29 Jul

The Amateur Internet Sociologist

Well, each summer, I seem to stumble into a project. Last summer, it was that documentary on Race and Humor; this summer, it’s about Web 2.0. I’m a couple years too late in documenting thoughts and theories about Web 2.0, but I’m gonna do it anyway since Web 2.0 services recently seem to be choose-your-own-cliched-metaphor (skyrocketing, getting out of hand, growing to new heights, multiplying, proliferating).

Earlier this year, I joined Facebook. I did it because it makes finding people easy (in this case I was looking for current and former students of the high school where I teach); I was putting together a tribute website for a couple of retiring teachers, which I did via Ning, and I wanted to get a hold of students and alums who might have had some positive words for the retirees. I tracked the website’s traffic using Google Analytics, which allowed me to see how many people were going to the Ning site everyday and where they were coming from. I even made a vlog and posted some pictures and videos, which I might have done using my Flickr or Vimeo or YouTube accounts if the Ning site hadn’t allowed direct uploads of pictures and videos also.

It’s not that the Ning project was my induction into Web 2.0 services; it’s just that it got me a little more immersed into it. I was already wading into the water; the Ning thing simply required me to dunk my head. And it turned out to be an interesting experiment in the web’s interconnectedness. I’d email the few people who had already registered on the tribute site, imploring them to spread the word; I might tell them about the vlog I had posted, or the new pictures that were up. The next day, though I may only have gotten one or two new registrants, I could see through Google Analytics that the site had gotten 50 hits. Meanwhile, on my Facebook account, I was getting friend requests left and right from students. Students! Most students don’t want teachers to be able to look into their social lives with such clarity; and to tell the truth, I don’t want to look into my students social lives with such clarity (that’s why I never — NEVER — chaperone a dance). But once we were friends (I made it my policy to accept all friend requests), I could navigate to their profile pages and essentially eavesdrop on their wall-posted conversations with other students. (Could!) Once, while updating my Facebook page with a picture of me next to some cow’s asses, I even got a pop-up window from a student wanting to chat.

In short, the Facebook thing, though potentially disturbing, was doing exactly what I wanted it to do. It was helping to attract attention so I could spread the word about the retirement tribute. Such is the power of the web’s interconnectedness.

But it gets better.

A month or so into my facebooking, I got a friend request from Shehab, my freshman roommate from Cornell, whom I haven’t seen in at least 10 years. Shehab now lives back in his native Saudi Arabia, but he found me over Facebook, and it was great to reconnect. In fact, just two days later, I was having fun using the only Arabic I know (“ya khawal”), which I learned my freshman year at Cornell, and which translates roughly to “hey a$$hole.” All in good fun.

This summer, I’ve gotten more friend requests from old buds with whom I’ve lost touch. And though I’m not wholly enamored with Facebook (it’s a little too cluttered for my tastes), I can’t say that I regret signing up. In fact, the Facebook experience got me interested enough in the web experiment that I signed up for all sorts of other Web 2.0 services, like We Heart It and The Hype Machine and Jott and Scrybe and Skitch and LinkedIn and Brightkite and Songza and Grooveshark. I was already signed up with Last.fm and hi5 and Pandora and del.icio.us and Flickr and Vimeo and YouTube. But I also joined, and for about 10 days obsessed over, a game called pmog (passively online multiplayer game).

Here’s how pmog works: you add a plugin to your web browser that displays a small toolbar at the bottom. You have six tools at your disposal: armor, mines, lightposts, portals, crates, and st. nicks. As you navigate to different websites, you get points (data points), which you can then use to “purchase” more tools. What do you do with the tools? Well, basically, you use them to interact with other people navigating on the same pages you do. Mines explode and subtract 10 points from anyone who sets them off. Armor protects you from those mines; st. nicks prevent users from laying mines. Crates can be placed on a page and filled with other tools or points so that random users can “loot” the crates and receive the gifts you’ve left them. Portals are basically links to other sites. And lightposts are markers to lay down for missions.

Missions are really the coolest thing about pmog. If you create a mission, you create a trail of sites with some pop-up commentary. So, for instance, you might make a mission about free Mac OSX applications or a Why You Should Vote for Obama mission. In taking the missions, you get points, and when people take missions you’ve created, you get points.

It’s all pretty silly, but I know that. All games are silly. I’m not sorry that, rather than obsessing over whether Brett Favre would be returning to the Packers, I was navigating web pages and learning about philosophical zombies, free books, and how to remain anonymous.

But since I shamelessly overthink most of the things I do, I began to question the appeal of web communities and the rewards (whether they be data points or social status or new friends or new information) that accompany Web 2.0 stuff. I even crafted some pmog “meta-missions” about why anyone plays pmog and makes missions (my missions were provocative enough to get me invited as a guest on the pmog podcast “Tubenauts,” which is actually available on iTunes).

Now, though my very geeky phase has come to a close, or a near close (thanks to the Tour de France), I’m still interested in exploring the most recent waves of what’s been called “new media” (i.e. digitally-delivered content), which I think very successfully appeal to some core human needs and desires. And so I hope to be writing down a few of my theories, moonlighting as an amateur internet sociologist. I’m calling them “Lofty sounding essays that don’t say much.” Stay tuned.

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