31 Jul

Who’s Your Friend on the Internet? The Inauthenticity of Binary Friendship.

I just finished a book called The Brief History of the Dead. The first chapter of it was originally a short story published in The New Yorker, and you can see it by clicking these blue words. In the novel, there’s a character who tries to figure out how many people he knew in his life. He tallies 42,000, though he eventually comes to believe that the number must be more than that, perhaps closer to 50,000 or even reaching as much as 70,000.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect it would be quite difficult to tally everyone I’ve known. And in many cases, the distinctions would be a little blurry. I certainly know the students I’ve taught and the parents I’ve conferenced with. I know the clerks at the grocery store, even if I can’t tell you their names. I know hundreds of colleagues and neighbors and teammates from over the years. But do I know the flight attendant who served me orange juice on my cross-Atlantic flight to Brussels in 1998? Do I know all the telemarketers who called my residence before I got on the national no-call list?

Surely, I can’t remember all the names of everyone I’ve met. And if I peruse my grading books from years past, I might chance upon a student whose name sounds familiar, but whose face I can’t recall. But when we bring various media into the mix, the gradations of knowing get more complicated. If my only contact with someone has been over the phone (the stubborn AOL customer service rep who wouldn’t let me cancel my account comes to mind), do I know him? What about instant messaging? I don’t chat with strangers, but in recent years, I have been known to opt for chat tech support over phone tech support. Last year, a rep from Linksys helped me get my wireless router up and running after it mysteriously crapped out. She had some plain Jane name — like Jane or something — but I’m pretty sure that a lot of those tech support people, especially the ones based in India, take on a more American-sounding name. So I likely never knew her name.

But there are plenty of people on the internet whose real names are withheld for some reason or another. I’ve interacted with people in forums (again for tech support; forums are great for when your warranty is up and the company who made your failing device will no longer help you), but they have names like MicJagger and lordvader129. And I’ve actually spoken to people over xbox live who have names like Mr. FuzzyNickel (I called him Fuzzy for short).

And then there are “friends” lists. Though it may be difficult to identify who I know, it should be easy to label a friend, no?

Web 2.0 loves social networking. Facebook and Myspace are the most popular ones here in the States, but there are several others (shown on this map of the world based on their popularity), and there are, of course, other methods of becoming acquainted with someone. You can follow people on tumblr and twitter; you can “add as a contact” on flickr; you can become allies or rivals on pmog; you can join all sorts of hobby-based “communities” where you interact with others (poets.com is one); and of course, there are all sorts of internet dating sites (I know of at least two very compatible married couples who met over the internet, so it must work in some instances). The list goes on.

But for those of us who haven’t used the internet much for social purposes, the whole concept of friendship in cyberspace is really strange. Let me tell you about six fictional people who have (not actually) requested to be my friends on Facebook.
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30 Jul

The Foundation: Web 2.0’s Central Concepts Made Simple

To begin with, what is Web 2.0? As I said before, I’m almost three years late in answering this question. It was pretty thoroughly answered by a guy named Tim O’Reilly who wrote an essay called – wait for it – “What is Web 2.0?” but since it’s a long article and Google is making us all stupider, I’ll go over the highlights.

As I understand it, Web 2.0 is essentially about two things: 1) the collective, and 2) data management.

First, the collective.

As O’Reilly states in his article, “hyperlinking is the foundation of the web.” When you add a new site to the web, it becomes bound to the whole net by people linking to and from it. This linking happens naturally and organically as people navigate through links. Of course, hyperlinking isn’t new. But what we’ve come to learn after a decade of widespread internet use is that the link structure gives us the best indication of the best content. Google, which is one of the most prominent harbingers of the Web 2.0 revolution, utilizes the “link structure” of the web to return results. That is, Google has programs that can read page “importance” through its PageRank technology.

Other sites have followed suit. Digg allows people to read articles that others have “dugg” or deemed worth reading. Sites like del.icio.us do the same with bookmarking web pages and articles. Various image bookmarking sites (like FFFFound and we heart it) operate along the same philosophy, which is that other users of the web can indeed tell you what’s worth investigating.

And that’s the core philosophy of Web 2.0: to rely on the collective, to trust the mob of people out there. Use their linking and navigation and knowledge to deliver better content.

Wikipedia has been the most blatant experiment in mob trust with its anyone-can-edit-it approach, but they’re not the only ones. Amazon also uses mob trust quite a bit. They allow their customers to post reviews of books (and other products), and they also provide “personalized recommendations” and that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section.

Further down their pages, you can also find a section labeled, “Suggested Tags for Similar Products.” Tags are very Web 2.0 as well. And O’Reilly points to Flickr as the exemplar of tagging and “folksonomy.” Folksonomy, as opposed to taxonomy, is a method of categorization that relies on – guess who? “” the users.

The message here is one of decentralization. Let the people organize things. Let them add new information. Hell, let them even develop and modify the products and services offered. This approach stands in contrast to the approach of the 90s, which was about “publishing, not participation . . . advertisers, not consumers.” But nowadays, it’s the “collective power of small sites” that really determines the web’s content.

A case in point: We Feel Fine. Read More

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.
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25 Jul

How I Almost Got Killed by an Insect

Here’s the thing: this is Wisconsin. We don’t have black widows or brown recluse spiders. No scorpions. No fang-toothed jellyfish. Mosquitos are a pain in the rear, but when it comes to little things that bite you, this is a pretty good place to be.

I guess various bees and hornets can pack a wallop, especially for those of us who might be allergic to them. But it’s pretty rare that the bee/wasp types make it into your home undetected.

So I’m baffled about what it is that bit me last Friday night. But something did. Right in the crook of my left arm. While I slept.

I woke up with a quarter-sized irritation which grew in size throughout the day. It itched and it was hot; icing it helped alleviate some of the minor pain.

The next morning, though, I woke up with something that had grown much more sinister. The swelling extended over most of my arm, and the quarter sized irritation from the previous morning was now a raw, red oval like no other bite I’d ever had.

To make matters worse, later in the morning, I noticed a red streak running up my arm. When the Urgent Care nurse I called heard about the red streak, she asked no more questions. “Yeah, let’s make you an appointment,” she said. Red streaks indicate an infection, which can be big trouble if it gets to your heart, right? And so I went into the clinic and got a prescription for antibiotics.

The whole thing got me thinking, though. Without proper treatment — or, say, in the pre-antibiotics years — could the bite have been fatal? Even here in insect-innocuous Wisconsin? My doctor wife says probably not but possibly. Of course, she’s not a medical doctor . . .

11 Jul

Ireland: The Highlights (final part)

Skibbereen (spellcheck that!) was our base while we spent a day on the Mizen Head Peninsula, the southwestern-most point in Ireland. Our B&B hostess told us Mizen Head itself (the tip of the peninsula) was the most beautiful place in Ireland. So we had high expectations.

It didn’t quite meet them. At the tip of Mizen Head is a signal station. What does that mean, you might ask. Good question. Long story short, there used to be a manned lighthouse, but now there’s an automated signal, not even a lighthouse really, just a glowing orb encased in a steel cage, from what I could tell. Though perhaps “orb” is the wrong word there (it evokes images of fantasy creatures that pulse with light when they speak. Or is that just me?).

When you arrive at the signal station, there’s a nice reception building – I’ll call it – with a café and a small store, where you can buy a number of knickknacks and tchotchkes. To progress further, toward the more museum-y part of the reception building and then onward toward the actual signal station will cost you six euro. We decided to go for it.

There’s a path that takes you down to a heavy-duty bridge, which crosses a ravine and delivers you to a series of small buildings, which are now a museum. Yes, another museum.

This second museum was cute in a wow-isn’t-it-amazing-what-schoolkids-can-accomplish-these-days sort of way. You walk through a beaded doorway into a hallway covered in some fake-rock rubber stuff. The first room is also covered in the fake-rock rubber stuff, and has a television playing a loop of a narration-less underwater scene. The second room had a creepy clay head resting on a pillow in a bed with a fake body under the covers ala Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There were various documents in glass cases, also. No idea what they said, though.

The third room had a stove and a mannequin sitting at a table eating a fake Irish breakfast. He seemed to be enjoying it. He also had a nice sweater. Off this third room, was another small room with some windows overlooking the cliffs. In this room were two fire extinguishers, a TV, and a VCR — both of which were unplugged – several posters of whales, and a glass case displaying toy whales and sharks.

A separate, smaller building housed even less worth talking about. I really only remember the DVD player in a glass display case.

This is not to say that the whole thing wasn’t worth the six euro, though. After the museums, you get to go out to the tip of the point and actually touch the glowing orb. I was standing right next to it when I took the video of Eileen getting blown around by the wind. It was crazy. Have you ever stuck your head out the window when you were on the highway? No? Well, this wind was like that. A steady 50-60 mph, I’m sure.
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