Month: March 2014

Famous Selfies: What Do They Say About Society?

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Unless you live under a rock, there is no doubt that you have seen the “selfie” that comedian Ellen Degeneres posted on Twitter while she was hosting the Academy Awards on Sunday, March 2nd. While I was watching the Oscars, I saw the scene unfold: In the middle of the ceremony, Degeneres suddenly descended from the stage and declared that she was on a quest to snap the most retweeted picture of all time. She kept beckoning for other celebrities, such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, to join in. This culminated in a star-studded picture that garnered over 3.4 million retweets, satisfying her goal of making it the most retweeted Tweet of all time. It also smashed the record held previously by President Obama when he won the most recent Presidential election. Deemed by the Los Angeles Times as the “Tweet that broke Twitter” and “the greatest Selfie of all Time” by MTV, The selfie even earned over $3 million for charities. Personally, before this legendary selfie, I had never even seen a Tweet make it to one million retweets, let alone 3.4 million!

The memorable selfie has been duplicated by celebrities as well as the general public. One of the most notable reproductions of the famed photo was tweeted by comedian Jimmy Kimmel about two weeks later. The caption? “@TheEllenShow– No Brad Cooper but 3 Clintons & a Kimmel.” Although Kimmel’s attempt did not receive half as many retweets as Degeneres’, it illustrates the social trend that Degeneres created. The fact that the selfie triggered a myriad of responses from Kimmel, along with others such as 50 cent, the creators of The Simpsons, and a few ambitious people on my Instagram feed.

So, what does the staggering popularity of Degeneres’ selfie say about ourselves as a society? The fact that the selfie amassed so much attention, ranging from leading news stations to the common everyday Tweeter, just goes to show how much of an impact social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have had on our lives. People’s feelings about the selfie range from near addiction to pure hatred–an Inuit campaign called “SEALFIE” has been instituted as a protest against Degeneres, who used the selfie to donate money to an anti-seal hunting fund. Personally, I believe that humorous moments such as these can be a healthy reprieve from the stresses of everyday life–that’s why I think they get so much attention. One could argue that social media is a detrimental force on society and that its prominence is an example of how future generations are getting “doomed,” but that’s no fun at all. The negative backlash that this selfie has provoked strikes me as an overreaction to a lighthearted, humorous matter.

In addition, the popularity of the selfie expresses the profound impact that A-list celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Bradley Cooper can have on the community. In addition, the fact that the selfie has more retweets than those featuring the Clintons and Obama does not necessarily mean that society cares more about celebrities. It simply illustrates that when browsing social media sites, people tend to look for more playful and humorous matters, unlike politics, which can be daunting. The remarkable popularity of Degeneres’ selfie is a representation of the endless possibilities that can be reached via social media.

 

Is social media pulling people apart? How about relationships?

A new app finally satisfies the desperate need of many men across the nation. It’s called BroApp, and their slogan is that they “Message your girlfriend sweet things so you can spend more time with the bros”.

http://broapp.net/

This app seems to be the new frontier in a world where people are increasingly separated by computer screens and cellphones. The creators of the app probably think that their service is a win win for all. The girls get sweet messages sent to them, and the guys have a little extra free time. However, isn’t it true that it’s the thought that counts? It would seem to me that any girl would object to being given these stock messages rather than heartfelt messages from their partner.

The app even takes precautions to hide itself from a bro’s girlfriend. It uses gps of the phones to make sure that you aren’t WITH your girlfriend when it sends the message! That would give it away immediately. It’s amazing how much effort we can put into creating technology so that we don’t have to put effort into our relationships.

I’m sure we’ve all seen the pictures online or news stories of families and friends “spending time together” when they are really all playing on their phones individually. Is this the way that human relationships will continue to develop? With less and less real interaction, and more interaction over the internet, I believe that we will forget feelings and nuance in favor of a cold world of simple text.

BroApp is just another app that further disconnects people from each other. Even those we care about we choose not to interact with just so that we can have a few extra seconds of free time. Are these new apps and websites destroying the social structure of the world? Only time will tell.

Traveling with Technology

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A week ago I was driving down King Street, Charleston SC soaking up the 75 degree weather while glancing at the palm trees.

Unfortunately, Spring Break only lasts a week, and I was forced (literally pushed out of the car) to go to the airport to fly back to the good ol’ 585.

On my flight, I always read the ‘SkyMall’ magazine to see what innovative (and not so innovative) products are being sold.

Here are the two I found the most interesting:

The Portable Wifi Signal Booster

This is a fantastic idea! In a technological era, this product represents the easiness of access, anywhere, at any time.

photo 2

In my house back home, the wifi is centrally located in our basement,

next to the household computer. My room is two floors above, making the wifi connection sometimes weak. Usually, I’m using the wifi on my television to stream Netflix, on my iPhone to

scroll through Tumblr, on my Macbook Air to watch cat YouTube videos, and on my iPad to play Candy Crush (yes, I have an Apple

addiction). This product is very innovative, and would really help in easily boosting the wifi signal to all of my devices. It is described as being a simple process: “The device simply plugs into an AC outlet, connects to a wireless network, and rebroadcasts the signal to provide a faster, more reliable WiFi connection.”

Biffy Butler Bidet Sprayer / Digital Accessory Caddy / Toilet Paper Stand

photo 1I had to do a double-take when I saw this product. I know that sometimes extra material is needed when in the bathroom; normally you picture newspapers and magazines. Well, I mean, you can stream newspapers and magazines from iBooks, yes?

It astonishes me that this was actually being sold; on the other hand, I am not surprised at all. For products to be created and put on the market, there is an obvious demand for said product. Are we living in an era where we cannot go without our technological devices for five minutes? 

My train of thought brought me onto the topic of being lonely versus being alone. A lot of people are frightened and uncomfortable of the thought of being alone. Now, I don’t mean on a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, moreover, I mean simply going for a walk, or standing on line at Starbucks, or sitting in the Quad and listening to Michelle Branch (she’s currently playing on my iTunes). Humankind has become completely wrapped up in always being with others, literally and through technology. We do not feel the pleasure of being allowed time to ourselves, to think for ourselves. By always being bombarded with different social media and access to the thousands of opinions in the world, we do not take the time to form our own thoughts. We simply agree to the thought that sounds the most to our liking. Does anyone take a minute to form his own opinion?

Is technology taking away our sense of self and our ability to form our own true opinions?

And so my two hour flight from South Carolina to Rochester came to an end.

The Art of the Vine

Wednesday’s class discussion on the nature of social media platforms as news outlets and the strategic advantages and detriments of the electronic delivery of news led me to think about the relationship between more traditional forms of media (i.e. film, television, etc.) and the integration of social media into our daily lives. I also considered the way we consume social media and other forms of online publications in that there is a trend which favors brevity and instant gratification. Following this train of thought, I found myself reflecting on a particular app which I feel bears more discussion and perhaps respect than it has garnered in its first year of existence. I am referring to the Twitter-based video sharing app known as Vine.

For those of you unfamiliar with Vine, it is a feed created by you and the people you follow, not unlike Twitter, which features videos up to six seconds in length. In addition to their short duration, the videos are also unique in that they all have a looping feature that allows the video to play continuously until it is scrolled past on your phone or laptop. These parameters surrounding Vines breed a unique creativity, ingenuity and wit that would not found on other mediums. A good Viner is not only aware of the limitations that the app sets, but welcomes their restrictions and utilizes them in an artistic sense. The trick to flourishing creativity on Vine is not to break the rules, but to follow them. Creating a good Vine is not for the timid, the unambitious or the impatient. It is for those who are willing to go out of their way to put thought and labor into six seconds of film that will, at best, generate a quick smirk on a user before they scroll down for more.

The reason I made this connection to Twitter and other social media as a new primary source for our news and information as opposed to the antiquated newspaper or even the TV news is because Vine operates much differently. Vine is a medium of entertainment like television, but is also categorized as a social media platform. It is both, yet neither. Vine is not quite a form of televisual entertainment, not quite a platform for social media and interacting with friends, but floats in a sort of purgatory between the two. It is this refusal of traditional definition which has given the app its own cult following; I like to think of Vine as the underground newspaper for the digital age. It has its own celebrities and cultural cannon, though popularity on Vine does not translate well into more traditional forms of media (In fact, one star with over 650 thousand followers on the app is often seen in his work attire for his job at Target). Popular Viners are content with their self-contained success within the app, perhaps because they know that their celebrity in more traditional mediums would probably last about as long as the Vines which made them famous in the first place.

For me, the idea behind Vine is brilliant, but also raises important issues that were discussed when we were covering “Is Google Making Us Stupider?” The brevity of Vine videos speaks to the instant-gratification mindset of the digital age. We want to be entertained, but we don’t want to commit 22 minutes for a sitcom, 43 minutes for a drama, or god forbid 90+ minutes for a feature film. In the words of Lisa Simpson in 1993, “[We’ve] fallen through the cracks of our quick-fix, one-hour photo, instant oatmeal society.” If feature-length films are a fine glass of Bordeaux that you casually sip at an upscale restaurant, Vine videos are shots of 12 dollar vodka that you’re pounding back on your way to a nightclub. They are fillers of entertainment between the events of your day, functioning in the same way that a comic strip might in a newspaper. (Coincidentally, Vines and comics inspire the same amount of embarrassment for me when I am caught viewing them.) So while Google might make me stupider and Vines might be detracting from my ability to appreciate film and television, I am perfectly content to sit on my phone and watch a six second video of a dog in a pool on loop.

Fighting Fire With Fire: Using Technology to Battle Cyber Bullying

Recently New York State has passed the Dignity for All Students Act with a goal of addressing the growing problem of bullying in high schools. Part of the plan for eliminating bullying involved a six hour training course of all school employees on how to properly avoid and address various bullying situation. I, being a volunteer high school coach, fell under this umbrella and attended the course a couple of weeks ago.

Predictably, part of the seminar focused on cyber bullying. Much of what the instructor was saying during this discussion caught my attention as it sounded awfully familiar to our discussions from class.  She explained that while cyber bullying isn’t something that happens frequently on school grounds, it is far more detrimental to the victim due to the public nature of the humiliation over the internet. I thought of this during our discussion of Professor Schacht’s interview on Digital Thoreau being spreading further than expected across the internet. This same wildfire concept applies to cyber bullying.

I dug further into the issue and found a CNN article that sparked my interest. According to the article, students at MIT were looking to formulate a program that would detect bullying language. It is similar to the programs Kirk Anne discussed in class that would find and count the amount of times a word appeared in an article. The problem with this solution is lack of a way to detect sarcasm. These programs only work by sifting through the words on the page without considering their intent. For example, instead of posting “that’s an ugly haircut” which would be flagged for “ugly,” a teen could instead post “wow, great haircut” and have the same malicious intentions.

Difficulties reading sarcasm over the internet is certainly not a new revelation. The term Poe’s Law was coined to explain that without a clear description of the author’s intentions, it is impossible to determine whether their expressions were “sincere extremism” or “parody extremism.” Of course, no one ever thinks that what they say has any consequence. Unfortunately this isn’t true with the internet being, as we discussed, open to the whole world. The case of Justin Carter, who was arrest for what he perceived to be sarcastic remarks, spent months in jail for what was read by many to be violent threats against his school.

A more basic description of Poe’s Law

This raises the question of the future of internet security. With bullying, harassment, and threats becoming so prevalent across the web, what kinds of restrictions should we expect to see in the future? If what we say is indeed sarcasm, wouldn’t censoring our work be infringing on our first amendment right to freedom of speech? And how, if at all, will this affect us as Digital Humanists?

Experiences in Student Teaching

Last semester I when I was student teaching I was encouraged often to look at how technology impacts education. Overall I noticed that technology is a huge factor in education but one specific example is the Smart Board.  Almost every school I have observed in has integrated the use of the Smart Board in as many classrooms as possible. Many teachers use it to present notes and presentations for the class. I have seen it become very beneficial especially for math instruction since it can completely replace the chalkboard in working on math problems. There are also many interactive tools that teachers can incorporate to further instruction.

Some math notebook tools. (Among many others).
Some math notebook tools. (Among many others).

There are also two sections called Gallery Essentials and Lesson Toolkits which include many interactive multimedia to insert into the presentation. These graphics often make the lessons fun and engaging for students. They include templates for games and that teachers and students can play to quiz themselves on the information. I saw how these games kept the students interested in learning since the media and interactive aspect of it was fun for them. 

image      smart-notebook-gallery-and-lesson-activity-toolkit

 

The image below is an example of an interactive game for students. The teacher can edit this template so that there is any kind of information presented. In this game the students would have to sort and categorize the given information (angles in this example) into the two categories. They would simply drag the image into either category over the swirl, and if the answer was appropriately sorted it would be sucked into the vortex. If the answer is incorrect it makes a noise and bounces the image back out. This game specifically was really beneficial to the students in my classroom who were learning the different words that mean either to add or subtract. They really enjoyed the game and were able to quiz themselves on what they knew.

One example of a math interactive game.
One example of a math interactive game.

 

Authors on Twitter

We recently talked in class about how the internet can be a democratizing force rather than an alienating one. To me, social media affords us this opportunity to consider one another as equals. Twitter is an especially great example as you can follow your friends as well as your favorite celebrities with both then appearing on the same feed. Twitter is also home to many authors, to name a few: Maureen Johnson, John Green, Lois Lowry, and Meg Cabot. Twitter humanizes these authors in a way that we have not seen before. For example, Maureen Johnson (@maureenjohnson), a YA novelist, juxtaposes tweets about her dog with tweets about the how the media tends to forget about women writers.

Maureen Johnson

Recently, both John Green (@realjohngreen) and Lois Lowry (@LoisLowryWriter) have been tweeting about their books being adapted into movies. They have both been incredibly enthusiastic about the adaptations, while addressing readers’ questions and concerns regarding the adaptations.

John Green

Lois Lowry

Meg Cabot (@megcabot) displays a balance between tweeting about their writing and other literature with personal tweets.

Meg Cabot

What sets these authors apart from others is that they have actual conversations with their audience. They take the time to answer questions and truly listen to their readers. Twitter gives us an opportunity to be immersed in the writing process. As authors tweet, they invite us along as they write, edit, and then publish their works. In today’s digital age this opportunity to actually interact with writers and authors comes as a welcome change. Literature is a conversation between the author and reader, a conversation which is then continued through interactions on Twitter.

To Meme or Not to Meme…

The other day I was browsing through a couple of different websites when I stumbled upon this meme.

So cute!
Click on the picture to see it fully! Once you’ve opened it in a new tab/window click on it again to see it better 🙂

First off, the quote fits perfectly with our class. Anything involving Thoreau is almost always relevant to what we are talking about everyday. However, there is a whole other reason why this quote, and to be more precise this meme, stood out to me.

For a while I’ve heard various people say that “our” or “my” generation doesn’t have the focus or determination to read a book cover to cover. I’ve heard many people shake their heads in annoyance and mutter how all of the classics are going to waste, since the “kids these days” don’t have the patience to read “good” literature. So many people talk as if the era of the novel is coming to a swift end.

And, in a way, I can see where they are coming from. According to www.theamericanscholar.org, from 1970-2003 the number of men and women studying English literature in the United States of America has dropped from 7.6% to 3.9%, and that number continues to dwindle. The humanities in general are seeing its figures go down compared to the sciences and business.

However, the optimistic side of me has hope. Even though a number of people aren’t deciding to study literature (their loss!), that doesn’t necessarily mean that younger people aren’t being exposed to classic works or writers.

This is where “memes” come in. An Internet meme is, “is an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet, as with imitating the concept.” We’ve all seen them one way or another.

love him
love him
but not really her...
but not really her…

Yes, these are cute and funny. But some actually can give real insight and offer people true value. For example, the Thoreau one from earlier can actually teach people something about Thoreau’s writing style. If one had never heard of him before, but read that quote, they could possibly gather he loved nature, and used it a lot in his writings. And, maybe if they truly enjoyed the quote, then perhaps they’ll even do some research, and discover exactly who he is, and what he stood for.

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Honestly, it’s a step in the right direction. And it shows that literature and writing isn’t “dead” and isn’t “going away.” It’s still alive and vital in many circles, and many unexpected ways. Who knows, perhaps one of these memes will actually inspire another to pick up a book by one of these authors.

One can always hope!

Net Gain?

Does the Internet bend towards a certain kind of politics? Democracy? Anarchy? Totalitarianism? Something else?

Is its basic tendency to promote the freedom and autonomy of its users? Rob them of their privacy? Cultivate a stance of critical detachment? Distract them into complacency?

Does it have no particular bent? Is it just a tool, capable of promoting whatever purpose the user puts it to?

The authors in our next set of readings engage questions of this kind. Although they all acknowledge various abuses to which the Internet is susceptible, they’re broadly optimistic about its overall impact. In the final chapter of Small Pieces Loosely Joined (not, unfortunately, one of the chapters you can read for free on the book’s website), David Weinberger suggests that “The Web’s movement is towards human authenticity” – and, consequently, away from “alienation.” In “The Wealth of Networks,” Yochai Benkler argues that the Internet’s networked structure (the same feature referenced in Weinberger’s title) tilts towards more autonomy in our relationship to culture, more power to find and assess information, more opportunity to engage in democratic deliberation, and more space for non-market and non-proprietary production (simply put, stuff made for love rather than money). The title of Clay Shirky’s book – “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” – references not the structure of the Internet but its human corollary: the loosely joined individuals and groups whom the Internet enables to circumvent centralized political and economic organizations in the pursuit of shared goals. Again, the vision offered is one of greater freedom and autonomy.

The Sunday before last, in its SundayReview section, the New York Times published a piece by Jeremy Rifkin titled “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism”. Like Benkler, Rifkin sees profound, and profoundly liberating, consequences in a central economic fact about digital production: that the marginal cost of that production is near zero.

You’ll find a much darker view of the Internet, however, in the talk that Maciej Ceglowski delivered last month at Webstock 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Titled “Our Comrade The Electron”, Ceglowski’s talk doesn’t dispute what the writers above argue about the bent of the Internet’s architecture, but it asks us to consider the possibility that maintaining that architecture may just be too hard. And it asks us to contemplate the consequences if that possibility turns out to be correct.

Ceglowski’s piece isn’t on the syllabus, but you’d be a fool not to read it. It’s thoughtful and lively, and the argument is embedded in some fascinating history.

When you’ve finished it — but only then — soothe yourself by listening to Pamela Kurstin play “Autumn Leaves” on the theremin.

Cold, Unsympathetic Technology

If you’re anything like me, since the moment you got word of the missing Malaysian airplane, you’ve been checking for updates every spare second you get. There were times when watching the news felt more like viewing an early episode of Lost; jets that big don’t just disappear. At least part of the mystery came to an end today when the Malaysian Prime Minister announced that authorities are “assuming beyond a reasonable doubt” that the plane went down somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean. Upon reading this I wondered about the families of those who were on the plane, much like I have since first learning of the incident. Are they relieved to have this answer, even if it wasn’t the one they’d hoped for? In this case, is bad news really better than no news?

As I browsed articles for information, this one in particular, it didn’t take long before I read something with immediate shock value. It’s right there in the first sentence: “The families of passengers aboard the missing Malaysia Airlines jet have been sent text messages telling them that the plane has been ‘lost.'”

Text message sent to the families of those on Malasia Airlines flight 370
Text message sent to the families of those on Malaysia Airlines flight 370

Text messages?! Seriously?! These people have been in agony for weeks wondering about the fate of their loved ones, and Malaysia Airlines decides to confirm their worst fears via text message? What kind of callous person could have possibly decided that this was a good idea? Yes, informing the families of 239 passengers is a daunting task, but when it’s a disaster of this magnitude, you’d think they would take the time to do it tactfully. According to one article, most of the family members were still located in Kuala Lumpur waiting for information, and yet they received this text message only minutes before the rest of the world got the news. I couldn’t help but think of some of our discussions in class about how technology has the potential to dehumanize us.

When a loved one dies, the news is typically delivered by word of mouth, whether from a doctor, medical professional, or a closer family member. The person delivering the news is able to offer their sympathy and support and can tailor it to the person they’re telling to make it appropriate and easier if possible. Grief is one of the most basic human emotions and we rt_malaysia_family_kb_140324_16x9_608rely on sympathetic, responsive human contact to get us through. Witnesses said they heard screaming and and crying coming from rooms where the families were gathered. At least one person is reported to have fainted upon hearing the news. Communicating information through SMS message, while convenient, is not appropriate for a sensitive situation like this. I understand that the business of Malaysia Airlines is transportation, not grief counseling, and that they are likely much more concerned with bigger media matters, but as human beings they should’ve known better. It is clear from these families’ shock that they still held hope that the passengers would be found alive. Delivering what is possibly the worst news of a person’s life via text message goes against the rules of social courtesy and in my opinion shows a real lack of consideration for others’ feelings. In times like this people need to be united by the all too common experience of losing a loved one. A mass text message is a cold replacement for the warm, sympathetic hug each family member would ideally receive.

"Today, life has become long distance and automated, and it's not going to work."
“Today, life has become long distance and automated, and it’s not going to work.”

As a bit of an afterthought, while I was still mulling over what I wanted to write, I came across this post on the “Portraits of Boston” Facebook page (for those who don’t know, it’s a photo blog much like Humans of New York). Hearing (or reading, rather) what this man had to say about how disconnected we are as humans solidified for me the problem with the text that was sent to the families of the Malaysia Airlines victims. It furthers our culture of disconnection from one another. We hear about how much technology has brought us together, but the connections it fosters are usually fairly shallow. As the man in the picture said, “people are yearning for deep human connection. When we have it, we identify with the person or people. We better connect to each other or we will become more and more dehumanized.”