The ‘Virtual’ Future of Social Media

Facebook has half of one billion members, which is a crazy concept to me. Especially considering that just as recently as half our lives ago (us kids, anyway), something along the lines of this concept would be hard to imagine, let alone 20 years ago, or 30. All this connectedness and all these social media platforms raise a lot of questions, and there’s certainly a lot to be said about social media-does it bring people closer together or does it further remove people from actual interaction, is it a huge waste of time or can you do more productive things with it than finding out what your friends are up to etc. Whichever side you’re on it is impossible to deny the popularity and interest in social media, and the influence that these technologies have in our every day lives is just as ubiquitous. For instance, we have a whole class here at SUNY Geneseo about just this sort of thing-and we’re not the only ones. There is also a pretty consistent stream of articles written, on paper or on the internet-such as the one Becca shared from the New Yorker last week-that deal with ideas such as these. I think both sides have a point to be made, and everything can be good (or bad) depending on the moderation. There’s no doubt that technology, these social media devices included, can do wonderful, amazing things. They also simultaneously are changing certain social scripts that people have been used to, and maybe that’s part of the retraction or at least skepticism for the group of naysayers, because after all change can be scary as it brings into light a lot of un-known results and sometimes problems. Anyway, many people think that Facebook may be on the decline, despite its steady increase in membership since it’s inception. Recently Facebook, which has been purchasing multi-media apps and programs like you read about in order to continue to deliver current and various ways to attract new members (and keep old ones from getting bored)-acquired the virtual reality company Oculus for 2 billion dollars. While the purchase indicates pretty clearly where the company will be taking the site in the near future, it has spoken volumes to many disapproving imaginations, and disappointed gamers. Oculus used to be a company that worked on furthering research into virtual reality video games, but now that Facebook has merged with them, there has been a lot of backlash on the internet and hate towards this company. Some of the reasons being that Facebook is only interested in its total membership number, which is why certain companies and developers have refused to work with them in the past, and others accuse Zuckerberg of just finding new ways to hurl adds at people, potentially quite literally now. Zuckerberg says that this is going to mean a beautiful new way of connecting with people, and a totally new kind of way to share experiences with people (there are those damn words again; share! connect!). While the internet community has accused Facebook of things like souless-ness and big time capitalism and invading peoples’ privacies, the chief concern for the video game subculture it appears, who merely want to be able to enjoy solitude from time ti time (completely understandable), and I understand a lot of these arguments, I can’t say that I’m not curious. I think there’s a lot of potential, but then there’s the part of me that also says what is this going to do personal interaction? As we mentioned earlier this semester, people used to think the telephone would spell the end for face-to-face communication, and I can’t help but see a similarity in the debate surrounding this most recent social media related news bite. Why not, instead of virtually exploring a city or virtually climbing a mountain with someone, actually doing those things? Or maybe there’s room for both…I will bite my tongue and wait for time to tell since this is a recently new (one week old news) story. But I will lastly Include a funny photo I found on Reddit, which the users of have been particularly vocal in their disapproval of the merger, that resembles a lot of commentary one could find on there. After the news broke, the site was flooded with graphics like these. So if you’re interested in hearing a lot of peoples opinions, Reddit is a good sample space. This image brought to you via a Redditor slightly shopping a classic still from an old “Simpson’s” episode. You guys remember the game FarmVille, right? Well, I’ll say no more, but that this could be the future of Facebook… 

English Language Arts Algorithms?

252570-what-people-think-i-do-what-i-really-doLet’s face it: English majors probably fall victim to ridicule much more often than other college students. Our peers in the math or science departments might ask well-intentioned, yet still annoying questions like, “So, you guys just read all day? Like a book club?” Others likely judge us for being hypersensitive or overemotional. And 9 times out of 10, I get, “Oh, you must be one of those grammar Nazis then.” Yep, my homepage is Purdue OWL, and I’m spending large amounts of my time and money learning how to call you out for your incorrect use of “there/their/they’re.” Our major has even inspired a catchy show tune (See Avenue Q’s?”). Perhaps the most frustrating avenue_q_2_fullsizequestions of all is, “You’re an English major? So you’re going to be a teacher then?” I actually am in the School of Education, yet this question still bothers me because it seems to insinuate that there is only one possible career goal English majors aspire to: teaching. So why are we constantly having to defend ourselves and our field of study?

Those of us who pursue a degree in English understand. We know that the content and skills we learn apply in so many different ways, and that the type of thinking we are trained to do is valuable in countless careers outside of education. It’s true that some who study English might go on to be teachers of language and literature, but that many more of us choose to be writers, editors, publishers, journalists, lawyers, public speakers, human resource specialists, and more. We acquire characteristics like interpersonal skills, analytic and synthetic skills, communication skills, and perhaps most notably, critical thinking skills; the realm of possibilities available to us is perhaps much greater than a person who choses something highly technical or specified. And yet, the stigma still exists that those of us who study English are all about “the feels.”

It’s definitely true that our area of expertise is considered comparatively subjective. But that’s precisely why we love it. It’s called English Language Arts for a reason. Authors are master artists who use the craft of language to paint a beautiful picture with nothing other than words on a page. We live for those phrases with just the right balance of connotation, edge, and flow. We get sucked into a novel because we become so wrapped up in appreciation for the story, it seemingly takes on a life of its own. When we finish a book, it’s like we’re saying goodbye to a few good friends, and there is often a feeling of emptiness. The phrase “book hangover” is becoming popular: “The inability to start a new book because you’re still living in the last book’s world.” Language is powerful and certainly has the ability to transport us somewhere else for a while, and to me, literature is life breathed into once inanimate pieces of paper.

While reading Stephen Ramsay’s chapter entitled “An Algorithmic Criticism,” I will admit I was slightly skeptical. This man favors a black-and-white approach to viewing literature that I have never experienced until this class. As English majors, we like to latch on to those gray areas, interpreting a text in different ways based on various lenses. I took Literary Criticism at Geneseo as an undergraduate, and I loved being able to find cracks in which I might read between the lines, inserting a feminist, marxist, structuralist, or psychoanalytic rendering of a given text. And yet Ramsay suggests we begin looking at our beloved literature based on nothing but the cold, hard, quantitative facts. Despite being initially reluctant, I admit that I did begin warming up to the idea of a mathematical tool that might help us read literature more concretely. I envisioned myself becoming a better defender of our art form: “In your face, physics majors. We are totally using algorithms to further our understanding and analysis of this complex theoretical text.” That should force them to take us more seriously, right? Okay then, I can get behind algorithmic criticism. Especially since education in our country is currently emphasizing strict, textual-based evidence and data-driven instruction.

An artist's impression shows a fictional robo-teacherBUT THEN. I remember reading an article that was nothing short of a polar binary to the type of reading that we know and love as English majors. It’s called Robo-readers: the new teachers’ helper in the U.S., and it basically makes me want to cry. This article praises the use of robot graders in the classroom, which are supposedly more efficient, more reliable, and more accurate at grading student compositions than are humans. WHAT? I actually prefer this article – Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously – which, in addition to being satirical and rather entertaining, gives a much clearer picture of what these “robo-graders” are. Apparently, they are machines that are capable of “grading” up to 16,000 essays in 20 seconds. Similarly to the algorithms used in Ramsay’s piece, these robots scan compositions for length, Lexile complexity, vocabulary use, transition words, and other indicators that are somehow representative of “complex thinking.”

In class, we’re constantly talking about how technology is revolutionizing our lives,
and final-exameducational institutions have been using digital upgrades like Scantrons to help grade exams for years. HOWEVER. I think it’s pretty clear the difference between a machine that can count the correct number of answers based on objective measures (filling in the correct bubble), and grading a student’s essay based on algorithms alone.

The problems with robo-graders are outlined really well in the latter article I’ve referenced, but to give a quick summary: automated readers cannot identify arguably important information, such as, let’s say, TRUTH. This means a student can write an essay getting 100% of the factual information wrong, and still receive full credit. Computers also cannot detect nuances in human language such as sarcasm, and they do not understand or appreciate (and therefore cannot give credit for) creative, stylistic choices. E-raters give the best scores to the longer essays, regardless of content. They deduct points for short sentences, paragraphs, sentence fragments, phrases beginning with “or,” “and,” or “but,” etc. Does this begin to give you an idea of how scary this is for our students? Some argue that kids who are bright enough to outsmart the robo-grader and begin tailoring their writing in order to get high marks deserve them, because this sophisticated type of thinking is what warrants credit, even if students cannot write to save their lives. Sorry, what? Lastly, consider this quote from the Times article: “Two former students who are computer science majors [said] that they could design an Android app to generate essays that would receive 6’s from e-Rater. He says the nice thing about that is that smartphones would be able to submit essays directly to computer graders, and humans wouldn’t have to get involved.” Are you afraid yet?

Maybe I’m a typical, sentimental English major. Maybe I’m sounding like an old soul. Or maybe, I’m terrified of a world so quantifiable, our students need only learn how to write in order to please the grade-giving, robo-reader god. Those of us who study English do so because we recognize literature to be an art form, and because we believe in the power of language to give shape to the world. We understand English as a vehicle from which to make sense of life, and our passion for learning (and many of us for teaching) this material stems from our desire to connect with other members of humanity in a meaningful way. I’m not sure any e-Rater would understand this, let alone have the ability to truly judge our work. Maybe in the future robo-grading will become the norm, but no. Not just yet.

Technology in Special Education Classrooms

I just finished writing a research paper for my Shakespeare class on using Shakespeare in a special education classroom, and much of the research that I came across discussed the benefits of using technology to teach literature to students in special education. I thought this was an interesting topic to share with the class, as I know many students in this class are education majors, and let’s face it regardless of if you are certified in special education or not, you WILL have special education students in your classroom!

Using technology in teaching literature is not only engaging to students and makes them more willing and excited to read, but technology also can incorporate a variety of different activities that can help improve students’ literacy. One common way of using technology in a classroom is by showing a film or video clips that enhance the lesson you are trying to teach, but there are many other options. Programs like Microsoft Publisher and Windows Movie Maker allow students to create professional looking projects that they can be excited about producing and take pride in the finished product.

In my research I came across one article by a teacher who documented her results of using different technologies to teach a Shakespeare play in her classroom. In addition to using Microsoft Publisher to have her students make pamphlets that featured a main character in the play, she also used digital cameras to take photos and Photo Shop to create scenes that were used in a PowerPoint presentation of the play. She was thrilled with the results, saying, “Technology was the vehicle that built their confidence, gave them an understanding of Shakespeare, and ultimately the willingness to take the risk reading the actual work” (Savoring Shakespeare 1).  With creative teachers and developing technology there is no saying how much will change in education and how much students can learn. Students in special education are capable of learning to the same extent of any other general education student, and technology is the tool that will help them succeed.

The article I mentioned is cited below:

“Savoring Shakespeare.” Reading Today 21.2 (2003): 10. Academic Search Alumni Edition. Web. 1 Apr. 2014

Famous Selfies: What Do They Say About Society?


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”.

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


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.

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.