Virtual Friends Again

November 26, 2006

I’ve been spending time in Second Life for a couple of months now. Okay, so I’m addicted. And, yes, I’ve settled in and “bought property”. This has a significance. When most people first go “in-world” they spend time “going to clubs”, “shopping”, and “dancing”; surprising how that can actually be fun, but i’ll save that topic for another time… When you settle in, you start making deeper “friendships”, and get to know each other better. My circle of friends changed from a lot of people I ran into to about a half dozen people I spend time with often, some almost daily. A couple of these people are real-life friends who I meet “in-world” rather than just communicate with through conventional modes.

Okay, so it sounds crazy to be in this virtual world and talk about hanging out with friends. I don’t think it’s alot different than some real world relations. I have friends in Arizona that I see once every 2 or 3 years; there are friends close-by that I see once or twice a year, and even local friends I may see once every week or two. In between these in-person visits there are phone calls and emails. But aren’t those just virtual interactions? They are simply electron transfers that represent reality. So my virtual friendships in Second Life are just as representational. These are not fictional characters. These are real people who have real lives, and although we’ve met in a rather random way, we have learned a lot about each other’s lives, and actually care about the relationships. We look forward to “seeing” each other, and enjoy “in-world” activities together. Sounds like friendship to me.

Having these interactions seems to support the idea that the use of electronic media is expanding our social networks, rather than supporting the falacy that it isolates us. If I discontinued my “real-life” friendships, then I would need to go to therapy. This is merely a way to expand my social contacts in a life that has gotten very busy, with decreased opportunities to spend real time with other people.

-Mark

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Multimedia Reaching Out

November 22, 2006

I grew up in the times where you had to talk to the operator to make a phone call. I remember writing letters to people, and the excitement of getting one. I’ve certainly seen much change in the way we communicate. While I haven’t always been an early adopter, I’ve managed to follow trends over time. I remember when I finally broke down and got my first cell phone. Now I have one with a camera and a color LCD screen. But what puts me over the top in communications is the use of a webcam. I decided to look into Skype, which is a free internet-based phone service. It was really cool talking to someone through a headset while I was on my computer. Then… I hooked up a webcam. Granted, there are only two people I can talk to, but seeing them while we were talking was quite exciting. I hadn’t felt excited about communicating since letter writing days. Let’s face it: email is quick and useful, but far from exciting. So one of the friends I talk to recently got a nose piercing. She had told me about it, but was now able to show me what it looked like. I know what I’m getting my older daughters for Christmas now, no not the piercing, but a headset and webcam, and directions to Skype.

-Mark

By now we’re all familiar with the admonitions from friends when you find someone you’re interested in dating: “Google him/her”. This provides just a glimpse at the private information that is available on the internet. While the information obtained from such searches can be quite limited, much deeper exploration of someone’s private life is available for a fee.

Shapiro, in the article, Privacy for Sale, points out that “… the growth of networked computing has allowed data compilers, direct marketers, and list-sellers to gather and sell personal information about practically everyone”(p,158).  Well, that’s disconcerting. And, do we have any control over what information about us gets disseminated in the public venue? No.  In fact, Shapiro goes on to point out that not only is privacy not well defined or protected in our legal system, but privacy is not even mentioned in the constitution (p 163).

So how do we protect our private information?  Shapiro suggests that a free market approach to privacy, or data control, would develop that would help us control the flow of our personal data. This would, of course, be available with a tiered pricing schedule; paying more for better protection. Right now, we “give away” alot of information. While filling out a form online, you may also be providing information on what sites you go to,  what service provider you use, and the computer and browser you are using (p 160).

So why do we have to fight to protect our privacy? One would think there would be an ethical tourniquet that would help control the use of information. We can look to the traditional news media for an idea of ethics in reporting. Since they are involved in gathering and disseminating information, shouldn’t they have usable guidelines we could all follow? In Glaser’s article “On the Wild, Woolly Internet, Old Ethics Rules Do Apply”, Kelly McBride is quoted as saying: “Frankly, we’ve never been that sharp in the entire journalism industry on ethical-decision making. We tend toward rule-obedience because it promotes efficiency, rather than true critical thinking” (p 5).  The article does however indicate that there are some standards and ethics, but indicates it may be more to maintain credibility than to promote ethics. A disturbing trend seems to be developing in the news media of trying to be the first with information, and to try to present something sensational to garner attention. In the same article, Stephen Ward points out that: “Studies show that reduced accuracy does damage the public trust in their media. But they also indicate there are other factors at play–e.g., sensationalism and a distrust of the independence of newsrooms  and journalists in an age of profit-driven media and global media corporations” (p 8).

It’s starting to look like there may be a real profit motive in the break-down of ethics, and violation of “privacy”. I don’t think there would be much corporate support for an increase in privacy if they are using that information to market products as well as hire employees. Even when you try to rent an apartment a potential landlord obtains a plethora of information about you and your interests and habits. If you were to block this information you may have difficulty getting hired or finding a place to live. The large credit bureaus are a good example of our own complicity in the destruction of our control over our personal data. We get to make corrections of inaccurate information, but we don’t get to decide what information gets disseminated. We actually want that information available so we can get the credit rating we desire (Shapiro, p 162).

Yet another area of potentially compromised personal data is the use by researchers. In the article, “Researchers Yearn to Use AOL Logs, but They Hesitate”, Hafner states: “It is one of the frustrations of being an academic researcher in a wold that has grown highly commercial. Data is everywhere, but there is precious little  of it for university researchers to work with. Raw data about people’s online behavior-the grist for many an academic researcher’s mill-remains locked up inside large companies, accessible only to a subset of corporate researchers” (p 1). Now, my first reaction to this is that it’s unfair not to let academic researchers use information about us; that the corporate world can use it for their own profit-driven motives. But then I realized that the academic research would end up being published, and their findings would be used for someone’s profit-driven motives. So what the heck, maybe they should all have this information about us. Why not give it away freely. Wouldn’t it improve the quality of entertainment and marketing? Wouldn’t it make it more useful to us? Well, I would certainly like to have control over who gets my information and how it will be used. Wouldn’t we want to sell our information rather than give it away? If we had to pay to control privacy, we are putting a price on our rights. But that may be the only way to control privacy in a market-based society.

Even though there seems to be a large leak in the dyke of privacy/data control, we still seem to make efforts to save the village. As Shapiro points out: ” The Europeans can draw on any number of resources to chasten our leaders. Many instruments of international law recognize that privacy is a fundamental human right. It is a core value that protects dignity, autonomy, solitude, and the way we present ourselves to the world” (p 164).

So perhaps we should introduce the help of our government to help individuals make smarter choices about how the corporate and academic worlds use information about us(Shapiro, p 161).  It is, in fact, our identities and how we live our lives that is being commodicized. We should have some control over it’s use.

References:

Shapiro, A.L. (1999). Privacy for sale (pp. 158-165). The control revolution. New York: Perseus.

Glaser, M. (2004). On the wild, woolly internet, old ethics rules do apply. Online journalism review. August 8.

Hafner, K. (2006, August 23). Researchers yearn to use AOL logs, but they hesitate. New York Times.

Media Noise

November 18, 2006

Our senses are assaulted each day by advertisements trying to catch our attention. We have radio, TV, music devices, and visual ads. On top of that we have news and information we may actually be interested in.

The assault by media is converging on us. Try to buy a cell phone that just makes phone calls. It has to text, play tunes, games, take pictures and video, in color no less. Do we really need all that? Probably not. But it seems that consumers are demanding more media convergence. We want the Dick Tracy watch that connects us to the internet. Jenkins, in the intro to the book, “Worship at the Altar of Convergence” says: “Convergence involves both a change in the way media is produced, and a change in the way media is consumed” p,16).

Media used to present itself to consumers in whichever way it wanted to. But in today’s world, consumers are driving the direction by what they are using, and don’t use (Jenkins, p3). On top of that is the corporate drive for profit; give the consumers what they are demanding (Jenkins, p 8).

I find it distracting and irritating to have a cluttered TV screen. There’s the main scene, the station identifier, a scrolling text line at the bottom, and sometimes more, especially on a news broadcast.

Maybe in a media environment where everyone is a content producer, it becomes necessary to “shout” louder to be heard; make it bigger, brighter, faster, throw in more content.

I think the media producers don’t really know what people want so they are throwing everything at us, and something will stick. I don’t think consumers know what they want either, and are trying everything thrown at them. Eventually though, I’m sure it will settle out. All this convergence afterall, is an evolutionary process (Jenkins, p16).

We have created a culture of multitasking individuals. How many people do you IM at the same time? You can talk on the phone and still work on your computer; drive and talk on the phone. I don’t think it useful or healthy for us to have our attention so scattered. We merely raise our stress levels, and I would think we are actually reducing our productivity.

By having so much media convergence we are spending less “quality time” with each medium. In his book, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall Mcluhan pointed out…each type of media appeals to, or “massages” different senses. We are apparently aiming for a multimedia, multisensory ultimate experience. I don’t think we are succeeding. As for me, I still like to curl up in a comfy chair with the Sunday paper, and waste away the day…

References:

Jenkins, H. (2006). Introduction: “Worship at the altar of convergence” (pp 1-24). Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press.

McLuhan, M. The Medium is the Massage, 1967, Bantam Books, inc., US, Canada.

Walk This Way…

November 2, 2006

There’s an old Three Stooges skit where they are to follow a man giving them directions. The man walks in a bent over, exaggerated gait. He tells them: “Walk this way…” So they follow the man, mimicking his odd posture…

That man is represented by the modern Information Architect (IA). These are the people who lead us through the maze of information throughout a website. They have to find a way to synthesize the design and the execution (Wodke, p1).

While the IA draws from the research being done in cognitive psychology, there is no definitive training for the position. People generally end up in this position indirectly, having been pushed into the role by need while doing another part of the project (Hoffman, p2).

I find it fascinating that a career position can define itself as it evolves. There are managers who still don’t understand the value of hiring an IA, so it becomes a sales position in the early stages as the IA has to clarify their role, and actively sell their services. I’m sure there doubt in the design world too. Many designers are aware of some of the principles IA’s use such as the “rule of proximity” which “indicates that items close together are perceived as being related/associated” (Hoffman, p2).

It will be interesting to see if the IA’s can convince business leaders and designers that they can better lead the end-user to their destinations. While it appears valuable on the surface, web design is already developing conventions that internet-users understand, based on frequency of certain conventions they have found in their use of the net. Hoffman refers to this as transference. “Transference, in this context of learning, refers to our expectations about an interface’s behavior based on our previous experiences with other interfaces” (p5).

For now, we’ll let the IA lead the way. As their work becomes more pervasive, they will be teaching others how to guide people along the path of found information.

References:

Wodke, C. (2001). Defining information architecture deliverables. Boxes and Arrows.

Hoffman, A. (2006). Information architects: Web builders with a sales bent. Monster.com

Withrow, J. (2006). Cognitive Psychology & IA: From theory to practice. Boxes and Arrows.