Archive for the ‘Academics’ Category


In order to survive in the modern era, companies must grasp a strong understanding of psychology, or at least of the type of pseudo-psychology that Edward Bernays, immortalized as the father of PR, made widely available to marketers and advertisers. Bernays was an Austrian American who wove the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and ultimately asked, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Historically companies have leveraged a number of psychological devices and theories to generate desire within their target demographics and audiences in order to sell more. Advertising seeks to simultaneously engender strong positive feelings about a product or company while simultaneously leaving the audience feeling emptier for not owning the advertised product. The ability to pull this off is intensely powerful, and yet not as powerful as the ability to affect this reaction within the target demographic, autonomously, spontaneously.

This is the accomplishment of the new realm of mobile technologies and apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In effect, their breakthrough in psycho-marketing is the ability to make their product habit-forming, even addictive. On Merriam Webster addiction is defined as: compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (or we could say product) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal. Addiction is the new marketing goal precisely because its inherently dangerous, cyclical nature is exactly what embodies both the need and the fulfillment- all encapsulated in one.

Compulsion and habit are the key words here. Marketers and advertisers drool when they see those words, because they are truly the Holy Grail of advertising. If they can create a condition in their target audience where the deprivation of the product creates a state near-pain for the user/consumer, they are guaranteed a captive customer, possibly for life.

This is precisely what Nir Eyal describes in his TechCrunch article, “The Billion Dollar Mind Trick.”  Eyal outlines a couple of critical concepts; namely “internal triggers” and “desire engines,”

“When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an ‘internal trigger.’ Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.”

As Eyal points out, “We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions.” He enumerates the current approach to create internal triggers, labeling it the manufacturing of desires.”

  • “Addictive technology creates “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or any other external stimuli.  It becomes a user’s own intrinsic desire.”
  • Creating internal triggers comes from mastering the “desire engine” and its four components: trigger, action, variable reward, and commitment.”

The “desire engine” Eyal refers to is merely a phrase that describes the pre-determined “series of experiences designed to create habits…the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.” All of this is to say that, increasingly, and especially when it comes to mobile consumer technologies and apps, companies increasingly find that their economic and social value is a function of the strength of the habits they create within their user/customer base.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps not entirely new. Michel Foucault (yes, I know I talk about him a lot here, but his work is endlessly relevant to the types of communications discussions we constantly engage in nowadays) discussed this same concept in his investigation of the concept of “technologies of the self,” whereby his objective was:

 “to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific ‘truth games’ related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Yet the concept dates back to the Greeks, “constituted in Greek as epimelesthai sautou, ‘to take care of yourself’ ‘the concern with self,’ ‘to be concerned, to take care of yourself.’

Foucault posited that there were four main “technologies:”

“(I) technologies of production, (2) technologies of sign systems, (3) technologies of power, and (4) technologies of the self” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

Clearly in this case what we’re focusing on is the technology of the self, “which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that the bulk of apps available to us all on our mobile devices these days are not, in some way, designed to fulfill some narcissistic desire to know ourselves better. Whether it’s for fitness (calorie counters, pedometers, diet analyses, jogging analyses) or for social edification (how many people who you know are around you, how many “friends” do you have [Facebook], what are you doing right now [Twitter], how often do you visit a place [FourSquare or Yelp]) many of these tools are intended to display a mirror image of ourselves and project it onto a social web and out to others. (Hell, iPhones now include a standard photo feature that allows you to use the phone as a literal mirror by using the front-end camera as you stare into it.) But they are also intended to help us transform ourselves and make ourselves happier by making us skinnier, healthier, more social, more aware, more productive, etc.

The importance of this is that we have been fooled into thinking we are using these apps to learn more about ourselves, but the social sharing functionality proves that this is performative- we wouldn’t be doing it repeatedly unless there was a performance aspect built-in, an audience waiting to view and comment on the information, providing continuous gratification. In other words, learning more about ourselves, then amplifying that knowledge out to an audience has become habit-forming. We have become addicted to the performance of ourselves.

 “These four types of technologies hardly ever function separately, although each one of them is associated with a certain type of domination. Each implies certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes.” (http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en.html)

In this case, though Foucault was often very careful in his diction and a master of semiotics, what if we replace the word “attitudes” with “habits?” After all, Foucault is referring to these technologies of self as dominating, as techniques which train and modify individuals, and a habit formed is demonstrably a tangible and acquired modification of human behavior. Later he continues to elaborate and speaks of “individual domination,”

”I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individual domination, the history of how an individual acts upon himself, in the technology of self.”

I know quite a few people who would willingly and openly admit to the individual act of domination upon themselves that they perform on a compulsive basis by updating their Twitter feeds, updating the status on their Facebook accounts, uploading their latest photos to Instagram, and checking in on FourSquare. There is a reason that Googling “Is technology the new opiate of the masses?” garners page upon page of thoughtfully written and panicky editorials and blog posts. This is a newly acknowledged and little resisted truth of our times- we are willing slaves to the ongoing performance of our selves.


Hi All, sorry for the hiatus. But I’m back in black. New year, and lots to discuss. Let’s get to it!

Clearly I couldn’t let discussion about SOPA and PIPA and the ensuing takedowns architected by Anonymous go untouched in this discussion space, so let’s delve into this, shall we?

For those who aren’t aware (where in the hell have you been?), let’s first break these two down to their most elemental forms:

Here’s what (admittedly biased on this matter) Wikipedia has to say about what SOPA is, “The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a United States bill introduced by U.S. Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-TX) to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Provisions include the requesting of court orders to bar advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with infringing websites, and search engines from linking to the sites, and court orders requiring Internet service providers to block access to the sites. The law would expand existing criminal laws to include unauthorized streaming of copyright material, imposing a maximum penalty of five years in prison”

Basically, this was legislators catering to big media companies’ interests by proposing a law that would give the U.S. government the right to prosecute people who propagated intellectual property that they didn’t own online. In other words, the internet wouldn’t exist unless the government felt that it should.

“Proponents of the bill say it protects the intellectual property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign websites.”

“Opponents say the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing material posted on a single blog or webpage. They have raised concerns that SOPA would bypass the “safe harbor” protections from liability presently afforded to Internet sites by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.”

So that’s SOPA in the House of Representatives. A second, replica piece of legislation was simultaneously being put up for consideration in the Senate called PIPA or the Protect IP Act. On this legislation, Wikipedia says:

“The PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA) is a proposed law with the stated goal of giving the US government and copyright holders additional tools to curb access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods”, especially those registered outside the U.S. The bill defines infringement as distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-digital rights management technology. Infringement exists if “facts or circumstances suggest [the site] is used, primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling, or facilitating the activities described. The bill was introduced on May 12, 2011, by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and 11 bipartisan co-sponsors.”

So that’s the house-cleaning. They’re the same piece of legislation, same clear and dangerous threat to internet freedoms and the Internet’s intrinsic ability to allow for the wide and free dissemination of information.  Now down to the brass tacks.

Let’s begin with the fact that just pragmatically, taking on the Internets is always stupid. Why? Because congress and the President are centralized forces of power- quite well identified and held to certain moral and legal standards of behavior and comportment. The internet is none of those things. It is a nebulous, unscrupulous, largely anonymous and completed decentralized force of power, and it will not be stopped. Which is why, they have certainly won this round of the fight and will ultimately win the war on issues of intellectual property online.

So Wikipedia was one of the largest of many web resources (others included Reddit, the social news site, and BoingBoing, a technology and culture blog) that decided to shut down for a 24 hour period in public protest against these two bills.  As the NYTimes Bits Blog reported: “Visitors around the globe who try to reach the English-version of Wikipedia will be greeted with information about the bills and details about how to reach their local representatives. Mr. (Founder Jimmy) Wales said 460 million people around the world visited the site each month, and he estimated that the blackout could reach as many as 100 million people. In addition, some international Wikipedia communities, including the one in Germany, have decided to post notices on their home pages leading to information about the protests, although they will remain functioning as usual.”

“The government could tell us that we could write an entry about the history of the Pirate Bay but not allow us to link to it,” he said, referring to the popular file-sharing site. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”

But then Anonymous had to go and get all involved, making it no longer a seemingly noble protest, but taking matters into their own hands. And this is where decentralization begins to get really interesting.

For Anonymous it wasn’t enough to shut down one’s own site, and make one’s own decision to go dark- Anonymous wanted to prove once and for all to big media companies such as CBS and Universal Music that it is but for the grace of Anonymous that their sites exist at all. In a bold and HIGHLY under-publicized and under-discussed move if you weren’t online (I think largely because of Anonymous’s reputation as an anarchist and borderline-terrorist non-organization) Anonymous temporarily removed CBS.com and Universal Music as well as its parent company Vivendi from online view. There has been much speculation about whether the sites were full-on deleted, redirected, etc. and I won’t debate that here, but I think the major point here is that a decentralized network of self-labeled “hacktivists” hold the power to completely destroy someone else’s online presence as retribution. So while the politicians, PACs and lobbyists seek to pass these bills the old-fashioned way through our system of government and legislation, the internet turns its nose on their efforts and operates completely independently.

The repercussions of these acts by Anonymous are massive. Is it to be said once and for all that the internet is ungovernable? Certainly any jurisdiction over internet content and domains is highly debatable and obscure- who has the right or the resources to police the net? Where is that online security task force- is it a branch of the UN peacekeeping forces? Which country’s government holds the right to censor content? If Google’s tangle with China and the Arab Spring have taught us anything, it’s that the rules for who gets to yea or nay internet content are still being written and continue to be written by unknown authors, sitting in dark corners leading their revolutions with armies of revolutionaries who couldn’t recognize them if they passed by on the sidewalk.

President Obama said no to the current versions of these bills, but SOPA and PIPA are by no means dead in the water. This will be an ongoing discussion, but I stand by my opinion that even if SOPA or PIPA were to pass in Congress, they would have a completely unmanageable time attempting to enforce either in the chaotic and decentralized network that is the Net. The point it would seem, my friends, is moot.


In my opinion, discussions of identity and what identity means, and what constitutes identity have never been more interesting. With the web as a mirror for each of us, as well as a playland of impersonation, self-invention, reincarnation and improvisation, the platforms and dimensions where human identity is played out have never been more abundant and easily accessible.

I was reading my New Yorker last night and came across an article about Aadhaar, an enormous project on a scale never before attempted, that could have far and wide reaching implications for generations of humans yet to come. The project is to officially identify and document the existence of every Indian living in India by collecting certain biometrics from each individual and then issuing those specific biometric features an ID number.

As summarized here:

“Aadhaar, launched by Nandan Nilekani, a genial software billionaire, intends to create a national biometric database ten times larger than the world’s next-largest biometric database.”

One of the stated aims of the project is to “help reduce the extraordinary economic distances between those who have benefitted from India’s boom of the past two decades and those who have not.”

Some of the stunning details of this project that I read about raised very fundamental issues of modern identity as being tied to a specific nation-state. For instance:

“India has no equivalent of Social Security numbering, and just thirty-three million Indians, out of 1.2 billion, pay income tax, and only sixty million have passports. The official opacity of hundreds of millions of Indians hampers economic growth and emboldens corrupt bureaucrats.”

It’s just incredible to think that in this day and age, not everyone who is born into the world is documented as even being alive. It’s incredible, as an American, to consider a situation where your government has no idea that you exist, and you survive outside of the limits of its systems .

Though that all sounds like fodder for a summer anarchist action movie trailer, the reality is, though the lines and boundaries between physical country border and cultures are disappearing slowly as a result of widespread globalization and commercialization, our identities are still very strongly tied to the countries in which we are born, or in which we live. And I should clarify that I am not saying that if you are born in America, you automatically strongly identify as an American. I am saying that if you are born in America and hate the U.S., you are still defined by the country in which you were born, or in which you live, even if you hate it. You are defined in reference to being a part of it, however tenuous that connection is. But if you are born in India and your country does not know you, nor acknowledge that you exist, how is your identity derived?

And if you do not really exist in the eyes of the government, and are not automatically considered a citizen in having been born there, what right does the government have to come and claim you later, as India and the Unique Identification Authority of India (the government agency that is directing this program) are attempting to do with Aadhaar?

It is ironic in this instance that India, so woefully behind in identifying its own citizens due to an outsized human population, is poised to actually jump the gap immediately and overstep other more-developed countries’ systems of social security and citizen identification. Aadhar’s system is based on biometrics, or “methods for uniquely recognizing humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioral traits.” Interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry here described two different applications of biometrics information: “In computer science, in particular, biometrics is used as a form of identity access management and access control. It is also used to identify individuals in groups that are under surveillance.” Oh Foucault, why do you plague us so?!

Still, in this case, it is hard not to question the intense nature of these methods of identification and the database of information they will generate. Concerns about privacy have, of course, been raised:  “Alongside arguments about social policy, there is also some Indian disquiet about Aadhaar’s threat to privacy.”

A Times of India article also mentioned the potential for exploitation of this info:

“For Nandan Nilekani , the chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India , the challenge now is not just to roll out one lakh or more Aadhaar numbers a day, but to create an ecosystem for players to build applications on top of this identity infrastructure. Now, Nilekani has been negotiating with the Reserve Bank of India to allow banks to treat Aadhaar number as the only document for opening an account. In a free-wheeling interview with Shantanu Nandan Sharma, Nilekani talks about life after Aadhaar when a villager would be able to use a micro-ATM in his locality, or a migrant from Bihar would be able to flash out his number in Mumbai as an identity proof.”

So the ability to identify people, truly down to their physical core can be both exploitative and empowering, as the New Yorker article claims, “If the project is successful, India would abruptly find itself at the forefront of citizen-identification technology, outperforming Social Security and other non-biometric systems.” Of course it would, it’s the physical data collection analog of what Facebook has been doing all along.

In fact, the arguments for embarking upon this venture to issue ID numbers to each Indian are manifold, yet one that seems to float upwards most often is the assertion that this system of identification will help to cut down on abuse of government resources and inaccurate snapshots of how many people are affected by official policy.

Interesting that this is the very reason that Facebook famously insists upon banning pseudonyms on its ever-popular social platform. As Gawker puts it, “the idea that anonymity or multiple identities leads inexorably to a cesspool of abuse, cyberbullying, and spam is Facebook’s strongest argument for a monolithic online identity—one they come back to again and again in defending their controversial real name policy.”

This is written in the context of an article highlighting Chris Poole, shadowy head of the online meme-maker  4chan, and his remarks at the recent Web 2.0 conference that “true identity is prismatic,” and that the actions of online mega-sites like Facebook are “eroding our options” when they lock us into a single identity. In reality, Poole argues, humans are not defined in only one way or another, but by multiple simultaneously performed identities.

Gawker writes, “At this week’s Web 2.0 conference, Poole criticized Facebook’s real name, one profile-per-person policies. Facebook are, he said, ‘consolidating identity and making people seem more simple than they really are… our options are being eroded.

True identity is ‘prismatic,’ according to Poole. You want to be able to present a different identity in different contexts, and be able to experiment without risking a permanent stain on your identity—something Facebook is making increasingly possible as it colonizes everything from games, to blog comments to your favorite music service.”

Synthesizing these ideas and arguments for a minute, the very idea that a retinal scan can prove someone was born somewhere, and that those two elements of identity correlate to provide a human identity is interesting enough to a modern mind. How about when we suppose that each of us– though we may physically have blue, green, or brown eyes, blond, black, brunette or red hair, have been born in Bali, Mexico, Singapore, or Tunisia—is actually a shapeshifter, constantly adapting our personality and persona to best compliment a new group of people, or a new context. Are these quests to nail down our identity through increasingly scientific pursuits even worth their salt if we are each, many people, simultaneously?

No matter how we think our own identities are constituted and shaped, whether we believe we are multiple people or just one, the quest to collect information and data about how we behave, who we are, and what we look like is always evolving. Just recently Facebook field paperwork to form a Facebook Political Action Committee (PAC) that “will fund candidates who support ‘giving people the power to share.’

According to the Gawker story about the PAC, it’s “dedicated to ‘mak[ing] the world more open and connected,’ a spokesman tells The Hill. It will be funded by Facebook employees. Meanwhile, Facebook’s lobbying budget is metastasizing ; the company spent $550,000 so far this year, compared to $350,000 all of last year.”

Will a new era of online conmen and women emerge as a result of this movement to collect identity data? Is privacy officially dead? How do you choose to identify yourself, what do you identify with?


I have recently become obsessed with analytics. I just love the idea of using solid data to make informed choices toward action. It’s the ultimate voyeurism. After all, the internet is a window through which you can peer to monitor other people’s activity. It’s also seductive, instant gratification- I post a document and then check in just an hour later to see how many people have clicked on it, how long they spent reviewing it, where they went after they read it, where they came from before reading it. ..

The power that platforms like Google Analytics and Omniture offer excites me in ways I shouldn’t even publicize- the possibility that all of that information about online actions and behavior is at my fingertips to exploit in order to be more productive, more effective is intoxicating. This is probably why it’s a good thing that I don’t work in marketing or advertising.

But apparently the harvest, process of sorting, and the exploitation of human information no longer stops with marketers and advertisers- now the government wants in.

According to an article in yesterday’s  NY Times,  “social scientists are trying to mine the vast resources of the Internet — Web searches and Twitter messages, Facebook and blog posts, the digital location trails generated by billions of cellphones” to predict the future. This is being conducted all in the name of the U.S. Government, or in this case, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity unit of the Office of National Intelligence.

Why? Because  they believe “that these storehouses of ‘big data’will for the first time reveal sociological laws of human behavior — enabling them to predict political crises, revolutions and other forms of social and economic instability, just as physicists and chemists can predict natural phenomena.”

Remember our dear friend Michel Foucault who opined on systems of surveillance in modern society? He just rolled over so many times in his grave he’s now a taquito. But putting the panopticon aside for a moment, let us instead turn to “chaos theory” to underline why this whole venture isn’t necessarily a very good idea.

Chaos theory, as a discipline, studies:

“the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect.”

The “butterfly effect theory” is basically this:

Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.  This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

Yes, if this is ringing a bell, it’s because you’ve heard of the anecdote the theory is named for, whereby a hurricane’s formation occurred because a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before. Ridiculous, but it does vividly illustrate the point that the entire globe is a system, and there are infinite factors within that system interacting every day to produce outcomes- and needless to say, these factors are not all diligently recorded in Brooke Shields’ Twitter stream.

Ever since analytics, Facebook, and Twitter broke onto the human information scene, the embedded hubris of men has convinced us that if we’re just smart enough to design a program to parse all of this information, then finally all of our inane yet determined recordings of our daily details will finally mean something– that it will be useful!

Right? Wrong.

The mashed potatoes are just mashed potatoes. If you want to see anything in the figurative mashed potatoes, then see this: the Tower of Babel, people.

“Tower of Babel?” you say? Yes. The Tower of Babel. My favorite of all biblical references ( we all have one, right? Right?).

Need a quick brush-up? OK!

In the story of the Tower of Babel, from Genesis, ‘a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build a city with a tower “with its top in the heavens…lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.’ God came down to see what they did and said: ‘They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.’ So God said, ‘Come, let us go down and confound their speech.’ And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel ‘because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.’(Genesis 11:5-8).

In other words, chaos theory’s conclusion that all of the world’s data is basically worthless, unreliable crap aside- this “big data eye in the sky” can and will never be.

First, because, without God’s intervention, we are perfectly great at getting in our own way, thankyouverymuch.

For example, the NY Times article cites IARPA’s claim that “It will use publicly accessible data, including Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries.”

About that, the U.S. Government would do well to recall the response to every single privacy change that Facebook has ever made about user data.

Also, the public’s responses to the Patriot Act.

Also, the public response to News Corp’s recent phone hacking scandal.

I could go on. The point is, I don’t think folks will accept the government’s efforts to exploit the aggregation of their online and publicly collected information in order to predict when we might all come down with whooping cough.

Second problematic claim, “It is intended to be an entirely automated system, a “data eye in the sky” without human intervention.” Errrr…what about all of that human generated information? Isn’t that, um, human intervention?

I recently had the absolute pleasure of hearing Stephen J. Dubner- author of Freakonomics and creator or host of every other program, show, or book that came along with it- speak at a conference. He gave an excellent and very compelling lecture on the dangers of relying too much on “self-reported data.”

His point is that, for industries or disciplines where data in large part determines future strategy and action, a little outside consulting and collection is merited. Self-reported data is, by virtue of the fact that humans are involved, problematic when it comes to accuracy.

This means that every tweet, Facebook update and comment flame war on a review site should be read and collected with a massive grain of Kosher salt. It is hard to imagine how the government would calculate this unreliability into its system through error analysis and standard deviation. Suffice it to say, there is still much work to be done on human reported data, sentiment analysis and social statistics before we could get anywhere close to sorting this all out in any meaningful fashion.

Luckily, as the NY Times reports in the article, not everyone is convinced this is even worthwhile:

“”I’m hard pressed to say that we are witnessing a revolution,’ said Prabhakar Raghavan, the director of Yahoo Labs, who is an information retrieval specialist. He noted that much had been written about predicting flu epidemics by looking at Web searches for ‘flu,’ but noted that the predictions did not improve significantly on what could already be found in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

So, though I myself am drinking the cherry kool aid of acting and strategizing based on the measured results from analytical data, I feel the U.S. Government is seriously overstepping its bounds on this one- both in terms of infringing on other people’s data rights, as well as in terms of outpacing the world’s statistical abilities when applied to cultural data.

Hit me in the comments if you have thoughts of your own on the matter…


First and foremost, quite importantly for the purpose of this post: definitions of “Persona” vs. “Identity-“

Persona

  • : a character assumed by an author in a written work
  • : an individual’s social facade or front that especially in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects the role in life the individual is playing
  • : the personality that a person (as an actor or politician) projects in public
  • : a character in a fictional presentation (as a novel or play)

Identity

  • : the distinguishing character or personality of an individual : individuality
  • : the condition of being the same with something described or asserted

Crap, that actually wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped it would be…I feel more confused now than I did before.

Nevertheless, these definitions seem to point toward the fact that a “persona” is more often something performed, or developed consciously one’s self, or performatively developed by someone else, whereas an “identity” is embedded and synonymous with a person’s actual character. For the sake of this entry, that is how we will distinguish between the two.

Moving on to THE POINT.

A while ago I tried to pitch a story to this American Life which had been inspired by the experiences of my friend- we’ll call him Jim. See, Jim was looking for a new job and applying at a few different companies. One day, reminded by a friend of his that he should be actively managing his online persona through Google search results, Jim Googled himself to see what came up when he searched for his full name.

The search results floored him. Jim was met with a cascade of search results about a man with his same name. There were pages with warnings posted by people claiming that a gentleman with Jim’s same name was a con man, that he had tricked them out of money, that he was a pathological liar, and not to trust him. The warnings described a man with a similar build, height, weight and general hair and eye color.

Jim freaked out (I think, understandably), because he was very well aware that any prospective employer would be Googling him to do a cursory background check, and if they were met with this barrage of information he might be weeded out of even a beginner pool of job applicants. He was being framed by someone he had never met, and who, due only to sharing the same name and a similar physical build, was stealing his online identity. How can you combat that in this day and age?

To this day, Jim (luckily employed by now) has to include disclaimers in applications and emails and hope that employers and business partners will take his word that he is not “that Jim” when  embarking on new ventures. If Jim weren’t already married, presumably this would also severely impact his dating and love life.

The story I wanted (and still want) This American Life to cover is this: what happens in the modern world when all of the other folks who use your name misrepresent and sometimes even defame your character online? In a modern era where so much of our persona is developed and managed online, how do we separate what is fake from what is real, and what happens when even our fabricated online personas take on a life of their own?

What do I mean by fabricated online personas? Well, is the life you represent on Facebook an accurate snapshot of what is really going on with you? One of my favorite questions to ask is why no one ever posts photos of themselves crying alone on a Friday night- because that does happen to people. It’s widely known that our online selves, or personas, generally skew toward happiness, success, beauty, and popularity rather than honestly depicting struggles, bad hair days, and loneliness.

And having control over how we are presented online is very important to most internet users- so much so that companies like www.reputation.com now exist to help you “control how you look on the internet.”  Their claim, “People searching for you are judging you, too – defend yourself against digital discrimination with Reputation.com” may seem contrived and fear-mongery, but it still taps into some very real concerns for people.

After all, our identities are very important to us, and the gadgets and devices we are using provide a mirror of our own selves which we project onto these technologies. In fact, Michel Foucault (remember our dear friend?) called these tools “Technologies of the Self,” before the internet was a thing. According to my fascinating pal Wikipedia,  Technologies of the Self are “the methods and techniques (“tools”) through which human beings constitute themselves. Foucault argued that we as subjects are perpetually engaged in processes whereby we define and produce our own ethical self-understanding. According to Foucault, technologies of the self are the forms of knowledge and strategies that “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”[2]

In other words, these days, technology and social media help us to develop our online personas, which end up very deeply affecting our real identities. See what I did there?

For example, if you’re one of the millions of Indian surname Patels in the world, trying to get a unique but still relevant Gmail email address must be murder at this point. You would hardly feel like the email address represented you if you were Patel627281939464528193947273484@gmail.com

And what about the mayhem and madness that surrounded Facebook’s push to get its users to sign up for a unique direct URL to their profiles? Sure, maybe Tatianuh Xzanadu had no problems getting her direct URL with no competition, but for the rest of us, it was like an Oklahoma land run, or a crushing Black Friday sale, waiting for the clock to hit the magic time when we could hurriedly type in our first and last name and finally claim a personalized Facebook URL, a chance at allowing people to access the real me (as far as anyone’s Facebook profile actually does that).

This would all be complicated enough, except that these days not only are people with the same names being misjudged online for the behavior of others with the same name, but poor celebrities and famous authors are having their personas and online identities and even their styles co-opted. Again, for example, the gentleman who formerly tweeted as Christopher Walken under the handle “CWalken,” who delighted thousands on Twitter by impersonating the idiosyncratic and gloomy actor in his tweets about everyday observations and occurrences.

The Wrap interviewed “CWalken” and described the Twitter feed thusly,

“What’s great about the “CWalken” feed is that it sounds like Christopher Walken, yet it’s got the consistent tone and point of view that only a committed writer can achieve. “CWalken” reads as if the actor himself were emerging from a surreal haze a few times a day to note the stupidity, oddness, and weird beauty of the everyday world:”

And the mystery Tweeter, when interviewed, similarly made some really interesting points:

“The politics, tastes and observations are my own. That is — I am not trying to speak for Christopher Walken. I am simply borrowing his voice and reworking my words in his cadence. Some people crochet, I do this.”

It’s problematic because some celebrities feel that their identity and their reputation is at stake, that something they have lived a lifetime to build has been stolen from them. But in some cases, this really is high art. As The Wrap author points out, the CWalken tweets were focused and really well-written, probably much more so than Mr. Walken himself could have achieved.  Alas, the “CWalken” account was eventually shut down because Twitter maintains a policy of cracking down on impersonator accounts.

However, other online persona impersonators have had similar success, such as the perennial favorite: The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, or one of my recent obsessions, “RuthBourdain” where Alice Waters was anonymously tweeting as a combined persona of Ruth Reichl mashed with Anthony Bourdain. That little venture  even earned Waters a humor award.

I mean, that gets really complicated. At that point we have a celebrity chef who is world renowned and celebrated in her own right, assuming the persona of not just one, but two other luminaries in the food world as an outlet for her nasty and rye, humorous side.

One last example I just came across today introduces yet another new genre, blog as Yelp Review as famous author: check out Yelping with Cormac. This Tumblr blog assumes the writing style and occasional subject favorites of Pulitzer prize winning author and presumed hermit Cormac McCarthy in order to write Yelp-style reviews of well known commercial establishments in the Bay Area. A fascinating concept, but here we have clearly gone completely down the persona-stealing online rabbit hole.

Where will the rabbit hole take us next?


I came across a great article from NPR that discusses the role that human evolution plays in fostering tighter and more effective communities. Basically the story poses the question: as we evolve as human beings, do we become more socially-oriented– more other-focused?

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson “evolutionary principles work not just at the genetic level, but also on the community level,” and “evolution is among the factors that drive community involvement.”

Prosociality, or prosocialness, is “the scientific term for any other-oriented attitude or behavior.” So the more you consider other people’s feelings, situations or the impact that your actions have on others, the more “prosocial” you are, and the more likely you are to be an active member in supporting a community of people. For example, a locavore, food bank volunteer, employee at the local women’s shelter would be highly prosocial. Someone who worked at pre-2008 Lehman Brothers? Just about at the bottom of the prosocial scale.

David Sloan Wilson decided to conduct an analysis of real-world prosociality in his hometown of Binghamton, NY by asking people the question: “I think it’s important to make my community a better place. Agree or Disagree?” And according to Wilson, those who agree strongly with his statement would be considered highly prosocial.

As a result of this analysis, Wilson distilled eight factors in a community that can enhance prosociality, listed here from the article:

  1. A strong sense of group identity, and a strong sense of what the group is about. If you don’t think of yourself as a group, and if you don’t know what the purpose of the group is, then it’s unlikely to function well as a group.
  2. Proportional costs and benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits. That’s not sustaining over the long term.
  3. Consensus decision-making. People hate being told what to do, but they’ll work hard for a decision that they agree upon.
  4. Monitoring. Most people want to cooperate but there’s always a temptation to slack a little bit. And then a few people are going to actively to game the system. So unless you can monitor good behavior, forget about it.
  5. Graduated sanctions. If somebody does misbehave, you don’t bring the hammer down. You remind them in a nice and friendly fashion, and that keeps them in solid citizen mode. At the same time, you do need to be prepared to escalate in those rare cases, when necessary.
  6.  A fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it needs to be resolved in a fast and fair fashion, in a manner that’s regarded as fair by all parties.
  7. Autonomy – for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.
  8.  In a large society consisting of many groups, those groups have to be put together using those same principles. That’s called polycentric governance, a very important concept which emerged from political science, but now has a more genuine evolutionary formulation.

I’d like to look a bit closer at these, because they apply very closely to certain important themes in communication studies and communications philosophy. Hidden among these prosociality factors, two very important names leap to mind for me: Geert Hoftsede, and Michel Foucault.

Geert Hofstede, for those who don’t know him, basically invented a system of analyzing differences at the national level behind human interactions, an index of the differences between people from different countries, using four indicators, or what he called “anthropological problem areas”: “ways of coping with inequality, ways of coping with uncertainty, the relationship of the individual with her or his primary group, and the emotional implications of having been born as a girl or as a boy.”

Geert Hofstede

These became the Hofstede dimensions of  national culture: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Individualism versus Collectivism, and Masculinity versus Femininity.

Ok, Jess, why in the hell is this relevant to these factors that enhance prosociality? Well, because Wilson is basically looking at the same thing but on a micro-scale, in smaller communities. Let’s take #1, the need for the group to understand its identity, its raison d’etre. This factor relates directly to what Hofstede termed “uncertainty avoidance,” which “deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.”

On the scale that Hofstede invented, “Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth:  “there can only be one Truth and we have it”. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side.”

In other words, communities that are “uncertainty avoiding” cultures who have an agreement about why they have been formed are more prosocial toward others in their communities, yet Hofstede would argue that “uncertainty avoiding communities,” or more “prosocial communities” are often more hostile and unsocial toward groups not a part of their communities.

Coming to #2, proportional costs and benefits, and relatedly, graduated sanctions, because they both relate to equality, power and punishment, Hoftsede looked carefully at the dimension of “power distance,” or “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” For Hofstede, “power distance” was an index measurement of “inequality defined from below, not from above.”

His research suggested that “ a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders,” which is to say that everyone agreed that there were discrepancies in power. This relates directly to Wilson’s analysis that one important factor of prosociality is “it cannot be the case that some people do all the work, and other people get the benefits.” Of course some people cannot do all the work, but Hoftsede argued that every society understood that some people will do more than their fair share of the work, and some will reap greater benefits than others.

Of course, the infamous Michel Foucault factors in here as well, in #2 as well as in #4 (Monitoring)  and #5 (Graduated Sanctions).

Michel Foucault

Foucault, for those who are unfamiliar, was best known for his  studies of modern society and its institutions, namely psychiatry, medicine, human sciences and the prison and punishment systems. In his tome Discipline and Punish, he examined “technologies of punishment,” monarchical punishment, and disciplinary punishment. In the latter, which Foucault determined was the more modern take on societal and systematic punishment, punishment is left to “professionals” (psychologists, programme facilitators, parole officers, etc.) to dole out in a demonstration of their power over the prisoner. Foucault believed that disciplinary punishment led to “self-policing by the populace as opposed to brutal displays of authority from the Monarchical period.” He also retrieved from historical obscurity Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a modern architectural structure for prisons called the Panopticon, in which “a single guard can watch over many prisoners while the guard remains unseen,” and “where visibility is a trap.”

#7 brings us back to Hofstede, with its mention of Autonomy. Why is autonomy important to facilitating a prosocial human being? Wilson believe it is because “for a group to do these things, they have to have the authority to manage their own affairs.” Yet Hofstede measured individuality as part of his scale as a contrast with collectivism. He felt that “On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after her/himself and her/his immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” So on that point, again, they differ.

I have prattled on a bit too long on this entry, but the point is that what makes us, as human beings with free will and the ability to operate autonomously and individually, have the seemingly built-in desire to commune with others and cooperate to enhance our own lives? What Wilson was studying in Binghamton, NY is what Hoftsede was examining at the international state level, and what Foucault was looking deeply into at the human soul level. Yet still, we have no definitive answer.

On my end, I just though it was interesting that as each of us grabs hold of new technologies, and read reports of how those technologies are actively distancing us from our ancient proclivity toward social interactions with others, social scientists like Wilson claim that it’s possible we are actually evolving to be more selfless, to be more involved with our own communities.

So what do you think? Are we becoming more prosocial, or less?


A recent article posted on Mashable about a “Google Gap” caught my eye. The article basically poses the question “should we be teaching students how to search for information?” I often think about this without putting any of my thoughts to words. In essence, my inner dialogue usually goes something like this: “There is so much information out there, and no one seems to know how to access it.” “That’s not true, people are creating and accessing information every day.” “Yes, but how targeted are their searches? Does anyone really know how to use all of the search functionalities that Google offers?” “Yes, and I’d be willing to believe that many people use it a lot better than you.” “Well of course, but that’s not to say that it’s all intuitive. We seem to take it for granted that young people can be handed a new technology or tool and be able to use it fully to its deepest capabilities without any instructions or training, but that’s just not always the case.”

Without being a current student, I can’t say I have any idea of whether classes are being mandated or even offered at the lower educational levels on how to search for, and sort through information. If not, it’s a shame and a huge waste of really genius functionalities that apparently no one is using.

Let’s use an example. Say I am searching for the back story on my favorite work of sculpture, Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” In the main search box of Google’s engine, I type “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” Here’s what I get:

Inevitably, ye old Wikipedia entry for this art work will be in position #1. Image search results show up directly under that, then we have an entry from Smart History, then strangely a result from St. Mary’s College of California, then what seems to be a blog entry from a blog called Boglewood that addresses Italian art and history. The list goes on.

I would not be surprised if most students these days use the Wikipedia article as a fact source in their research, and try and find a decently high resolution image for any artwork requirements in their essays and then call it a day. How many students are instructed to do multiple searches?

For instance, if I then search, “Bernini Sculpture,” which will return the following:

 

My point here is that Google can almost be considered a living and breathing animal, very eager to perform for you. The more a person searches in sequence, the closer and more likely that person is to access very specific and more robust information sources. But how many students are taught that about Google? How many currently only use it for discrete one-off searches, ignoring completely the fact that Google can learn more about you and about what you’re looking for more each time you use it, enabling it to perform even better for you?

Even more disturbing perhaps is that most students have no idea that Google scholar exists! So many people my age grew up struggling with the constantly-evolving but always onerous scholarly search engines like LexisNexis and had a very hard time finding the content they were looking for, even when they encountered the right articles. Right now, if we search we get a wealth of different results:

I am old enough (and lucky enough??) to have taken a library skills course in elementary school that taught me about the value of using old-school search terminology and functionality (i.e. Boolean operators) way before Google was even a twinkle in Larry and Sergey’s eyes. But now that engines like Google do exist, and now that advanced methods of researching (such as textual and sentiment analysis on Twitter hashtag topics) become ever  more viable in the realm of social research, have schools taken up the challenge of designing curriculum to assist modern-day students with these new information engines?

The Mashable article claims that such classes and training do not yet exist, “Students in a two-year ethnographic study referred to Google more than any database when discussing their research habits. But ironically, say the study’s authors, they weren’t very good at using it.” I feel that this is a natural offshoot of an “information science” or “library science” degree, which seem to be where all librarians are headed these days. Elementary school students should be required to take a class/classes in effective search and research strategies that will help them to conduct online research for the duration of their education.

Especially since the Mashable article claims, “[The students] were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results…Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)”

It doesn’t seem ludicrous to imagine that though an incredibly resource like Google exists, students will have a hard time wielding the heavily powerful tool because they don’t understand the logic behind it, especially if no attention has been paid to teaching people how to use the incredibly powerful tool.

The series of studies that inspired the article on Mashable are known as the “Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries Project (ERIAL)” and are a collaborative effort by five Illinois universities in order to better understand students’ research habits. The findings  from these studies are set to be published by the American Library Association this fall.

To summarize the problem, this quote basically scared the crap out of me while simultaneously saddening me: “I don’t really know what there is to use,” said one first year accounting major who participated in the study. “I know there are books but I don’t really know how to find them. Really the only thing I know how to do is go to Google and type in what I’m looking for.”

What do you think about mandating search/research classes at the elementary school level for American children?