Archive for the ‘Search’ Category


I go through the occasional bout of nostalgia, I admit it. Sometimes I muse that it would have been much more fun to be alive during the Wild West, or during the American Revolutionary War. Mostly this is clearly symptomatic of the fact that I feel disconnected and I want to feel a part of a movement, something significant that is taking hold of history and making it sit up and pay attention.

While I lived in Paris I was privileged to see the works of infamous, modern-era, groundbreaking schools of art such as the Blau Reiter, the Futurists, Alexander Calder and the mobile sculptors, Impressionists, Fauvists, Surrealists, Cubists, Pointillists, you name it. As I browsed the carefully curated collections of work and imagined what it would be like to exist in a time of such intense creation, innovation and turn-the-world-on-its-head thinking, I remember thinking: does anyone really ever know when they’re living smack-dab in one of those eras?

Now that I’m back in the U.S. working, and no longer have the luxury of wandering the streets of Paris, being a flaneur and contemplating my navel, those questions have gone mostly by the wayside in favor of, oh, I dunno, buying toilet paper and writing corporate emails again. Sigh. However, they don’t have to because it may actually be true that we are in the middle of a cohesive burgeoning artistic, cultural and technological movement! It even has a name, folks, which is huge, because without a name it will be hard to reference it: The New Aesthetic.

What is it about? Well, significantly it’s pretty all-encompassing, which it has to be in this era of multimedia, consolidated and integrated channels, myriad communication modes and access. In a nutshell (though that is a depressingly analog expression to use in this context) it’s about taking the time to understand how technology is affecting and has already impacted the way we see the world, how we see everything. The movement focuses on the presumption that most of the world increasingly now experiences the world not directly through their eyeballs, but through the eyes of a technological device- whether it’s a camera, a smartphone, GPS, a tablet, an e-reader, a computer screen, etc.

This opportunity for reflection is significant first because the pace of technology and its adoption simply hasn’t historically allowed us to do this- we adopt a technology, learn it, deploy it and then we’re off and running with barely a glance backward. In the super-charged modern era of technology have we really reflected on its impact on how we see things? Yes, the visionary artists, influencers and politicians of our time have, in small numbers. But this movement finally has identified certain themes about how we have all been shaped by new technologies and it’s just so interesting.

Another great facet of the New Aesthetic is in how it is playing out. This is not a genre that is reserved for the intellectual or artistic elite. So far the movement has invited everyone to participate, thereby furthering the impact that the act of reflecting has. It begs questions of its members-How is the world different from how I saw it before? Can we actually evaluate if things were better or worse before this technology/gadget/access/knowledge? Show us what you see and how you see it. Can you find us other examples of where this is playing out?

From Bruce Sterling‘s Wired piece on the topic:

“The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture…it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”

The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.” (http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/anessayonthenewaesthetic/)

It should come as no surprise that this discussion largely began at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. Here is the description of the panel discussion:

“Slowly, but increasingly definitively, our technologies and our devices are learning to see, to hear, to place themselves in the world. Phones know their location by GPS. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. Everything has a camera in it. We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect’s inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV.

As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing.” (http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP11102)

James Bridle is sort of the figurehead of the discourse around the New Aesthetic and he has done an excellent job of laying out what it means to him and helping to provide spaces for the conversation about it to unfold. In fact, he’s downright poetic in some of his descriptions:

And what of the render ghosts, those friends who live in our unbuilt spaces, the first harbingers of our collective future? How do we understand and befriend them, so that we may shape the future not as passive actors but as collaborators? (I don’t have much truck with the “don’t complain, build” / “make stuff or shut up” school, but I do believe in informed consent. Because a line has been crossed, technology/software/code is in and of the world and there’s no getting out of it. ” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

“My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?” (http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/)

That’s good stuff, right? I think so.

But let’s take a step back from the philosophical implications of the movement and do some of our own shell collecting in the sand. Where do we see the New Aesthetic playing out?

Here’s a few that I found:

1) My latest favorite Tumblr: ScreenshotsofDespair. Apart from appealing to that deep and sinister Schadenfreude bone that I have, this Tumblr is a perfect example of the New Aesthetic. We take photos, of screens, which we see delivering ambiguous and subtly insulting messages that seem to mirror our own loneliness, unpopularity, failure,- despair. So good.

From "Screenshots of Despair"

2) Where am I?: Google Maps and StreetView. The fact that we now actively use archived and ongoing screenshots of satellite maps and digital photography to represent to us what the world looks like, rather than having to travel there physically. I know what my friend Anna’s house looks like in Berlin without ever having been there, but I only know what it looks like on a sunny day-  April 2nd, 2009.

3) Tweet-note: I’m coining this term (unless it has been coined before) to mean seeing a live event happen through the lens of what is being said about it by the Twitter-verse. See my piece onsentiment analysis for a more nuanced examination of the implications of this, but it’s pretty crazy that these days (especially at ANY high-tech conference) you can sit in a room of thousands of people, listeningto/watching the same keynote, and yet about 98% of the audience is simultaneously tracking what is being said about that event via Twitter on their smartphones, thereby allowing the rest of the audience to largely color their opinion in real time.

4) Art: This is obvious, but the emergence of re-pixellating and bringing digital back to analog, and a nostalgia for real film is all playing out in the art world. The pixellation movement really interests me because it’s such a blatant reversion to pointillism, but it represents more of a re-education for a younger generation on how the greater whole is amassed as the result of millions and millions of tiny components. It’s also a throwback to so many other modernist movements- Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Picasso’s Cubism comes to mind, especially here, when we talk about the New Aesthetic in terms of trying to represent the everywhere-at-once nature of things today. You can look at a book, just a simple book with your own eyes. But you can also look up reviews of the book on Amazon or Goodreads, you can research Google images of the book, how much people will pay for the book on eBay, you can read reviews of the book on the NYTimes, you can take a weathered antique-y snapshot of the book with Hipstamatic, text message your friend about the book with its photo attached, and many other options that I can’t even think of right now. All of that is a more than 360 degree representation of that book: what it is, what it looks like, what it represents, where it is, and how it is. Just like in Cubism, the object ends up being transformed, rendered nearly unrecognizable to its original form by having been taken apart and conveyed based on its components, then re-constructed on more planes than the naked eye can fully behold. The same is true of my next example…

5) Does This Photoshop Make Me Look Fat?: We are no longer satisfied with truthful representations of human bodies. In fact, we might not even really believe the truth any more if it were given to us. We have been carried away- in the beginning unaware, later blissfully aware- by the movement to re-architect human anatomy through Photoshop. I admit I have visited blogs and websites that show the blunders of graphic artists and I often STILL can’t see that anything is wrong with the images. It is that nefarious. We are more content to see human bodies through the lens of Photoshop than through reality.

6) Branded Space: this is an old feature, the fact that we see in everything a chance to advertise or place products, but one recent example was so blatant I can’t fail to mention it here. It was very recently announced that in his next movie, James Bond will be sipping not a martini, but aHeineken. That’s right, 007’s drink of choice has received the ouster in favor of product placement. Needless to say, the reaction has not been, er, positive. But it is yet another example of the New Aesthetic- not only do we see even everyday objects and products through new physical lenses, we continue to see them through figurative lenses that are colored according to which advertiser has the most money to spend that day. So the object is not permitted to exist alone for us any more. Its meaning is always stamped across its face.

In fact, Maybe the weirdest aspect of this movement is how eminently consumable it is. It’s practically Warhol-esque in its commercial viability. A perfect example being how Facebook just gobbled up Instagram, the popular hipster-making photog app for $1B. But there are thousands more examples on the official New Aesthetic Tumblr. Let the New Aesthetic binge begin.

One last expression for you: Analog Recidivism: Actually, I’m just hoping this will somehow emerge as a reaction to the New Aesthetic. I think one of the next evolutions of the movement will be to feature in art, culture, social customs, etc. what we just don’t see any more as a result of our attachment to viewing the world through the lens of our gadgets and technology. Instead of showing us how our views have changed and been modified, somehow we will be shown what we just didn’t see as a result of staring at a phone, a computer, a tablet, etc. The little things we no longer notice or take note of will be featured as once again novel by virtue of the fact that we, physically, are no longer trained to see or look for them. Did I just blow your mind?

To read more on the New Aesthetic:

http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/

http://www.riglondon.com/blog/2011/05/06/thenewaesthetic/

http://newaesthetic.tumblr.com/

http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/anessayonthenewaesthetic/


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.


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?


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?


In an article on Mashable which I read today, the author’s argument is that how we search can tell us a lot about how we feel about the search object or subject. Basically, researchers are now conducting rhetorical analyses of the most commonly searched terms and how they are written in order to understand better how a country’s internet users skew on a number of diverse subjects: products, brands, services; and more recently now: race, ethnicity, socio-economics, politics, etc. The article is entitled, Search Stereotypes: What Web Content Reveals About Cultural Biases, and it most closely examines how Latinas are depicted in the context of search terminology.

This is very interesting to me, and it’s a large reason why I still believe a career in search marketing or search analytics would be incredibly edifying and interesting, especially at the sociological level. What new more socially and culturally oriented organizations are trying to do is to manually re-adjust those perceptions through the same media that the information is coming to them on.

As the author, Sandra Ordonez, writes “The online stereotype of the hyper-sexualized Latina is simply not true. Statistically, most Latinas are the exact opposite: smart moms with families. This is exactly why we launched Mamiverse — to fill the websphere with more content that is truly reflective of who we are,” Martinez said. It’s basically fighting fire with fire- analyzing search engine content for racial, sexual and cultural bias and then manipulating search results in the name of promoting a social cause, rather than for a product or company, and they’re calling it “Content Activism.”

Many months ago now I wrote about sentiment analysis and the Affective Norms for English Language index that allows for this type of rhetorical analysis. This approach has been applied to Twitter and the search engine optimization/marketing fields for use in better targeting and improving public brands in the public view.

Basically it all comes down to diction- word choice. Whether we each think about it every day or not, the choices we make in vocabulary to describe things can tell our audiences a lot about how we feel about the things we are describing. Additionally, whether we think about it or not, every time we type a word or search term into a Google box, we are sending a transmission to an audience that will never disappear. The ongoing record of data and information that Google represents is like a sandbox for academics, and a historical record for the rest of us. That, in itself, is a striking image.

The article lists a number of racialized and gendered search terms and their most commonly returned meta search terms- a table which I found very interesting:

Top Three Search Results and Suggested Group Information


The following descriptions are based solely on meta site descriptions found after each title. The actual sites returned were not visited. This is only a sample of searches conducted.

  • Latinas: All three results are pornographic. Descriptors include “hot,” “young” and “legs wide open.” Seems to hint that women on 8th street, a historic street in an internationally-known Latin neighborhood in Miami, are sexy and “doable.” (Search for Latin women results in various dating sites for men seeking Latin women).
  • Latin Men: Since “Latinos” is used to describe an entire group of people, we used the term “Latin men.” One link is for a site that helps you secure a stripper or exotic dancer. The other two links are porn sites. Descriptors are a bit too pornographic to list in this article.
  • Asian Men: Two links for the “Angry Asian Man” blog and an article exploring whether Asian men are good in bed. Only descriptors are found in one sentence that directly addresses stereotype: “We all know the stories about Asian men’s sexual prowess, or the lack thereof, and the age old jokes about the ‘size issue.’”
  • Asian Women: Two links for organizations that provide Asian women with domestic violence support (NYAWC and SAKHI) and a dating/marriage site for single men looking for both Asian women and Asian girls. Only descriptor includes the word “survivor.”
  • Black Men: A Wikipedia article describing the term “black men,” an article explaining why white women prefer black men, and a link to Black Men Magazine, which seems to focus on pop culture and sexy women. No descriptors, but phrases include “racial” (comes up twice), “mugger button” and “Ink Candy Party.”
  • Black Women: A link to a “black women’s interracial marriage site,” a link to “Black Voices News and Opinion” on The Huffington Post and a Wikipedia article describing the term “black people.” Descriptors include “slaves” and “enslavers,” with a sentence describing them as “surviving.”

I highly recommend checking out the article, which does a good job of acknowledging that the search results analysis is not an entirely accurate snapshot of the world’s views simply because it self-selects according to a higher echelon socio-economically. In other words, not everyone in the world has access to the Net, so the sample bias is definitely a source of some anguish in this budding field.

Still, the area of “Content Activism” connected with sentiment analysis is an interesting one- food for thought!

 


The other day I was reading through my May issue of Wired Magazine, and I came across a short article about a newly developed technique in online marketing that will soon become everyone’s new reality. The new technique is called “persuasion profiling,” and it’s an offshoot of the personalization and recommendation engine modes of online marketing. As the author of this article described the new technique, “it doesn’t just find content you might enjoy. It figures out how you think.”

Basically this new technique doesn’t just monitor what you are lured into clicking on, it also takes note of which strategies of persuasion work best on you, and which don’t. As the author of the article explained, “By alternating the types of pitches, Appeal to Authority (‘Malcolm Gladwell says you’ll like this’), Social Proof (‘All your friends on Facebook are buying this book’), and the like- [the scientist] could track which mode of argument was most persuasive for each person.”

Once enough information about your psychological weaknesses is uncovered, web-based marketers will be able to essentially profile which types of advertising will most appeal to those areas of weakness, and exploit them to help sell you more stuff. Additionally, the studies conducted found that your weaknesses are the same no matter what the product- whether clothes, home furnishings, cars, etc.

So I found this article pretty interesting and well laid out, and then my brother mentioned a concept developed by author Eli Pariser called “online filter bubbles” one day when we were discussing the annoyingly narrow scope of our respective Facebook news feeds. Pariser’s argument is basically that the programmers of the modern web are personalizing our content to such an extent that they are, in essence, selecting what’s important FOR US, rather than the other way around. He suggested I watch the video. Which I did, and you should too.

Then I realized, the article in Wired and this TED Talk? Same guy (speaking of filter bubbles…?).

Well, he’s promoting a book, so we can’t blame him for being everywhere. Besides, this really is an excellent TED Talk- it’s a good example of why TED Talks are so compelling. [I should say here, if you’re not familiar with TED Talks, a) where the hell have you been?, and b) go get familiar-NOW. ]

In his talk on the concept of online filter bubbles, Pariser starts his talk with an anecdote: “A journalist was asking Mark Zuckerberg a question about the news feed. And the journalist was asking him, “Why is this so important?” And Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” And I want to talk about what a Web based on that idea of relevance might look like.

So what he’s getting at is a few things. 1) The internet is really, really, large. Anyone who has attempted to explore its depths knows this. 2) We are an information society- there is so much information flying at us now at any given time from any number of different devices, it’s impossible to stay afloat. 3) But that doesn’t mean that any platform, company or tool gets to decide what IS important, and what is NOT.

In response to this, my first thoughts flew to Jurgen Habermas and his theories of the centrality of a healthy public sphere to the success of a democracy.

What is a “public sphere” you ask? OK, this is where Wikipedia becomes useful, folks. Do me a favor and look it up here so I don’t have to expound that much on it. But the gist of the concept of a public sphere is this: “The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action.”

Many of you who are now being introduced to this concept for the first time will see the very obvious correlation to the original intent of the internet as a social and discursive space where people could freely communicate. Only, Habermas introduced this concept pre-internet, around 1962. And he was largely referencing the importance of the press when he introduced it. Smarty pants, eh? Anyhow, the importance of the internet as the focal embodiment of a modern public sphere is what Pariser is getting at here, and he sort of spells that out later in his talk:

“In 1915, it’s not like newspapers were sweating a lot about their civic responsibilities. Then people noticed that they were doing something really important. That, in fact, you couldn’t have a functioning democracy if citizens didn’t get a good flow of information. That the newspapers were critical, because they were acting as the filter, and then journalistic ethics developed. It wasn’t perfect, but it got us through the last century. And so now, we’re kind of back in 1915 on the Web. And we need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility into the code that they’re writing.”

This is where it got really good, because Pariser basically called out Larry & Sergey in front of the TED audience:

“I know that there are a lot of people here from Facebook and from Google — Larry and Sergey — people who have helped build the Web as it is, and I’m grateful for that. But we really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they’re transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters. And we need you to give us some control, so that we can decide what gets through and what doesn’t.”

Which is really the battle cry from this talk, and his whole point. He is asking major web-based companies to relinquish some of the control that they have actively seized over our internet use. In essence, Pariser is waving a red flag that the new waves of much-lauded personalization, and persuasion analysis are cutting down the scope of each of our online experiences into pre-conceived, pre-determined pathways based on past behavior.

Anyone who was a teenager- or was previously someone they don’t currently fully admire – can see the error in this strategy. As humans we change, we grow, we evolve. Pariser’s point is that we need to be exposed to new influences and new information in order to continue to evolve and grow, “Because I think we really need the Internet to be that thing that we all dreamed of it being. We need it to connect us all together. We need it to introduce us to new ideas and new people and different perspectives. And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.”

I think he’s completely right. Actually, it makes me laugh because when you really break it down, marketers and advertisers are paying top dollar to help develop persuasion analysis and personalization technologies based on our previous behavior. All of that money and time invested goes into analyzing our histories online, but what they’re really trying to do is convince us to create a new version of ourselves by purchasing their products. Odd, no?

UPDATE: Pariser has a new article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/23/opinion/23pariser.html?src=recg