Thursday, January 30, 2014

Social Media II

The range and size of social media networks has increased almost exponentially in the early years of the twenty-first century. We've gone from early forums in which only a few hundred people might participate, such as a BBS or a LISTSERV list, to truly mass media such as Facebook and Twitter, which have billions of users around the globe.

But much more than just size has changed. At a certain 'tipping point,' social media begin to function in ways that, when they were smaller, would have been impossible. Facebook and Twitter have been credited as playing roles in the "Arab Spring" in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia; Facebook's founder has been the subject of a major Hollywood film; and twitter feeds and cell-phone photos has brought down politicians of every party, sometimes within a matter of mere hours. It certainly sounds as though these technologies have crossed some threshold, altering the fabric of reality itself -- but then, of course, one can look back at similar claims made about virtual-reality video helmets (anyone remember Lawnmower Man?) and wonder whether these revolutions will seem such a few years from now.

Three key developments have shaped this period: 1) Social media with "presence" -- a main page at which users can add or copy content, offer images, texts, or video of their own making or choosing; 2) Sites with instant linkability -- the ability of users to add (or subtract) active and immediate connections to other users; and 3) Sites that bundle essential tools (e-mail, instant messaging, and other software capabilities. Finally, all of the above, or at least the survivors in this highly competitive field, have gone multi-platform; no social medium of the future will thrive unless it is available on desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, and has some system of synchronizing all its users' preferences and updates.

So what next? The spaghetti is still being hurled at the (virtual) refrigerator wall; Blippy, a site that enabled shoppers to instantly "share" posts about their purchases was hacked, and credit cards compromised -- so much for that! -- Google tried to launch its own "Wikipedia killer," dubbed Knol, but the site filled up with spam so quickly that it became almost useless, and Google discontinued it; it also failed to generate "Buzz," a hot-button social networking site that offended many users with its auto-generated list of "contacts," and Apple stumbled with Ping! an addition to its popular iTunes platform meant to enable people to share news about music purchases and performances. The latest entry Pinterest, allows users to "pin" content to one another, with a focus on bargain shopping, and has the unusual distinction that a majority of its users, in many surveys, are women. But will it go the way of the Lifetime network?

It may seem we're already "shared" too much in this era of TMI, and these social media may be reaching their limits -- but I wouldn't bet on it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Social Media I

The evolution of social media can be conceived of in many ways -- in one sense, it could be said that language itself was the first social medium. Even then, considering a "social medium" to be any means of transmitting or recording language over time and space, alphabetic writing could well be seen as the earliest, followed swiftly by the development of the "letter" as a social form, which dates back to at least the seventh century BCE. The ancient Library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627, included personal letters written in cuneiform on clay tablets.

The telegraph and telephone come next in line; even if, as a recent NY Times article noted, the phone is experiencing a slow decline, it remains our oldest electronic social media. I'm old enough to remember the old "Reach out and touch someone" adverts for Ma Bell, and for a while, there was nothing more direct and personal than a phone call. Electronic mail protocols over ARPANET and its successors debuted in 1969, but did not become a common form of communication until the late 1980's; well before then, home computer users setting up BBS sites where they could post notices and download simple programs. My home town of Cleveland had a huge site, Freenet, where you could also get medical advice from doctors at Case Western Reserve and University Hospitals. The WELL, a large social site based in San Francisco, was the first home of integrated mail, chatroom, and file services; perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the site of the first case of online impersonation that went to court (a man was sued by two women for pretending to be a different, older woman who was a mutual friend).

In academia, the LISTSERV protocol brought people together by field and interest, and made it possible to, in effect, send a message to hundreds of people at once in search of advice or response; LISTSERVs were often associated with archives where you could search through older messages. Early online game spaces, such as MUDs and MOOs go back to the late 1970's, and many became highly social, with tens of thousands of "inhabitants" maintaining spaces there. All of these interactions were exclusively text-based, and the only "graphics" consisted of what could be cobbled together out of ASCII characters.

It wasn't until the arrival of the commercial internet in 1993, and the WWW protocol the next year, that social media really took off; by the end of the decade, Six Degrees, LiveJournal, Blogger, and eOpinion had launched. In 2003, Second Life offered its users a virtual retake on their first lives, albeit with a graphical interface that looks primitive by today's standards; that same year, MySpace became the first modern social networking platform, and a model for Facebook two years later. With half a billion users, including everyone from the President to the Pope to Batman (Adam West), it's well on its way to gaining the kind of cross-sectional critical mass to change the face of human communication.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Old Media to New

The future is rarely as those in the past pictured it. We do not fly about in dirigibles or heli-cars; our school-age children don't take field trips to Mars, and those loose-fitting glittery pant-suits that the people of the future wore in old science fiction films never really came into fashion. In fact, one could say that most of us here in the twenty-first century are, in many areas of our lives, still using things invented in the nineteenth century: the internal combustion engines in our cars, the gas furnaces that heat our homes, the machine-woven cotton shirts we wear, the pencils and ball-point-pens we write with, and the fax machines in our offices.

And we still write letters, at least, though not quite the way we used to. Over his lifetime, the novelist Charles Dickens penned 14,252 letters -- probably more, since that's just the number that have survived to this day. Had he not died at the relatively young age of 58, he would have doubtless written thousands more. He was hardly alone; many other nineteenth-century writers were equally active, as were a great many ordinary people in various walks of life. Nowadays, though we may still send a great many brief e-mails, or text- or voice-messages, it's rare for most of us to send a "letter"of any length, let along the enormous missive sent by C. Morton Morse of Portland Oregon in 1911. That letter, claimed at the time to be the longest ever composed, contained more than 32,000 words and was written on a continuous roll of paper 72 feet long.

The telephone, which after the personal letter has a fair claim to be the oldest still commonly-used means of interpersonal communication today, may still be with us, but its usage has changed dramatically. The phone itself has gone from being a household appliance to something carried in one's pocket, and live voice communication may be its least common use. Many people rarely answer theirs, relying on voicemail to retain anything important, or screening their calls with custom ringtones. And, in the business world, it's rare to initiate communication by phone -- in one office, an employee was heard to complain that a coworker should have e-mailed in advance if he planned to call!

The great dream of 1950's and 1960's Sci-Fi -- the video phone -- is now a reality via Skype, although ironically enough, there is no phone, and (unlike the famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey) no toll for most of these calls (although $1.70 isn't too bad for a minute-long call from outer space).

So how much do you use these "old" media means of "reaching out to touch someone" (as the Bell System phone advertisement used to put it)? Do you often talk with friends on the phone for more than a minute or two? Do you Skype? And if so, how often? And when was the last time you literally sat down and wrote a letter to a friend or family member on a piece of paper?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Age of the Book

As we move further into the age of the electronic "book," it's worth reflecting on the profound ways in which books have influenced the course of history, and indeed have shaped our very consciousness, for nearly two thousand years. There was a time, of course, when the book or "codex" was a new technology, replacing the scroll as the predominant means of recording and storing written texts; the video (Book 1.0) shown here takes a humorous look at a monastic scribe who has had to call the Help Desk to assist him in using this unfamiliar new medium. From this time -- probably somewhere around the first century A.D., through to the present, the book has embodied the very idea of learning, of storytelling, of collecting and gathering, of preserving knowledge.

As the Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong pointed out, though, writing, in a fixed form, did more than simply store information for later retrieval; it restructured our consciousness. By giving us the sense that knowledge could possess substance and persistence, even when not stored in our own heads, writing gave birth to the very earliest stirrings of philosophy. Plato, of all people, warned against this new technology, saying that if people relied on putting things down in writing we would weaken our faculty of memory -- the irony is that the only reason we know he said this is that someone wrote it down. The book gave birth to many of our modern genres, from the novel to the biography to the encyclopedia (which last form, for better or worse, has almost completely departed the physical world of the Britannica and moved into the electronic space of the Wikipedia). There were libraries before there were books, of course -- parts of the library of Ashurbanipal, established in the 7th century BCE, still survive today -- but the book made libraries uniquely indexable, capable as they were of displaying relevant information on their spines while placed so as to take up minimal space on the shelf. The development of the printing press by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century created what's often been called a revolution -- and yet it was primarily a revolution in the means of production, and in making books affordable, not in the physical shape or content of the book itself. It was on account of the printed book, and the newspapers and magazines that followed, that a world in which literacy was possible, even expected, for everyone came into being -- a world on which the Internet, too, depends.

And the Age of the Book is still with us. E-books, although they mimic some of the qualities of printed volumes, still have a long way to go to match their advantages; their current market share -- 20 percent -- is the highest it's ever been, but its future growth will likely still be gradual. E-books certainly won't wipe out physical books in the way that MP3's wiped out compact discs, or streaming video took away most of the market for DVD's and Blu-Ray discs. In the end, a book is a concept, and as such, it's likely to be with us for a very long time indeed.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Welcome to English 232

If this course were to have been offered twenty years ago, the "public sphere"would have meant newspapers, television, radio, and print publication. The primary way for an ordinary person to enter into such discourse would be through one or another formal gateway: a letter to the editor, a guest column or Op-Ed piece, an interview on television or radio, an essay in a magazine or journal, or that thing once known as a "book."There were, it's true, some more open ways to reach a wider audience: college radio, public-access cable, or xeroxed 'zines -- but they tended to have a very limited reach.

Today in 2014, for better or worse, the potential reach of any text or media presentation is, for all practical purposes, infinite; anyone on earth can "publish" a text, and most other people on earth can access it. And yet, in terms of actually getting one's text to an audience, it's harder than ever, precisely because there is so much already out there, and very few single outlets that guarantee the kind of mass audience that used to be available via "old" media. We are all public speakers/writers, but the size of our forum is so vast -- and yet so small -- that our "public" is likely to be a smaller and less diverse group than at any time in recent history. The battle now is not to merely be 'published' as such, but to be noticed.

So called "social media" have advanced and changed considerably in the past two decades, and many fundamental changes are still well within living memory.  I can remember when I sent my first e-mail (in 1988), and my own first online publications were in the early 1990's, before the 'World Wide Web' protocol had been invented. I can recall an Internet when commercial use of any kind was highly frowned upon, an Internet before in-line graphics, and (a bit later) an internet where there was only one browser (Mosaic) and only one or two people I knew actually had a web page "of their own." And yet today there is a large and growing tribe of so-called "digital natives" who cannot recall a world in which the Web, e-mail, smart phones, and online video were unavailable. The very nature of public discourse has changed, at least as much -- perhaps more -- than it did in the 'Gutenberg Revolution.'

This class will explore all of these differences, making use of every possible kind of resource and media available.  Everyone in this class will experiment with every media platform available, including but not limited to Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Wikipedia, Google+ and Reddit.  Each of us will create and interlink an online public identity, and use that identity to explore, test, and respond to the possibilities of public discourse today.  We'll also, along the way, learn something of the history of earlier social media, with the hope that these will help us put the present in some kind of perspective, even as we recognize that some aspects of it are new and scarcely tried. We'll also function as a collective, sharing our own texts and experiences with each other, and following each other's progress through the world-wide electronic jungle.

It will be an unpredictable experience.  But that's the way it is, in the new media world, at least for now.