The value of a blog

•April 1, 2010 • 1 Comment

Mike Licht on FlickrOver the past few years, we’ve been hearing more and more about “blogging”. It’s been hailed by some as giving a voice to the masses, and by others as… well… giving a voice to masses who really should never have had one to begin with.

Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur, compares bloggers to monkeys, who type out whatever they think with no consideration of what is readable, or should be read.

“Blogs have become so dizzingly infinite that they’ve undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can’t tell the difference between credible news by objective, professional journalists and what they read on joeshmoe.blogspot.com,” he claims.

He argues that in our information society, anyone can create anything and there are no checks and balances as to what is true, useful and reliable. Therefore, blogs are not only useless, but a threat to the credible, the academic, the journalistic. They are the product of the amateur – “a hobbyist, knowledgeable or otherwise, someone who does not make a living from his or her field of interest, a layperson, lacking credentials, a dabbler.”

But does one really need credentials in order to produce something useful and informative?

Origins

Blogging started to become popular, as far as the experts can tell, after September 11 2001. The new medium enabled ordinary people to play a role in creating news and reporting on events. It was the beginning of what has been dubbed the Third Great Media Revolution where, in the words of writer Dan Gillmor, “the first draft of history was being written, in part, by the former audience”. This `former audience’ provided information the American media either couldn’t (such as personal accounts) or wouldn’t (the media at the time were rallied around the American cause).

Usefulness

In many countries where the traditional press is under government control or corrupt, it is the blogger who stands up and tells the world what is really happening. And in times of great disaster, with media houses lying in shambles, it is bloggers who reach out of the rubble with critical information.

Take for example the recent Haitian earthquake. The news that reached us long before the media teams landed was from people like Carel Pedre who used micro-blogging site Twitter to post things like, “There are still a lot of students and teachers still alive under the debris of GOC University in Nazon. @RedCross.”

Disaster or political blogs are not the only ones that serve a purpose. There are also blogs that post reviews, commentary and even expert advice. Technorati’s top ten blogs include technology blog TechCrunch, political blog The Corner and entertainment blog The Gawker. All of these have thousands of readers daily, who rely on them for information.

Useful, but is it journalism?

Blogs may provide information but does this mean they are the same as journalism? After all, isn’t the aim of journalism to inform?

The key difference between a blogger and a journalist is that there is no editor, which can be a good thing. True, there is no one to control what a blogger can and cannot say, no one to choose what thoughts get priority. On the other hand, this means there is also no one to check for accuracy and impartiality.

If a popular blogger makes a statement that is incorrect, thousands could be mislead. An example is The Freedom Blog by “Shelly the Republican” who proudly tells her followers: “Ubuntu is only kept ‘free’ by the judicious use of cheap, South African labour, often using intimidation, threats, and even outright violence to keep workers in line, slavishly marching towards the Ubuntu Management team’s brutal deadlines.” Is she joking? Probably. Is there anyone telling her readers that? No.

Blogging also has no other kinds of editors, like subs, who will check facts to make sure a story is accurate before being sent to press. Blogging relies solely on self-moderation and reader comments to ensure the truth leaks through, and since these are controlled by the blogger… well, you can see where this could be a problem.

Both, not either

This is why it is unlikely that blogging is, or should be, a threat to journalism. However, that does not mean there is no place for it. Another difference between journalism and blogging is that journalists rely on the reputation of their media houses and people automatically trust them because of that good name. Bloggers, on the other hand, have to work hard to build a good reputation from scratch. So, chances are, popular blogs are popular for a reason.

In response to Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur, writer, lawyer and academic Laurence Lessig says: “What Keen misses is the value to a culture that comes from developing the capacity to create – independent of the quality created. That doesn’t mean we should not criticize works created badly. But it does mean you’re missing the point if you simply compare the average blog to the NY Times.”

Originally posted here.

“Bring the Amberlamps!”: What does the video really say?

•February 19, 2010 • 2 Comments

Occasionally the Internet spews out something that takes on like wildfire and within days is seen everywhere. The most recent of these is a video of a confrontation on a bus:

A white bearded man misunderstands something a younger black man says and they get into an argument. The black man threatens the white man, the white man unceremoniously beats him up and storms off the bus, leaving the black man with a nosebleed and calling for an “amberlamps” (due to his nose being blocked with blood that is how he pronounces “ambulance”). The other people on the bus either egg him on, laugh at him or – like the girl sitting next to him – ignore him completely.

Something about this situation made it a meme. But what part exactly?

Many passed it on, laughing at the fact that a trouble-stirrer got what he asked for. Some marvelled at the irony of the “reversal of roles” where a young black gangster-like figure gets his ass handed to him by a elderly man.

I put “reversal of roles” in inverted commas because the other aspect, the more disturbing one, is that this isn’t really a reversal of roles, is it?

Roles

“More proof of the white man keeping brothers down. Literally in this case.” was a comment left on forum FAZED by user jhumbug.

It stands in stark contrast to the comments on YouTube like that of  dukenukembunz69 who says, “Nigga got split by an old ass white guy with balls and all the black fucks are sayin its the white guys fault. NEVER EVER FUCKIN LEARN and when shit hits the fan white people and asians arn’t gonna take shit no more.”

Many of the comments passed along with this video show exuberance, not at irony or a sense of justice, but at the fact that a white man beat a black man.

Knowing nothing about the two people involved, the white man was characterised as a Vietnam veteran who knew how to defend himself – an image of honour, a hard life and willingness to work hard at what he does. The black man was characterised as a gangster. Some comments went so far as to say that it was “karma” getting back at the man for all the trouble he’d caused.

These assumptions are what makes  a video such as this dangerous and shocking. There is no evidence that the black man was not a hard-working young man who had pulled himself to where he was by toil and strife only to (mistakenly) hear a old white guy ask how much it would cost for him to shine his shoes. There is no evidence that he is not a usually mild-tempered guy who decided to stand up for his rights. But the comments do not allow for this possibility:

“Yeah but we got jobs and don’t mind working for our stuff. Can’t say that for many niggers though. After all, the best way t starve a nigger to death is to hide their food stamps under their work boots.” – URTARDS, Youtube

Other characters

This video features characters besides the protagonist and villain.

There is the woman sitting ignoring the violence. Her lack of interest in the situation has served to make her an object of fascination – where “object” is the word. The Internet has christened her “Amber Lamps”, the “hot chick”.  She shows none of her personality in the video and this seems to make her less-than-human outside it. The meme has many spin-offs directed towards her – the hot woman, the object.

There is also the black woman who films the scene and says to the black man, “we can sue him, I got it on video”. Comments point out that her and her friend are eating Fritos while watching the action and they take the old man’s shopping once he has left the bus. They are used to epitomise the image of lazy, thieving black people – the black people who go ” ‘sho good eatin!” (referenced in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks).

Lastly there is the older black woman, the one who sits out of the action but eggs on the black man. She plays the role of the modern stereotype: the African American liberal who cries for civil liberties but does not take part in claiming them.

Real danger

Aside from this video’s popularity re-enforcing stereotypes, it can also cause real danger. Some viewers have put together what they call a “movement”. They have managed to get hold of the name and address of the woman who filmed the video and say their mission “was/is to get the man with the epic beard his bag back and ruin this woman’s life.”

Once again the Internet has managed to produce something, passed along because of humour, that can cause real damage to real people and enforces stereotypical views. And most are all-too-willing to accept it. Why? Because it’s funny!

The price of privacy

•January 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Register has an amusing account of a TechCrunch interview with Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg, claiming that he is a prophet.

Surprisingly,  Zuckerberg is not referring to foreseeing the rise of social networking, but rather the lapse of concern over privacy.

Zuckerberg said that he saw the coming of an age where people would want to share everything, and he aimed his business at that market.

“That social norm is something that evolved over time and we followed.”

But is it really a social norm? Or is it something that people are beginning to accept because the companies driving social networking have finally found a way to make money?

Social networking sink-hole

John Norton of The Guardian posted an interesting article last month about how social networking can not make money.

“The truth is that investing in social networking represents the triumph of hope over experience. The optimism comes from a feeling that it’s impossible to gather, say, 350 million people in one place and not somehow make money.” he says.

The number is not random. It is in fact the user count of Facebook as of last week – a population greater than that of America. And yet Facebook is still running at a loss. Twitter, according to Norton, has not made a cent.

These networks can not charge membership – for then people will just not sign-up. Advertising, which has worked so well for Google, does not work so well in other cases – with click-through dropping as low as 8% according to Norton.

Is investing in social media, therefore a waste of time?

Fun and games

by Steve Wampler on FlickrFacebook has come under fire recently for its privacy policy updates that, by default, share your information with everyone, including Google.

According to PrivCom.gc.ca, social networking is part of a revolution in marketing. It allows companies to openly harvest personal information about people and target products directly at them.

Dennis Yu, CEO of advertising/marketing firm BlitzLocal, came clean to TechCrunch recently, in an article about just that.

“People on Facebook won’t pay for anything. They don’t have credit cards, they don’t want credit cards, and they are not interested in shopping. But you can trick them”

He explained how applications developed for Facebook can go viral, and users are all too willing to give over their personal information. This data includes who they are, where they’re from, what they like and most importantly email and phone numbers, which can be sold to advertisers.

A number of court cases, including the recent class action suit against Zynga and Facebook, are attempting to defend users against such scams, but how much good will the suits do if people are so willing to give away their personal information?

The information age

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’re in an age now where people want to get to know each other online, and this requires sharing of information. On that much  Zuckerberg and I agree. However, Zuckerberg implies that a willingness to share automatically means people are no longer concerned about privacy.

The dawn of social networking brought about the creation of a new ecosystem, where in order for the environment (the sites) to survive, the sharks (the scammers) have to survive too. The people who frequent these social networks may not be aware of the danger, they my make silly mistakes like offering a limb to a great white (Farmville springs to mind), but this doesn’t mean that they no longer care if they’re eaten.

When it comes to privacy I believe there’s a very fine line. People may be more willing to share what their favourite food is, but that doesn’t mean that they want to be harassed in their own homes by telesales people trying to sell it to them.

Beautiful People – the model model

•January 5, 2010 • 1 Comment

There was a time when we believed you could be anything you wanted to be online. That was the age of Second Life, of avatars and chat rooms… the age where you could don a persona and interact with people using it, and then shrug it off when you were done.

But the web is ruled by people, who have human desires. Soon it was no longer enough to have an imaginary interaction based on an imaginary self. We wanted something genuine, something real. We wanted people to love us for who we really were. So we turned to sites like MySpace and Facebook where we could post our real lives for others to consume and enjoy.

One such site, with a unique business model, is BeautifulPeople.com, which has apparently been around since 2002. BeautifulPeople made news headlines today when they reportedly removed 5 000 members because they put on weight over Christmas. The site justified the actions thus:

“As a business, we mourn the loss of any member, but the fact remains that our members demand the high standard of beauty be upheld. Letting fatties roam the site is a direct threat to our business model and the very concept for which BeautifulPeople.com was founded.” – Site co-founder Robert Hintze.

In an effort to be genuine and real, the people in question posted pictures of themselves – and this got them booted off the site. I blogged about cyber relationships a few months ago, and I asked,

“Can dating sites be considered just another part of the Internet shopping phenomenon?”

BeautifulPeople.com is a clear example of where the answer is “yes.”

The Model

BeautifulPeople.com is a business. Founder, Robert Hintze is very clear on that point with his clear adaptation of the classic, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’ statement. And as a business concept, BeautifulPeople.com works because it appeals to human nature:

  • The desire to be elite
  • According to The Register, “Since Brits were first allowed to apply for membership back in 2005, 295,000 have made their pitch, but a mere 12 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women have come up to scratch.”

  • The desire to be accepted
  • The rating system is merely a materialisation of what people have been doing to each other in social groups for years. Are they good enough to be one of us? Yes/No/Maybe.

  • The desire for beauty
  • Not only to be beautiful, for this is to do with acceptance. But the desire to date, to love, to have something beautiful.

And so, by making it so difficult to join, Hintze and co-founder Greg Hodge create the desire to join. After all, you always want what you can’t have.

And this move, kicking people who are no longer elite enough off the site, only adds to that. This move is so large and controversial – calling people “fatties” outright, the sheer number of them removed – that it was bound to make waves. Don’t think for a second that it wasn’t planned, that Hintze, Hodge and their marketing guys didn’t want people to go up in arms about it.

Just as the site goes international, the name goes out there on the news… BeautifulPeople.com’s server is already down with all of the hits.

It’s a solid model. Love it or hate it, as a business idea it’s pretty well thought-out.

But will it work?

Are people really that stupid? Or has BeautifulPeople shot itself in the foot but exposing, out in the open, their nasty side? Will people want to be part of a site that is so openly shallow?

My bet is on human nature to win this one. It’s the rule of group acceptance. No one cares if the Out Group is made fun of as long as they, themselves, are in the In Group. I expect that BeautifulPeople.com’s membership will climb exponentially over the next few weeks. Eventually it may even rival some of the better known dating sites despite its strict membership criteria.

But we will see. Perhaps I will be proved wrong.

Cyber me, baby

•August 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

imaginary-girlfriendsSurfing the Internet, you may stumble upon a site called Imaginary Girlfriends.com. It offers a unique service: the provision of girlfriends who are not real. These girlfriends will send gifts, chat online and exchange emails and photographs. To all appearances – and in the eyes of friends and family – they will be long distance girlfriends. In reality they are the virtual version of an escort service.

“The girls are real. The relationship is not,” boasts the site, “With an Imaginary Girlfriend, you can carry on a completely fictitious, yet authentic looking relationship with the girl of your choice.”

The idea may seem ridiculous but what it does is simply take the concept of virtual relationship to the extreme.

Hundreds maybe thousands of dating sites exist, tapping into not only the loneliness of nerds and geeks who live on the Internet, but also the desire of ordinary people of all ages to find that someone special.

When the first of these sites emerged they were seen as a last ditch solution – who wanted to meet a strange person over the Internet (who may turn out to be a weirdo/psycho/stalker) when they stood a chance to meet someone in the real world? Now it seems the answer to that question is “almost everybody”.

Sites like Match.com and Plenty of Fish are in the top 500 sites in the world according to Alexa. Social networking sites with dating and matchmaking functionality fall into the top 100. This explosion of popularity is not completely unexpected, and there are quite a few reasons a virtual relationship is not necessarily second best.

Universalisation

We constantly hear talk of how the world is a “global village”. In recent years it has become so much easier to communicate across great distances. Additionally, the people in the places we communicate with have likely been exposed to the same media, eat at the same take-out places and have similar experiences of life based around global social ideas (what globalisation expert Harvey refers to as “universalisation”) . It is no longer scary or exotic to contemplate dating someone on the other side  of the planet.

Long distance relationships have always existed, but in the digital age they are much easier to maintain

Long distance relationships have always existed, but in the digital age they are much easier to maintain

Intimacy at a distance

What Giddens, another globalisation expert, points out is that “in today’s world, social relations and interaction are not dependent upon simultaneous physical ‘presence’ within a specific location.”

He calls this “time-space distanciation”. One has the ability to form a relationship with someone in a place so distant that neither of you are ever awake at the same time. Not only does modern technology enable such a relationship but such relationships are appealing because they can be slotted into one’s daily life. Virtual partners can be there when you want them to be, and disappear when you have other concerns.

Thompson, writing on media and modernity, refers to such relationships as mediated quasi-interaction, “They are regular and dependable companions who can provide entertainment, offer advice, recount events in distant locales, serve as a topic of conversation and so on – all in a way that avoids the reciprocal demands and complexities that are characteristic of relationships sustained through face-to-face interaction”.

Perfection

Another point made by Thompson is that virtual partners are malleable. The physical distance helps one shape the person according to your own wishes, feelings and desires. In actual fact is this so different from ordering a virtual girlfriend online?

How real is virtual?

Can dating sites be considered just another part of the Internet shopping phenomenon? After all, most dating sites charge a membership fee before you are free to browse around for potential partners. Or are they the solution to the fast-paced and somewhat dangerous modern world where meeting people becomes a challenge many of us don’t have time for?

Dear public at large

•August 18, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Last week I spoke about the trade-off we make nowadays when it comes to our privacy. I would like to return to that subject now, although approaching it from a very different angle.

The old-fashioned diaryIn the days before computers, before the Internet, before Facebook… we had these things called diaries (or journals if you’re in the US) where one recorded one’s most intimate thoughts and opinions. Often these diaries came with a lock and key, to keep intruders out. The diary was the very epitome of privacy, to invade that was a crime almost worthy of capital punishment.

Now, not only do diaries not have locks and keys… but they’re open for comments. Hundreds of sites exist online where one can start a diary-like blog (such as Livejournal and OpenDiary). Users write entries and their friends (and sometimes complete strangers) can read and respond to them.  Instead of writing “dear diary”, users are instead addressing their most intimate thoughts to the world at large, seemingly unaware of the direct clash this causes between what is private and what is public… a crash so loud you can hear the clanging right though cyber space.

One such resounding clang is an incident I was witness to recently. A friend of mine, “Stacey”,  hooked up with an ex-boyfriend. Another friend, “John”, having access to her livejournal where she reported this, became concerned. He happened to talk about this concern with a third party. When Stacey found out all hell broke loose. She couldn’t believe that her “trust had been violated” and what was said in the sacred sanctity of her Livejournal had been spread into real life. But what sacred sanctity is it really when it is published out there before the eyes of 43 people she calls friends?

The term “friend” is used often online to refer to those we know, want to know or have met a few times in real life. It is hardly the intimate circle one would have thought it was years ago. It is hardly a group of people we would necessarily let into our homes, into our private lives.  And yet we tell them everything. From our deepest, darkest secrets to our hopes, dreams and aspirations.

According to Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora such public diaries are “eroding our notions of private identity”.

“Telling secrets can be therapeutic,” she says, “but when confession targets the masses, what’s really being processed, and who benefits from the disclosure?”

She quotes Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner’s explanation of why we’re so willing to disclose our secrets online, “When you’re alone in a room and typing on a computer, it’s easy to forget there’s somebody on the other end of the line and become oblivious to the consequences of sharing information”.

shakespeare a blogger?Shakespeare said that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. Never has this been more true than in blogosphere where one wants to  be interesting, wants to have a narrative, wants to be a main character. And this means sharing of oneself, often more than one would be comfortable with face-to-face. It also means getting involved in the narrative beyond fear of consequence.

John B Thompson in his book The Media and Modernity (1995: 210) explains,  “We are all unofficial biographers of ourselves, for it is only by constructing a story, however loosely strung together, that we are able to form a sense of who we are and of what our future may be.”

In the digital age, we have the ability to make these stories public, we have the ability to have others help us co-construct them (through comments and interaction). And in exchange for that ability… we are seemingly willing to risk the story falling into the wrong hands. A small price to pay?

Big Brother is watching

•August 14, 2009 • 3 Comments

They know you take it with you wherever you go, that you won’t step outside the house without it, that if anything happened to it you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. That may be why they use it to spy on you.

It sounds like the beginnings of a science fiction movie trailer. Only, in this case there’s nothing fiction about it.

big_brotherMobile application developer Joey Hess discovered on Wednesday that the Palm Pre – one of the most popular smartphones – sends data back to Palm. Not surprising in and of itself, but the data in question happens to be your location and your application usage… and it sends this without your permission.

This discovery had  neck hairs around the globe on end. What business did a company have tracking you like a stolen vehicle?

“I’m shocked that GPS location info is apparently being sent to Palm on a daily basis,” Hess told The Register. “It seems both unnecessary and a large privacy risk.”

There was a similar reaction to South Africa’s new RICA policy that requires registration of all Sim Cards by 2011, “That’s an invasion of privacy!”

Most people aren’t tech geniuses like Hess, but they are still able to put two and two together and realise that cellphones can be tracked… and when registered to a specific person, that person’s whereabouts and activities are made public.

Or are they?

It depends how you define “public”. No doubt a few years ago we would have considered the kind of things we put up on Facebook preposterous… advertising to the world at large who we’re dating, where we were last night… I have friends who still can’t believe I keep a blog. But in the case of Facebook it’s a trade-off. We decide to share that data in the hopes of obtaining some form of social capital in return. Isn’t it a trade-off when it comes to cellular technology as well?

Palm’s statement was that it collected the data in order to offer better services to its customers, using their locations to offer them local services on Google Maps. With the data obtained through monitoring which applications one used and for how long, Palm would be able to adjust its applications functionality to create better products.

cellphonespy1You may have the image of cellular providers as the jealous x-girlfriend trying to figure out exactly what you’re doing with your time, or the evil overlord who wants to monitor his minions, but in actual fact privacy in this sense became a thing of the past long ago. Every time you use a credit or debit card, every time you make a phone call, every time you run a search on Google, information is gathered about you.

The fact of the matter is, unlike the girlfriend, overlord or your Facebook friends, the cellular provider doesn’t actually care what you personally are doing and when. The data collected is statistical, and it can be useful.

According to PrivacyRights.org, America has a “Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Enhanced 911 (E911) rule” that insists cellular providers track your location in order to provide emergency assistance. The site also mentions other ways such data collection could be useful for the user: Parents could track children’s location, employers could track their employees and you can use services such as Loopt and Google Latitude to keep track of friends. Is this all a violation of privacy?

You may point out that there is a difference. A very big difference. Something called “permission”. In all of the cases above permission has been granted. But then… in Palm’s case permission was also granted, with the signing of a privacy policy that stated:

“When you use location based services, we will collect, transmit, maintain, process, and use your location and usage data (including both real time geographic information and information that can be used to approximate location) in order to provide location based and related services, and to enhance your device experience. ” (courtesy of PCWorld).

We willingly sign these documents (sometimes without even reading them) because without signing them we cannot obtain our sparkly new top-of-the-range gadgets. It’s part of living in this technology-intoxicated world. It’s a trade-off.