Posts Tagged ‘futurcasting’

The Reputation of Shaming

March 7, 2010

Online shaming has its benefits.
It getting too bad a rap would harm all users.

Is the Internet destined to become a Tragedy of the Commons, where users’ compulsion to shame peers for objectionable behavior and the shamed’s defensive response — either shaming back or retreating from online discourse — destroys the Web’s sanctity as a vibrant public forum?

All stakeholders count on the Web to be an open, mostly civil place where users feel comfortable interacting. Even the shamers. Even the more disgraceful shamers are enforcing norms, even if politeness isn’t one of them. Like, from Daniel J. Solove’s “The Future of Reputation,” subway riders should clean up after their dog if it poops inside the train, diners should reward good service with a decent tip, lovers should be faithful to their significant others. If the shamers’ messages become too frequent, virulent or embellished, other users, whom they rely upon to enforce the norms they’re trying to protect, are going to start to tune out such communications, even actively avoid them. The Web will lose its power as a norms-enforcing vehicle.

One of my classmates made a similar point when discussing the perceived credibility of blogs, suggesting a decline in decorum sinks all ships.

“The more pure gossip we see popping up on the blogosphere, the less credible it becomes,” David Parsons wrote in a discussion board post. “This should come as a relief to anyone wanting to stay out of the Internet’s ‘public eye,’ as more gossip only discredits the value of blogs in general. … At some point, you have to trust in the user to make smart choices about what they are reading on the Web.”

Parsons’ argument could be broadened to describe the Web as a whole.

It’s one thing, then, to make smart choices when it comes to macro-communicators like blogs. They stay in one place and usually must establish a track record before gaining a readership. It’s another thing to make smart choices when it comes to micro-communicators like social network, message board, chat users and the like, some of whom we consider online “friends.”

Consider, for a second, your own circle of (real-world) friends. You gossip. Everyone does. Don’t worry, it can be healthy, Solove points out, by shaping individuals’ reputations without confrontation. When you gossip, you likely have some friends whose words you take more seriously than others. For some, it’s, “Well, she’ll say anything.” For others, it’s “Wow, she said that? It must be true.” You’re using their reputations to inform their judgments about other people’s reputations.

Because you’ve been able to personally observe the veracity of your friends’ comments over an extended amount of time, these shortcuts usually serve you well. Online, things are considerably murkier. Our relationships with online peers are more fleeting, people can hop from one Web community to another very quickly, and we often know little about them, assuming we know anything about them, including their identity. Often, even those we label online “friends” we know surprisingly little about. Moreover, identities can be easily falsified, either, as Solove mentions, by individuals themselves, or by others.

What can save the Internet’s, yes, constructive power as a norms-enforcing vehicle? Well, norms. In the near future, society will demand transparency. Those who don’t share their lives online will be looked down upon as outcasts, much like a hermit living in a cabin on the outskirts of town might be viewed today. Those who do participate but in an dishonest way will also be ostracized. Online peers may make Internet small talk with such users — much like people do with otherwise personable neighbors who clam up the second even basic biographical details are broached — but will shut them out from the real conversation.

I Believe in the New Media Revolution — Or Do I?

February 20, 2010

Nowadays, every company is a media company. Production and distribution tools are accessible for even the smallest organizations. Companies know that if they are not leveraging these tools to build relationships with potential partners and clients, their competitors will be. This is good news for me and my classmates as we enter the job market. Our degrees are in communications, but we can apply them in virtually any field.

I like that I have options. This safety net is one reason I enrolled. But it’s not the reason. I enrolled foremost so that I could stay in the field I love, journalism. I feel that strong, independent news media are essential to the civic health of communities and that new media can produce journalism as good as — if not better than — this country’s ever seen. To borrow one of the more successful — but still parodied — slogans of my native Baltimore, I BELIEVE. And I want others to BELIEVE. But maybe I shouldn’t. Not completely. Maybe I should embrace what media scholar Robert W. McChesney calls “healthy skepticism.”

For all the talk of the Internet as a great empowerer, as a great uniter, isn’t it equally as plausible, McChesney argues, that it will be a great marginalizer, a great isolater?

Um, sure. For all the people getting ahead with new technology there are people without access falling behind. For all the people using the Web to connect with the world around them there are people using it to shut the world out.

Good reasons for me to spit out the new media Kool-Aid. Not because technology’s leading us to some kind of hell on Earth instead of the heaven more commonly imagined. But because it’s leading us somewhere in between. And because the more heavenly people assure themselves tomorrow’s going to be the more hellish it’s going to become.

You see, it is not enough to merely believe. While a passive majority goes on believing the Internet is going to be great for the greater good an active minority will make it great for itself and bad for everybody else, all the while fanning the majority’s naivety.

True believers act on their beliefs. And routinely question them.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewbain/ | CC BY 2.0

What Happens to Our Online Lives After Death?

November 2, 2009

Death. Taxes. Button rollovers. There are few certainties. But those are three of them.

On Friday, I aimed for a fun blog post. Today’s Monday. As good a time as any for a morbid one. Despite its inevitability, death isn’t something online companies and users consider as fully as they should.

A reader recently wrote the blog The Consumerist complaining that she had been “asked twice this week to improve the Facebook existence of someone who passed away this summer, despite e-mailing them several times to alert them of this person’s untimely demise.”

The Consumerist notes that setting the deceased’s profile to memorial mode would prevent others from receiving such suggestions. But this option is available only to persons close to the deceased.

In other online spaces, the bereaved are fighting to access and preserve their loved ones’ online property, which, given how much of people’s lives play out online these days, can hold as much sentiment as material belongings.

An article in today’s New York Times detailed how Yahoo, citing terms of service privacy stipulations, prevented the family of a solider killed in Iraq from accessing his account.

The newspaper also interviewed a widow who lost the Second Life island she lived on with her husband — whom she met in the virtual world — after deciding she was unable to afford the maintenance fees.

As the line between people’s real world and online identities gets blurrier, it is the shared responsibility of users and companies to adopt procedures to avoid situations like these. Though no one likes to think about death, what happens to their online holdings after they pass is something users will have to confront. And as legally convenient as it is, it’s in poor taste for companies to hide behind their terms of service and deny the bereaved control of their loved ones’ spaces.

A technology law professor the Times quoted suggested users name a digital executor to receive their log-in information after they pass. But he cautioned that using this information without the service provider’s knowledge could be considered fraud. As the Times observes, this is a “murky legal realm.”

Go-Going Beyond Gadgets

October 9, 2009

On Wednesday, I told you to log off your computer and get outside and to use pen and paper whenever you can. So you don’t get the impression I’m anti-technology — come on, would I be studying interactive media if I were? — I figured I’d highlight some innovations my classmates flagged recently that have the potential to improve society in dramatic ways.

I’m not talking about gadgets here. I’m talking about products with substantive impact:

  • Energy from animal waste could be harnessed to power entire farms or provide electricity to soldiers on the battlefield.
  • Specialized multi-touch surfaces allow doctors to perform virtual autopsies, eliminating the need to disturb bodies, taboo in some cultures, and allowing examiners to better see things that are difficult to observe in traditional autopsies.
  • Smart airport screening devices that detect the biological harbingers of malicious behavior could simultaneously speed up security checkpoints and better protect against attacks.
  • Hospital devices could be controlled via tactile holograms, reducing the risk of infection spread.

Breaking Through the High-Tech Bubble

October 2, 2009

bubblesThe joke about charities is that their mission is to put themselves out of business. It can be said, then, that the mission of computer manufacturers is to make their product invisible.

As I mentioned last week, students in my program are required to deliver weekly micro-presentations on a technology or interactive media topic not yet covered in their studies. New products or prototypes are popular subjects. What makes many of these items captivating is the degree to which they push the computer to the background.

They mimic traditional platforms:

  • Flyp Media presents multimedia content in magazine-style Flash movies.
  • BumpTop seeks to make the computer desktop more like its real-life counterpart.
  • Google’s Fast Flip lets readers browse content more like they do in print.

Or they reduce or eliminate the presence of a tangible user interface:

  • The NeatDesk scanner automatically extracts data from business cards, receipts and other documents.
  • Argentina-based BCK’s wireless-enabled rings allow callers to start and end conversations using hand gestures.
  • MIT Media Lab’s Sixth Sense transforms any surface into a Web interface.

We have a saying here on campus about breaking through the Elon bubble. In an active, self-contained community like a university, it’s easy to become insulated from the larger outside world. One must constantly work to break through the bubble.

The technology community isn’t any different. Those who live and breathe on the cutting edge are liable to shut out traditional approaches. Developing products like those mentioned above, however, requires a healthy understanding of old media as well as new media, the real world as well as the virtual world.

Be cognizant of this bubble. And act to break through it.

Face to Face With the Future

September 25, 2009

Think of it as the nutritional shake of graduate learning. It’s dense. And it’s consumed quickly. Welcome to Face-to-Face Fridays.

To end each week in our foundational theory class, my 35 peers and I share 90-second presentations on topics not covered in our studies. The open-ended nature makes for a riveting, if somewhat disjointed, morning. Today, for example, we jumped from bionic lenses, to independent journalism, to interactive gaming, to poetry.

Futurcasting is a focal point of this course. This made me curious: In a parallel world years or decades ahead of ours, what might have our corresponding selves been talking about this morning?

Present: iPhone app FoodScanner — Train phone’s camera on UPC to call up nutrition information, track calorie consumption.
Future: Smart foods that change color or taste if they violate a consumer’s nutrition plan.

Present: Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health — Upload and organize personal medical records.
Future: A healthcare system that does this for us.

Present: Microsoft Courier tablet computer — Key features include dual screen and pen and finger multi-touch.
Future: Screenless computer that achieves the same functionality via tactile projection.

Present: Museum of Robots
Future: Museum of Humans

Present: Gowalla iPod app —Travel game rewards users for visiting ordinary and extraordinary places.
Future: Travel game rewards users for visiting ordinary and extraordinary times.

Present: Bing Visual Search
Future: Bing Telepathic Search

Present: USPS Virtual Box Simulator — Uses Web camera to help customer estimate whether an item will fit into flat-rate box.
Future: USPS Virtual Teleporter — Helps customer estimate whether item/being will fit into teleporter.

Present: Uber-customizable media player from Veeple and Big Gravity. Can embed documents.
Future: With now millions of superior presentation tools, PowerPoint, bewilderingly, remains widely used.

Present: Five rad virtual reality movies.
Future: Five rad virtual actors.

Present: Freeplaymusic.com — MP3 library free for nonprofit academic projects.
Future: LPs make an astounding comeback. Subliminal marketing campaign convinces world records really do sound better.

Present: Pentagon developing thought-controlled prosthetics.
Future: Stem-cell regenerated limbs.

Present: OnStar coordinates with police to slow down stolen vehicles.
Future: OnStar coordinates with police to slow down haywire autopiloted vehicles.

Present: Netflix awards developers $1 million for improving recommendation algorithm.
Future: Users pay Netflix several million dollars to weaken algorithm. It gets too intuitive for comfort.

What You Should Know About SEO

September 18, 2009

Search engine optimization is an entire industry onto itself. Organizations with large online footprints that can afford to hire experts usually do. For this reason, SEO can seem intimidating. But, for casual bloggers who just want to feel a little more popular or useful by allowing more searchers to stumble upon their content, it needn’t be.

Here are five SEO tips you can start applying today that require minimal extra effort:

  1. Include four to five keywords in your home page’s title tag. Be authentic. The keywords should accurately reflect what’s on the site. The site for my hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, has well-written title tag keywords: “breaking news, sports, weather and traffic in Baltimore.”
  2. Post often. Also vary the length and frequency of your posts. This helps convince search engines your site is being written by a human and not a robot.
  3. Always, always include alt text for images and media. This creates more copy that may potentially match search terms. (It’s also an accessibility commandment.)
  4. Link to high quality content (.edu and .gov sites are especially good). Engines love connections and hate dead ends. Look for places where the copy naturally lends itself to a hyperlink but don’t link just for the sake of linking.
  5. What you shouldn’t do is as important as what you should do. Don’t try to game the system through keyword stuffing or invisible links. Search engines penalize for these and, if they get wind of them, so will readers. Protect your ranking. Protect you brand. Stick to white hat techniques.

There’s a whole SEO universe beyond this, of course, and that universe is constantly changing. Here’s a look at what the future may hold:

  • Greater attention will be paid to optimizing for clearinghouses other than search engines. Restaurants, for example, would be wise to pay attention to Urban Spoon. Airlines, Kayak. Social networking sites will also demand greater attention.
  • As mobile devices proliferate, ensuring pages come up in locational searches will become increasingly important.
  • Optimizing for multiple languages is an important aspect of SEO in Europe. As the world continues to get smaller, this will become more common in relatively linguistically homogenous regions like North America.

Kids These Days: A Window to Tomorrow

September 7, 2009

computerchildForecasting the future conjures up images of peering into a crystal ball. Or, perhaps, Conan O’Brien’s “In the Year 3000” sketches. And sometimes carefully considered research isn’t any more reliable. Indeed, from time to time, the innovators themselves get it comically wrong. Western Union’s president said the “telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Thomas Edison said “the phonograph has no commercial value at all.”

As bright minds squint to try to bring the future into focus, they often overlook that the future, in a way, is just down the street. The attitudes that will shape that mysterious future are on display every day at the neighborhood elementary school.

A classmate of mine recently joked that today’s children are born knowing how to use a computer. They nearly are. Early this decade, more than two-thirds of preschoolers were using computers, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report. The proportion is likely even greater now.

A fifth-grader I mentored last school year already had his own e-mail address and YouTube account. So did many of his classmates. Technologically, his generation is light years ahead of where mine was at that age. And that’s what tends to get the attention. “Kids and their gadgets these days,” one adult might remark to another. 

Less appreciated, however, is the communication literacy this engenders. From the earliest age, children are consumers — and, increasingly, creators — of media. They do not know the definition of online communities theory or uses and gratifications theory, but they are applying each. By the time they reach high school, they have a more sophisticated relationship with media than adults probably give them credit for.

A few of my peers, one of whom is studying the use of interactive gaming as a learning tool, will meet some of these young minds over the course of their research. Anyone interested in the future, however, owes it to himself to visit a classroom. Today’s students can be great teachers.