Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Four Stone Hearth 87: Cabin Fever Edition

Brrr. Spring is still a ways off. I don't know what the weather has been like in your corner of the world, but it's been snowy and rainy for far too long in New York. Sure, these types of days are perfect for cuddling under a blanket with a loved one or a good book ... but eventually cabin fever sets in—a person eventually runs out of reading material and good wine; the cats' antics are amusing for only so long; and subsisting on pantry staples gets old really quickly. (When you get down to spam, you might be in serious trouble.) Sure, it might be a good chance to get some work done, but as Jack Torrence discovered, all work and no play can make you a dull person. So gather quickly around the hearth and let's stave off cabin fever together with a visit to the Anthro Blog Carnival. [Jack Torrence, The Shining (1980). © Warner Brothers.]

A common theme in many cabin fever movies is paranoia. Let me be the first to assure you that the walls are not actually closing in on you. But if the sensation persists, close your eyes and pretend that you're a sentinel in the tronera at El Morro, a military fort of great importance in Puerto Rican history. Personally, I'm not too big of a fan of tight places, but Bonn of Time Travelling has given me good reason to climb into the tronera, which is essentially a vertical hole carved into the fort's walls. (And you thought being trapped at home was difficult!) While investigating this space, Bonn found some interesting etchings that will transport to you to the time of conquistadores and pirates (fittingly, given the name of his blog)—which may be just what you need to hold the doldrums at bay.

Another common element is hallucinations—both visual and auditory. Are you hearing the word "REDRUM" whispered as you pace the floor?  If that's indeed the case, you may want to wander over to Afarensis where you'll find that sometimes blood thirsty reputations are more color than substance: New evidence suggests that the Carthaginians weren't quite as into sacrifices as once believed. With the understanding that careful analysis often reveals hidden truths, I encourage you to banish the whispering, cajoling voice by reading Relics Fail where Julien from A Very Remote Period Indeed discusses belief and relics, with a fabulous case involving St. Bridget to illustrate his point. Both of these posts emphasize the way science can be utilized to dispel false or misguided beliefs.

[The Shining, © Warner Bros.]

Now that we've gotten your phantoms under control, it's important to find some sort of distraction. What's that over in the corner? A book you've missed? Surely you've read everything on your shelves—twice—in an effort to keep cabin fever at bay. What's the title? Vampire Forensics? Well, grab it and hustle back on over to the hearth. Give it a shot. You might find it entertaining, though Martin's Aardvarchaeology review notes you shouldn't expect too much. (Then again, desperate times call for digging deep in the reading barrel.)

If you're fortunate to still have power, be social! Lately, my entries at Anthropology in Practice have focused on questions of digital sociality and digital personas. The newest entry into the social networking/social media milieu is Google Buzz, which I think has immense potential despite its poor reception. After you're done checking Facebook (New Photo Album: Trapped in House, Day 4! "Like"?) and updating Twitter (Stuck in house. SO #bored. When will snow/rain stop???), come on by and discuss the social aspect of social networking. While you've got the digital connection working, Colleen of Middle Savagery asks that you use another Google app—Google Wave—to let her know if you're currently involved in single context archaeology projects.

Whew. I think we made it. The fire is dying down, and from what I can see the rain has melted most of the snow. Time to make a break for it! Until the next Carnival, cheers!

(FYI: The hosting slot for Four Stone Hearth is March 10, and it's currently open! Drop Martin a line if you're interested in hosting duties. As he often says, no need to be a pro.) 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Want International Respect? Unwrap a Mummy

"I want this work to be perfect so the world will respect us."
- Zahi Hawass, Egyptologist and Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (Unwrapping King Tut)
I took a break from the Olympics to tune into the Discovery Channel special concerning the work Dr. Zahi Hawass and his team have been doing with Tutankhamun's mummy. Researchers have determined that Tutankhamun's death was likely due to malaria and a degenerative bone disorder. Using DNA testing, hieroglyphs, and artifacts, Hawass and his team set out to fill in the missing chapters of the boy king's life. The documentary proved to be more a testament to Hawass' authority more than anything else, showing us how media can be mobilized to establish ownership and authenticity. [Right: Tutankhamun's funeral mask. Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.]

Throughout the program, Hawass demonstrates extraordinary care and thoroughness that surely even non-archaeologists can appreciate. His persona is pensive, analytical, and deeply immersed in the world of Egyptian antiquities. Though he's a rather controversial character, with every carefully crafted scene that made it past post-production, he demonstrates that Egypt is more than ready to take control of her antiquities and manage her past. The leading quotation for this post represents this sentiment beautifully. Hawass has commanded the attention of the international community, and he will not sit idly and let this opportunity pass.

Discovered in 1922, Tutankhamun's tomb was an amazing archaeological find. The pharaoh was surrounded by riches that revealed much about ancient Egypt, but little evidence has been found regarding his family. Hawass and his team painstakingly assess archaeological and genetic evidence to determine likely candidates for Tutankhamun's relatives from a a number of unidentified mummies. Hawass is shown hustling through the desert to the old tombs, he pours over cartouches for clues about King Tut's family—he's a hands-on guy, still very much involved in the day-to-day of managing Egypt's cultural resources. He has to do it all because he previously rejected requests for DNA testing from other research groups. Why? Tutankhamun's mummy is fragile, having been broken and pieced together by the archaeologists who found him (as Hawass makes it a point to note). In Tut, as Hawass leans over him ever so reverently, the question of who is best suited to care for Egypt's history is most poignant. It wasn't Egypt that damaged Tutankhamun. Hawass, as the representative for Egyptian antiquities, makes it clear that he takes responsibility for the welfare and status of the mummies. [Left: The mummified feet of Tutankhamun. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP.]

Most of the first installment of the documentary dealt with establishing Hawass as an authority capable of managing cultural resources. It was a bit dry, and seemed a bit like a video job application. I nearly didn't tune in for the second installment, which was more of the same except that it featured two additional experts who enthusiastically supported Hawass' findings. The documentary adds to the publicity surrounding Hawass and his work, and while the man can appear contentious, I do admire his single-minded resolve to reclaim his national heritage. He's on Twitter and Facebook, and he's utilizing all available channels to get his message out. What are your thoughts about how academics can utilize social media to make research more accessible to the public? By employing popular social media applications, Hawass has been able to tap into an entirely new "fan" base—he's speaking to any and all Egyptian enthusiasts and done away with the hierarchy that knowledge management sometimes imposes. [Right: The mummified face of Tutankhamun. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP.]

Not all academics have the ability (or budget) or need to utilize these methods of self-marketing, but it might be useful in connecting their research to a larger audience—and popularity could potentially translate into funding. Is there something to be learned from Hawass' methods? As for the documentary, it was interesting, but I wouldn't sit through it again. It will give you a nice overview of some of the challenges researchers encounter when working with DNA material from ancient sources, but it was clearly edited for a specific purpose.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Four Stone Hearth 87: Call for Submissions

I'll be hosting the 87th edition of the Anthro Blog Carnival right here on Anthropology in Practice on Wednesday, 2/24. You can email me your submissions—or any interesting anthro or archaeological posts you've come across in your web travels. 


Keeping Social Networking Social

On this blog I've occasionally lamented the ways social and portable media can be perceived as reducing our social skills. Google may have given me reason to reconsider these arguments. A few weeks ago Google launched Buzz, a new social media outlet that encouraged sharing between users. The public response was not overwhelmingly positive as many users expressed concerns over privacy, the auto-generated contact list, and the auto-sharing feature that allowed Buzz to link to other Google applications, such as Picasa and Google Reader. Google moved swiftly to address concerns, and rein in the negative press: They turned off the auto-generated contact list and overall put more control over the utilization of the app can be utilizedback into the user's hands.

I've been thinking about the responses to Buzz a great deal. I admit that at first I found it surprising that in an age so oriented on digital connections and over-sharing that there would be such a loud public response to the perceived flaws in Buzz. But what this outcry has revealed is that the digital social scene is still very much connected to our offline lives. One of the primary concerns regarding Buzz was that the auto-generated contact list would reveal email addresses. This is certainly a valid concern, but the issued at the heart of the matter, I think, is that Google presumed to think that users would want to be connected to a particular set of people based on an algorithm they created. This is the point that I think has pushed most people's buttons. Yes, the public has demanded greater privacy features, but it has also demanded the reinstatement of the social in the social media app. 

Technology constantly drives us toward greater efficiency—it's all about maximum use: maximizing connections, maximizing sharing opportunities, maximizing the strength of networking capabilities, etc. New features are introduced to upgrade our digital media experience— though as perhaps Facebook could testify, you really can't please all the people all the time—but what seems to remain constant is the desire to keep digital social networking as social and personal as possible. This means that users aren't looking for a "plug and play" social network. An algorithm isn't going to create the perfect network for individual users. (Yet?) Networking satisfaction and success comes from the individual tweaks users make. That is, the features they enable, the lists they create, and their overall interaction with the application creates a unique experience for the user. This is what enables social networks to transition into the digital realm. The public response has therefore been for me a sign that people are still engaged in creating and managing their networks, and it's as a positive indicator for the future of digital social networks. There was never any question that they were here to stay and that sociality would have to evolve to allow users to navigate them successfully. But I think that the changes to sociality will follow in quick succession from this point. Users have recognized the importance of control, and they are asking for it. 

Google's Buzz isn't dead. On the contrary, I think that it has potential to be a powerful social media outlet—it could very well be one of the first to be adapted to user customization, and not the whims of the developer. Has anyone explored Buzz further? What do you think? Have the tweaks made it feel friendlier?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Commuter, Interrupted

It happened! The pattern was broken yesterday! And it made for an uncomfortable experience. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a commuting "buddy" I had found. For a number of consecutive weeks, the two of us arranged our seats in the same pattern. I proposed that our behavior helped create personalized spaces for each of us as it helped define a recognizable boundary in the public sphere. Yesterday, an interloper took my buddy's seat.

I boarded the LIRR train at my usual time, and took my "regular" seat. While I was settling in, an unknown woman took the seat in front of me, which is where my buddy normally positions himself. I think he was definitely surprised because he actually made eye contact with me when he came up the aisle and found that someone else had already grabbed "his" seat. His eyes widened slightly as he processed the situation—the seat behind me would have likely been his second choice based on my observations regarding our preferred seating patterns, but that was also already occupied. So he claimed a three-seater row for himself, taking the window seat. And he was not comfortable, especially after another commuter took the aisle seat in the row. He shuffled and fidgeted a great deal, and didn't seem to know what to do with his bag. [Right: The woman who broke the pattern.]

Now, of course, these seats aren't "ours." There's no reserved seating on public transportation. (Though, perhaps there should be? Would you pay more for a seat?) But my commuting buddy's behavior confirms for me the attachment we develop to particular places and arrangements and the difficulty we have adjusting to these types of changes. The woman who broke the pattern (sounds a bit like a title for a film noir, no?) sat in front of me again today, but my regular commuting buddy was nowhere to be found. I wonder if he went in search of a new seat or if he'll be back on Monday. 

It may seem silly, but these are the ways we make a place for ourselves in the world. I know you have them, so share below the places where you have a favorite seat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Snowy Surroundings

It feels as though New York City is trapped in a snow globe. And the monstrous owner of said globe keeps shaking the darned thing just to say, "Oohhhh, look at the snow!" (Yes, I'm tired of the cold and snow in case you were wondering. Isn't it time for baseball yet?) When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, right? How about when life keeps dumping snow on you? Well you make snow art! Or simply take a moment to enjoy the sense of tranquility the white coating brings. Here are some photos depicting snow art—both natural and manufactured:

Snow Cat, Union Square (2/10/10) [Credit: Wendy Caster]

Gandhi in the Snow, Union Square (2/10/10) [Credit: Wendy Caster]

Hope it's warmer wherever you are!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Digital Reflections in Everyday Life

Two items in the news have caught my attention recently:
  • First, Fisher Price has announced a computer for the Sesame Street viewer: The iXL opens like a book, has fat, colorful icons on the right side and buttons and a speaker on the other side, and—wait for it—it has a touch screen! The apps available for the device so far include Story Book, Game Player, Note Book, Art Studio, Music Player and Photo Album software. It's being touted as an iPad for preschoolers. 
  • Second, Barbie's next career path will be as a computer engineer. Indeed, Computer Engineer Barbie carries a hot pink lap top and sports matching hot pink glasses. Her other accessories include a Bluetooth headset and a smart phone. Barbie has entered the digital age.
This is the age we live in, and honestly, it's not so surprising that we're prepping kids at an ever younger age to live digitally. The comments were particularly interesting though [note: to view the full comment, click on the link]:
- My two-year-old wants to know if [the iXL] has WiFi and a browser with video codes so she can watch YouTube. And maybe a video camera so she can Skype with her grandparents. If so, she's sold. If not, she's going to continue to beg for my phone.

- Kids out grow clothing fast. They outgrow technology faster. This is a toy that the parent desires not the child. The kid would on short order want their own ipod, cell phone, desktop computer, laptop computer, and iPhone before they graduate elementary school!
Barbie got her share of comments too:
- This job would have been cutting edge 20 years ago. Now, she's doomed. Why wasn't social media expert one of the choices?

- I'm for anything that'll open up options for girls. Plenty of females would probably prefer a work environment that has more interaction between people. But of course there are young women who would enjoy a work environment where 1) results are easily measured by actual results (your software works!) and 2) where the work is very well paid. I know women computer engineers who became millionaires before they hit the age of 40. How many careers can boast these advantages?

- Will we ever get past the sexism of pink?
Do these products realistically have a place with the younger market? Can they honestly expect to engage the interests of a group that is probably more comfortable with their parents' smart phones than the parents themselves? Regardless of their success, these types of products do serve as a reminder of the age we live in. Barbie in particular, has taken us through the ages as a babysitter, cheerleader, fashion model, paleontologist, army ranger, NASCAR driver (10 years before Danica Patrick took to the track, FYI), presidential candidate, and last but not least, an American Idol winner. Gradually, she has helped broaden the career dreams of little girls who may look to her as a role model, even while coming under fire for a too tiny waist and too large bust. But she also reflects a particular aspect of life—our infatuation with reality game shows/competitions, for example. [Above: Computer Engineer Barbie © Mattel.]

These items may wind up in the toy bin after a few uses, but they're also indicators of the mainstream. What examples of technology being marketed to younger users have you encountered recently?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Buzz—Social Networking We're Not Ready For?

The web is abuzz—and your in-box may be too—with news and reactions relating to Google's newest entrance to the social networking world, Google Buzz. Are we ready for the buzz? I don't think I am. And it doesn't seem as though I'm alone. Still, I had to check it out. So I activated my profile, declined to upload a photo, and made a post. Almost immediately, I "earned" 4 followers. But they weren't people I regularly emailed (that particular group was oddly silent on Buzz), and I'm not sure that they're folks I would want to share the banter that Buzz seems set up to encourage. Digging deeper, I found that Buzz had taken it upon itself to share my Picasa album as well as my Google Reader. My Picasa album is strictly for this blog—nothing sensitive housed there, nothing to hide—but I would have liked to have been asked. If I had been asked, perhaps I wouldn't have removed the links. Think about that, Google. And my Reader is just that. It's my Reader. Do others really want access to my Reader? Really?

I think that Buzz has potential. And this isn't an "I'm uncomfortable with technology" response, but I think the users could have been better prepped for this release. One post turned my in-box into a very noisy place. Google Chat has served me faithfully all these years, allowing me to reach out quickly to people I like from different platforms, to check in and keep working. Yes, there are filters to be applied to Buzz, but it didn't seem intuitive. Does Google perhaps think that we want to be connected all the time? Buzz's design suggests this, and indeed this is the message we've sent via other social networking platforms by friending hundreds of people on Facebook and acquiring massive numbers of followers on Twitter. We connect to these applications on our cell phones while waiting in line for lunch to comment on what we're planning to eat or to pass along some remark we've overheard (if we're actually listening). But we're only just starting to understand rules concerning digital etiquette. When is it appropriate to join a conversation? Are geo tags open invitations? Buzz has the potential to usher us into the next age of digital social connectivity, but we need to confront these issues first. We need to get comfortable setting digital parameters. If nothing else, for those who haven't just been blindly "buzzing," Google could help our awareness concerning our digital persona—for example, do you want to share your Picasa album?

There's real value for Buzz in the business world though—if implemented properly, it could help rid work email of horrible attachments and improve communication between team members. It could easily become a monitoring tool too as I can easily envision some bosses regularly scrutinizing Buzz and using it as a gauge for productivity. In other words, too much buzz could mean you aren't working hard enough in your little cubicle. But if you work in a more open and collaborative environment, where brainstorming is big, it might be helpful to share ideas via Buzz. It's definitely something to keep in mind as a new generation enters the workforce and brings with them new methods of communicating—methods that they've likely grown up with and are most comfortable and confident with. 

What are your thoughts on Buzz and potential "real world" applications? Personally, I'm going to wait a bit longer before reinserting Buzz into my life. I'm craving a little silence anyway.

Four Stone Hearth—Call for Submissions!

Another edition of Four Stone Hearth, the anthropology blog carnival, is live over at Testimony of the Spade. If you're trapped in one of the snow covered regions of the northeast, this is a great way to pass the time (and avoid cabin fever).

I'll be hosting the next round on Feb. 24th. You can email me your submissions—or any interesting anthro or archaeological posts you come across in your web travels. Happy blogging!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Looking for a Dial Tone? The Unglamorous Life of a Public Pay Phone

These days it seems that everyone has a cell phone. Most of us walk by public pay phones without a second glance in their direction. I definitely do—until Wednesday, when I stumbled upon a couple actually using a pay phone! Yes, they were likely tourists (I made that assumption based on their attire), but hey, it turns out that those ugly, dirty booths, kiosks, and stands actually do work. Well, sometimes. 

Once prevalent throughout New York City and the rest of the country, the rise of cellular technology has meant the decline of the public pay phone. The first public pay phone was installed in 1889 in a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. Meant to provide a measure of convenience, by 1902 there were 81,000 pay phones throughout the country. The outdoor phone booth made it's appearance in 1905, and by 1925 New York City boasted ownership of 25,000 phone booths. According to the NYC Department of Technology and Telecommunications, as of July 2009 there were 18,090 active public payphones available throughout New York City. Though unfortunately, the vast majority of those available don't work—you can count on a dial tone for only one in four of those in the subway, not that you would want to encounter the grime and germs that call them home. The fact is that the maintenance costs associated with these once popular service providers are no longer offset by the revenue they bring in from actual calls. According Verizon spokesman Jim Smith, "on average, a Verizon pay phone should handle at least 150 calls per month in order to cover its individual operating costs. Based on that 150-call minimum, a pay phone requiring 50 cents for a local call would need to earn $75 a month to financially justify its existence." [Right: A couple use a NYC public pay phone. Feb. 2010]

In all the time I've worked at this particular location, I have never seen a single person use the pay phones on the corner. I myself couldn't tell you the last time I placed a call from a public phone—any public phone. Are pay phones still necessary? Well, yes. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, hard wired phones were the only phones that worked. People stood in line to use them. Nonetheless, the public pay phone continues to be overlooked and possibly looked down upon. How does the public perceive an individual who needs to use a public phone? Is it a mark of lower status to not have a cell phone? Of course, there are still individuals who rely on public pay phones—individuals who don't own a cell phone (17.6% of the US population did not own a cell phone as of Nov. 07, which seems to be the most recent data available) and international visitors are the ones who are most likely to look for a public pay phone. Still, these groups don't use phones often enough to meet Mr. Smith's projections. Nonetheless, I doubt they will ever completely vanish. For one, it's estimated that public phones generate $62 million in advertising, of which the city gets about a third. Think about it—for the cost of a billboard in Times Square, an advertiser could cover the city with her message via phone booth and kiosks. But this doesn't mean that working phones are located where people most need them. Advertisers want their messages in highly visible, high traffic areas, which doesn't necessarily include some lower income neighborhoods. Is this another element in the technology divide?

What's the status of public pay phones where you live? Are they disappearing? When was the last time you used one? I know you're out there—post your comments below!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pictures of Our Present

Long after New York City is gone—perhaps reclaimed by nature per The World Without Us—I'm certain we've created a record that should survive long and well enough to offer glimpses into life in New York City. I'm talking, of course, about the tiled mosaics that litter the subway system: some show landmarks and cultural scenes concerning the locality above, and others depict daily life. All together, they provide a glimpse into life in this city.

The subway mosaics that so many of us pass on a daily basis are reminiscent of the early artworks that were commissioned to beautify the system in the early 1900s. Architects Heins & LaFarge were tasked with creating signs and plaques that would tell customers where they were while capturing essential elements from the neighborhoods above. And though they would be replaced as architects with the more minimalist vision of Squire J Vickers, some of their original stations have survived and have been updated to preserve the Beaux-Arts element of the city's definition. There's something about the mosaics that warm the subway for me—it feels safer, brighter, and in depicting the familiar, the mosaics help me feel as though this is home. It's a sense of knowing a place via these images as opposed to merely finding them pretty decorative elements.

In the tradition of Heins & LaFarge, tiled murals were included during the renovations at the 66th Street/Lincoln Center subway station, illustrating scenes from theater and dance. The imagery suggests the nature of the neighborhood above ground. During a recent visit, I was able to get the following images from Nancy Spero's Artemis, Acrobats, Divas and Dancers (2004) to share with you:



Lincoln Center didn't exist until the 1960s, so this type of imagery wasn't a part of the original 1904 station. However, its inclusion in the renovation reminds us of our changing social landscape, and leaves a neat record for the future. For example, the mural at 23rd Street may be a nod to a notoriously windy corner of the city while paying tribute to some of the local celebrities. Though the City Dwellers series at 28th Street may require a bit more creative brainstorming. In both instances, the result is a very human effect—a small mark indicating who we were for this present.

What are your favorite subway mosaics—both here and abroad? I'm sure you pass a few ever day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Diminishing the Double Digital Divide

To wrap up my notes on Social Media Week, I thought I would pursue a comment made by Meebo CEO and co-founder Seth Sternberg during the Social Graph Optimization panel. He suggested that without proper education on the use of digital tools, we would see the a growing divide between two technological classes increase: those with access to information would be at a greater advantage than those without without. Having the means to access information on the Internet goes just beyond access to the hardware; it also depends on the individual's ability to understand how to use the tools at her disposal. And as digital technologies become prevalent, individuals who can successfully manage digital media will be at an advantage in terms of accessing and processing information, managing networks, and sharing data. As we begin to tentatively discuss issues of netiquette and privacy, we should also be actively considering the double digital divide—not only do we need to bridge the gap in access to technology, but at the same time, we need to educate users on how to utilize digital tools to their fullest potential. Digital agencies, including social media and digital advertising firms, are in a position to mobilize this initiative via CSR programs—with surprising benefits if they do.

To examine disparities in people's abilities to use digital media, researchers assigned search tasks to a random sample of Internet users, and found a considerable difference in whether people could find various types of content on the Internet and how long it took them to find it (Hargittai 2002). These studies used socioeconomic and demographic measures to determine understanding of digital media, and while it is true that these factors may hinder access to technology, social environment can also influence an individual's Internet use. Researchers propose that when socioeconomic and demographic characteristics were held constant,
the social environment (higher interactions with others regarding giving and receiving Internet-related help; proportions of family and friends who use the Internet) and the technological environment (having a computer at home, the number of places for going online, and length of experience with the Internet) were significantly associated with higher Internet connectedness (Jung 2008).
"Internet connectedness" in this case refers to the individual's ability to use the Internet and digital media to satisfy "digital goals" (i.e., the ability to find specific information being sought, to connect to specific groups). The first step in overcoming the double digital divide—realistically, as equalizing socioeconomic and demographic statistics is a larger social issue—is to increase access to technologically-oriented environments. It seems logical that this could most easily be pursued via schools, but they clearly need help to get the tools they need to build a technologically-savvy generation. Data suggests, internet users were twice as likely as nonusers to report that most people they know use the Internet; and just 4% of users compared to 27% of nonusers reported that none or very few of their acquaintances go online (Lenhart et al., 2003). This suggests that understanding of digital media can be socially spread. For example, an individual from a lower socioeconomic status who becomes technologically savvy can become their family's link to the digital world—as is already happening. We know that in "developing" countries, mobile communication technology is often shared between groups. While the cell phone usage rates are likely higher in the United States than elsewhere in the world, there are still groups that have limited access to this and other digital media. As increased knowledge and access to technology filter through a community, messaging through digital media can become more effective—and will follow once the issue of access is resolved.

How can digital agencies help? By assisting to build on-site computer labs either at schools or at major agencies, bringing digital technologies to local communities—and demonstrating that digital media is a viable career path. As our society shifts toward digital media use, and businesses move to digital media to help cut costs and increase their reach, effective messaging will mean working with an educated audience. Yes, there are expenses involved, but they are offset by the benefits gained. Digital agencies need to seriously consider their role in our new technological society. Are they interested in working with consumers to increase satisfaction with the experience and product, or are they merely interested in dictating the development of digital technologies and messages?

ResearchBlogging.orgHargittai, E (2002). Second-level digital divide: Differences in people’s online skills. First Monday, Peer-reviewed journal of the Internet, 7 (4).

Jung, J. (2008). Internet Connectedness and its Social Origins: An Ecological Approach to Postaccess Digital Divides Communication Studies, 59 (4), 322-339 DOI: 10.1080/10510970802467387

Lenhart, A., Horrigan, J., Rainie, L., Allen, K., Boyce, A., Madden, M., et al. (2003). The ever-shifting Internet population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Social Media Week NYC: Remembering the Human Element in CSR Initiatives

At today's panel, Putting the Social Back in CSR (CSR = corporate social responsibility) at the Paley Center for Media, Jamie Daves, executive director of Think Social, began the discussion by reminding the audience (and panelists) of social media's potential. Characterizing it as both dangerous and powerful, he drew upon examples where revolutions in communication methods had profound impact on the world at large (e.g., the printing press and the proliferation of the Gutenberg Bible). Panelists included Deb Berman, managing director of JustMeans, Bonin Bough, the global director of digital and social media at PepsiCo, Virginia Miracle (not "the" Virginia Miracle, but very close), senior vice president of digital strategy at Ogilvy, and Chrysi Philalithes, Red Campaign's director of digital strategy and marketing. Today's panel was meant to encourage people to think about the relevance of social media strategies to corporate social responsibility initiatives. A quick poll of the audience at the beginning revealed that while many people would like to make purchases from companies whose values were aligned with their own, too often a lack of information, convenience, and awareness prevented them from doing so. Historically, CSR initiatives were at the whim of the corporation—as a consumer, you had to believe that the corporation was doing what they said they were doing. However, as discussed by the panelists, the intersection of social media and CSR initiativcs increases transparency. People have endless ways to talk about their lives and consequently the impact of these initiatives can no longer be smothered if the result is negative. Social media places power in the hands of the individual. If CSR initiatives fail to meet their goals, the backlash will be manifest in the brand's reputation. As Deb Berman pointed out, you don't need a press release if everyone is talking about you—but this can work both ways.

While much of the remaining conversation focused on measuring ROI and clicks and other such quantitative program measures, PepsiCo's Bough struck a chord by commenting on the need for establishing social relevance with any campaign. After all, the best measurement of success for a CSR initiative would from the individuals impacted by such a push. I met up with Bough momentarily after the talk to get his perspective on qualitative measures for social relevance. Bough emphasized the important of bidirectional dialogue in the social graph—essentially, to determine the progress of an initiative and mark the realization social relevance, Bough noted that you have to track the conversation. This means that no longer can corporations simply push out media and promotions, they have to take stock of the feedback and the conversations happening around their initiatives. I was particularly struck by Bough's assertion that when the conversation changes, you know the direction of your initiative and you know what your next steps should be. This kind of direction mandates that all participants must be active both in producing and consuming information, and ultimately shaping CSR plans.

I want to take a moment to address a question that the audience seemed a bit hesitant to discuss: Daves asked whether we thought that social media had relevance for individuals in third world and developing countries. Only one person made the assertion that we should not underestimate the social media tendencies of our international neighbors, pointing out that information from Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake came from private citizens using Twitter and uploading photos taken from their phones. The truth is that the larger public has very limited understanding of how social media is mobilized in these settings, overlooking that it is an important means of inexpensive but effective communication. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are used by immigrants to retain ties to family and friends still residing in native homelands. Similarly, these media can be sources of information pertaining to the outside world—consider for example, China's lock down of social media in an event to control the input and output of information to and by its citizens about the state. Social media is mobile media, and most social media applications are in fact accessible on cell phones. A year ago, the UN reported that globally 6 in 10 people have a cell phone; that there were 4.1 billion subscriptions worldwide. And this is particularly true for poorer countries where mobile technology has become readily accessible thanks to prepaid plans:
Prepaid phones and SIM cards are a key reason mobile subscriber levels are growing so rapidly in emerging regions. In the traditional postpaid market, the registration of demand called for a commitment to subscribe to a mobile service for one or two years — in other words, it involved a mobile phone purchase (subsidized or not, depending on the market), 12 or 24 monthly service obligations, usage charges, and a service connection fee (sometimes waived), not to mention a credit check. The introduction of prepaid responded to — and further stimulated — the market for occasional or variable demand. It allowed adoption of mobile phones by users with variable usage needs and variable means to pay for access to the mobile network (Kalba 2008).
"Variable means to pay for access" is important: phone sharing and bartering for minutes and access is commonplace. We cannot overlook the reach of social media. I'm interested in your thoughts on social media and the developing world. Talk to me below.

ResearchBlogging.orgKas Kalba (2008). The Adoption of Mobile Phones in Emerging Markets: Global Diffusion and Rural Challenges International Journal of Communication, 2, 631-661

Social Media Week NYC: Social Graph Optimization and Network Saturation

It's Social Media Week here in New York City, and in several cities around the world, where digital and social media agencies, as well as marketing and advertising firms, are sponsoring panels, discussions, and parties—to which this anthropologist was lucky enough to attend. Based on the fair number of raised eyebrows I encountered when I introduced myself at events so far, perhaps some explanation may be needed as to why an anthropologist would be interested in social media, and the answer can be found in some of the discussions we've had on this blog (see tags for technology, social order, and social relatedness). Social media has quickly proved that it is an integral component to sociality. It has changed the way we manage our networks, and consequently influenced the nature of our relationships. Our very social order is shifting as a result of the integration of social media in our daily lives. As social media continues to evolve, so too will our methods of relating to and connecting with each other, which will impact the functionality of daily life activities.

Yesterday's panel, Social Graph Optimization, was sponsored by Meebo and hosted by JWT here in New York City. Panelists included Seth Sternberg, co-founder and CEO of Meebo, Mark Ghuneim, founder and CEO of Wiredset, Hashem Bajwa, director of digital strategy at Droga5, and Anna O'Brien, social media enthusiast. David Berkowitz, senior director of emerging media and innovation at 360i, was on hand to moderate the panel. The discussion began with a definition of the social graph—which consists of the various networks individuals belong to. For example, connections on Facebook constitute one social graph, which a Twitter constituency is another. While there is some overlap between graphs, some people prefer to keep them separate (i.e., LinkedIn only for professional contacts, while Facebook permits personal connections.) Prior to the the emergence of the social graph, web driven enterprises were focused on SEO (search engine optimization) as a source of web traffic and promotion. The force and saturation of social media, however, has shifted focus to the social graph as a driving force in not only web traffic, but also as an opportunity to be strategic in reaching people with products and ideas. People aren't relying on search engines as much as they are looking to their connections for information. As dialogic tools, social graphs can be unidirectional (Twitter: I follow you, but you don't have to follow me) or bidirectional (Facebook: To be friends, both parties must agree).

Social media allows for the easy sharing of things of interest, whether it be a product or an idea or an event. In the social media world, an individual's friends are important sources as to how they will organize their world. Therefore a key element in social graph optimization is getting people to share content. However at this point, social graphs are often bigger than individuals can manage and much of the graph is extraneous noise. Individuals are really only interested the opinions and suggestions of a small percentage of their connections. Panelist Anna O'Brien believes that the next evolution of social media will see a culling or organization of networks where varying degrees of relationships are recognized. To a certain degree, a shift in this direction has already begun with the implementation of enhanced privacy settings on Facebook. At the moment, however, social graphs are large and unwieldy for the most part. I approached both Seth and Anna after the panel to discuss end users response to social graph optimization. The issue I raised was whether we would see a desensitization of the end user to social graph optimization methodologies because networks are so large and the "share" option has inundated the web before this culling/organization happens. Seth's response was that since we're relying on individuals to share content, we want to make it feel easy and natural for them to do so. To avoid desensitization, he felt that emphasis on design was necessary. As he mentioned during the panel, simply sticking a "share button" or a Meebo bar on a website doesn't automatically increase the site's effectiveness or standing. Seth stressed understanding how the user would interact with content and how the use could be encouraged to share. Anna suggested that desensitization would drive users to cull their own networks to minimize the "social noise" they are exposed to on a daily basis.

This gives us something to think about in terms of how we use social media to connect with others and the types of information we are obtaining from our social graphs. If the process of culling hasn't begun, how are users processing "important" information? How is share value determined? A key quotation from Mark was that if someone stops following you on Twitter, then you've optimized your social graph because you want to reach people who are interested in you—and this person just wasn't interested. But this stage of social media encourages people to be as connected as possible. You want followers on Twitter, friends on Facebook, subscribers to your blog. At this point, we're still in the process of producing information and have only just starting to explore sorting and managing information, to distinguish from what matters to us in different circles. I think this process is necessary for users to manage the information in their lives. One of the questions I posed to Anna was whether she felt culling would be a natural event (by the users themselves) or something managed by an external application. She suggested that someone has probably already developed an application that would herd people in this direction. But I take a much more optimistic view: I think that as people become more aware of social graph management, culling and organization will be natural outgrowths. I think applications will follow in an effort to help focus people in particular directions, but not until users demonstrate that they are limiting the influx of information.  The direction of the dialogue will likely also play a role in where we see this phenomena first. As with the development of enhanced privacy settings on Facebook, in bidirectional settings the need to manage social noise will be most pressing. And we should look to this group to see how  network management will evolve in the digital arena. 

Share my interest in digital media? Talk to me about your thoughts on the future of online networks and their effectiveness in spreading information.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Saving Seats—Not Just for the Lunchroom Anymore?

More LIRR adventures to report on today: So on the evening commute home, in addition to my recently identified seat buddy, the car I normally ride in is also populated by a group of seat savers. The group consists of three adults, two men and a woman. I've designated the leader as one of the men who is available to board the train as soon as it pulls into the station—it is he who determines where the group will sit and reveals the nature of the party for the day. For example, if all three are present for the ride home, then the "leader" secures one a pair of the three seaters that face each other allowing for groups to sit together, as depicted in the graph below:

Seat Direction:






[Above: Diagram demonstrating orientation of "group" seating on the LIRR, where F indicates a pair of seats that face each other. And X is a seat in a normal row, oriented as indicated by the adjacent arrow.]

If only two are present for the journey home, however, the "leader" holds a normal row, so that the pair can sit comfortably with the center seat as a communal spot. How exactly does he hold these seats? Well, he positions himself at the entrance to the row so that no one can pass, puts his large bag down in the center seat, and then takes his time removing his jacket. If he finishes this routine before one of his companions joins him, then he takes the aisle seat, and sprawls a bit in the row. He may busy himself with a BlackBerry or paper, and looks engrossed so no one asks him to move. At this stage in boarding, I should mention that traffic is fairly light, and seats are plentiful. Most boarders are able to secure rows for themselves. His companions arrive just before the final rush to board when the rows are filled in with additional passengers and their baggage.

In an early post on this blog, I discussed the "playground rules" that we carry into adulthood—in other words, the behaviors that govern civil social relations. Can we add the practice of saving seats to this list? In the lunchroom of your childhood, do you recall saving seats for friends so you could eat together? Do you recall ever finding a seat closed to you because it was closed? This group has recreated the lunchroom, but is this permitted? After all, the space the "leader" saves is public space, and really should be accessible on a first come first served basis. He has no such privilege as a saved seat. But is this any different from the habitual seeking of a "regular" seat by individuals? I posted previously about the seating patterns that a fellow commuter and I create on a daily basis. We're not necessarily entitled to the seats we claim either, but I propose that we use these patterns to create a sense of familiarity for ourselves. Arguably, these individuals are also creating a familiar setting. What are your thoughts? [Left: The "leader" on his BlackBerry with one of his companions. He was only joined by one member of his party on this day.]

Monday, February 1, 2010

Landscape Change Underway at the East River

I'm always interested in changes to the landscape because I think that these changes are often reflected in the social landscape as well. Landscapes are no longer solely managed by natural forces; we actively mold our landscapes, imparting meaning as we add functionality. For the last three weeks or so, my building has been in range of a generator. It's a powerful generator being that it's located near the Brooklyn Bridge (about 0.5 mi/0.8 km) and my coworkers and I can hear it clearly from cubicles in central areas of the office. The eastern offices have the worst time of it, and on a few occasions colleagues in these locations have fled, seeking out cubicle space on other floors. The reason for the constant hum of the generator is a landscape change along the East River. And thanks to a break in the recent freezing temps, I had a chance to explore. [Right: View of one phase of East River development from nearby Pier 11. Jan 2010.]