Monday, March 29, 2010

At the Heart of a Baseball: A Global Story

We're a week away from the New York Mets home opener, and I've got baseball on my mind. I'm excited—with the season yet untapped, it's full of possibilities. (I've decided I'm not going to pay attention to assorted scouting reports that are predicting yet another doom and gloom season. Why give up before the first pitch?) While watching a Spring Training game, I realized I didn't know much about the namesake of the pastime, the baseball, itself. Sure, it's round; it's white with red seams; and it's a ball—you might be asking yourself, is there really more to it than that? But there is, Reader. Oh, there is.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is Your Time My Time? Deconstructing "Social" Time (3)

I've been doing a lot of sifting through the articles and books I have on Time, and some graduate writing I did on the subject. And I think I'm ready to address my question as to whether there are parallels in Intersubjective Time. To do so, we're going to take a trip to the Caribbean. (But first I recommend you check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series if you haven't already.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is Your Time My Time? Deconstructing "Social" Time (2)

Time. Sometimes it can seem as though there isn't enough of it. Sometimes it can seem endless. I woke up thinking about my notion of temporal freedom because it seems to run contrary to social order, which is structured in such a way that encourages intersubjectivity (the shared social experience of individuals). We exist within networks that overlap—I am a wife, sister, daughter, writer, anthropologist, godmother, bibliophile, former student, etc. Each of these roles carries with it experiences and memories that overlap with those of others in these networks. What I have named as temporal freedom actually seems to tied to a great number of external factors and persons. These thoughts sent me back to my bookshelves and to my notes from grad school. Here is what I have managed to puzzle out today—perhaps you can help strip back the layers on this as well, Reader. Hold on tight. We're going to delve into some theory today.

Is Your Time My Time? Deconstructing "Social" Time (1) [Updated]

My stay in Port St. Lucie forced me to consider the issue of time. In New York City it's easy to take time for granted. New York City is after all "the city that never sleeps"; it's inhabitants and workers are constantly on the go. As a result, time is managed and constructed so that it is convenient: for example, many businesses offer extended hours to accommodate late shift workers, party-goers, and just general late nighters. (One of the things I missed most about the City while I situated in North Carolina was the ability to get a roast beef and salami sandwich at 3 am.) Extended hours is a practice that makes for good business—if you have your doubts, just check out the lines that form for street food vendors when the bars start to empty in the wee hours of the morning. The result, I think, is that time is stretched so that we have more hours in which to do things. So even though we may have less hours of sunlight, we're not necessarily bound by a circadian rhythm that demands we sleep soon after nightfall or wake at the crack of dawn. We've by-passed the natural clock. We've adjusted so that dinner or breakfast (depending on when your day starts) at 9 or 10 pm is not unusual; a late lunch means eating at 4; and pharmacies and some supermarkets are open 24 hours—just in case you decide you need toothpaste or an orange at 4:30 am.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lessons from Baseball: Building a Community Around Tradition [Updated]

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring".
Rogers Hornsby
I was in Port St. Lucie, FL this past week for a taste of Spring Training with the New York Mets and a break from the gray, rainy, hectic life of New York City. Spring Training is a very important seasonal rite for baseball fans. It means that warm days aren't too far away and with them will come Saturdays at the ballpark with sausage and peppers for lunch. It means night games under the lights as the air crackles from the heat being released from the sidewalks and buildings. It means singing Lazy Maria during the seventh inning at Shea CitiField. Opening Day is indeed a homecoming, but long before the season is even a glimmer on the horizon, many fans make the annual pilgrimage to the warmer regions where the clubs hold camps. Spring Training is a means of welcoming the change in seasons and marking the changes in the sport itself. [Left: Spring Training game at Tradition Field, March 19, 2010].

Changes are plentiful in baseball. Players, coaches, and managers retire, are released, or are traded. Others are added. And these changes can impact the dynamics of the team and the relationship the club has with its fans. Uniforms change. Stadiums and ballparks are rebuilt and renamed. But beyond the rules, the emotional connection fans have to the sport remains an important element in keeping with the tradition of the game. The sport is hopelessly intertwined with events in the individual fan's life and comes to represent something larger than nine innings of trying to hit a tiny, speeding ball with the equivalent of a stick. For many a fan, baseball represents a connection to their own past, to family loyalties that are handed down and defended with each generation. This connection is the reason fans remain loyal after moving to a state with a different home team because it helps tie them to their own story. The traditions connected to the sport are deeply personal and varied: tailgating before the game, looking for change to pay for the "cheap seats," waiting endlessly at the players entrance in the hopes of getting an autograph, the seventh inning stretch, watching the game with a loved one—all were cited as examples of traditions individuals associated with baseball.

The Mets have captured the essence of this feeling with their aptly named ballpark, Tradition Field.  Formerly the Thomas J. White Stadium, (a Florida politician responsible for bringing the Mets to Florida), the ballpark was renamed in 2004 when the nearby town of Tradition purchased the naming rights. With a name like Tradition, you would think that the town had been long established, but it's a planned community founded only in 2003 by Core Communities, LLC. The town is composed of several smaller villages arranged around a central hub, complete with a picturesque Town Hall. What's interesting about the relationship of the township to the ball club is that the two are supported by the emotive responses to the feelings of tradition. Tradition, FL bills itself as a "return to the days when your town had everything you need"—including baseball in a small town way, perhaps as your grandparents remember it. The town of Tradition has built itself using the power of memory by choosing a name that evokes a sense of notalgia and personal meaning. [Tradition Field, home of the New York Mets, the Gulf Coast Mets, and the St. Lucie Mets.]

And it's a great tactic. The ballpark has a homey, local feel to it that's greatly different from the atmosphere at CitiField, and one expects it to be so. There are only two "tiers" of seating, plus a large "berm" area (another Dutch word, by the way!), and with families and older folks milling about, you get the sense that this is what baseball was meant to be (even in the majors): a way for a community to come together. Of course winning matters because pride matters and the community's pride is at stake, but there's also a sense of simplicity. It is all carefully manufactured to allow you to experience baseball as it is meaningful to you. In an era of corporate sponsorship, it's something to think about: the ties a team has to a community, and the importance of the names associated with the club in terms of connecting with the fan.

Updated 3/23: It was announced today that effective immediately the stadium has been renamed to Digital Domain Park. I'm interested in knowing how this may affect fans' relationship to the ballpark—and also saddened at the loss of such a meaningful name.

Friday, March 12, 2010

In Pursuit of Authenticity in the Digital Age

I often wrangle with the idea of digital authenticity. How do we know who we're talking to online? How do we know they are accurately representing themselves? Does it matter? As an ambitious graduate student, I devised and carried out a study investigating the creation of "authenticity" on the Internet. I wanted to see if I could fake my way into an online community. How'd it turn out? I was banned; they weren't happy with me. My exaggerated emulation of other members marked me as a rat right off the bat. But it's a study that I'm prepping to revisit in my wizened old age. I think these issues are salient as we struggle to tame the digital beast that has taken hold of our lives.

In this vein, the WSJ recently ran a story concerning the intersection of public and professional lives in social media. By now you've certainly heard the horror stories (and perhaps know someone personally who's experienced a social media mishap)—for example, the guy who interviewed with CISCO and tweeted about the potential cons of the job, the intern who called in sick and then posted photos of himself at a Halloween party, the Eagles employee who should have kept his commentary to himself instead of posting his feelings to Facebook, and of course the professor whose Facebook statuses have been construed as threats against students. More and more it seems that the web is the place we turn to reveal ourselves. Behind a computer screen it's easy to feel invisible, when the truth is that we've laid clear digital trails concerning our interests, amassed scores of followers, and now can broadcast our location with the push of a button. We're anything but anonymous.

An article on CNET talks about the growth of Generation X-hibitionist, who according to Harris Interactive have few concerns about privacy and the Internet: 59 percent were happy to provide personal information to marketers. Compare this data to 1998, when 80% of people cited privacy concerns as a obstacle to shopping online. And digital and social media developers are encouraging this new-found comfort level:
At a technology conference in January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his audience that Internet users don't care as much about privacy anymore. The 25-year old said that, in the seven years since he started the company, "people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people—and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time." Zuckerberg defended the company's decision in December to push users to reveal more, saying "we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it." 
Thinking back to "earlier" days, digital sociality seemed in many ways to encourage individuality while protecting identity. You could create multiple screen names to cater to different aspects of your personality and keep them all separate if you so chose. (Sex fiend by night, book worm by day? Or vice versa? No one needed to know!) The emergence of avatars further encouraged this. Green skin, pink hair, surf clothes—if those attributes presented a closer representation to who you felt you were, you were free to roam cyber-space in your new skin. This removed some of the limitations we may experience in the physical world in terms of expressing ourselves—I don't think my coworkers would look at me the same if I showed up wearing green face paint.

[Avatar screen for MSN Minimise Me. © MSN]

So Zuckerberg may be right. It appears that we have been moving in this direction for some time because diminished privacy standards encourage a truer representation of who a person is. And perhaps these relaxed rules about representation online are crossing over into the physical world in the form of a more relaxed view about personal representation. Perhaps some time in the near future it'll be okay if I decide I want to wear green face paint all the time—it wouldn't raise any eyebrows on the street, people would still sit next to me on public transportation, and I wouldn't get referred to HR for an evaluation. But we're not there yet. And until that time, perhaps what we are perceiving as relaxed rules about online privacy is an attempt to author an authentic self online?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tending to Your Digital Remains

Thinking about your demise isn't pleasant, but we do it. We plan to have assets distributed and debts settled, we make care arrangements for loved ones (including pets), and we may even decide what we want to take with us. But what about your digital remains? You know, your Facebook account, your online gaming characters (i.e., World of Warcraft, Second Life), your banking profile, and your assorted memberships throughout the web. What becomes of these accounts? Are you comfortable having just anyone logging in to close them out? Checking your email? Are you comfortable with the idea that the character you worked so hard to build in Second Life could disappear because someone elects to close the account. If you're concerned, you should be. Increasingly, an integral component of our lives is our digital footprint—our digital persona, the identity we craft for ourselves online by posting photos, tweeting updates, sharing geotags, playing video games, and any other element of daily life that we transact online whether it be banking, shopping, research, or even blogging. Worry no longer—the March edition of Wired offers tips on managing your digital remains:
At least three companies —, Legacy Locker, and the charmingly named — have arisen to keep customers’ passwords, usernames, final messages, and so on in a virtual safe-deposit box. After you’re gone, these companies carry out last wishes, alert friends, give account access to various designated beneficiaries, and generally parse out and pass on your online assets. Digital remains that are not bequeathed to an inheritor are incinerated, closing the book on PayPal accounts, profiles, even alternate identities (especially alternate identities: You don’t want your mother knowing about, or worse, playing, the wife-swapping giant badger you became in Second Life).
Essentially, you pay one of these companies to manage your digital persona. They require you to confirm on a regular basis that you're still alive. Once it is determined that you've passed, the applications take the appropriate steps to distribute or destroy element of your digital footprint.  There are definite pros and cons to these services: On the one hand, it allows you to have final control over your digital materials, on the other hand it serves as a reminder of how tenuous our web existence really is, which is rather contrary to the way we have been operating. We tweet and update statuses on Facebook to establish ourselves. We're warned constantly that what you post online can come back to haunt you. Yet, these services offer erasure, and they make it seem simple. In the digital age, if we erase our web presence then what do we leave behind? Can we hope for any trace of our existence—our passions, our interests, our connections?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Revisiting the Nativist Stance: Lessons From History for Brand Recognition

As I have discussed before, this is a city that's constantly in flux. The City That Never Sleeps, The Crossroads of the World, The Information City, The Port of Many Ports, The Media City—these nicknames that imply fluidity. New Yorkers are adaptable. Sure they may grumble at subway delays, but they rarely ever bat an eye at the reasons for delays. New construction happening on the street? It quickly becomes part of the background, part of the social fabric of the city. So it's surprising when change causes a flutter.

Recently, Walgreens announced that it would be buying the Duane Reade drugstore chain. Duane Reade is deeply integrated into the city. Taking its name from two city blocks, the pharmacy has been around since 1960. Originally just a few stores, it's now hard to walk three blocks in either direction without seeing its familiar sign. While Walgreens has more stores throughout the country, Duane Reade has thee times more stores in New York City than the other chain, according to a NYT article. The drugstore just launched a new promotional campaign that emphasized its connection to the city: The slogan, "Everywhere you go, Duane Reade," spins the chain's ubiquity as positive. And even while some New Yorkers comment on commercialization, there are others who are wondering what will become of the brand. Will Walgreens replace Duane Reades? What will become of those former rival stores strategically located across the street from each other? And what does it mean for New Yorkers who have come to recognize at least this one element as a mainstay of their New York existence. Duane Reades are like the hotdog vendors, the yellow cabs, the breakfast carts, and the umbrella vendors who come creeping out when it rains to hawk their wares—what does the social landscape look like if these familiar store fronts come down.

I just finished reading Five Points by Tyler Anbinder, and the stories of this neighborhood remind me in some ways of the feelings associated with this particular transition. Each wave of immigration brought to New York City a group that would fight to be settled here, to ultimately be called natives. Each group would look down with contempt at successive immigrant groups and magnify their faults. These newcomers didn't know the ways of the social order, they didn't understand what it meant to earn a living here, they didn't get the character of the place. According to some historians, this sentiment underlies on the most violent gang encounters in New York City history—that between the Bowery Boys and the Mulberry Boys/Roche Guard, which has come to be known as a conflict between so-called nativists (those born in New York) and the new Irish Catholic immigrants. Of course, the story is not as simply as this disagreement, but there appears to be some truth in this origin of animosity, and it's one that has been played out again and again with each new group.

This conflict echoes in the Duane Reade buyout. Walgreens is simply a new interloper, trying to inject itself in the social landscape. Who are these new comers? And will they understand the character of the city? They're not natives though they have a chance to manipulate such an identity for themselves. The Duane Reade brand may have actually been damaged in the sale. After all, touting yourself as an integral element of the city and then selling to an out-of-state rival hardly inspires home team backing. (Look what happened with the Brooklyn Dodgers—there are still broken and bruised hearts all throughout Brooklyn.) Still, Walgreens has a reputation it can capitalize on and an opportunity to introduce change slowly, secure its hold, and negotiate its presence as integral. They just have to play their cards right: by embracing the New York brand, they have the opportunity to seed the market here, while first making structural changes to the store (e.g., layout) before migrating to the Walgreens signage. And New Yorkers will follow, and we'll accept it. Because we are a city of change.

Tell me about changes you're seeing in your neighborhood. Has a rival chain moved in? What has it does to the character of your neighborhood? To the people who frequent the stores? And what do you think Duane Reade's chances of survival are?