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Friday, October 24, 2008

A (digital) return to village life?

Did you ever hear someone speak nostalgically about "the good ol' days" of small-town life, when neighbors and people you cared about kept tabs on you? It had its downsides, but there's no denying everyday life (at least in the developed world) has gotten so much less personal. It's almost dehumanizing in some ways. People sometimes argue that the Internet has contributed to that. It can also be argued - I believe more persuasively - that the Internet is reversing that and bringing back village life in a non-geographical sense.

Case in point: the Twittersphere (Twitter's the fastest-growing social-networking service, CNET cites the latest Nielsen figures as showing). People microblogging through their days while "following" their relatives, friends, colleagues, and other interesting people doing the same. A superficial glance by babyboomers yields predictable reactions like "narcissism on steroids." But there's more to this phenomenon. It de-isolates. It creates "ambient awareness," as Clive Thompson recently described it in the New York Times Magazine - a growing (sometimes sustained, sometimes intermittent) awareness of the thoughts and moods of people who interest you wherever they are, even on the other side of the world (you can unfollow anyone any time, and it's up to you how much you say what's on your mind). It gives fresh meaning to the term "global village" and challenges the old saw, "familiarity breeds contempt." For one thing, you're only hearing from people you care about and they're only hearing about you if you allow them to.

"Taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce," Thompson writes, "like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting" of the people you follow. He tells of a person who twittered about what sandwich she made each day. Another person he mentions thought it all sounded silly. Then he "discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner.... Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click [maybe slightly comforting] that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day" and would miss if it weren't there.

All this raises so many questions - you really have to read Thompson to see many of them thoughtfully considered.... Are all these weak ties superficializing friendship or affection, or adding to it - on personal and global levels? Does microblogging increase self-knowledge or the potential for narcissism? Does it help to objectivize personal troubles, get perspective, find solidarity, make us more vulnerable? Probably all the above - it depends on the individual. Experimenting with it myself, following fascinating thinkers in my general field of work (none of my relatives are on it!), I have found it to be a positive experience. There is this unprecedented sense of sort of intimacy being trustingly conveyed by people you only knew from a distance ("trust" is a key word in all this), as well as a sense of stimulation but also a bit of overload - people you respect posting so many links worth checking out.

One thing's certain: Twittering has a way of keeping us honest. You'd have to be an extremely gifted pathological liar (or actor always in character) to be someone other than yourself microblogging to a well-developed following even once a day (tell me if you disagree, anyone!). Thompson tells of a student of Zeynep Tufekci, a University of Maryland sociologist, who posted that the difference between Web 1.0 and being under the microscope of the social Web is that - as the old New Yorker cartoon showing two dogs conversing points out - on Web 1.0 no one could tell you were a dog. On Twitter, the social Web to the 10th power, everybody knows you're a dog!

[Tufekci's student might've read Michael Kinsley at Slate. See also: "Just because they crave attention?"]

Twitter in the classroom

Also see how Twitter is making classes - and thereby education - more village-like (see ArsTechnica). A communications professor approached Twitter the way many of us baby boomers do, thinking microblogging's all "solipsism and sound-bite communication," but after using it realized that it "brought him closer to his students, creating a personal connection that helped to increase their involvement in his classes." In this blog post is the experience of a Central Connecticut State U. professor who, after each class, twitters a reflection about how the class went. "Students who see the messages often give him a reality check." He said that if he twittered that he didn't think something got across, for example, sometimes students would twitter back that they "understood that fine" but were just distracted by ... [something outside of class] or they were tired.

Powerful things can happen when people can come to understand each other on even slightly deeper levels afforded by the kind of fairly frequent, candid, humanizing communication that happens in microblogging. Empathy emerges.

Think about what can happen when people feel empathy toward one another: compassion, civility, encouragement, empowerment, engagement, etc. Disinhibition - that condition of online experience that allows for cyberbullying, harassment, hate, etc. by dehumanizing people - becomes less of a factor. "Users" move through being mere participants to being citizens and community members.

Related links

  • But is Twitter a teen thing? Not really, Anastasia Goodstein of suggests. It seems to be more for young professionals, with Plurk of more interest to teens, a 20-something told Anastasia. However, when I went to Plurk: of the dozen "recently joined members" featured on the home page, one was under 30 (she's 20) and the one other didn't declare his age. The other 10 were all in their 30s or 40s - even further away from being teens. Anastasia's theory makes sense: "If you think about it, since teens' social networks are mostly comprised of friends they know in real life, and the majority are teens they go to school with, they sort of already know what their friends are up to at any given moment."

  • "Who am I on Twitter?" The Financial Times calls Twitter "social networking around mutual stalking." I think writer Peter Whitehead doesn't quite get it yet, but he asks good questions: "My biggest concern, however, is over who I am on Twitter. Am I just me or am I representing the FT? Can I say outrageous things?" On that last one, some Twitterers actually do, but remember: "Everybody knows you're a dog!" In some ways, online anonymity is going away.

  • "Twittering from the Cradle"?! The teeniest tykes are twittering with the help of their sleep-deprived parents, the New York Times reports. When they become old enough to send their own tweets, they probably won't have Whitehead's sort of Twitter-induced identity angst.

  • Twitter grew 343% from September '07 to September '08, according to Nielsen. Over the same period, nos. 2-10 in the Top 10 fastest-growing social-networking services were Tagged (330%), Ning (251%), LinkedIn (193%), (121%), Facebook (116%), MyYearbook (115%), Bebo (86%), Multiply (59%), and Reunion (57%). CNET reports.

    Readers, feel free to disagree - send your comments to anne[at] or post them in our forum at!

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  • Thursday, October 23, 2008

    1 in 5 employers screen profiles recently conducted a survey of "more than 31,000 employers" and found that 22% of employers look at social-network profiles as they screen job candidates, reports, and 9% said they plan to do so. That represents rapid growth in the practice, since only 11% of hiring managers said they screen with social sites in 2006. Of the 22% who said they do, one-third said they "found information on such sites that caused them to toss the candidate out of consideration for a job." Interestingly, that last percentage was exceed by that of hiring managers who found content in profiles that convinced them to hire the candidate (24%); these managers said what convinced them was "profiles showing a professional image and solid references can boost a candidate's chances for a job." Please see the article for the eight "top areas of concern" employers look for in social-network profiles.

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    Wednesday, October 22, 2008

    European call for social-site privacy rules

    The EU's Data Protection Authority has urged social-network sites to "warn users about the low level of protection given to their profiles," Agence France-Presse reports. At a two-day conference in Strasbourg, the regulatory body called for "a standard set of international rules" for privacy protection and user education. According to the AFP, it said that "users, especially minors, should be told about the risks they face by going online and given clear instructions on how to change their data protection settings." The AFP added that 70 countries stressed the need for a universal data-protection standard at the Strasbourg conference, which was organized by the Council of Europe.

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    Virtual presidential elections: Kid picks

    This is a great way to do voter education. Kids' virtual world's "candidates" are Kat De Claw, promising to "rebuild the road from Wildwood Forest to Canal City," and Cecil Sideshuffle, promising to "put an end to the evil Emperor Withering's corruption.” Kidzui, the kids' version of the Web, presents cartoon-y versions of Barack Obama and John McCain and their running mates. Dizzywood's 8-to-12-year-old users register, campaign for their candidates, poll and vote in a special election in-world. They learn critical thinking and "the importance of participating in real-world civic activities," Dizzywood says (they can also find virtual posters and t-shirts at the De Claw and Sideshuffle campaign headquarters). At Kidzui, virtual voting results, interestingly, are matching a recent Gallup poll for the "real world" election: Kidzui members favor Obama by a 10% margin, with Obama at 52% and McCain at 42%. "In addition to befriending their favorite presidential candidates, KidZui lets kids view each candidate’s profile page, which includes [candidates'] sites, videos and pictures," Kidzui reports. Older youth show very different preferences: In Facebook, 78% favor Obama and 22% McCain; in MySpace, Obama's at 81% and McCain 19%, Kidzui says.

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    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    MyYearbook helps teens give to 'Causes'

    The US's No. 3 social-network site, (see this), just launched a new feature called "Causes," reports. "MyYearbook users can choose from a number of causes like ending world hunger, fighting climate change, saving the rainforests or curing cancer. They donate with virtual money, i.e. $40 buys one grain of rice (expensive grain!), and then get a badge on their profile (status)." They also get to choose what advertiser gets to display its ad on their profile, YPulse adds. A percentage of the ad money goes to the cause to which the advertiser's linked. This is kind of interesting - the teen profile owner ups his/her coolness factor through both the causes and the products advertised. As in many sites for young people, virtual money (called "Lunch Money" in myYearbook), is earned by playing games in the site. ClubPenguin, too, has causes to which member penguins can give (but no advertising). MyYearbook is apparently close to reaching $20,000 a month in donations to organizations such as the World Food Programme,, Conservation International, Save Darfur, and Child Help.

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    Monday, October 20, 2008

    Tech & the ties that bind: Study

    American families are into their digital communications, and this is "enabling new forms of family connectedness," a new nationwide survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found. The study found that "89% of married-with-children households own multiple cellphones" (47% three or more), and 57% of the 7-to-17-year-olds in those households have their own cellphones; 58% of those households have two-or more computers (63% of them connected via home network); and in 76% of those households, both spouses use the Net, in 84% of them youth 7-17 use the Net, and in 65% of those households just about everybody's online. Two-thirds of the US's 2-parent households with children have broadband Internet access. It's interesting to see what the respondents themselves say about the impact this has on family ties. When the parents were asked if this use of cellphones and the Net has brought their family closer than when they were growing up, 60% there wasn't much difference (maybe the increase in digital communications compensates for a proportionate increase in everybody's busyness?), 25% said closer, 11% not as close, and 4% didn't know or didn't want to answer. In its coverage, the Washington Post cites researchers as saying "the heaviest technology users are also people with the heaviest work schedules." USATODAY tells of a family in New York that uses Twitter to keep in high-frequency touch. Here too are Information Week and about 5 dozen other reports on the study.

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