Archive for September, 2011

“The Stability of Data” and other Graphs

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

(or: Three graphs/charts to save for later.)

I don’t actually like most of Ben Greenman’s Graphs About Charts and Charts About Graphs (from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency), but the two of them below just grab me.   I do like some of Demetri Martin‘s charts and graphs, but I don’t like sitting through his entire show or routine to get to them.  Maybe in his new book he has just some graphs and charts?  Anyway, I wanted to save these three for later use in my teaching.

 

The above is ariginally from Demetri Martin before it got onto Graph Jam.

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The two above are from Ben Greenman.

Are Rural People Meaner?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

(or: Is Online Gossip a Question of Locale or Scale?)

I’m quoted in this morning’s New York Times Story, In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious. This came about because I’ve done some recent research on social media and rural communities (citations below), including a long-term ethnographic study of social media use in rural Native American communities in California and (with Eric Gilbert and Karrie Karahalios) a study of rural vs. urban use of social networking sites.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: In case you aren’t aware of the Topix.net web aggregator (http://www.topix.net/), it is a portal site owned by newspaper companies that provides a “home page” for every city and town in the US.  That page consists of a feed of local news, presumably generated algorithmically, mixed in with weather, polls, and–critical for our story today–a forum.

Topix forums have become the online place to be for some small towns.  Unlike social media sites such as Google Plus and Facebook, which have pursued a policy of only allowing real names online, the Topix forums allow anonymous posting.

The result is a cesspool of gossip, with posts that have titles like, “People to Stay Away From.” That thread consists simply of a list of the real names of people in Pearisburg, VA that the poster, a “Mr. Kickass,” doesn’t like. The NYT piece included some examples but they chose tame ones.

A normal Topix small-town board includes a purported attempt to out a gay man, accusations that so-and-so has AIDS, a diatribe against miscegenation, public shaming of “bad parents,” announcement that this or that person is a crackhead, and more.  All of these posts are anonymous.

Yes, it looks like Topix is transforming gossip. Just as the Internet has transformed buying airline tickets, Topix.net is making gossip more efficient. It’s now easier to reach a larger number of people, and (a terrible side effect), indexing by search engines means that an impermanent medium like gossip can now stay online indefinitely to haunt you forever. And I agree that gossip can ruin lives. There are problems.

Yet it’s not clear to me that these are rural problems. I agree that rural people are different from urban people. They are in aggregate more likely to be older, less mobile, poorer, and less educated. And we know that rural people use the Internet differently from urban people.

But remember that Juicy Campus scandal about three years ago (NYT: College Gossip Leaves the Bathroom Wall and Goes Online)? This was a new online forum that allowed anonymous posting, and it filled up with scandalous gossip about sex and drugs (well, mostly sex). It ruined lives. That was a Topix.net scenario but the locale wasn’t small-town America, it was the University of California, Duke, and Yale.

Chris Tolles, the Topix CEO, is quoted in the Times article linking the situation on the Topix forums to the Hatfields and McCoys. C’mon, Mr. Tolles. Give us a break. At least he didn’t mention Deliverance.

I think the formula is:

anonymity + a defined community (scale) = gossip

Rural doesn’t appear in that equation.

Champaign-Urbana, where I live, is a small town, but it is too big to fit most definitions of a rural area. I think it would be great if all of the gossips, racists and bigots lived on farms somewhere far away from me, but I just don’t think that’s the case. (For more on this, see Mary Gray’s excellent book.)

The situation as a whole reminds me of early efforts to spread the telephone to rural America a century ago (see Fischer’s excellent research). Then, CEOs of telephone companies often refused to build in rural areas because they thought that rural people were all poor and stupid. All of the major telephone company CEOs lived in big cities, and they were sure that rural folks, if given a telephone, would be too dumb to use it, would complain a lot about it, and would probably only play banjo to each other anyway.

I don’t think rural people are meaner.

[This post was cross-posted to the social media collective. -CS]

[Thanks to Kristen Guth for thinking of the Juicy Campus comparison.]

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Further reading:

Sandvig, C. (2012). Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure. In: L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (eds.) Race After the Internet. New York: Routledge. (link to proofs)

Gilbert, E., Karahalios, K. & Sandvig, C. (2010). The Network in the Garden: Designing Social Media for Rural LifeAmerican Behavioral Scientist, 53 (9): 1367-1388.

 

Experimental Meat

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

(or: University Public Engagement — a New Meaning)

(click to enlarge)

That’s right, today’s topic is the sales room at the Meat Science Laboratory at 1503 South Maryland Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801. They sell meat. And they are at the Meat Science Laboratory.

If you go there does that mean you are eating experimental meat? Meat produced… for science? I asked the manager, and in fact that’s just what it means.

He assured me that everything was USDA inspected. Sure, sure. But what kind of science is this meat science? I asked him to give me an example of a research project involving this meat. He said that they did not talk about specific projects but that they were all run by University faculty members.

That sounds a little shady. I’d go to a hospital run by university faculty members. But a grocery store? A dog groomer? Would you go to a Pier One Imports run exclusively by university faculty members? It seems like a mismatch. Maybe that’s why my daughter is afraid to come here.

But I love it.

Where else can you get University-branded meat?  The University of Wisconsin–Madison has that crazy orange chocolate chip ice cream made at the university dairy.  We have this meat.

It’s fresh and tasty. You can meet the herd — some of them hang around a field on the south side of Windsor Road. Now that’s eating local.

I also asked the manager: are there any faculty meat research projects involving organic, grass-fed beef?  He said no. This was wishful thinking on my part. (Damn you, ConAgra!)

Why Isn’t the Internet a Required Course?

Monday, September 12th, 2011

(or: Why We Don’t Have Introductory Courses About the Internet)

I study the Internet. That’s what I do.

We’re coming up on the Internet’s 42nd birthday.  We just passed the Web’s 20th birthday.  Why is it so hard to teach freshmen about them?  

That is, why are so many of our courses about the Internet and digital media non-required electives? Why do we offer certificates and minors in “new media” and “digital media”?  Don’t those mean that a plain-old bachelor’s degree about media means “analog media” and new technologies are optional?

Media-related disciplines were originally founded to encompass, interrogate, and/or support particular technological forms and industries. Increasing professionalization in the press led to my university’s Journalism program in 1902, the rise of television led to the study of “mass” communication and the founding of the first communication research program here at Illinois in 1947, and so on.  The communication department here used to be dedicated to the medium of the human voice (it was the Department of Oration).

Although the media world has never been static, in the last 10 years computing, the Internet, and digital convergence have irrevocably transformed the technological forms and media industries that our system of undergraduate education has taken for granted. Yes, now we have new Internet Institutes, but what about all that older stuff still hanging around?

It’s a Great Career Move to Love Media

This link to real, material objects and systems is exciting. It presents a remarkable opportunity: media themselves, by most definitions of the word, are more popular than ever.

Declines in the use of traditional media forms are being matched and even exceeded by gains in attention made by new media (as video is replaced by gaming, or reading in print is replaced by reading online). It is commonly said that attention is shifting away from television, but the average American still spends around 5 hours per day watching video in some form, they simply use different devices (computers) and formats (YouTube, Facebook).

Indeed, newly vibrant media technologies have emerged and attracted very large and even unprecedented populations of devoted users and new libraries of content (e.g., gaming, smartphones, …). And undergraduate interest in media and communication related majors is increasing.

What is a “Media Job”?

But it’s common knowledge that this opportunity has been accompanied by turmoil in the media industries. As some of our media- and communications-related programs are committed to professional training and relationships with particular industries (Journalism, Cinema Studies, …), the disruption is obviously unprecedented.

This isn’t because the industry has gone away — rather we are still looking toward The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when we think about a “media company.” We should be looking at Microsoft, Zynga, Twitter, and more.

Even in media-related programs that employ a broadly-based liberal arts approach, substantial topical revision has been important to retain student interest.  And still the pace of change in the world has outstripped the University’s ability to adapt by a large margin (or a larger margin than usual).

So far, we at the university sort of suck at this digital media stuff.

Why are we so Out of Date?

Curriculum reform is — to put it bluntly — a monster.

It is a democratic process grounded in faculty governance and program autonomy. While a new course can be proposed by a faculty member or a doctoral student seeking to pursue their own teaching interests (or, ideally, student interests as well), curriculum reform can be an attempt to motivate changes among faculty who would not otherwise change. Or at least it can be an attempt to get those faculty to agree to new changes.

Some entrenched interests are likely to support any given status quo configuration of curricula, providing a great deal of inertia. Indeed, while curriculum changes may benefit student recruitment, satisfaction, and even learning, the faculty reward structure for curriculum reform is not clear at all, and it can be (in the worst case) a contentious, time-consuming process consisting mostly of meetings and negotiations.

In the best case, curriculum reform is organically motivated as a normal part of faculty professional responsibility and produces a renewed, shared vision that is in accord with educational mission of the discipline. Yet this is rare enough that programs in media and communications at other universities remain the “Department of Radio” when this does not describe them and give degrees in “Film” that do not involve cellulose acetate (film).

So we’re in this situation now:  Media careers are now increasingly information technology-related careers as the Internet and convergence has transformed these industries. Although it is crucial to continue to teach about media in a historically-grounded comparative way, beyond the valuable examples in comparative media history there isn’t much in the curriculum that refers to the present day and is “analog media.”  

Let’s go, “Digital 101.”

Goodbye, “New Media 599.”

This is overdue.

 

[Note: I cross-posted this at the Social Media Collective. –CS]

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