Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Media, Old Framework

I attended a taping of Al Jazeera's Empire, at the Columbia School of Journalism yesterday. Some of the panelists were Carl Bernstein, Amy Goodman, Evgeny Morozov, and Clay Shirky. Although some interesting, Twitter-friendly sound-bytes were said, ultimately there was little new or insightful, which was rather disappointing, given the combined (and individual) intelligence and experience onstage.

The main focus was new media and Egypt. But new media, or social media, was never defined, and at one point we watched Al Jazeera (television, which is old media) over the internet (which is new media). Clearly the two are not distinct. Maybe everyone except me knew it was a straw man argument.

Amy Goodman complained how only in two places in the US can you receive Al Jazeera over cable TV, which is a good point, except that you can watch it anywhere you like as long as you have an internet connection: Wasn't that the point of the internet, at least from ten years ago? You can go watch it right now if you like. Given that we had just watched President Obama on Al Jazeera streaming over the internet there in the room, and NYC is not one of the two places you can get Al Jazeera in the US over cable, it was a strange thing to say (although I agreed with her, but still).

Shirky had the odd claim that the cell phone network (which was mostly ignored in the discussion) and the internet were essentially the same, since cell phones can push and pull info over the net. That much is true, from the user's viewpoint, but the way they are run (in terms of organizations and technologically) and the way they are regulated can be very different from country to country. Also, 20 years ago I would sit in my dorm room and connect to BITNET over my modem, but no one would have said the phone system was a part of the internet.

Morozov had the nice point that the internet is neither necessary nor sufficient for revolutions, and he is 100% correct on that point. Revolutions have happened before the year 1990, and they have failed since (Iran is one). He had some nice points about other media being used to aid communication in older revolutions (like tape cassettes, I think). By understanding the common motivations behind using communication technologies to spread messages during different periods of civil upheaval (cassette tapes and broadcast TV in the past; Twitter, SMS, and satellite TV today), we can understand the important features and affordances of the technologies, and can make sure we build those into future technologies and try to protect them legally and technologically. (Much could be written about that, I will not try to do so here.)

Everyone did agree that revolutions are a form of organization, and organization takes communication, and that people will communicate with the best tools they have at hand. Today that is indeed some of the digital, online, internet, Facebook, Twitter, whatever you want to call them, whatever their labels are today, forms. But this media ecology also includes television, cell phones, and face to face, and a good analysis and understanding of human behavior has to include all of the behaviors, not just the newest and coolest ones.

The most annoying part of the taping was at the beginning when we were all told to turn off our cell phones, since the wireless headsets of the camera people and the producers were running into interference problems (I thought this was why we had regulation about these things). No Twitter for you! Tons of people tweeted and re-tweeted the same sound bytes over and over, they may have been in the room or in the overflow room. The needs of old media (TV) had triumphed over new media.

The most amusing part of the taping was when the make-up person powdered Shirky's head.

The biggest let down was that Shirky and Morozov did not come to fisticuffs. People on the internet love to say how they are polar opposites on this Egyptian/revolution/Twitter discussion. They're not. They were seated far apart from each other. They actually agreed on mostly everything. Morozov had a wide range of examples of revolutions. Shirky had a nice analytical point, questioning when do we define the beginning of a revolution? Egypt had several uprisings and riots previously, they could easily be counted as "the start" of this most recent action.

All of this left me wondering about new media and old media. If I can get Al Jazeera (old) over the internet (new), then what does that mean about "old" and "new" media? I think it means the framework is not useful.

The alternate framework, more in use lately, is "social media," such as Facebook. I originally got on Facebook since a friend of mine, in about 2004, wanted to see what her undergraduate students were doing on this new (to UM) medium, but she didn't want her own account: Could she use my email address to sign up? (Facebook was still restricted to selected universities at that point.) She spent the next two hours laughing, reading some things to me (all of which were hysterical), but also exclaiming how some recent find was amazing but totally inappropriate to read to me out loud in a coffeeshop. She would turn the laptop around so I could read the post in question, and indeed, many were completely inappropriate to read out loud with other people around.

If you had told me then that a website, which was restricted to a few American universities and was exclusively used by American undergraduates to post writing that could not be read out loud in a coffeeshop, would, six or seven years later be used to foment revolutions and topple governments, I would have thought you were insane.

And you would have been, since that's not the Facebook we have anymore. It's open to everyone, and millions around the world can use it. And this is, I think, where we find the real difference between the things we are talking about when we talk about new media, old media, and social media.

It is a question of both content production and ease of group formation.

Newspapers have global distribution. They are all over the world. There isn't any one newspaper that you can get everywhere, maybe the International Herald Tribune (aka the New York Times), the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, or the Guardian (yes, all in English, but ok Le Monde maybe). You can write in and maybe they will print your letter to the editor.

The internet, too, is found all over the world. And newspapers are found on it.

But with the internet, so many more people can make content. And although the majority of content is, like so many academic journal articles, unread, it is much easier to find things online, and when you find written things, you often find the person who did the writing.

So I think that is the big difference, which is why "social media" is a better term than "new media." Social media let us create content, find content, and find the people who made that content much easier, and on a much larger scale, than ever before. Once we find those people, we can connect with them in some way: follow their Twitter feed, "like" or join a group they made on Facebook, or some other type of connection. And, thinking of Morozov's warnings about how the internet makes surveillance easy (in the 1990s we would have mentioned Bentham and the Panopticon), notice that I did not mention type of use, or who is finding who and following them: it could be friends, it could be the police arm of an oppressive state. The technology is, to some extent, use-neutral.

A small aside about industry, which wonders why we write-off television:

Television has done well in the last 20 years, there are many, many more channels than there used to be. Al Jazeera is one. In 1980 in the US, most likely you could only get the local, over the air broadcast channels, some of which would be part of a national network like NBC or PBS, however they were all ultimately local channels. Now you can get channels from all over the world, in all sorts of languages (I can get Spanish, various Asian languages, I think I've seen Greek, there are probably others, there's the BBC America of course). And there are many, many more channels (I do not actually know how many I get, well over 100), and most of them are national and have no local presence to speak of. I do not have satellite, but I have friends who do, and I am under the impression that there can be many, many more channels available.

The internet... well in terms of business, it's different. It did very badly ten years ago when the dot-com bubble burst.

But there are different components to both of these industries. The internet has, for instance, backbone providers, local connection providers (so, mine is Time/Warner sans AOL), web site hosting companies, blog posting sites, content providers like Apple/iTunes, Hulu, the New York Times, Gawker, and Salon, but also entities like Amazon who sell physical goods (and yes digital music and digital books). Television (from a US perspective) has local broadcasters, national networks (like NBC), national channels (like AE or Sy Fy), but also all of the production studios, cable providers, and satellite providers. Content production is not enough for success, as public-access cable was a huge failure in the US: the content produced by the local people who cared was generally terrible and no one watched. Yet do the same thing, generally speaking, on YouTube, and it might work--but the distribution is totally different (as is, I suspect, the content of successful non-professional material when compared to local access cable). (Sorting? Wider distribution? Sharing? The "long tail" of terrible material... You can't have the "short head" of great stuff without the long tail, but with searching and "liking" and such you can more easily find the "short head" that you're looking for. Something like that.)

This is, perhaps, an important distinction between "old" media and "new" media: New media such as Facebook and Twitter have corporate structures that are not at all connected to the content-generation of their sites or the editing of that content, but yet many "old" media have the two bound together -- the writers, content creators, and editors are all employees; not so for the masses of FB and tweet-land. Cell phones, as part of the telephone network, are interesting since today "smart phones" are really mini-computers with phones built-in, but phone networks have been around for over 100 years and we have always been able to speak our minds on them. Phones were not a communication tool with an easily-achieved wide reach. Yes you could call anyone, but calling everyone was much harder, even one-at-a-time or with a phone tree, where you call five people (5) who then call five people (5^2=25 + 5 =30) who each then call five more (5^3=125 + 30 = 155), etc. (People invented that method, that system, in order to reach more people--that is simply what we do, via whatever technology, and the current ones are the best we have for doing so.) I cannot fit phones easily into this framework, which shows that the framework isn't quite right, but also that we have diverse communication tools at hand, and that those tools in turn have diverse functions. This, I think, is a good thing.

In the end, it appears that if you put the tools of production into the hands of the people, great things happen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hulk Smash

Here's an image to go along with my story about Feep and the Purple Pants, which sounds like a Encyclopedia Brown story but isn't. I didn't want to grab one off the internet, this is a picture I took of a guy's sweatshirt (you can see the drawstrings).

The Hulk's pants... they are always purple, and torn. Bruce Banner could be wearing a three-piece suit or a bathing suit yet the Hulk always ended up in torn purple pantaloons pants (the pantaloons are the EverQuest II version, which is the point of the story).

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Big Words and Small Ideas (and Reviewers)

I've been reading cartoons over at The Oatmeal, and I wish I could apply The Oatmeal's sensibilities to some reviewer comments I just received from ICA. Let us explore why. (Reviewer comments are a topic I have discussed before not once but twice at least.)

My paper title: Look at the Toilet I Made for My Avatar! Community-Building Through Meaningless Elements in MMOs.

Status: ACCEPTED at ICA. Bold, italics, all caps, you heard that right.

The "toilet" part is a narrative hook, something absurd but relevant and in the paper, designed to peak readers' curiosity. Really it's about the sub-title, and the toilet is an example of such a meaningless element. I use EverQuest II (EQII) as my exemplar. Communities are important.

Comments from first reviewer: None.
Summary: Useless.

Comments from second reviewer: "The author looks at the concept of transportation, which is operationalized..."
Summary: You're kidding, right? The word "transportation" is not actually in the paper. There is one paragraph that mentions the work of another researcher who mentioned in-game travel. I certainly don't operationalize it. Did this reviewer read the paper?

Comments from third reviewer: I don't even know where to start.
Summary: Useless cultural studies dreck. Not that all cultural studies is useless, I know they get defensive about that, some is quite good, but, to roughly quote my former advisor and cultural studies giant, Susan Douglas, there are a lot of universities that crank out useless and wrong-headed cultural studies people. (Michigan is not one of them, thank you, although my degree is not in cultural studies.)

Let us take two three comments from this reviewer.

Apparently, I "...reference Durkheim, Goffman, and Carey almost as an aside in an unconvincing discussion about ritual."

Except no. This reference is in the discussion. The discussion is supposed to be concise, and you don't explain every piece of literature in the same manner as you do in the literature review (the literature review is still concise, though). And, I discuss certain practices, such as online weddings, and also holidays in-game (so, the EQII version of Christmas, and Halloween, for example). Weddings are ritual. Holidays, especially and obviously ones with religious meaning or origin, are ritual. Weddings have deep historical and religious origins. Maybe the reviewer doesn't like how I discuss ritual, but it should be in there (all three theorists talk about ritual and community, so it is relevant). "Christmas", for example, does not exist in EQII. This is a fictional world with elves, there are no Christians. Jesus Christ and whatever Roman holiday Christmas usurped do not exist in this fictional world, nor are they part of the backstory. "Christmas" is turned into "Frostfell." It is still ritual, and it still has pro-community functions, just like our Christmas does.

The reviewer also says, "The paper would be substantially improved by more deeply immersing itself in the canonical cultural/critical literature on how cultural meaning is produced, appropriated, maintained, and challenged."
Uh, no. This is not a cultural/critical studies paper. I do not look at how "cultural meaning is produced, appropriated, maintained, [or] challenged" at all. That is not this paper. That could be some other paper with the same examples, but not this one. I look at how cultural meaning is used in order to create community by whatever terms you want to use to talk about it (groups, strong ties, bridging or bonding, etc.). But I especially consider how items which, in-game, do not have meaning for advancing one's character or for the narrative of the game, such as toilets or weddings or Frostfell, serve to advance community.

This reviewer also uses the words emic, etic, and ludic, none of which I like in the least. I do not even know what emic and etic mean, although I looked them up once. They are just not used in the literature of the academic areas where I reside. Using them identifies you as an insider to some evil academic cult, I am sure. Let us observe the sentence that contains them.

"The methods section makes an unconvincing case for the trade-offs between emic and etic approaches to participant observation..."

Given that I don't use the words emic or etic, I don't see how I can be making a case for the trade-offs between them. Pretty amazing that I manage that. I could be making a case for what they actually mean, but (after having looked them up), I'm not doing that. I just point out how some people use participant-observer to study virtual worlds and MMOs. Some people use other methods. I just reviewed my methods section, and there is no discussion of any trade-offs in any way at all. None. Given it's a lit review (but yes in the methods section, for the methods lit), should I....
  1. Review the literature about virtual worlds and MMOs; or,
  2. Ignore what other people have written about virtual worlds and MMOs.
I vote for #1. So do 5/5 PhDs (ok I asked myself five times, but I was amazingly consistent).

Emic: I don't actually have anything to say about Emic since I really, honestly, have no idea what the heck it means. I just don't. I have a PhD from one of the best universities in the world and I'm Phi Beta Kappa in college. This means, I am the man. But I don't know these words. I don't like them, I don't use them. I could tell you more about unicorns, and they're totally imaginary (sorry to tell you if you didn't know). Let us turn to... be seated for this... Wikipedia. I know, I know, I can hear your complaints already.

They are so... well I've been judgmental enough already... they are so useless on their own as to be joined as one in the same Wikipedia article. And the discussion page is much longer than the page itself (never a good sign, but always fun to go read it).

As the article points out, these are just fancy buzzwords for "insider" and "outsider" points of view. One might also use "subjective" and "objective" as well, but we don't really need to get into a discussion of "objective" right now.

Etic: I can't recall if this is the "insider" point of view, or the "outsider" point of view, and it's irrelevant since I should never see these words again. Nor should you. (It's the outsider point of view. Well that's what the Wikipedia page says, that could change at any time.)

Oh wait I am horribly wrong, this reviewer does not use the word "ludic." But they could have. Someone must have, somewhere, since I block out emic and edic and etic or whatever they are. I think edic and emic (e-mic?) must have reminded me of ludic, since they are all horrible words that should never be used, can be expressed with much more simple words that have actual meaning, and they all sound alike (I think they all rhyme with "BLARGH!").

I apologize to reviewer #3. You are, nonetheless, still misguided about the direction my paper should go in. (It is where it needs to go, already!) And you used... those two words I can't even recall how to spell them, they are so bad my brain refuses to contain them. They are cast out.

Ludic: This means gaming, or of games. There is nothing wrong with the word gaming, except it doesn't sound very cool or academic. "Ludic", which is Latinate, sounds much more official. This is the view of people who want to study games, and play them (heaven forbid), but don't take gaming seriously, so they need a fancy word to make their activities defensible.
"Are you a gamer?"
"Oh good Lord no! I'm ludic."
"Oh, I see." (Quietly shuffles far, far away from our ludic friend.)

When you pull this crap, the corpse of Mark Twain should rise from the grave and give you a good buggering. If you can't explain yourself in plain language, then don't explain yourself, but especially don't make up words to tart up what it is you're trying to say. If what you're trying to say is so boring that you need the word "ludic" to help you out then you shouldn't be speaking in the first place. Yes, I know, the originator of the word, Huizinga, is the ancient god of game studies, and we all have to bow down at his altar and cite his Homo Ludens work to show the reviewers we know what we are talking about, or else we're not in the cult actually knowledgeable about game studies and oh just reject my paper already. And if you think I'm too pedestrian because I used insider instead of... etic? emic? I don't care, whichever one, then please, please reject my paper, because I don't want to know you.

Edit: Here are some guidelines from George Orwell.
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.