Monday, January 31, 2011

Digital Immortality

I woke up that morning not expecting to learn that a classmate had died after fighting cancer for almost 3 months. I also did not except to hear this tragic news through Facebook. My classmate’s name was Brittney, and even though we were not best friends, I was close to her. She was diagnosed with cancer months before her death, but I was still shocked to discover she was no longer with us. In the days that followed her death, I noticed on my Facebook’s newsfeed that many of her close friends wrote on her wall, offering passages and stories about how Brittney will be missed. It was nice to read all the comments that people posted and I felt a sense of comfort visiting her Facebook page as if she had never passed away. Even though Brittney was no longer with us, her Facebook page lives on.

A New York Times Article, Things to do in Cyberspace when you’re Dead mentioned, “Finding Solace in a Twitter feed may sound odd, but the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one.”

A lot of Brittney’s friends, including myself, used Facebook as a mechanism to help with the grieving process. Brittney’s Facebook page made people feel as if she was still alive because everything on her page was just how she left it. Her profile picture was the same, her statuses remained, and nowhere on the page did it announce she was dead. Just as people found peace in looking through Tonnies’s Tweets after he died, people did the same with Brittney’s Facebook page.

The question is how immortal are our digital lives? Is it someone’s responsibility to delete a Facebook account after that person dies? Who is responsible for doing that? If Brittney did not leave the password to her Facebook account, will Facebook provide her parents with that information? These questions are being asked more and more often with so many people now having a digital life. According to "Things to do in Cyberspace when you’re Dead", there are many “digital-estate-management services” that will manage a will, which includes passwords of different online accounts and who has access to them after one dies.

For Brittney’s case, I believe her Facebook page should remain accessible for her friends to visit and write on her wall when they miss her. Even though this enduring digital identity is not completely real, it is the closest humans have come to becoming immortal.

Is the Use of Technology Compromising with People's Safety?

“Stop, look, and listen,” are the three safety words I grew up reciting mentally to myself before crossing the street. Today, with technology making its way into our daily lives, the word “listen” is slowly being forgotten as more and more people are using iPods to listen to music while crossing the street. As people are tuning out external sounds from cars, more people are getting involved in car accidents. According to the New York Times article, States’ Lawmakers Turn Attention to the Dangers of Distracted Pedestrians three people have been killed since September as a result of listening to music while crossing the street in New York.

A bill is pending in the New York legislature that wishes to ban the use of distracting electronic devices like iPods and cellular phones while crossing the street. There should not have to be a bill placed in action for people to learn how to be responsible and remember those three words we all learned when we were in kindergarten. “Stop, look, and listen” are three actions that should be common sense to people while crossing the street. If technology is going to distract a runner from “stopping, looking, and listening” before crossing the street, then the runner should be able to make that decision whether or not to use their electronic device. Technology should not be held responsible people's lack of common sense.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

If it's not on Facebook, it's not official!

“Mom, I’ve been meaning to tell you this…but um, he asked me out…we are official now”
“Wow! That’s great!...but how come I haven’t seen it on Facebook yet?”

I’m sure this scenario is either familiar or sounds true enough to be real to most of us. Our generation seems to be not only physically or mentally dependent on online social networks, but also socially dependent. The most influential social network these days is Facebook, which has over 500 million active users worldwide. Facebook limits its users to one of six different “relationship statuses”, and also gives the option not to post a status at all. According to a Time Magazine article regarding Facebook relationships, 60% of Facebook users choose to post their relationship status. Interestingly enough, most of them are either “single” or “married”. It seems as if Facebook puts social pressure on its users to share as much as possible through the network with their friends or with the general public. Consequently, users post their pictures, locations, and common friends, and in addition-their personal relations with their “partners”.

By giving their users the decision whether to announce their new or current relationships or not, Facebook creates this social expectation, which most people want to meet. No one wants to date someone who refuses to be in a relationship on Facebook, while a person who is open to suggestions would want to keep his or her options open by making sure the word “single” is loud and clear on his/her page. Furthermore, Facebook makes it easier to follow your friends’ or acquaintances’ relationships, while also giving some insights for the gossipers in society. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing ten “Likes” or multiple congratulating, and sometimes dramatic comments about his or her own changed relationship status?

Other than students following their friends’ teenage on /off relationship statuses, adults also utilize Facebook as a reachable medium to publicize their current love life situation. I mean, it is much easier rejecting a romantic date by “friend requesting” your fellow worker, letting him see your page, rather than saying “Sorry, I’m engaged” face to face, right? In the same Time article, an engaged couple shared an interesting story about announcing their engagement to the world via a simple Facebook status change. After receiving an angry phone call, they realized they forgot to tell the news to their own parents who ended up finding out through the network. Evidently, society believes Facebook provides the best and fastest way to announce, share, track and comment about personal relationship statuses of the people around us. Without this wide updating network, people would feel “out of the loop” and would be less entertained by judging others’ decisions or following others’ achievements. Once again, we fall into the online trap- getting addicted to being constantly connected.

So bottom line, to share or not share?


Thinking back to my childhood, my experience was very different from that of my young cousins. My parents limited the amount of time spent watching television or on the computer to thirty minutes per day, and the only games we played were board games. It's quite obvious that my cousins and the majority of other children are growing up in a world that not only revolves around media but is completely dependent on it. Video games such as Wii and Xbox continue to provide entertainment and distraction for kids. The shocking expansion of media in our education system is a bit worrisome to me. It's as if we are developing the iSchool.

As technology continues growing and supposedly improving our lives, it has found its way into education. The New York Times recently reported on school districts in New York that have elected to change teaching methods in order to parallel technology. In Roslyn Heights, school administrators decided that the iPad and its applications offered great potential for learning, thus they allocated money toward buying iPads for students. English teacher Larry Reiff stated, "It allows us to extend the classroom beyond these four walls." Teachers believe that the iPad provides an efficient form of communication and accessibility to assignments for students and teachers. While I'm sure the iPad is a much more convenient and fun method of interacting and completing homework what happened to the plain old textbook or workbook?

While the latest and greatest technology is obviously a more exciting way for children to learn, it honestly seems a bit irresponsible for school administrators to be spending lavish amounts of money on technology, while teachers are being laid off and everyone is under the pressure of budget cuts. Truthfully, there is no way of knowing quite yet if being constantly connected is the best way for our children to learn, or if it is better to do things the old fashioned way. While we gain improvements in technology, we are losing the interpersonal connection between teacher and student. With that, are teachers and administrators losing track of their accountability because technology is simply "easier" than teaching face-to-face?

As technology continues improving it allows us to live easier lifestyles, because we have computers that can do things for us. In another New York Times article from December, the concept of computers taking over the jobs of administrators is brought up. Caveon Test Security is a company that uses computers to detect cheating, by comparing how similar right and wrong answers are between students sitting in close proximity. While the program has seen a 70% reduction in cheating, it allows teachers the flexibility to be less responsible in proctoring tests. So while computer programs can improve our lifestyles, we need to draw a line to avoid the temptation of being less accountable and abusing the opportunities technology provides.

Technology has obviously helped us make huge strides in education. However, there is also the risk of taking the easy road and being less responsible. As the iPad and computer programs begin to influence schools across the nation, I am worried that eventually all we will know is technology, and that education will become the iSchool. It is a common saying that our children are our future. We need to take caution in not sacrificing or losing the interpersonal relationships we have with each other to relationships with computers.

Online Identities: Opening the Door for Friends and Bullies

There was once a time when you played with who ever was on the playground. When the world extended only as far as the tan bark and you had to find self-validation in your fellow classmates. That time has been long forgotten as today’s youth now turns to a much higher power in their search for identity and acceptance. The power of the Internet has allowed people to find support for any aspect of their identity, and it has been a godsend for those who have recreated themselves via social networks. In the true spirit of postmodernism, many have begun to blur the borders of the self, abandoning the idea of a consistent self for online identities and profiles. These online avatars are worn and shed like clothes (Allison et al). However, the Internet has also given way to a new breed of bully that preys on the exposed and more sensitive parts of people’s identities.

The PBS documentary, Growing up Online (on reserve in Shields) shows teens who have used the Internet to find their niche and to locate others who support them. This affirmation can be beneficial as a depressed boy can receive much needed support or an adopted girl can find solace in others sharing her pain. On the other hand, some of the interviews in the documentary reveal darker forms of support. One girl found an online community of other anorexic teens that support her disorder, encouraging her to eat less and be skinnier. For better or worse, affirmation is now just a click away as individuals from across the world can band together.

The anonymity afforded by the Internet has acted as a stepping-stone for the shy or socially challenged. What you could not say on the playground you can say online. Jumping at the promise of affirmation, many have begun to express what they where afraid to, uploading parts of themselves onto the Internet. Psychologists have begun to utilize this in therapy for those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although being constantly connected can help a shy individual break out of their shell, it also opens the door for bullies to get in and directly attack aspects of a person’s identity.

In his dissertation, William Woolley found that there is a statistically significant link between schoolyard bullies and cyberbullies. The Internet does not mutate a person into a bully, but acts as a force multiplier, giving new powers to an old bully. This new breed of bully is devastating, and unlike the schoolyard bully, it does not stop at the end of recess or even at the end of class.

The Internet can expose vulnerable aspects of individuals on an extremely public stage. What makes this worse is that many have voluntarily put parts of them selves up for everyone to see and attack. In his book, The Saturated Self, Kenneth J. Gergen argues that traditional ideas of a concrete identity have given way to the dissolution of the self in Postmodernism. We no longer cling to a constant identity but play different roles, breaking our selves up into online profiles. As Turkle, a 19-year-old mentioned in “The Development of the self in the Era of the internet and Role-Playing Fantasy Games” (Allison et al) put it: “you can have a sense of self without being one self.” By posting these parts of our identity online, one invites others in, and runs the risk of having ones secrets and self critiqued on a permanent and global stage.

The Postmodern dissolution of the self onto the Internet has proved a double-edged sword. Individuals can now seek affirmation for any aspect of their identity and have opened up in order to do this. However, cyberbullies can target these presented parts of people’s identities and do devastating psychological and social damage. This begs a few questions: Why are the assaults on our online identities so devastating if Internet avatars are seen as roles, personas we can don and shed? Why is cyber bullying seen as a more rampant and extreme problem if Woolley is correct that the Internet does not create a bully?

A New Perspective on Gamers

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a gamer? Face it; you think about a pale-skinned, antisocial guy who spends a majority of his time playing a video game like World of Warcraft--at least I do. It wasn’t until I saw a 2006 report on 60 Minutes, titled Cyber Athlete Fatal1ty, that my view of gamers changed drastically.

Correspondent Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes introduces the best cyber competitor in America, a man in his mid twenties by the name of Jonathan Wendel, better known by his gamertag Fatal1ty. During an era when parents and experts discourage an extensive amount of video game playing, Wendel is making a living as a professional gamer. Over his six year career, Wendel earned over $300,000 in tournaments and was projected to make an additional million dollars from his “Fatal1ty” products. Wendel is one of many cyber athletes who are emerging from an increasingly popular sport: professional gaming.

As outrageous as that statement sounds, every sport has a beginning and its share of skepticism. Who would have thought that throwing a ball into a basket would become the global attraction known as basketball? The same can be said for soccer, which is basically eleven guys competing to kick a ball into a box. Professional gaming is an up-and-coming sport that has already hit its stride in South Korea, where Starcraft tournaments attract 100,000 viewers. Its top players make hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to being some of the most adored people in Korea.

In 2006, 60 Minutes anticipated that the competitive gaming scene would hit America soon, just as extreme sports had done a decade earlier. Today, professional gaming exists on a much larger scale. South Korea is still home to some of the highest level Starcraft gamers, and the recent release of Starcraft 2 brought even more players and craze to cyber gaming. Major League Gaming, the governing body of cyber gaming in America, hosts tournaments attracting a plethora of cyber athletes.

This new perspective has been quite illuminating for me. I always thought that gamers were people who did not have their priorities in the right order, and I never thought that they could make a living from gaming. Little did I know that there was a world where people play video games for a living. I cannot help but feel envious of them; after all, is it not everyone’s desire to find a fun job that they love? As much as we’d like to deny it, Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel has fulfilled that desire.

List of Sources:;lst;6

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Anonymity in Cyberspace: Faceless Cage-Fighting from the Safety of Your Home?

Last week, 17-year-old Kayla, a girl from my theatre community in my hometown, stood up on stage and “came out” to her high school at an all-school assembly. She did not do this just to inform the world that she was gay; in a powerful and touching speech, she cracked open the taboos and barricades surrounding the acceptance of gay teens and gay marriage. Kayla’s speech was heartfelt and brave as she spoke about a personal subject that is very controversial. Kayla’s words were not confined to the time and space of the assembly, however; a video of her speech was posted on Youtube.

I was one of the very first people to watch the video on Youtube. I immediately posted the video onto my Facebook to share it with all of my online friends. By the end of the day, thirty of my friends had reposted the video. After three days, all of our friends and many friends of friends had seen the video. After six days, almost everyone in my hometown had seen or at least heard of Kayla’s speech. It was the talk of the town. It did not stop there; after a week, the video went beyond the boundaries of people who know Kayla: the video went viral.

Before the video went viral, the comment section was full of friend and family’s support, love, and admiration. As the video began to spread, complete strangers praised her words, her bravery, and her message. The upheaval of positive support was enormous. Yesterday, however, as the video reached 16,000 views since it was posted last Monday, some anonymous person wrote a short and hateful comment violently opposing not just the girl’s argument, but also the girl and everyone who supported her. There was an instant outcry against this comment, and things immediately got messy: the comment forum exploded into a battleground against this negative comment. It was like Pandora’s box had been cracked open: everyone began hashing out their opinions against the offender in a brusque manner. A few more rude and negative comments against Kayla’s argument appeared. These negative comments sparked angry and sometimes equally hurtful responses. Even the people who were against the comment were violent in the way the dealt with and answered the original offender. 

The conversations soon escalated into branched-out cyberspace fights, and soon a large majority of the conversation threads on the comment page no longer had anything to do with the actual video. Instead, every few seconds new comments would appear to bash apart a previous commentator. The majority of the people shooting angry comments back and forth did not even make an effort to censor what they were saying by trying to be polite and reasonable. Those that tried to do this initially quickly became incensed by the “ignorance” or unwillingness for the offender to see their point of view.

I was left wondering: what on Earth made it all right for people to brawl in such an undignified way on a public forum? Part of the answer, without a doubt, is the veil of anonymity cloaking a person to the point where they find themselves at liberty to say whatever they please, no matter how insensitive, hurtful or extreme. The comment section for Kayla’s video has turned into a bitter brawl as angry comments are flung back and forth between completely anonymous people. These people stopped arguing about the video and started openly insulting each other with profanities and accusations, most of which have nothing to do with any of the issues presented in Kayla's argument. 

What does this say about the power of anonymity in such a public forum? It allows people to say violent things that they would never say in person. Yet from the safety of their perch behind their computer screen, a person can say anything that they please and distance themselves emotionally from the repercussions their words might cause.

As of this afternoon, the video has jumped from the 16,000 views it had yesterday to a whopping 70,000 hits. Since this morning, over 600 comments have accumulated in the comment forum. Watching a video spread so rapidly and generate such a large response is an eye-opening vision of the strange functions of this modern world of cyberspace. It leaves me with these questions: is it OK to argue in this uncivilized, potentially hurtful way on a public forum? Or has the internet reduced human disagreements into faceless cage-fighting from the safety of your home? 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tunisia: Trouble in Paradise

Flash back a little more than one month ago to December 17th of 2010—Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian citizen and recent college graduate with a computer science degree, had started a fruit and vegetable stand to make ends meet. There was already a sense of unrest n the air as Tunisia was supposedly undergoing some of the worst unemployment rates in recent history as well as a spike in food prices across the country.

Due to Mohamed’s lack of a vending license, authorities shut down his cart, confiscated his wares, and were even said to have slapped him around a bit. In protest over a lack of jobs, Mohamed set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, in front of a government building in an act of self-immolation. I seriously doubt that he had any idea of how great the scope of events his actions sparked would turn out to be: Mohamed became a symbol of resistance in the Arab world as several others copied his self-immolation protest in Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. While he survived the initial suicide attempt, he died later in the hospital after a visit from the President Ben Ali.

Mohamed’s death turned out to be the United States’ equivalent of “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775. Thousands took to the streets in protest of the government and of how the country’s leader received 90% of the vote over multiple elections and had been in power for over twenty years along with the issues mentioned in the first lines of this post.

This might have all fizzled out with the government either making a few concessions to smoothen out relations thereby calming down some of the more moderate protestors, or simply with the passing of time. The government’s reaction, however, would be their undoing. According to a BBC article published earlier today, between January 8th-10th, there were dozens of reported deaths during the protests.

Many have referred to this movement and these protests as a social media, and more specifically, a Twitter revolution. There is some credence to these claims as protesters organized and spread the word through their use of Twitter and Facebook. There is no doubt that technology and the newfound connectivity between Tunisians, in how their plight was played out in the eyes of the international community, played a huge role in the sacking of the interior minister, the dissolving of the parliament and Ben Ali’s subsequent flight.

Many claim, however, that it would be inaccurate to attribute this revolution to social media as there was already great dissatisfaction with the government and how Ben Ali and his wife’s families seemed to own every big business in Tunisia. Apparently they possessed extravagant wealth even as the rest of the country struggled to get by. Condoleezza Rice, in a state visit to Tunisia during the Bush administration, praised the country for its stability. The price of this stability, however, was limited freedoms in press and television as well as an excessive display of propaganda around the capital city.

But would the protests have been remotely as successful (I’m using the word “successful” very loosely as the killings were inexcusable) without mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs? I don’t think so. But what really charged the atmosphere for us in the United States (who in general are oblivious to the struggles of those outside our own country) were the videos rife with acts of violence posted online as well as the cables released by WikiLeaks which assert, in detail, the corruption of Ben Ali’s administration.

Here's Obama's take on the situation:

"I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people."

But there’s little value in arguing the case, what matters is what lies ahead for Tunisia and its people, and whether there are further implications for other oppressed nations and whether these tools promoting connectivity will play a role in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. Already there is evidence of this as Slim Amamou, one of the most prominent bloggers in Tunisia, accepted the post of Secretary of Youth and Sport. He has promised to keep the people updated via Twitter and would like for other cabinet members to also use Twitters as a means of communicating with citizens.

Currently, with no opposition leaders taking the mantle of leadership, Ben Ali’s Prime Minister has taken control and the future of the country is uncertain, though he has promised to step down as soon as elections are conducted democratically. I suppose all that’s left to do now is wait and see what’s next.


Professor Pruitt has brought it to my attention that there is a discrepancy between my source, International Business Times, and NPR with regards to Mohamed Bouazizi's academic standing. In my post, I stated that he had graduated from college with a computer science degree, but the more recently published article from NPR says that he had dropped out of high school. Wikipedia agrees with NPR.

Also, I read an article titled "Tunisian TV boss arrested for 'treason' as popular station that supported deposed president is closed down." I highly recommend checking it out if you want to follow up on the country's progress.

Other sources: