Living Room Ideas

17 Jun


Redefining Privacy

8 Nov

This is going to be my last post based on class readings and discussions, and the pressure is on to make it my best. Well, the semester also happens to be kicking into high gear, giving me less time than usual to spend carefully piecing my thoughts together. On the flip side, though, I do happen to care quite deeply about our latest topic: Wikileaks and similar secret spilling.

I’ll start off by being blunt. I don’t consider Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Bradley (Chelsea) Manning heroes by any definition of the word.

From what I had read or heard about Assange before, my opinion was that he was an oddball. After reading a couple articles about him, I’m convinced he’s a major oddball with serious authority issues. This article from the New Yorker detailing his childhood and personal life I’ll admit that I found interesting. Though he’s considered an internet “activist” and according to some, espouses the ideals of transparency and government accountability, I get the sense his actions have more to do with a selfish “stick it to the man” attitude than they do about truly championing a more noble cause. He himself, and the way Wikileaks dishes out dirt, are also protected by pretty strict security and secrecy, so I’d say he’s more of a hypocrite than a hero. That’s why I really appreciate this article by Jaron Lanier in the Atlantic.

Edward Snowden is all over the news, especially recently, having released his “manifesto,” which I think isn’t all that significant except for the fact that he finally acknowledges electronic spying is not something just the U.S. does (no, really?!!). This is an assumption but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe that most all other countries can and do spy as well, to the degree they can. Espionage is not a new, uniquely American practice, so I think all this hullabaloo has more to do with the fact that something traditionally kept in the dark (they don’t call it clandestine for nothing) was blasted out to the public forcing everyone, from neighbor Bob to foreign heads of state, to take notice and express outrage. And I get that – I’d be annoyed too if someone was spying on me.

And yes, maybe there are some legit concerns about the NSA’s alleged “spying” (or, as I think of it, nebulous collection of data) on some U.S. citizens, but I think the bigger issue now is that we (especially in the U.S.) need to somehow clearly define our new, fair expectation of privacy in the digital age. We then then need to make sure our laws reflect that expectation, so that agencies trying to protect us have a clear framework to do their jobs legally and within explicit bounds.  My biggest issue with Snowden is that if he did strongly believe that a certain practice underway at his agency was illegal, he could have first taken steps within the government, such as filing a complaint with his agency’s inspector general to have them take a crack at the issue instead of going straight to the press and leaking secrets he swore he would protect. He knew exactly what he agreed to when he signed up for the job, and in my book, going back on your word signifies a pretty serious character flaw. Even if he thought it was for the “right” reasons, he knew he was breaking the law, big time. #noforgiveness.

Finally, though we didn’t read much about Bradley (Chelsea) Manning for class, just reading her Wikipedia page gives one a sense of how troubled she was on a number of levels. Not in a million years would I defend her actions, but I do at least get a sense that emotional disorder and/or mental illness may have played a role…

This sort of thing is bound to happen again, and likely not just in the U.S.. That’s why I’ll stress again that we need to come to terms with realistic expectations of privacy, and redefine what we mean by it. In this new definition of privacy, we’ll need to think long and hard about what we’re willing to sacrifice for either more privacy or for more security, or strive to achieve some healthy balance between both. Considering how polarized our nation is getting, this will be no easy feat, but the optimistic realist in me says we’re already on that path, so some kind of a reasonable resolution will have to come about sooner or later.

The Art of Online Persuasion

30 Oct

heels and vogue

Lately I really have been enjoying our readings and discussions for Media, Politics, and Power. We’re past the technical stuff (which was cool in its own way) and are now diving into the politics of it all. Specifically, we are looking at how various campaigns have used digital media extensively and have gotten pretty significant results. Obviously we have discussed the most well-known cases of online political strategy, the Obama campaigns of both 2008 and 2012, but some of the other ones are clever too, and have got me thinking about how media strategy really can be a …(I hate this phrase but can’t think of another)…”game changer.”

We read one article on Senator Harry Reid’s re-election campaign, and in it one of the primary players behind the success candidly lays out exactly how they executed their online campaign strategy with great results. You can read that article here. Some parts of the article reminded me of The Triangle, like when the author talks about “layering.” It’s not just online media strategy that makes a difference; combining it with other, more traditional forms of campaign advertising like mail and television works best. He also explains how they kept flash ads and banner ads concise and crisp, with images that would stick with viewers (usually negative about the other candidate) to ensure maximum persuasiveness. As someone who can be overly verbose at times, I appreciate the effectiveness of a few cleverly placed images and strong words…this is key, because if someone is online, they are online for a purpose, so your advertisement isn’t really going to capture much of their attention. If you make it stand out, though, even on the periphery it may be effective enough to the degree that you need it to be.

The fact that I find this stuff fascinating now is kind of funny, because I had the chance before to hear from someone very involved in online campaigning but didn’t, at the time, quite grasp its coolness. In 2009 I lived in a row house near Capitol Hill with two other gals, both of whom were intelligent, accomplished, and courteous housemates to live with – in fact, it was the best living arrangement I ever had in DC, largely due to their collective awesomeness.

Anyway, one of them worked for Blue State Digital, which had run Obama’s 2008 media campaign (and she subsequently went on to work for Obama’s 2012 campaign in Chicago). Though I remember at the time thinking that was cool, I specifically remember hearing her once in the kitchen talk about how they were also doing some online media campaign-type thing for Vogue magazine. That immediately caught my attention, and all of sudden she became the coolest person in the house! Why I got more excited about her stories of doing online strategy for Anna Wintour and crew than I did about how she helped elect the President is beyond me…okay, actually, I’ll admit, I love fashion, and had recently seen both “The Devil Wears Prada” (Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief, is said to have inspired the character of Miranda Priestly) and “The September Issue” (a great documentary on how Vogue produces their biggest issue of the year). But seriously, if I could go back in time I’d hit her up for more stories about the specific online tactics BSD used during Obama’s 2008 campaign, maybe even how one could use such tactics outside of the political arena (as I might plan to do sometime in the future). Thanks to social media, we are still Facebook friends, so I was able to reach out to her a day or so ago to say hello and to give her kudos for her contributions to and participation in the realm of online media campaigning. Maybe one of these days we’ll be back in the same city and we’ll be able to catch up over coffee, and I’ll get that the chance to pick her brain again on this cool new art (or is it a science?)…

The Triangle and the Tea Party

15 Oct


In one of my earlier blog posts, “Power to the People,” I discussed a paradigm shift in power thanks to the internet and the capabilities it provides the masses, and one aspect I touched on was that of bloggers and their new-found influence.

But this week we read about the power of political blogging and how it measures up to, or rather, works with two other major elements within the political construct to form what Peter Daou refers to as the Triangle. Before explaining the Triangle, I’ll mention that Daou first defines political influence as “the capacity to alter or create conventional wisdom;” in other words, when something or someone has political influence, she/he/it can help shape our thoughts and beliefs, which can lead to action.

The Triangle, boiled down to the basics, is the idea that in the political realm, three entities that together can create conventional wisdom are bloggers (Daou uses the term “netroots”), the political establishment (party bigwigs) and the media. Daou gives examples of how political blogging in and of itself is not really powerful, but when woven into a strategy within a party, effectively utilizing the establishment and the media, well, now we’re talking business. I’ll stress that doesn’t mean political bloggers aren’t powerful – they just need to be supported by the media (or, as we saw in the Trent Lott case, getting the media to push a story) and they need to have the party higher-ups on board echoing similar sentiment.

Daou wrote this article in 2005, and at the time he was more critical of the Democrats and their dysfunctional triangle than he was of the Republicans (he criticized them too, but also gave them credit for having a more solid framework in which all three legs of the triangle worked together, and as such appeared more politically influential at the time).

Fast forward eight years and here we are, in the midst of a government shutdown, with the blame game in full swing. This time, the Democrats seem to be holding up well, but what the heck is going on with the Republicans? Two words: Tea Party. With the stunts they’ve pulled leading up to and during this crisis, those clowns have really turned the DC circus into the Greatest (political joke of a) Show on Earth!

I will disclose that I am a registered independent – I really am, and though I get annoyed when my Democrat friends think I’m a Republican and my Republican friends think I’m a Democrat, I suppose that only proves I’m genuinely grounded somewhere in the sense-making middle. I usually shy away from making strong political statements and tend to keep my opinions to myself on politically charged topics.  But not now, not after having read the Triangle, which I think may be the key…wait for it….

The Republican Triangle needs to mobilize itself ASAP and create the conventional wisdom needed to separate itself from the Tea Party, an awful parasite that is driving middle-grounders away in droves. To be perfectly blunt, I can’t stomach the thought of politically aligning myself with a party that tolerates an intolerant, highly vocal and obstructive group of irrational fear-mongers, many of whom barely veil their racist and xenophobic undertones.

This is why I was so relieved to read David Frum on CNN essentially welcoming Tea Partiers to get the heck out of the Republican Party once and for all. Though just one brief article, it offered a glimmer of hope. Where are the other conservative bloggers? Come on, guys! Your party needs you! Much of the media has picked up on the lunacy of the Tea Party, but Fox News could do a better job of it (maybe they will if more conservative bloggers rise to the occasion). I think the most crucial side of the triangle in this case, the traditional Republican establishment, has been the quietest and the weakest, apparently terrified of the likes of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin. Mainstream GOP leaders need to somehow find the courage to stand up to the Tea Party bullies to get their party back in line.

If the conservative triangle doesn’t gear up and fix this, the ramifications extend well beyond just the boundaries of the GOP.  As long as the Tea Party remains a fixture within the Republican Party, the GOP will remain a mess. That can only mean one thing for people like me: that our two-party system in actuality offers only one choice.

Wikipedia Review

1 Oct


We’ve now started to study the phenomenon known as Wikipedia. In addition to reading The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia, we have also been asked to create our own Wikipedia page, and to post an evaluation of any other Wikipedia page concerning something in which we have some expertise.  I’m saddened to have to admit that other than some work-related things I probably shouldn’t blog about, I don’t have much expertise in anything… besides maybe the various flavors at Yogurtland. Well, since I’m now living in the great city of Boston, I’m going to use this opportunity to critique the Wikipedia page of one of my all-time favorite movies: The Departed.  I’d say that since I’ve watched the movie countless times and own it on DVD, have much of the soundtrack on iTunes, and happen to be a huge fan of pretty much the entire cast, I could be thought of as an “expert” on it.

The Departed’s Wikipedia page overall is fairly comprehensive.  It begins by setting the premise of the film and by providing the basics, such as who directed it, who starred in it, when it debuted, and how many awards it won. It then goes right into the first section, a summary of the plot, which is clear, well-written, and accurate without being overly detailed.  The page also contains sections on the film’s cast, which is very thorough, with each actor’s name linking to his/her own Wikipedia page (except for two minor actors who apparently don’t have their own pages).

Once the page gets to subsequent sections on production, themes, and reception, the Wikipedia contributors start to include plenty of sources from various magazine articles published about the movie. They did a particularly good job of this in the section on reception, but though The Departed was indeed critically acclaimed, there were a handful of reviewers out there who were not as impressed as the majority of critics and moviegoers. Strictly reading this Wikipedia page, one would not know that (though they did include some lightly critical comments from those involved in Infernal Affairs, a movie made in Hong Kong from which The Departed was adapted). Obviously if I met anyone who didn’t like the film I probably wouldn’t like hearing their opinion either, so I understand why those who contributed to this article, most certainly Departed aficionados, would choose to not include them. Nonetheless, I’ll have to grudgingly knock off a few points in the neutrality department.

In the sections on themes and production, the article does a good job drawing from transcripts of interviews with many of the main players, like the director Martin Scorsese, as well as some of the leading actors, which give the readers good insight into what making the film was like from an insider’s perspective. Wikipedians here earn back a few points, again for thoroughness.

The article contributors also do a great job including peripheral elements of the movie, like a complete listing of the soundtrack and a quick blurb on Howard Shore’s excellent score for the film. In fact, they go above and beyond by addressing the possibility of a sequel centered on Mark Wahlberg’s character (spoiler alert: one of the only ones to survive in the movie). They even back this part up by sourcing an interview with Mark Wahlberg himself discussing sequel plans.

Overall, I’d have to say that The Departed’s page is well done, and it’s a good example of how astonishingly well Wikipedia works. But I do have to mention one other significant shortcoming of the page; there aren’t nearly as many pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, or Mark Wahlberg as there ought to be! But instead of knocking off more points I suppose I can just go into the page and add a few pics myself since I’m now a Wikipedian. 😉

Big Brother Knows Best?

29 Sep

This week we focused on issues of privacy related to the internet, as well as what’s known as the “filter bubble,” which I found fascinating mainly because I didn’t really know it was there. Hey, that’s why I’m taking this class, right? Did you know that when you Google something, anything, your search results may be different from your best friend’s? This is because internet gurus invented algorithms that take into account things like our historical online activity (yup, they’re watching us) and manipulate that data to somehow churn out search results that “they” think would be best suited for us. Fancy, huh? FYI, it’s not just Google that does this; check out this blog for more info and a Q and A with Eli Pariser, the guy who coined the term in the first place.

Now, if it weren’t for one of my other classes, which I’ll get to shortly, my gut reaction to learning about the filter bubble would likely have been one of slight outrage. How dare these virtual robotic thing-a-ma-jiggies decide for me what I should be viewing?! Those who know me well know that one of my biggest pet peeves is being shoved into a box with a label slapped on it, which is essentially what these algorithms are doing – they judge us based on what little they know about us, like our location and what we’ve clicked on in the past, and then after they’ve got us all figured out, decide what’s best to show us.  As annoying as this may seem, what’s scarier are the implications of people being exposed to only what they like and not even realizing that there is more out there, especially because so much of society consists of passive consumers of information.  We see more people becoming polarized and hard lined, particularly when it comes things like political viewpoints, and it’s likely that the filter bubble has played a role in this. But I’m not convinced that the situation would be vastly different without the filter bubble.

Just this week in a class called “The Science of Behavior Change,” we spent a considerable amount of time going over the idea of “wants” versus “shoulds.” Studies show that we, as weak humans, tend to choose things we want over things we should (things that may be better for us in the long run or improve us in some manner).  Not to go all Freudian on you, but it’s the notion that our choices often are influenced by our id, and so we instinctively lean towards whatever gives us the most pleasure in any given instant. Obviously, we often end up doing what we should (I’m demonstrating this now since I’m pushing aside online shopping and Facebook stalking until I get this blog post done), but it usually takes a bit more effort and control. You get the point.

So does this mean that most of us would likely keep clicking on things we like or relate to even if we saw other options? For passive information consumers, I’d say yes.  I’m still not sure algorithms catering to our supposed desires and interests is a good thing, but I’ll at least give the internet gods some credit for coming up with the idea in the first place, considering the overwhelming amount of information out there. Gosh, I guess this means I’m kind of okay with the filter bubble. The side of me that hates being categorized is screaming “oh no you didn’t!”, but I’m calming her down by reminding her that I usually do go out of my way to expose myself to things I’m unfamiliar with, especially when curiosity strikes and I dive into cycles of endless wiki searches, stopping only after a sufficient amount of time has been sucked from my life and I feel satiated and slightly smarter. And although I typically get my news from CNN, I’ve made a habit of reading the same top news stories on Fox to get their angle too, just to see what the differences are (and sometimes for entertainment value).  On top of that, I am subscribed to sites like Upworthy on Facebook, so I get plenty of “stories that matter” in my news feed daily, in addition to having all kinds of different friends around the world and “liking” the things they post (and admittedly, my threshold to “like” something is pretty low). In this filter bubble age, I am taking it upon myself to make sure that I don’t miss all the things I should see, and in the meantime, I suppose I can thank the algorithms for making it easier to see the things I might want to see.

Power to the People!

15 Sep

One of the first books we’ve had to read for “Media, Politics, and Power” is Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. Now, I have to be honest here. I am that person who, despite the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, does exactly that (I know, shame on me). Here I was thinking that this book, written by a techie about something as unsexy as the internet, was going to be mind-numbingly dull, a snoozefest, if you will. But by the end of the first chapter, heck, after just a few pages, I was enthralled and thankful that for the bazillionth time in my life, I was totally wrong about something.

This book is fantastic. Written in manner that your average non-geek can easily understand and as entertaining as the Harry Potter series (okay, that might be a tiny bit of a stretch), Shirky somehow manages to mesmerize his readers as he explains the ways in which the internet has revolutionized the dynamics of power pretty much everywhere and for almost everybody. Through clever examples he illustrates how the internet has allowed power to shift from those who traditionally wielded it (i.e., the media, large businesses, and governments) to commoners like you and me.  He explains how mass amateurization has given anyone and everyone (with the right tools, of course) the ability to join the ranks of journalists and photographers. In describing online group collaboration he touts the evolution and success of Wikipedia, and then takes us even further in to examine collective action organized online leading to protests and posing significant challenges to traditional institutions like churches and states.

In this narrative Shirky uses a wide array of fitting examples, ranging from the obscure yet entertaining (like how one man in NYC galvanized an internet following to get back a lost cell phone) to the more consequential and significant, like the demise of Senator Trent Lott’s political career due to the unwillingness of bloggers to let him off the hook for having made bigoted comments. This last example is my favorite because it is one of the first cases I can remember where amateur journalism generated enough fervor around an issue to sway (or force) traditional media to address it as well. If you’re unfamiliar with this case, you can read about it here.

These days it’s even more common for popular enthusiasm on the internet to capture mainstream media’s attention. For example, consider Jimmy Kimmel’s admission last week that he had been behind the viral girl-twerking-set-on-fire video. Now, this was also more than just an awesomely hilarious prank on the media.  It was an experiment, subtly demonstrating yet again how even all powerful entities like the media can and are influenced by the power of the masses. The recipe is simple, if you care to try it: upload something incredibly ridiculous to Youtube, give it some time to go viral, wait for Twitter to go nuts on it, cross your fingers that Buzzfeed might pick it up, and bam! – you’ve got a good shot at getting a few minutes of fame on Good Morning America, HLN, or any other major news show or network. The hard part nowadays is actually coming up with some really good material!  If that sounds daunting, it certainly is, given how many people have the tools, the access, and the creativity to take on such an endeavor. But the point to drive home here is that you COULD do this; the internet gives you that chance, the opportunity. Back in the day, we’d look to the media to find out what was going on…now the media is also looking to us to for the same reason. Thanks to the internet, it’s no longer a one-way street.

I’ll end this post with my full endorsement of Here Comes Everybody because it’s a clear, informative read that flows easily from one topic to the next, and you really do feel smarter when you finish.  One caveat, though: Clay Shirky doesn’t go into the problems that come with the rising power of people connecting, interacting and forming groups more easily, but who wants to be Debbie Downer on a sunny day? His point in the book is to highlight the good, the yang, so to speak, of what the internet has done. I think the yin is more obvious, so I won’t cry foul on this slip.