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What’s In a Name?: Navigating the Internet with a Real Name

My more sensible fellow interns post here under their real names, whereas my WordPress username is a funny, nonsensical “kurquoise.” (Look up, it says “Posted by kurquoise” in light green letters.) This pseudonym is a holdover from when we were first launching the blog, and out of convenience, it has just stuck around, but it alludes to an interesting point.

As the Internet has “grown up” over the past few years, one of the major trends has been a move away from anonymity toward the credibility of real names. That’s not to say anonymous and pseudonymous corners of the web are not still thriving, but simply that there’s a greater movement toward aggregating our various online avatars into one coherent identity. More concretely, what do I mean why this? Services like Friend Connect or Facebook Connect or FriendFeed or DISQUS — essentially services that pull information from across the Internet and feed it into one name. Of course, there’s no digital Big Brother forcing to use a real name, but if you’re going through all that trouble to aggregate everything – from blog entries to Flickr comments – aren’t you constructing digital identity so complete as to almost mirror your nondigital one? In the world of social media, your identity – your real name – has value. I mean this completely uncynically: your name is a brand.

Facebook was one of the first social networks to capitalize on the credibility of real names, and it succeeded precisely because of this. The barriers to online interaction were drastically lowered; you no longer needed to exchange an email or a phone number – just a name was enough. Facebook is a closed system though, and Facebook Connect is an attempt to extend it over the rest of the Internet. But people are already blogging, tweeting, and commenting under their real names – building a digital network that has real value. Using a real name undoubtedly adds credibility to that they do.

Nikki and Diana have both written fantastic posts here on the motivations, strategies, and sometimes of using your real name online. Unlike Nikki and Diana, I don’t own my own domain name (alas, there is a Sarah Zhang more famous and accomplished than me), and I use my real name sparingly online. I’ve often been on the verge of purchasing my own domain or simply keeping a blog under my own name, but there’s something that has been holding me back.

Part of my reluctance to define myself online is related to me grappling with my own shifting identities as a young adult. Forgive me for being existential here, but how do I tell others who I am when I’m not even completely sure of it myself? One of the first legitimate Google hits on my real name is a bio page for an internship I did the summer after my freshman year. The bio, which I wrote as a freshman (less than a year ago), is now completely outdated, listing an different major, activities, etc. In the same vein, my Xanga posts from middle school or Livejournal posts from high school and the other various “blogs” I kept throughout the years reflect a very different person from who I am today. My attitudes and interests change, and I don’t necessarily want my teenage self to exist as a digital representation of myself or future employers.

When are teenagers ready to manage their reputations? It’s a tricky question because my interactions with the Internet, even posting anonymously or pseudonymously, have shaped a large part of who I am. How do you feel about using your real name online? Would you have entrusted your teenage self with your real name?

-Sarah Zhang

iPhone on the Brain: Technology and the Extended Mind

Like Diana, I too am in the middle finals week. But as a science major, I am mired exams instead of papers, and my brain has been clutter of symbols and numbers — amino acid structures, Fourier series, formulas galore! With this memorization frenzy, the Extended Mind hypothesis is sounding mighty attractive.

David Chalmers and Andy Clark’s paper on The Extended Mind was first published in 1998, but a more recent interview in The Philosopher’s Magazine where Chalmers alludes to the iPhone has brought their ideas into discussion again. The Extended Mind essentially states that the technology we utilize can be seen as extensions of out minds. In Chalmers’ own words:

A whole lot of my cognitive activities and my brain functions have now been uploaded into my iPhone. It stores a whole lot of my beliefs, phone numbers, addresses, whatever. It acts as my memory for these things. It’s always there when I need it…I have a list of all of my favorite dishes at the restaurant we go to all the time in Canberra. I say, OK, what are we going to order? Well, I’ll pull up the iPhone – these are the dishes we like here. It’s the repository of my desires, my plans. There’s a calendar, there’s an iPhone calculator, and so on. It’s even got a little decision maker that comes up, yes or no.

Of course, it’s not only trendy gadgets made by Apple that can become part of our minds. My humble non-touchscreen cell phone has freed my actual brain from memorizing phone numbers. Perhaps a little sadly, I’ve often referred to my own Facebook profile when asked about my favorite bands or movies. Even the paper notebook where I scribbled my math notes can be thought of as an extension of my mind. (Try that argument during an exam!)

When I shut down my personal blog during freshman year of college – goodbye to high school rambling – I made the leap to a less ambitious enterprise, a tumblr. In another way though, this was more ambitious because in the description I settled upon, my proclaimed goal was “Translating electrical impulses and molecular movements of the brain into words, images, and hypertext. Brain splatter, in byte-sized chunks!” I wanted to record the transient thoughts in my head – how successful I have been is debatable.

But it’s the effects of an extended digital mind that fascinates me. Through my delicious account, Google Reader, and tumblr, I’ve essentially outsourced the archives of my mind to an easily searchable, electronic database. This may sound a little cyborgian, but it’s also totally exploded the number of things I can “think” about. The infallible ability to search and find – no digital tip of the tongue– makes these archives seemingly more powerful than my brain. As technology becomes increasingly good at predicting what I like and making recommendations, it is more than just an archive.

At the same time, I think there is still value to memorization, if not necessarily the brute force kind. Just as the power of search eliminates the serendipity of a library or bookstore, a search engine can’t make the initially random but ultimately meaningful connections that our brains do. It can’t synthesize multiple streams of information or make metaphors between unrelated concepts. (In the hours pondering physics problem, I’ve come up with way too many metaphors of physical laws describing social interactions.) Technology can augment our minds, but as it stands now, certainly not replace it.

Hat tip to Mind Hacks and The Frontal Cortex

Further reading:
How Google is Making Us Smarter – Discover Magazine

-Sarah Zhang

Insights on Cyberbullying: an interview with a digital native

In this week’s audio podcast, our Reporters-in-the-Field asked 19 year old UMASS student and New Jersey native, Lisa Epstein, to share her thoughts on the world of cyberbullying. In this interview, Epstein provides insight on how the anonymity of cyberbullies makes one question who her real friends are, and how the Internet acts as a “big shield” in such situations.

Listen here:

Constructing our realities through different channels available on the Internet.

Among the various courses I am taking at the University of São Paulo this semester, “Discourse” has a lot of interesting ideas that can be connected to discussions pertaining to DNs. In the text A social theory of discourse, Norman Fairclough (1992) defines discourse as “a mode of action, one form in which people may act upon the world and especially upon each other, as well as a mode of representation. Discourse is a practice of … signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning”.

This definition made me wonder how this concept can be applied to the practices that are taking place on the Internet. How do online tools enable users to represent themselves through different types of discourses? More than that, how can DNs’ interactions on the Internet be affected by these new possibilities?

One important topic of Born Digital refers to identity and issues related to the way the Internet is being used to propagate small bits of personal information in the form of videos, blog posts, pictures, etc. So, if Fairclough states that through the practice of discourse we are constructing our world in meaning, the Internet offers new channels of discourse through which new types of manifestations will emerge. What seems like just a few years ago, if you wanted to learn anything about me, you had to rely on a simple ID with my photo and basic information. Now, if you want to learn more about me, all you need to do is google my name. From this, you can learn about activities I have partaken in such as university projects and jobs, and you can even access pictures of me, especially if you are part of a shared social network such as Facebook, Orkut, or LinkedIn.

These different online tools allow me to propagate specific discourses about myself depending on their use, whether as social, professional, or any other kind of network. For example, I use Orkut to connect with friends as a fellow Brazilian, I use Facebook to connect with friends internationally. Alternate to a social network, LinkedIn allows me to expose my professional side, defined by my work experience, education, and the conferences I have attended. Ultimately, the Internet allows new types of channels through which we are signifying ourselves, our identities.

So, what are the consequences of these new ways of signifying ourselves, of fragmenting our identities in small portions and publishing it throughout the Internet? In Born Digital, Palfrey and Gasser refer to the importance of social identity, which is “undergoing a makeover at the hands of Digital Natives”. They note:

(…) the disclosure of personal information – say, for instance, posting your hobbies online, or disclosing where you are living, or sharing information about your tastes in music – is intended to achieve certain goals. Those goals might include, for example, social approval, intimacy, or relief of distress, among other things. In the economic and business literature, other motivations have been explored. Benefits of online information disclosure might include saving money or time (as examples of extrinsic benefits when, for instance, ordering a book online and paying by credit card), or pleasure or altruism (as examples of intrinsic benefits). According to the disclosure decision models, individuals examine – as rational actors – whether the disclosure of information would indeed be a good strategy to achieve the respective goals in a given situation, and whether the expected benefits would outweigh the risks.

Blogs, social networks, home pages, etc “can be understood as means to develop and evolve their notions and levels of “self” and personal identity, respectively. On the other hand, the revelation of personal data on the Internet is closely connected with establishing group membership.

All that raises issues of privacy, security and control of information which sometimes seem to be suppressed by the euphoria surrouding the digital era.

It is important to take into consideration that although online tools are enabling Digital Natives to do more creative things based on their connections to a larger, more diverse network of the online sphere, other issues arise including that of privacy and security. It worries me to see that all this information, might always be floating somewhere around the Internet; and that it can be accessed some other time in our lives when that self representation is no longer convenient, funny, or desired.

– André Valle

In the News: When Private Identities Go Public

One thing that irks me – rightly or wrongly – is when news reports cite a MySpace profile as a source of information. Usually, it’s the local news trying to dig up information on a suddenly news-worthy person without making the effort of a phone call. When it comes to national politics, though, the stakes are higher. Most recently, potentially detrimental quotes from the MySpace profile of Levi Johnson, the father of Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby, were making the rounds. The information was first posted in the New York Post, after which it quickly circulated through the blogosphere, and the information gleaned from the MySpace profile eventually found its way into mainstream media. A second example comes from last year’s Republican primaries. wrote a story about Rudy Giuliani’s daughter supporting Obama over her father based on a Facebook group that she joined.

Since I’m blogging here at Digital Natives, the political implication of these stories is not going to be my focus point. My aversion of this method of journalism, though, runs a little deeper than irritation at the violation of privacy. There’s just seems to me – perhaps even a bit irrationally I admit – that it’s wrong to thrust into the national spotlight people who have done nothing deserving of it except for their associations with other public figures. They’re being judged on content never intended for the eyes of anyone but their friends. A MySpace or even Facebook profile is far from private, but does that automatically make them appropriate sources for news? On the other hand, shouldn’t the children of politicians be savvier about what’s associated with their online profiles?

One of my coworkers this summer had remarked to me, “I try to keep everything on my Facebook pretty PC – when you’re friends with 200 people, you have to be pretty careful.” Although 200 friends on Facebook is not an especially remarkable number—particularly to a college student like me, whose peers are all constantly plugged in – my coworker’s remarks forced me to reframe my point of view. 200 people, each with their different opinions, sensibilities, and ideas, truly is a lot of people to possibly offend. Even as someone who is careful about what I attach my name to online, I wouldn’t have to dig very deep to find something potentially embarrassing or offensive to someone.

So why aren’t we more careful about what is posted online? After all, our digital identities are carefully crafted to reflect ourselves in some specific light, if not an objectively “better” one. In the New York Times Magazine article, “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You” (which Diana also cited in her entry yesterday), Clive Thompson writes of this paradox:

Young people today are already developing an attitude toward their privacy that is simultaneously vigilant and laissez-faire. They curate their online personas as carefully as possible, knowing that everyone is watching — but they have also learned to shrug and accept the limits of what they can control.

I do have a quibble with Thompson’s wording: somewhere in the back of our heads we may know that it’s possible “everyone is watching,” but our digital identities are not created for the purpose of exhibition to everyone. How many teenagers are comfortable with their parents or teachers or even a random stranger friending them on MySpace or Facebook or Twitter? Our digital identities are constructed for our peers – be it our real life friends or a specific online community. We strive to present ourselves as unique and opinionated to our peers. A bland profile is as good as no profile at all. Genuine interactions with friends are uncensored by concerns of political correctness, sanitizing these interactions online in fact changes the function of social networking tools. Just as we carry ourselves differently at a job interview than when hanging out with friends, our digital identities are tuned to a specific purpose. The distinction, of course, being that what is posted online can potentially be accessible, per Clive Thompson, by everyone. Those who have been thrust into the spotlight, like Levi Johnson and Caroline Giuliani, have learned this the hard way.

-Sarah Zhang

Searching for Jeeves Atop a High Google Mountain

When a friend gifted me with my own domain name this summer, it felt like he had handed me the keys to a new car. was a URL I could share with contacts; it would be one of the first addresses an acquaintance might type when searching to see if I had a website. In that way, it was a vehicle for controlling my online identity, a tool to help me navigate the information swamp the web has become by preventing confusion with other “Nikki Leon”s. What’s more, it was mine — my friend’s purchasing the domain meant it would not fall into the hands of the porn industry, overseas phishers, or the other Nikki Leons of the world. I imagined that just as the Internet seems to have only one Barack Obama or Seth Godin, I was on my way to someday being the Nikki Leon ordained by Google.

Wishful thinking. I know, of course, that Google doesn’t always care if you buy your own domain name. If you search for Nikki Leon as of today, the “real” me is in the third hit, a Digital Natives Project blog post. My personal blog, to which currently forwards, doesn’t come until halfway down the page. The Nikki Leon favored by Google, it seems, is a twenty-one-year-old Go-Go dancer from Palmdale California whose MySpace profile features pink leopard print and whose latest blog entry is entitled “If He Really Wants You…”

I’m actually not too troubled by this (seems she was meant for the spotlight more than I). It’s better than having the first hit for your name be a Gawker article about the real you, claiming that you “Used to Smoke Opiate of Masses.” This was unfortunately the case for a freshman at Princeton University this year. The student posted a long message to the “Princeton 2012” Facebook group that featured such choice phrases as “we are the 0.0000001% of the world,” and “We are the anti-Christs to save the world from the mercy of God, the self-pity that festers within the masses.” Having read the full post, I’d like to think it was a well-intended, if unsuccessful, satire of the “getting to know you” messages some freshmen write in their class groups (as an undergrad I’ve seen this first hand). Gawker didn’t much care whether or not the post was serious or no. Instead, Gawker bloggers mocked the student and circulated information about her high school and career aspirations, along with a picture of her from her high school website.

On the subject of controlling one’s identity online, a recent New York Times article aptly stated: “If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are.” That is, if you fail to update your website or social networking profile with current, relevant information, the data others provide about you or themselves will crowd out your own. Diana Kimball wrote a very informative post last February about how to take hold of one’s digital identity. There is of course, a limit to how much the average user can control, and the more of an online presence a young person has, the more information they give others to take out of context, as with the Gawker scenario described above. Viewed in this light, the digital age looks a little grimmer, despite all its possibilities. The freedom to define yourself online is also a burden. With visibility comes vulnerability, and controlling your image becomes a matter of preserving your personhood.

The need to craft an online identity seems, at times, an existential issue, albeit more in the vein of Ask Jeeves than Sartre. Who is Nikki Leon? Google has its answer, though it’s not the one I’d give. So how does one go about maintaining a digital self without getting lost in the shuffle or falling prey to Gawker types? For my part, I’ll continue strengthening my ties to websites and bloggers, getting people to link to my URL, and doing the only other thing I can: praying to the internet gods.

Nikki Leon

(In the spirit of this post, no links to the Gawker article. Their Google rankings are high enough. Cross-posted from my blog.)

My Digital Realization

As I draw closer to the end of my internship at Berkman, I realize that I’ve actually been here for more than seven weeks. I guess it’s true that time flies when you’re having fun… or really that when you’re this busy you don’t notice time anymore. But putting aside all the technical skills I have acquired in this period, I have also undergone a process of realization.

Two months ago I was just another Digital Native; clueless about what the term actually meant, the digital dossier I was accumulating and the extent to which my digital identity was expanding online. Like all my other friends, I would post my phone number and contact information online without pondering over the implication this could have on my privacy and never think twice about why I was texting a friend a seat away from me in class, rather than just talking to her. And never did I realize that I was probably spending more time in virtual spaces than in the ‘real’ ones.

But now all that has changed. At Berkman I have become acquainted with issues ranging from digital innovation to activism. I now more fully appreciate the time I spend with friends and colleagues in a restaurant while engaging in a face-to-face conversation. Having heard the accounts of people who have been sued by the RIAA – one of whom woke up one day to find a gun pointed at his head – I am now truly aware of the implications of online file sharing. (Something which I had been totally oblivious to in the past, as freely downloading copyrighted music is common in the areas in which I have lived).

And has this insight now restricted the way I interact online?

Definitely not. In fact, it has just made me a more knowledgeable Digital Native. Having spent time on both ends of the spectrum, I now recognize how important it is for all Digital Natives to be more informed about the repercussions of their online actions. And this is where the role of those guardians raising Digital Natives really comes to light – if parents and educators are oblivious to the digital world then it is basically impossible for them to educate Digital Natives about how they should regulate their online behavior. But, fortunately, tools are now being provided to them to do so, through mediums such as the Digital Natives project.

And so in many ways I am going back home not only a more informed Digital Native, but also almost an advocate for the cause of greater education and awareness. How far I succeed in doing so is yet to be seen but, as they say, it never hurts to try.

-Kanupriya Tewari

Digital Shadows

This week we’re taking a break from all the interviews to give you a glimpse of the world of Digital Dossiers. Your dossier is made up of all the digital tracks you leave behind – from your photos on Flickr, to the Facebook messages you send, to all the data your credit card company collects about your transactions. On a daily basis, digital natives are consistently leaving information about themselves in secure or non-secure databases. You probably do this without a second thought in you day-to-day life – but have you ever considered the amount of information being collected about you, or the extent to which this information spreads?

In this video, created by Kanupriya Tewari, we explore this issue from the perspective of a child born today – Andy – and the timeline of all the digital files he accumulates in a life span.

Digital Dossier
Click here to view the video.

Or you can watch it here

To learn more about the topic check out:
– The Digital Natives website and Wiki
Born Digital

Come back every Wednesday for more multimedia on online privacy, cyber bullying, digital activism and more!

What do you do with a digital native?

As you might guess from Jacob Kramer-Duffield’s write-up of a recent Berkman listserv debate, the question of what it means to be a digital native has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. At last week’s intern meeting, discussion of the issue somehow ended up as a mass argument over, among other things, whether the car was a comparable innovation to the PC, whether the digital revolution is better or worse for society than industrialization was, and whether determining any of this actually mattered, given that only about a sixth of the world’s population has regular Internet access. I think the question — “Who/what is a digital native?” – is controversial because answering it requires us to contemplate other discomfiting questions that are hard to answer definitively.

The first is this – are people of all ages still “relevant” in a digital age? The Digital Natives Project maintains a) that digital natives are defined more by their habits than how old they are and b) that older people (often called ‘digital immigrants’) may be more tech savvy than their younger counterparts. The term “native” does not mean better or worse, it merely distinguishes youth who have been raised in a world of mainstreamed digital technologies – Web 2.0, social networking sites, etc. All the same, a lot of parents worry they can’t keep up with what their kids are doing online and feel left behind. Some adults find the term to be an affront – they consider themselves far more fluent in technology than most young people and don’t see how they themselves might be anything but native to digital space.

Here’s the second question: “is ‘digital natives’ merely a term for the most privileged group of young people?” If the answer were yes, our project would seem precious – still relevant, perhaps, but blind to the full effect of digital technology on all levels of society. The real answer is much more complicated. It’s true that not all young people are digital natives, but the group is clearly not limited to those who have access to the best connections and computers either. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, at least 87% of American teenagers 12-17 are online. Cell phones make digital technology more accessible as well – Latinos, of whom only about 56% are online, lead other racial groups in mobile device usage. Internationally, though, only about 1 billion of the world’s approximately 6.7 billion people have regular Internet access.

Berkman is a place for work with real-world impact. People here do more than write papers for those in their field; they embark on projects to help us understand each other, the law, and the impact digital technology is having on society. One of the goals of the Digital Natives Project is to figure out what ‘digital native’ actually means – and how we might go about addressing the social divisions it implies. It’s no wonder people at Berkman can get riled up about the term. The generational and socioeconomic barriers it evokes are among those Berkmanites are working to break down, even as it becomes clear that those divisions exist with or without the Internet.

Nikki Leon

Getting Married in a Digital Age… (how google planned my wedding)

I’m getting married in a month. Life is good. And despite the best intentions of simplicity, our wedding seems to have become a huge undertaking. Although I don’t think that anything about planning an event or about getting married is fundamentally different because of digital technology, I have noticed a few trends and used lots of interesting tools in this process.

Communication (email and instant messenger):
I’ve been spending the summer here in Cambridge, MA working with the Digital Natives project. My fiancé is living in our apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Our families and friends want to help, and they are in Florida, New Jersey, and many other places. Email helps a lot. Instant messenger [Wikipedia] helps more.

98% of the planning we are doing starts online. Just about everything we’ve needed to find or to plan has started at a search engine. Almost every evening my fiancé and I are online working on doing something “productive.” While the merits of multi-tasking are certainly up for debate, the fact that we are “there” to bounce questions and ideas off of each other has been amazingly helpful in this context. We copy and paste URLs [Wikipedia], email to-do lists, and occasionally open up an audio or video chat for discussions that require more direct attention. Because of this, not being in the same room to plan together has become pretty much a non-issue.


The Location (maps):
We decided to have our wedding on the Jersey shore, in a little shore town that I grew up vacationing at with my extended family (Exit 63). It feels great to stay true to my NJ roots and throw a wedding in NJ (you’d understand if you were from the Garden State).

Being that we are subway-riding city folk at the moment, we rarely have to worry about the mix of alcohol and motor vehicles. Obviously, the wedding was going to be a different story (The subway service in NJ is notoriously sub-par to, er, nonexistent). We really wanted to plan something where everything was walkable and everyone could celebrate as merrily as they desired to without having to worry about driving.

Using Google Maps and other similar map services, we were able to find a location for a rehearsal dinner, an outdoor pre-wedding barbeque, a location for the ceremony, and a hall for a reception, all within a few blocks of each other. While this would have been possible with a paper map, the combination of search engines and instant access to satellite images really helped us to feel out what we were planning.

Sat Image

Communication (the website):
Since most of our guests will be traveling to our wedding, and many of them looking for overnight lodging, we needed a way to help them find places to stay that were affordable, reputable, and in walking distance. We needed a way to communicate this information to our guests as it came in, both before and after invitations were sent. So, we built a web page and put a whole bunch of lodging options up there. While we were at it, we highlighted a bunch of “fun stuff to do while you are in town.” This is great because it gives us the flexibility to modify and update the information until a week before the wedding.

More importantly, textual links from our site to the lodging options and to the respective websites of other points of interest really harness the power of the Web, allowing users of our website to find all the information that could possibly need in just a few clicks.

We also used the “My Maps” feature on Google Maps to create custom maps of all of the points of interest, and linked those Google Maps from the entries on our website. This allows our guests to plan ahead a little and to really have a sense of space, helping us to keep everyone on foot and out of their automobiles.

Invitations (the mash-up):
My suggestion of sending out email invitations was shot down (correctly) without much consideration. My suggestion of talking invitations with customized voice recordings (“Hey Joe! Come to our wedding! See you in September!”) was shot down (unfairly). In the end we decided to create our own invitations and have them printed. Because we want to encourage people to explore the little shore town, we decided to include a little map of the area.

Google Maps again to the rescue! I navigated Google Maps to the area, took a bunch of “screen captures” of areas of the map, and then stitched them together in Photoshop [Wikipedia], an image editor [Wikipedia]. We found Creative Commons-licensed images and icons on Flickr that really helped communicate the smart but chill vibe that we wanted too, even with my meager artistic skill. To make the map simple and iconographic, I traced the map in the vector graphics [Wikipedia] editor, Illustrator [Wikipedia], with the help our friend Del.

Then, we emailed a PDF [Wikipedia] off to the printer and sent them via the good old fashioned postal service.



RSVPs (the semantic web):

My favorite part of this process so far is has been collecting the RSVPs. To keep printing (and environmental) costs down, and to keep our sanity, we decided to ask people to RSVP online. Although there are many methods of creating forms for websites [Wikipedia], Google provided the solution that was easy and met our needs. We created a spreadsheet in Goggle Docs, and then created a form that guests can fill out that dumps the data directly into the spreadsheet. Google Docs auto-generates the html code for the form, which we embedded into our website.

Wasn’t all of this a lot of work? Actually, no. It probably only took an hour. Opening and counting that many RSVP envelopes would have taken twice as long, and would have been a slow, cumbersome, and error-prone process in comparison. Better still, we get emails every time someone RSVPs, and checking out the notes people have written along with their RSVP a couple of times a day is a lot of fun.

The spreadsheet keeps running totals of guests and reception meal menu choices in real-time, and allows both my fiance and I to access it from our remote locations. We were able to invite the family members and friends who are helping us plan to view the spreadsheet.

Paying the Vendors (invoices & online banking):
Managing a budget for a wedding is tricky, but Internet banking has made it a lot easier. By using bill-pay services that both my fiance and I can access, either of us can arrange to send a check to a vendor at the click of a button. We can both have instant access to what is being paid when, and adjust our Google doc spreadsheet at the click of a button to make sure that we are still on track. Doing this on paper, or doing it over the phone, would have been vastly more difficult. [Wikipedia entry for Online Banking]

Paperless (contracts):
There are a few vendors’ relationships that require basic contracting. We could either wait for snail-mail, or buy a fax machine. Actually, we haven’t had a land-line phone in three years and rely exclusively on cellphones, so the fax wouldn’t work. However, internet fax [Wikipedia] services work well. (Checkout eFax or MyFax.) Because we have an account with a fax number, anyone can send a fax to us that will then arrive in our email inboxes as a PDF. It’s super convenient, and environmentally responsible to boot.

If someone needs to actually send us a piece of paper, we have it sent to our postal-to-email bridge, Earth Class Mail. Earth Class Mail scans all the paper that arrives in our PO Box and emails to the PDFs. (Earth Class Mail will also contact the senders of mail you identify as junk and ask them to stop sending it, saving countless pounds of junkmail from ever being printed.)


When we need to sign documents, I slap a digital signature [Wikipedia] on the PDFs. This makes and image of my signature appear on any print-out, and also helps to secure the file digitally, making my signature disappear if the file is modified after I sign it. When sending these contracts back I either email them, virtually “fax” them back using our fax service’s email-to-fax bridge, or have a good ol’ US Postal service paper copy sent to the destination via our email-to-postal-mail-bridge, Postful.
While the fax services are cheaper than owning and maintaining an actual fax machine and phone line, the mail services are more expensive than regular postal mail. In the end, the two are pretty much a wash, and we get the added benefit of having everything we need on-hand at all times from our laptops, having it from states away, and no clutter in our NYC-sized apartment.

…Using all of these various technologies certainly hasn’t changed the nature of the event itself. However, the technologies are helping us to plan a wedding more conveniently over a long distance, involving the people we want involved in planning to the exact degree that we want them involved, and getting surgical with a few of the details that we really care about, helping us plan an event that is more uniquely our own than would have previously been possible.

John Randall