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Inauguration Day Online

On Tuesday morning at 11:45, I ran out of my last final exam and plopped myself down in front of the nearest screen, determined not to miss a moment of Barack Obama’s inauguration. Televisions are harder to find around campus these days, but all I needed was a laptop with Internet access, and nearly everyone in the dining hall was congregated around one or another.

I was only one of millions who found themselves in front of a computer rather than a TV (or in DC in person.) According to Akamai, who handles one-fifth of the world’s Internet traffic, Obama’s inauguration set a new record in the number of simultaneous data streams, which mostly carry live video: seven million data streams with a max of 2 terabits per second. (via xconomy and VentureBeat)

The Google Blog looks as some search data from this and previous inaugurations tell a story of how far the Internet has evolved in the past 8 years:

During the last nine years, the growth of the Internet has changed the way the world seeks information. From President Bush’s first inaugural address in 2001 to his second in 2005, the number of inauguration-related searches increased by more than a factor of ten. From 2005 to today’s address, the number grew even more. Few of the 2001 queries requested “video,” and none requested streaming. By 2005, a few queries such as inauguration audio and streaming video of inauguration appeared. Today, technology has become so prevalant that queries such as YouTube live inauguration, live blogging inauguration, inaugural podcast, and Obama inaugural speech mp3 formed one-third of all inauguration-related queries.

And if the overall query volume at Google is any indication of online activity, there is also has a fascinating graph on search patterns during Obama’s speech. It seems like as Obama was giving his speech, people on the Internet actually stopped to listen and watch:

It’s more than fitting that Obama’s inauguration would make waves around the Internet, as a kind of capstone to how well his campaign had leveraged the power of the Internet during the election. But watching the inauguration wasn’t all that we were doing. I was impressed by how many websites had pulled out the stops for their inauguration coverage. Bits at the New York Times had list of the digital spaces the inauguration would watched and discussed. I watched the speech on CNN’s website, and when the video site first popped up, I was surprised to see not just a live stream from DC, but my Facebook friends smiling at me too:

I wasn’t standing in the middle of an animated crowd, but watching a stream of my friend’s statuses placed me amidst an equally excited digital crowd. It reminded me of watching the debates while perusing the streams on election.twitter, and unsurprisingly, Twitter too was a flurry of activity on Tuesday.

What do these changes mean for the Obama administration? For digital natives who are participating in this new world of politics? I don’t have any solid answers – if you have any insights, share in the comments! — but I would like to point to one thing: all the chatter surrounding the new White House website and blog. The simple fact that we care about is amazing enough. I can’t think of the last time I went the site before Tuesday’s redesign, and now we’re even analyzing the website’s robot.txt file. “Change has come to America” announces the White House website banner – true, where change will lead us remains to be seen.
-Sarah Zhang

Availability and Obligation: Using Technology the Right Way

Busted! The sneaky moves of anti-social smartphone user,” seemed sensational even for the usually grandiose titles of TEDTalks, but I found myself nodding to Renny Gleeson’s every word. If you haven’t watched this video yet, I highly recommend it. At only three minutes, it’s shorter than the usually TED video but just as packed with wit and insight.

Gleeson’s talk is a humorous look at the intruding presence of cell phones in our everyday lives. Although he doesn’t explicitly separate these out, he addresses two different phenomena, both mediated by that cellphone on your pocket: the documentation impulse and culture of availability.

The documentation impulse is our urge to document, via photograph, tweet, etc., the large and small events of our lives. The camera or the cellphone (or cellphone camera) becomes an intrusion into the actual course of events; as Gleeson puts it, it indicates that “Our reality is less interesting than the story I will tell.” The culture of availability reflects our tendency to attend to our buzzing cellphones, even at the expense of our real life conversations. It’s rude, yet , I think many of us are guilty of it. So the culture of availability has a flip side too, and that is the culture of unavailability.

My most salient experience of this is sitting in a classroom the few awkward minutes before class starts. Small talk could break the silence, almost everyone in the class will be hiding behind a laptop gchatting a digital friend or hunched over a cellphone punching in letters. Even the simple act of asking a classmate about an assignment feels like an intrusion into someone else’s space. As someone guilty of the laptop/cellphone stunt as well, I don’t think we mean to remove ourselves from our surroundings – at least that is not my intention – but it is rather a way to avoid the awkward silence.

Gleeson ends his talk with a plea to the audience, “Let’s make technologies that make people more human, not less.” This alls sounded great in the context of his snazzy presentation but as I mulled over Gleeson’s words afterwards, I’m still not exactly what he means or expects out of technology. How does anything we create that is mediated by wires and microchips make us more human? According to Gleeson, tied up with the idea of being human seems to be the creation of a shared narrative, not just sharing narratives but actually creating them with one another.

To characterize phone users as “anti-social,” as the attention-grabbing title of this talk does, is a little misleading. The vast majority of the time we’re on our phones, we are being social, just with the voice on the other end of the receiver rather than with our surroundings. While it is different kind of socialization, it is not solipsistic. And we when take our photos, say at an Improv Everywhere stunt, and pool them in a Flickr group, that is a creation of shared narrative. The cellphone is not all bad, and it is probably not fair to say that technology has failed at allowing us to be human.

As I mused about Gleeson’s pleas for more humanizing technology, I didn’t come to an answer, but rather another question: Is it really technology itself that is the problem? The problem of our divided attention does not lie in the fact that we all have cellphones, but rather in how we use them. While having a cellphone has undeniably gotten me out of trouble more times than I can count, I have never needed it by my side 24/7. Each one of our cellphones, not matter how ancient or new, has a very simple but powerful button: OFF.

Viewfinders: Digital Natives and the Documentation Impulse

Last week, Sarah wrote about experiencing President Obama’s inauguration online. “I wasn’t standing in the middle of an animated crowd,” she wrote, “but watching a stream of my friend’s statuses placed me amidst an equally excited digital crowd.” For Sarah, watching the inauguration online was a fitting end to an ambitiously digital presidential campaign and transition; a way to experience a historic moment in the digital company of friends. The screengrab she posted, of CNN’s live stream of the inauguration buffeted by friends’ Facebook status updates, tells one side of the story—the side where college students sit in their dorm rooms, watching up-to-the-minute footage; absorbing history as it happens, in a strange combination of visceral and vicarious experience.

But what about the digital natives who were “really” there? How did they traverse the liminal zone between their screens and the scenes around them?

Two indelible images from Inauguration Day involved young people with cameras, capturing history for instant posterity. It’s no surprise that digital natives would use technology to mediate their experiences, but seeing the mediation in action is confronting, inspiring, and somewhat curious.

As President Obama took the oath slightly after noon on January 20, cameras were evident everywhere in the audience. But right there, at the very front, Malia Obama foreshadowed what it will be like to have two have two tech-savvy young girls in the White House. Even as her father was making history, Malia was focused on her tiny pastel camera, documenting the moment for herself.

Incidentally, the photograph comes from an article on GearLive, in which the reporter revealed that Malia had been using a Kodak EasyShare M893 IS 8.1MP digital camera. Within minutes of Malia taking her own photographs, photographs of her with her camera were showing up on gadget blogs, complete with exorbitantly specific model information. A blog post from ABC News noted that “the first daughter is certainly not the first to document her experience at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave”; other White House residents have also followed the impulse. But the instantaneity of the Inauguration photography cycle served underlined the ubiquity of the impulse, and, more importantly, its ubiquitous expression. When even the president’s daughter experiences her father’s inauguration “through the viewfinder,” this perspective transcends lark and becomes a force in its own right.

That force was in action again that evening, at a series of presidential balls. The Youth Ball saw the First Couple dancing “old school” to an instrumental version of “At Last”, but the crowd seemed not to see it at all. Unlike the sweet promise of Malia’s individual documenting impulse, there starts to be something almost sinister about the sea of outstretched camera phones that greeted the couple.

The Obamas at the Youth Ball

When I mentioned this curiosity to a friend this past weekend, he pointed me toward a blog post by Joanne McNeil over at Tomorrow Museum, exploring the meaning of this impenetrable mass of lenses and light. At one point, she asks “But what kinds of things don’t we photograph?” and suggests that

“You probably didn’t take a photo (you forgot to, didn’t think of it) during nearly all of your happiest memories. Why would you want to interrupt a blissful moment? Distancing yourself from the action taking place and denying yourself the opportunity to experience it with your full attention?”

No matter the meaning of the scene, though, the fact of it is remarkable enough. While millions of people were at home watching history happen on their screens, thousands of digital natives were right there, in the moment—watching history through their screens, too.