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SSA: User-defined social networking

November 15th, 2005 by

The most successful social networks appear to strike a balance between familiar content/activity and abstract openness. These sites seem to reflect the efforts of their users to push towards that balance. A strange example of the evolution of the social networking ecosystem comes in terms of ethnicity and culture. I was struck by Joe’s comments with regard to Phillipino people and Friendster. I’ve observed the same phenomenon with the children of Brazilian immigrants and Orkut.

At the start of last year, my students used social networks that reflected their ethnicities such as MiGente, Blackplanet, and Asian Avenue. After a few months, I noticed that students were managing accounts on multiple services. For example, out of a desire to better represent their offline networks, Latino students created profiles on Blackplanet. By September ’05, MySpace had trumped the competition.

In fact, a student recently told me that Friendster is for white people and MySpace is for people of color. In other words, despite the fact that every user’s first friend on MySpace is the ubiquitous dorky white guy, Tom, the users are defining cultural expectations of the space for themselves.

(If this interests you, I stand by my call for open social inter-networking.)

SSA: biz talk outside of IT

November 15th, 2005 by

This debate seems constantly in danger of slipping toward Dilbert concerns. Characterizing management as stupid and workers as essentially adept does not accurately reflect the experiences I have had as a temp in more traditional (non-IT) corporate environments.

It is interesting to try and expand the “Hollywood model” (temporary teams organized short-term around specific projects) to industries such as insurance or healthcare. Although processes may be virtually identical from company to company, confidential data is critical. Could a geographically disparate team be organized around a thorny auto claim made on a rental car in a foreign country? Photographers local to the crash document the scene for an analysis group local to the insured relying on an outsourced archival department for supporting documents.

From an educator’s perspective, the Hollywood model twists in yet another fashion. While a small group comprised of both full-time educators and those outside of the school community might be most effective at planning and executing a lesson, it is not necessarily true that that group would be most effective at actually succeeding in teaching a class. This is because success in the classroom relies heavily on sustained, trusting relationships between students and teachers. Perhaps an essential component in applying the Hollywood model to education is dividing the teacher’s role of trusted-adult from information-supplier, performance-assessor, etc? In this way, schools might have a full time staff of advisor-teachers supported by part-time consultants from the community who can supply high-quality, up-to-date information?

Corante SSA most bloggable

November 15th, 2005 by

In just a few hours, my alarm will wake me for the Corante Symposium on Social Architecture. Rebecca bought a new laptop and I’m now continuing my 8 year free-PC streak as the happy owner of a 700mhz Thinkpad. It is my youngest machine. Running Ubuntu, it’s quite peppy.

I’m a little uneasy at this move towards portable computing. One of my least favorite aspects of tech-oriented conferences has been the socially vile practice of sitting lost in one’s laptop as a speaker is ignored at the front of the room. As I experiment with using QWERTY for note-taking rather than my trusted pen&paper system, I am going to pay special attention to my behavior with respect to the rest of the human beings in the room.

I wonder how many other attendees consider a 7:30am Tuesday wake-up to be sleeping-in.

South Boston Open Studios

October 8th, 2005 by

Posting today from open studios in South Boston. Today, I’m presenting some installation alongside sculptures by my roommate Rebecca. We are open again on Sunday beginning at noon. See the South Boston Open Studios website for directions and a list of artists.

Back to school with the World Wide Web

September 14th, 2005 by

September’s arrival marks the beginning of high school in Cambridge. This year, computer science is required for all 6th- 9th graders and available as an elective for 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students. With thirteen sections of computer science in my gradebook (only the elective class meets for a full five periods each week), I am starting off with a schoolwide investigation of online identity via email, IM, social networking, and blogging. From there, we break into three tracks based on experience and developmental need.

For the fall semester, 6th and 7th graders will be learning to make websites using XHTML, CSS, and a text editor. The final project for this track is an enormous web that links all of the students to each other. (See last year’s Cloud City for a reference.) Inevitably, they will discover something like Video Codes 4 U and inundate their projects with a half-dozen embedded music videos. My outsider artists reinvent design with every non-standard tag they type.

While the 6th and 7th graders begin to actualize themselves as online publishers, 8th and 9th grade students will be learning to use Photoshop, Audacity, and other media editing tools in a unit (tentatively) titled “A Little Cut’n’Paste.” They already have XHTML/CSS skills, so we will be publishing their products on the web as a final step. These students, especially 9th graders, will have regular reading and writing assignments relating to current legal and ethical questions surrounding this type of cultural (re)production. Born in the early 90’s with hip-hop, affordable PCs, fast internet, and MSPaint, the junior high school students at my school bring insight and a novel perspective to discussions of creativity and originality.

The high school elective track is already in full swing. Today, the class formed task forces to organize a student wiki and have already begun posting reflection pieces on their blogs. (Collecting homework via RSS is a joy – it’s all timestamped!) Once we lay a bedrock on the wiki, I’m sending the students into the junior high classes to teach mini-lessons on dokuwiki syntax. After that, it’s on to Craigslist and the yellow pages to search for free hardware. Our goal is to build up twenty free-as-in-free-pizza PCs by January.

Expect the focus of this blog to shift towards education over the next few months as I continue to spend most of my free time developing curricula. If you have any old beige boxes, displays, or NIC cards gathering dust in a closet, basement, or cubicle, please contact me via: driscollkevin TA (We are 501(c)3 so your donation will be tax exempt.)

In the meantime, reading about Mr. Babylon‘s first week back in the Bronx makes me appreciate the intelligent, caring students I am fortunate to work with each day.

TheFacebook and a call for open social inter-networking

August 26th, 2005 by

Today, Here and Now tackles theFacebook, the latest social networking system to cause a cyberspace ripple. Admittedly, I questioned the relevance of this network for some time. In my eyes, it seemed just another derivation of Friendster, the dominant social networking tool of my undergraduate years. Recently, though, I have changed my opinion. A student at Northeastern estimated that more than 80% of her fellow undergraduate population is listed on the site. Founders say that there are 100,000+ users logged in at any given time. Last year, a Boston paper reported that even the president of BU was profiled on the site. Relevant? Yes.

According to current undergrads, theFacebook does not have the nerd stigma that has deterred their classmates from joining Friendster or Myspace. To this end, it is interesting to explore the comments by Adam Weinberg and John Palfrey concerning privacy and social networking. Is it safe to assume that students fearful of a geek outing are less sophisticated in dealing with the persistence of information transmitted online? A quick perusal of profiles on any of the dominant social networks will reveal a surprising number of photos depicting PG-13 behaviors. What will the future Senate confirmations hearings be like if pictures of the nominated Justices downing 40s are stored on Will this lead to a more tolerant culture open to a leadership of pluralism and light transgression or will we see a desperate litigious scramble by citizens in their late-20’s to sue away embarassing photos from their youth?

During my time as an undergrad, walking through the quad on a springtime afternoon at Assumption, one would see the frisbees, smell the suntan lotion, and hear the acoustic guitars and boomboxes characteristic of an American liberal arts institution. What might surprise an alum is the ubiquitous doorknock sound reverberating off of the brick dormitory walls. AOL Instant Messenger was a required piece of software for my classmates, more reliable than the telephone and less intimidating than a coversation in the dining hall. Parties were advertised via away message and to be blocked from a friend’s Buddy List was deeply disrespectful.

A caller to Here and Now worried that undergrads using social networking technologies are missing out on an education of discomfort once required for first year students. According to the 2002 American College Health Association national survey, 66% of college students indicated that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the last year, and 46% reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function.1 Widespread adoption of tools that help these students to cope with the alienation and stress of today’s postsecondary experience will result in stronger graduates and a better educated citizenry. Any first date is going to be an awkward experience regardless of how many messages the couple swaps online. Students can now explore their curiosities and exercise control over many of their public expressions in a safe, cyberspace environment with tight realspace integration.

The question that lingers for this writer is definitely one for those unafraid to represent their nerdiness. When will we see an open standard for social inter-networking? It seems that a single XML schema could cover all of the basic data common to Friendster, MySpace, theFacebook, Orkut, Everyone’s Connected, BlackPlanet, MiGente, AsianAvenue, etc. etc. And wouldn’t a supernetwork like that really define relevance?

Readers looking for further discussion should check, a blog on social networking edited by college students.

1 Castronovo, Neil. “The Challenge of Parenting College Students.” Assumption Magazine, Summer 2005.

Leeroy.wmv – a glimpse of the future

August 24th, 2005 by

Leeroy.wmv is a digital video file encoded in Windows Media format. It depicts a group of characters in the multi-player online fantasy game World of Warcraft planning an assault on a crypt full of monsters. You can hear the players’ actual voices discussing the strategy they will use to pilot their avatars in the coming battle. The situation takes a humorous turn (surely the reason the file is being passed around the web) but I found it a profoundly candid glimpse into the world of online gaming.

The communities developing around MMORPG / Virtual World gaming are rapidly becoming as sophisticated as the “real world” communities in which humans traditionally participate. Complete with friendship, commerce, art, and sport, these communities deliver much of what was promised by early text-mediated virtual worlds such as HoloMUCK at the start of the 1990’s. A decade of practice with metaphysical social interaction through email and IM has made today’s users much more comfortable traversing the boundaries to virtual worlds.

The questions raised by this technology are fascinating and endless. The most popular games are closed software owned by private companies. To make an offline comparison: in the World of Warcraft, gravity is a trade secret.

For a quick introduction, take a glimpse at the plight of Leeroy and Co., skim the Wikipedia MMORPG entry and read the curious 10 Ways MMORPGs Will Change the Future. You may also try a game for free such as the Java-based RuneScape or the open-source Daimonin.

I want my DTV

August 9th, 2005 by

The Participatory Culture Foundation goes live today with a DTV client for Mac OS X. Paired with the Broadcast Machine, these tools combine the power of low-cost video production and distribution to create space for bottom-up, peer-to-peer internet television.

From buzzword to NPR in just a few months, podcasting took advantage of the openness of RSS to make portable internet radio a reality. DTV and Broadcast Machine go one better by using BitTorrent to share the bandwidth burden of multimedia content. If these tools get the proper support from users and developers, we may finally see a democratization of video emerge online.

Mac OS X users, head over to the PCF download page to get the new client. Windows and GNU/Linux users, check out vids from Some Pig, producers of one of the craziest channels, at

Spitzer reminds Sony BMG: Payola is illegal, silly!

July 27th, 2005 by

Sony BMG, one of the five major record companies, was called to task yesterday for the peculiar brand of racketeering called “payola.” This practice, as old as commercial radio itself, has continued unabetted despite several attempts to stop it. The etymology of the term itself is elderly – a combination of “pay” and “Victrola.”

In market environs as bereft of ethics as the recording industry, sophisticated criminal innovation is widespread. Modern-day blackmailers operate via the screen of third-party “independent promotion” companies who launder bribes. This cottage industry developed to support the “pay-for-play” tradition of pop radio after a major payola crackdown in the 1970’s.

Yesterday, encouraging news surfaced when New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer revealed that he had reached a $10 million settlement with Sony BMG after gathering “damning” evidence demonstrating their participation in illegal pay-for-play. Spitzer seems focused on continuing his pursuit of this cancer on our cultural landscape, citing a history of abuse:

Paying for airplay, which first came to light during federal hearings in 1959, is an abuse that has maintained itself over the years, Spitzer said. Employing former New York Yankees star Yogi Berra’s oft-repeated malapropism, he called the current state of affairs “deja vu all over again.”

Spitzer continued: “Payola is corrosive to the integrity of competition. It is corrosive to the music industry. It is corrosive to the radio industry . . . This is a story that has been told many times in the past. It is not new. It takes many different forms. But it is essentially the same scam where — instead of airing music based upon the quality, based upon artistic competition, based upon aesthetic judgments or other judgments that are being made by radio stations — radio stations are airing music because they have been paid to do so in a way that has not been disclosed to the public. This is wrong, and it is illegal.” — Sony BMG faces the music in payola settlement, Chris Morris and Alexander Woodson, Reuters, 26 July 2005

Coverage from Pitchfork Media includes painful quotes from internal email:

Another, from an Epic employee to a Clear Channel programmer looked like this: “WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET AUDIOSLAVE ON WKSS THIS WEEK?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen.”

The next step is to move the magnifying glass over the radio stations themselves. As the odious practice of replacing human DJs with glorified iPods continues along the FM dial, and renewed attention to payola highlights anti-competitive activity off-air, protecting low-power FM is more important than ever.

Spitzer’s announcement is encouraging news for anyone wishing for greater diversity in the FM ecosystem. Let’s hope we can keep up this momentum!

Re-imagining technology

July 26th, 2005 by

Hip-hop once again discovers uses for a technology that its inventors would not have imagined. Wired puts the spotlight on UK MCs freestyling over ringtones. With mobile phone culture even more firmly in place in London areas than in the U.S., the little handheld devices have been a part of underground music for years. Organizers of illegal raves would leave a phone number on flyers instead of an address. Pirate radio DJs call out their numbers and read off SMS shouts between tracks.

According to the article, DJs now calculate listener appreciation for new tracks by counting up “missed calls.” If you like a song, you call up the station and disconnect after only one ring. The DJ’s mobile will read out one “missed call” on the screen thus communicating a message without cost to either party.

Kids at my high school have newer telephones with extra-loud speakers and flash memory for storing compressed audio (even mp3.) At lunch or after school, they will sit around chatting as one person plays top songs off of her phone at a perfectly audible volume with quality akin to AM radio. Taking this one step further into rhyming is a natural progression.

This article is one more example in support of the rising number of voices critizing the Grokster decision for its emphasis on “inducement.” Inventors and creators should not be responsible for identifying all possible future uses of their technologies. Could Nokia have imagined kids rapping over ringtones? What if this activity were infringing on the copyright monopoly of a third party? Should kids pay public performance rights? Should Nokia be liable?

For a related project, check out Blazin’ Blip Blop and Blar & Bee, a mixtape by 424 Sound Monster that pairs MIDI ringtone instrumentals with the real acapella vocal tracks. Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is a standout in any format.