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Posts Tagged ‘Twitter’

Look Up

I first saw the man at the airport. He was on his Blackberry…or maybe it was an iPhone or an Android. He was reading or texting, preoccupied, his gaze never leaving the object in his hand.

All around him were people likewise fixated on their various devices. Some nodded in time to silent music or held murmured conversations with invisible colleagues. Occasionally, they glanced up, only to transfer their attention to an electronic device at some remove—an arrival notice, a gate number or one of the ubiquitous wide-screens delivering an endless stream of infotainment.

This is the new paradigm, I thought. We’re addicted to input and to the devices that deliver it. Outside our perimeters, we are barraged with sounds and images; inside our small bit of real estate, mostly taken up by our physical selves, we have the illusion of controlling the flow of data, receiving only what we want to when we want it. But we are caught by our need to be up-to-date, ahead of the curve, not in the moment but in the next moment, somewhere else; anywhere else.

On board, I found myself next to the same man. He offered a polite smile; then bent over his phone urgently, as if to squeeze in every last bit of communication possible before the jet doors were closed and we were asked to shut off our electronic devices. Immediately after takeoff, my seat companion powered up his laptop and set to work for the duration of the flight. I kept my head down as well, reading. Occasionally I glanced out the window. It was a beautiful day for flying.

When the wheels hit the ground, I quickly turned on my cell phone, as did everyone else on the plane, scanning for important updates we might have missed. Force of habit, I told myself, although in truth the habit is no more than ten years old and most of us have been flying a lot longer than that.

I drove to my hotel on a tiny beach in Key Largo for my first day of vacation. It was warm, windy and sunny. Yet I ended up in the lobby with my laptop. Just a few things to check, I promised myself. One hour later, I was still online and the sun was going down.

At dinner that night I sat alone with my food, a glass of wine and my phone, trying to read Facebook updates on my small screen. The phone is a terrific dinner companion for a single person; you never feel alone or disconnected and you look busy, maybe even important. When the waiter asks if you’ll be dining alone, you can reply in the affirmative while keeping your eyes down and ignoring his expression of pity. Still, it’s a stupid activity to engage in on a balmy night in south Florida so I raised my head to look around. At the next table, I noticed a group of middle-aged people saying grace. No, wait; they each had phones and they were wrapped up in various efforts to reach out to someone—anyone?—who wasn’t sitting at the table. Occasionally someone tossed out a comment and there was a burst of conversation. But even then, no one made eye contact. I considered that a group of strangers could sit down at the table and start eating and the original group might not notice. The thought amused me; it also depressed me.

The next morning I was up bright and early…and on my computer. After a couple of hours, I stood up, powered down and got ready to go out. I reached for my cell phone and changed my mind. Who needed to reach me? Who did I need to contact? What was the meaning of the word “relax” in our wired/wireless world anyway?  And how was I going to get rid of the crick in my neck unless I lifted my head?

The beach was tiny but absolutely beautiful. Looking out across the gulf, no towers were visible, no cranes, no high-rise buildings; just water. A few people milled about, including, to my surprise, my seat buddy from the flight down. He’d obviously reunited with his family—two small children, a boy and a girl and an attractive woman I took to be his wife. But he was still tethered to his phone, perched on the edge of his chair, squinting at the small screen, as were several others. A flock of pelicans swooped low to the water, delighting the little girl. “Daddy, daddy,” she cried to her multi-tasking father. “Look at the birds!” she cried. He waved, but never took his eyes off his phone.

I didn’t need to be told twice, however. I looked up. Watching the birds, warmed by the sun, I stretched my neck and eased into my surroundings.

images: cio.energy.gov; brown pelicans by Mia McPherson (http://www.onthewingphotography.com)

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twitterblackberryUSEA friend of mine alerted me yesterday to the hoopla surrounding a tweet from entrepreneur and career counselor to young women, Penelope Trunk, who posted the following last week: “I’m in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.” 

The tweet has sparked controversy throughout the blogosphere, particularly on women’s sites, from feminist protesting Trunk’s cavalier approach to abortion to concerns about the appropriateness of the material. Amanda Marcotte, controversial blogger and pot-stirrer par excellence, supported the tweet as “an elegant instance of the power of Twitter.” 

Comments ranged from the predictable “gross!” to the sympathetic “perhaps this is how she expresses her grief” and naturally, the moral implications of abortion have been front and center. 

My first question is: in our brave (or perhaps I should say, narcissistic) world of full and immediate disclosure, is anything off-limits?

I’ve always said that if content disturbs you, you are free to ignore it. In the good old days of print journalism, the “naughty” magazines came in brown wrappers and movies were (and still are, sort of) rated so you knew what you were getting into – or not.

But tweets go to the followers, who send them to others, who dissect and analyze them and then forward them to all sorts of outlets. How could I – or my nine-year-old niece – have avoided this tweet? Do I want her thinking everyone is (or should be) this seemingly easy-going about a miscarriage or an abortion? Will she be fooled into thinking these issues come with no more emotional complications than perhaps irritation or relief?

Trunk argues that miscarriage is a fact of life and life intrudes on work, and you can’t manage the balance if you can’t talk about it. I agree. Lots of things are facts of life: the messiness of grief, the reality of resenting one’s  offspring, the gracelessness of aging, or petty pleasure one occasionally takes from seeing someone else fail. Maybe these things do need to come out in the open. Besides, tweeting about the taboo is a great career-booster.

But to my second question: can you really describe anything important in 140 characters?

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I’ve gotten increasingly interested lately in how people are getting their news: where they’re looking, what they’re reading, and who they’re listening to, sharing with, and commenting on.

012309NewMediaMonitorThe Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) tracks weekly the most and least-discussed topics by citizen bloggers as well as by mainstream media. Its “New Media Index” for June 29th to July 5th  revealed a schism between mainstream media and the blogosphere. Few of the online commentators were talking about Michael Jackson’s death Michael-Jackson-9_580189awithin a few days of that event (this was before the service), but instead had focused on the death of ubiquitous pitchman Billy Mays, billy-maysalong with marking the thirtieth birthday of the Sony Walkman. Meanwhile, mainstream press devoted 17% (17 percent!) of its content  to the Jackson story over the course of the week. Events in Iraq and Afghanistan (the pullout in Iraq and the launch of a major new offensive in Afghanistan) accounted for about 5-6% of mainstream content and didn’t show up significantly on the blogosphere, although bloggers were discussing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor that week.

 

I don’t have PEJ’s figures for the past week yet, but I’ve made some anecdotal observations about stories that dominated and those with staying power. I’d guess the numbers will reflect activity on the pre-Independence resignation by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, sarah-palin-fishalthough interest waned as it became apparent there are only so many ways to keep speculating as to what she’s going to do next. 

Of course, as anyone within spitting distance of a switched-on television knows, Tuesday, July 7th was all about Michael Jackson’s all-day memorial service, what with anchors installed in LA as if it were a state funeral and reporters (including the Wall Street Journal, for chrissakes!) blogging in real time about what was going on every single minute.

Meanwhile, other underemployed reporters rushed to Nashville in order to figure out how many details they could wring out of the sad story of NFL quarterback Steve McNair’s shooting death by his unhappy McNairgirlfriend, who then killed herself.  I did notice, on several news aggregates  a few scattered stories on the economy, focused on the reluctance of bailed-out banks to lend money, although they have no problem raising bank fees. GM caused a little flurry of blog excitement over its plans to release a plug-in SUV

Comcast, my current Internet provider, redid its home page. Now, in keeping with many other major server home pages, you can catch up on this week’s important stories and assume it’s all about whether Lindsay Lohan’s career is over. Good luck locating anything about President Obama’s African trip. It’s there, but not exactly prominently placed.President_Barack_Ob_588023a

Why do particular stories seem to rate endless coverage? Mainstream media curates the news; the editors and producers presumably try to give readers/viewers what they thinks that audience wants. Are these outlets off-base? On-target? Did we ask for or indicate we wanted so much attention paid to celebrity and so little paid to, say, international news or even the economy? Online, we have access to more information.  And yes, we consumers presumably do the selecting. But is the blogosphere an improvement? If you look at consumer news aggregates – Digitt  and Reddit and Topix and such – you see stories categorized as to what’s controversial and what’s hot, which may involve a story about renewed violence in Iraq or Britney Spears’ supposed disappearance. It’s not really  equivalent – or is it to most news consumers? What makes the front pages of these news aggregates is what the readers say they like and the more they say they like or are interested in a story, the more they’ll see it featured. The favorites become more favorite; the other news may languish. 

A close friend is concerned that access to information falsely gives us the sense of being informed; that is, we’re not making distinctions between what’s important for us to know and what’s just distracting. True enough: The only way we’ll get exposed to a variety of stories if we make the effort to cast our gaze wide and deep.  It’s our responsibility to stay informed; in fact, it’s on us to understand why it’s critical.

20090707_mjmemorial_190x190On the other hand, Michael Jackson’s memorial service was a once-in-a-lifetime event, whereas certain stories, like plans to overhaul the health care system or try to resolve Mid-East problems, seem to be ongoing and without end.

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Two stories were prominently on display this past week: Jon and Kate; and the protests in Iran. They aren’t comparable, of course – except in their ubiquity.

To catch you up: Jon and Kate Gosselin had sextuplets, which, in addition to their two older children, gave them a family of eight to raise. They are currently doing a fifth season of a reality program, during which time they’ve apparently been adversely affected by fame and paparazzi, though they seem to enjoy the money. Monday night on their show, they announced they’d filed for divorce, which surprised no one who cared in the first place. Now you know as much as I do and no, I have not watched a single episode. jonkatex-largeI know what I know because other forms of media seem to think this is an important “celebrity” story. We can bicker about whether any celebrity story is important, but I can think of about fifty such stories that would be loads more entertaining and less painful to follow. I managed to have a little fun with this story because Open Salon, a blog to which I contribute, sponsored a contest to come up with what the announcement really ought to be. I wrote a  fake press release noting that Jon and Kate were giving their kids away to needy families.

The show will apparently continue. Fortunately, there are other forms of escapist fare,  from several terrific shows on USA Network or TNT, or any number of quality fiction books.

The other major story of the week: the protests in Iran. Is there any international story more deserving of the dominant place in the news? We here in the U.S. are likely sick of the endless bickering over health care (do something already!), or the sight of state governments from California to New York imploding, and we don’t want to play “Where in the world is Governor Mark Sanford?” any more. Besides, this election, the result, and this protest are important in a number of tangible and symbolic ways, not the least of which is that we can learn what’s happening, despite the typical post-election government crackdown on outside communication.  The fact that the news coming out of Iran is mainly via Twitter has not only thwarted government attempts at media suppression but also has the talking heads talking themselves blue in the face about what Twitter means for the future of journalism. As fantastic a tool as it obviously is, especially for people denied many freedoms (see my post below), Twitter isn’t perfect; a tiny number of observers are noting that these instantaneous messages, even those accompanied by visuals, are hard to verify or put in context.

 6That isn’t the point, of course; neither is the fact that the 3 million votes that appear not to have been counted might not by themselves be enough to change the outcome of the election. The point is, a large, educated, heavily female, mostly young group of citizens is standing up to a repressive government and inviting the world to see what that means. That’s a form of reality television you can be certain isn’t scripted.

It’s understandable everyone wants to report on, analyze, discuss, and dissect the events in Iran.  A variety of issues intersect with this event: how democracy and a particular interpretation of Islam will work; what the U.S  relationship with a nascent nuclear power can be; how women’s quest for equal rights may be affected; and, of course, how communication technology promotes a sort of freedom that can’t be contained.  But there’s another point to be made: While mainstream media tries to chase the Twitter phenomena, while alt media shakes its head at how out-of touch mainstream media really is, and while a shrinking corps of journalists risk their necks to get stories, I hope everyone will notice there’s a lot going on, not just with the Gosselins and not just in Iran.

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TwitI am not the most backward person I know when it comes to technology but neither am I in the vanguard. Some of that relates to my skill set (not innately tech-focused  and my age (the dark side of fifty). I also find the immediacy of certain kinds of high-tech communication leaves a lot to be desired in the in-depth department. Texting is fine when you are running late (or L8) and sending a tweet that says “help” when you’re sinking in quicksand might make sense, but as for reporting (not to mention analyzing, deciphering, dissecting or opining on) the news, I want quality, I want depth and I want complete sentences.

Let me now revise that.

protestIn the space of a few days, Twitter, that ubiquitous and previously irritating form of communication favored by second-strong celebrities, has become a force for real revolution: the kind that allows ordinary (or extraordinary) citizens a voice even in the midst of a government crackdown on communications. Of course I’m referring to Iran, where young protesters are broadcasting minute by real-time minute about their protests in a way that CNN has been absolutely unable to do.

There are a number of reports that talk about this new use for this new medium, including today’s New York Times and a recent post by Andrew Sullivan online at the Atlantic Magazine.

But what I’m most excited about is not just the on-the-spot, heartfelt reporting (one demonstrator sent a tweet that proclaimed “Ahmadinejad called us Dust, we showed him a sandstorm.”) but also the response of the other social networkers around the world. They are providing support both emotional (a large Facebook group as well as a number of followers around the world plugged in to “listen” to the opposition reports) and practical (supplying proxy server addresses for Twitter accounts when the government shuts down local Internet access).

Think about it: a democratic uprising takes place in one part of the world and people all over the globe can mobilize world opinion and perhaps more in a nanosecond. Are there young people in North Korea who, drawn to the social power of Facebook or Twitter, will also be drawn to protest1the power of freedom? What about Cuba? What about Saudi Arabia? Moreover, what does the involvement of twitterers say about the potential to interest an entire generation in the politics of communication and the possibility of change?

Twitter will still be used for inane reports about the breakfast habits of wanna-be A-listers and as a cruelly simple way of engineering a breakup, I suppose. But the idea that it can be used to sustain a social democracy movement has me as excited as I’ve been in years. I’m ready to open an account if I can sustain the required manual dexterity; I want to keep up. peace

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Yes, I have a Facebook page. Call it cultural anthropology but it’s an interesting place to hang out, swinging as it does between highbrow (a group supporting books in print) and lowbrow (a campaign to dump your friends for a free burger at Burger King). After a fast start in a  college dorm it’s a world-wide phenomena available to both the young and the young at heart, which is to say we baby-boomers who just have to get in on everything. I’ve connected with a number of writer friends I like and admire, I located a college roommate and an old boyfriend, and I can finally get a clue as to what my nieces and nephews are up to. Lately, more of my friends are joining, especially those with teenagers. I’m kind of a slacker when it comes to posting, linking, poking, tagging, reminding and joining. And why do my friends all seem to have many more friends than I do? Makes me feel like I’m not getting out enough, cyberspace-wise.

I like to try and come up with clever posts under the “what are you doing right now” section although I tend to fall short. My friend Steve Clemons, who writes a well-regarded Washington political blog, is always dropping impressive tidbits like “[Steve is] having lunch with the Saudi foreign minister” or “…talking about a new approach to Mid-East policy with Rachael Maddow on MSNBC tonight.” Steve has more than 3,000 friends. Most of the posts tend towards “[Joe is] feeling better about work” or “[Jane is] wondering if winter will ever end.” I have six or eight pictures posted but nothing I worry about strangers viewing. When Facebook altered its Terms of Service TOS) agreement, appearing to retain ownership of user information even if the user quit Facebook, the outcry was fierce. The company has temporarily reverted to the old TOS language while it seeks to clarify its intentions (i.e.,w e would NEVER sell your information). Whatever. I’m kind of surprised at people’s expectation of confidentiality when it comes to the Web. I figure all bets are off when you log on. Security is one thing; I support and encourage any and all protections possible when it comes to online commerce or anything relating to children. But the rest of us must know that the information, the images, specifics about who you are and yes, where you live, the asinine thing you wrote to a co-worker or the tasteless joke you sent around – it’s all out there and sooner or later, someone will get to it.

Of course people are free to reveal as much as they like when they like, which is why we’ve progressed from IMs to texting to Twitter, which allows  you to let your friends know exactly what you’re doing at any given moment. Apparently, celebrities, not to mention some politicians and media personalities are all a-twitter over the thought they can fill their fans in on their most minute, not to mention mundane activities. I don’t have a twittering device, at least not yet. I can’t get my head around the idea that I might one day receive a Tweet from someone I like and admire that says: “Had xistential thot b4 heading to men’s rm. It passed.”

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