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Participate in a study about social media and international users

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I'm conducting some research this summer in the San Francisco Bay area, on social media and localization -- if you might be interested, read on!

Are you employed in the field of social media or Web 2.0? Interested in participating in an ethnographic study about new media design and international users?

This is a study being conducted by Jordan Kraemer (jkraemer@uci.edu), a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and is titled New Media in Design and Practice: Social Media Companies in Transnational Circuits. Tom Boellstorff is the faculty sponsor (tboellst@uci.edu).

You are eligible to participate if you are at least 18 years of age or older, are employed at a social media or technology company, speak English, and are in some way involved with the design, planning, or maintenance of social media (social networking services, blogging/microblogging, social bookmarking, or other media related to Web 2.0).

The research procedures involve an audio-taped interview that will last approximately 30-45 minutes at a location convenient to you, and an optional follow-up interview (1-2 hours). Your identity will be kept confidential.

There are no direct benefits from participation in the study. However, this study may explain the connection between international users, who are not often the target audience of new social media products, and design practices in the United States. This study will contribute more broadly to understanding the social impact of new technology.

Contact Information:
University of California, Irvine
Lead Researcher: Jordan Kraemer, graduate student, department of anthropology
jkraemer@uci.edu
Faculty Sponsor: Tom Boellstorff, Associate Professor of Anthropology
(949) 824-9944 | tboellst@uci.edu

what ever happened to micro-payments?

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with all this talk of the demise of newspapers (and potentially, print journalism), i find myself thinking back to the model of micro-payments (or microcommerce) that has previously been proposed as an effective method for earning revenue from online content (and apparently, more recently in the Times). in theory, micropayment involves charging very small amounts at a time for an online transaction, such as downloading a song or purchasing items in a game. the key, though, is reducing barriers to completing the transaction -- such as having an payment account set up in advance, linked to a credit card or bank account. the iPhone, for instance, takes advantage of this model with its App store, and even though iPhone apps aren't as inexpensive as the payments initially envisioned by the micropayments method, they are often only a few dollars, charged immediately to one's credit card through a user account which Apple practically requires all iPhone owners create.
app-store.jpg
the benefit of micropayments lies in the ease of accessing content, at low cost to users, while potentially generating significant revenue for content-providers when all those little payments add up (especially given the low cost of delivering content digitally, rather than through offline distribution channels). in addition, micropayments make it possible to earn revenue without relying entirely on advertising, which means content isn't as dependent on appealing to preferred audiences -- or on a secondary market of consumer goods (and such advertising has notably been slumping of late).

for newspapers, however, charging small amounts per article might still not represent a viable solution -- unlike a song or an app, an article is more like a television show, something you might want to consume once but don't need to own. moreover, reading an article online isn't the same as reading the paper -- a paper you can peruse, strew all over the coffee table, easily share with members of your household. so the challenge should be how to charge a modest amount for access to premium online content that is commensurate with its value to the consumer. perhaps very inexpensive subscriptions, on weekly, monthly, and yearly bases would fit this niche -- i can see myself paying a few dollars a month to read a website like the NYTimes.com, as long as i know up front what it will cost.

online sources also have to consider how readers access their content -- users are unlikely to pay in advance for something they aren't sure they'll use. perhaps trial services and subscriptions could address that issue. but it does seem to me that at low enough prices, with instant, easy-to-use payment services, some kind of micropayment system might be a viable way to keep supporting journalism and other kinds of professional-produced content.

writing for TechCrunch, Brian Solis has argued for a Darwinian-like survival-of-the-fittest model for journalism, mobilizing online social networks to cultivate successful individual journalists. this approach might work well for music, television, and other media whose value lies in their consumption, and where there can be niches for different tastes (independent music, for example, can benefit from the low cost of distributing songs directly to fans). but journalism it seems to me is more like research -- sometimes you have to support investigation that leads to dead ends in order to uncover important findings. while i don't want to over-romanticize the role of journalism in a consumer society, i do think there's a place for investigative reporting that requires new revenue models in a world of digitized media.

women and video games

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my friend and fellow grad student Morgan Romine was featured on Fast Company earlier this month, blogging on "Why Women Should Play Video Games." Here's an exerpt:

I realize that gaming is still a decidedly male-dominated pastime and industry, and I understand that mainstream culture is still deeply influenced by the notion that games are only for the stereotypical antisocial, tech-nerdy, teenage male. But I’ve been advocating games for years now, and playing them for longer, so I’m impatient for the change in popular perception that I’m sure is waiting right around the corner.

netbooks: lowering the bar to entry

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reading various tech blogs and discussion boards lately, i've been following some of the debate around "netbooks," small, underpowered laptops that cost much less than full-sized ones. so-called netbooks aim to meet basic internet and computing needs (email, web surfing, some wordprocessing) in a superportable form, such as Acer's Aspire One, the ASUS Eee PC, the Dell Mini 10, or the MSI Wind. some netbooks seem to be more like glorified handhelds -- cramped keyboards, small screens, and limited processing power (many run on Intel's Atom chip), but long battery life -- and they have been touted for precisely these features. in theory, netbooks are poised to fill a niche between smartphones and full-sized laptops, offering an inexpensive, internet-capable device with the benefits of both -- perfect for traveling or taking to a coffeeshop.

one purported use of the netbook is as a secondary computer, an ultralight portable for an affluent consumer who already owns a larger, more valuable, and full-featured machine. for such users, a netbook can offer a disposable, affordable alternative for their "mobile lifestyle," presuming, of course, a particular kind of mobile, middle-class, professional consumer (not coincidentally, the targeted demographic for many shiny new tech devices). but unlike an iPhone or a Blackberry, which remain expensive devices with pricey data services, a netbook is priced low relative to that of full-sized laptops. low-end PC notebooks in the same range ($300-600) are inevitably bulky, heavy, and impractical for taking on the go.

still, netbooks' inadequacies have been criticized by Techcrunch's Michael Arrington, who contends that their popularity will be limited: "Netbooks are designed to appeal to two very different markets - the price sensitive and the size sensitive. The two are really mutually exclusive." Arrington makes a good point, but at the same time, there are shifts in how people are using technology which will make netbooks more appealing. personal computers have become primarily networked devices, for messaging, web browsing, streaming music and video, and so on, where an earlier generation of computers were seen as "productivity" tools. WiFi and wireless data networks make it possible to connect to the internet from almost anywhere -- on campuses, in coffeeshops, at the airport. while smartphones have greatly improved their capacity to access the internet and social media services, they remain expensive compared to mobile phones without data plans, and are only used by a minority.

what's more, computers, like cell phones, have become highly personalized items -- for those as can afford it. no longer primarily a shared family or classroom device, laptops conform to a modern Western ideal of possessive individualism -- a sense of personhood as singular and individual, One Laptop Per Child. netbooks, precisely by virtue of their affordability, promise to make available the always-on, interconnected world of social networking sites, cloud computing, and streaming media to a wide audience. as personal computers go, they offer a highly portable, technologically sufficient device that provides access to popular media and services, in a market saturated by products overpowered for many everyday uses. moreover, the coming popularity of off-site "cloud" computing may make netbooks even more viable.

still, i suspect the netbook naysayers are correct in their dismay with netbooks' constrained capacities, and that most people won't prefer to have an undersized, underpowered device as their main computer. but for a growing generation of students, young people, and others of limited means, netbooks may offer the most cost-effective way of participating in a digitized, networked world of personal portable devices, regardless of preference. netbooks offer the promise of improving access to new media for many, but this comes at the cost of better performing, more expensive computers. technology use will remain marked by its economically and socially uneven terrain.

recent projects

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i've been continuing to think about questions of mobility, spatial scales, and technology, particularly in terms of how our ideas about mobility often influence what kind of new media are developed and marketed. most recently, i proposed a small project funded by Intel as part of collaborative effort between Intel's People and Practices group and UC Irvine. there are a whole number of interesting projects as part of the initiative, which you can read more about on the PAPR blog.

in addition, i've returned to blogging for Smart Mobs, so keep an eye out for me there.

whose mobility?

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with this summer's iPhone 3G from Apple and Google's latest unveiling of the G1 smartphone, mobility seems to be the current communications tech buzzword, especially for so-called social media. having just acquired a new iPhone myself, i admit i'm pretty excited by its possibilities -- continuous data, location-based services, and a superslick interface that may indicate the future of touch-based interfaces. i've been especially impressed by the free applications offered by established social media sites, like Facebook, MySpace, Last.fm, and Twitter. where internet services have tended to focus on web-based applications, the iPhone redirects usage back to standalone apps which implement their own framework while drawing on networked content.

i find myself updating my Facebook and checking my Myspace messages more often, as the iPhone apps are often quicker and cleaner than their web-based counterparts, and more fun to use. i'm titillated (and a little creeped out) by how Yelp and Google Maps can now figure out where i am, and deliver data specific to my location. i'm beginning to envision how devices like the iPhone and G1 might allow for more constant engagement and interactivity with peers -- as long as, of course, they also own the pricey equipment and pay for the data subscription (not to mention having a working wireless network, which neither AT&T nor T-Mobile consistently provide).

this brings me to my current question concerning increasing mobility -- whose mobility is at stake here? the "digital divide" between technological haves and have-nots may not be a foreign concept in tech circles, but it's not one that has been very well addressed either, as it's often chalked up to socio-economic inequities that must be solved separately. certainly it's not surprising that tricked-out web-capable smartphones are mostly available to consumers in the upper social strata (with devices starting at $179 and combined voice/data plans running $55/month and up). moreover, social and geographic mobility have often been the purview of the middle (and upper middle) classes, those who are more likely to leave home for college, take jobs in different cities, and establish themselves far away from their extended families.

migration, of course, is a reality for many working-class people in the US and abroad, whose ability to earn a living is often tied to the movement of global capital. the demands of the global market tend to drive mass labor migrations, as people must move to find jobs that can support them and their families -- often living far from home and working abroad illegally (from migrant Mexican and Central American laborers in the US, to domestic workers in Europe and the Gulf states who come from South Asia, the Phillipines, and elsewhere). mobility per se may not be limited to those with greater resources, but voluntary mobility is still a privilege.

yet by contrast, mobile communications technologies have precisely been adopted in places where more extensive infrastructure may not exist. in the US, for instance, mobile phones were adopted first by younger users, partly because they're less likely to have their own landline (or own a home), and also because cell phone carriers began offering pre-paid plans that made phones accessible to those without steady incomes (the Pew Internet Project has some interesting reports on cell phone and internet use among different American demographics, though their methodology is limited to phone interviews, and they appear to conflate race with regional ethnic identity). outside the industrialized world, furthermore, mobile phones increasingly provide communications access to low-income regions and neighborhoods where landlines are simply unavailable. according to this article on MobileActive.org, for example, Brazilians living in favelas (slums) have taken up cell phone use, as have low-income youth in South Africa. free incoming calls and text messaging make mobile phones useable where landlines aren't, and encourage different ways of engaging with mobile technologies. according to Jeffrey Juris' review, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, shows how mobile phones in Jamaica allow low-income users to intensify their social networks in beneficial ways.

what's clear is that mobile technologies are used differently by different groups, often in ways not intended or imagined by marketers or tech companies. marginalized populations are probably less likely to be targeted by companies like Apple or Google, but at the same time, new technologies do present novel possibilities for social interaction at multiple social strata. text messaging, as the New York Times anxiously warned last week, is on the rise, often over and against voice calls, while improved handheld devices might actually provide web access to those who can't afford more expensive computer equipment (though Apple and Google for now are both assuming their devices will be paired with a home computer and broadband connection). mobility may turn out to mean more than just the latest toys for those of us who can afford them, and perhaps suggests an emerging way to think about and analyze new patterns in technology practice.

digi-pedia: wikipedia's digital hegemony

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the other day on NPR, i heard a brief segment about Wikipedia, and how conservative critics have put together an online alternative called "Conservapedia," supposedly in correction to the "liberal bias" rampant in the former. i would believe that many of Wikipedia's articles reproduce liberal perspectives, particularly the academically-informed entries which tend to reflect leftist scholarly criticism, but i'm not convinced that this kind of "bias" needs to be "balanced" by an opposite conservative opinion. the polarized political spectrum doesn't always represent two equally valid critical positions. or maybe i've just been reading too much Althusser.

still, clearly Wikipedia cannot offer a neutrally produced body of knowledge -- all knowledge is situated and specific to the contexts in which it emerged. Wikipedia is necessarily a result of the communities that collaborate on it -- particularly those that are technologically enabled, and often academically informed. establishing "Conservapedia" strikes me as a bit fruitless, since once you assert your political position openly, you've already marked your ideas in a particular way. i suspect that the original site will maintain its dominant ground as the unmarked, normative version which most people will prefer. it's bad enough when students try to use Wikipedia as an academic reference -- imagine those who try to support their arguments with an explicitly biased source!

Conservapedia aside, i'm also not convinced that "bias" is the most pressing issue limiting Wikipedia's legitimacy. i'm interested more in its overall structure as a site of knowledge production -- in particular, what kinds of entries are created in the first place? i've noticed an increasing number of individual figures with their own Wikipedia page (especially those who are well-known online, like jwz, danah boyd, and howard rheingold), as well as night clubs, internet memes, and various contemporary yet transient topics. should every person, place, and concept ultimately have its own page? of course, entries on Wikipedia tend to reflect its users' predilections for all things digitally mediated, a tendency i think is more significant than any alleged "liberal bias."

generally, i accept the premise that Wikipedia's content is regulated by an interactive style of editing that allows users to continually tweak and rewrite entries according to their own level of engagement with a given topic, and i'm often impressed by the quality of articles on historical figures, terms from critical theory, and general knowledge of popular culture, all of which make the encyclopedia incredibly useful for general reference. but at what point does it become a promotional site for certain kinds of people and ideas, or an archive of internet fads? the open editing process of a wiki can't exercise much influence over what kinds of entries are useful or appropriate, something that more traditional editing might allow. interestingly, Wikipedia has been using "dis-ambiguation" pages recently to clarify related terms and redirect users to pages of interest. i think this highlights some of the possible drawbacks of an interactive, communally produced reference work. perhaps the proliferation of pages will be managed through user interest and will self-regulate in practice, but it's worth considering how interactive and collaborative sites of knowledge may privilege certain trends, ideas, and information over others. Wikipedia's conservative detractors are feeling nervous precisely because of that potential ability to dominate popular thought.

the special generation

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i woke up this morning to more social anxiety about youth -- this time, NPR's Day to Day was covering a recent study which claims that "[college] students today are more narcissistic and self-centered than a generation ago." now, my mother assures me that she never told me i was special, so perhaps i escaped the worst of the "self-esteem movement." but according to psychologists at San Diego State, this recent trend can be traced to the indiscriminate emphasis on self-esteem and praise popular in parenting during the 80s. of course, the researchers then went on to add that this growing narcisissism is "fueled by current technologies such as MySpace and YouTube." ah, technological determinism.

at the risk of tooting the same tinny horn all the time, this just clamors "social anxiety! social anxiety!" the study purports to have relied on the "Narcissistic Personality Inventory," in which over 16,000 college-age students were surveyed between 1982 and 2006 using this psychological evaluation survey. admittedly, i tend to be wary of this kind of quantitative data, largely due to my own investments in ethnography and qualitative methods. what does it really tell us that students are increasingly agreeing with statements like "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to?" could this represent a part of larger cultural shifts in how we conceive of ourselves in American society? does this index actually indicate anything about social and behavioral changes, and is it sufficient to assess such cognitive trends?

but now i'm confused, because only a few days ago, APA researchers were all worked up about the negative effects of media on girl's self-esteem -- so it self-esteem good, or bad? or are researchers just bandying the term about without careful definition? given the cultural specificity of Western conceptions of selfhood, some care and clarity would be welcomed here. still, lead author Jean Twenge seems to think that today's youth are less empathic and more self-centered, and cautions that this shift could have damaging ramifications for society generally. as i've said before, youth are often a site where social anxieties are expressed concerning social reproduction, and youth are frequently and vaguely blamed for social changes that many find threatening. but are youth initiating these changes, or products of them?

the best part of this morning's interview with Twenge was when she claimed to hold the media responsible first, then parents and schools. ah, of course. but which media? that's right, magazines and television, in particular those that pander to youth. at no time did she point out that those media are generated for the sake of attracting advertising revenues, and that corporate interests tend to shape the media through which they promote their products. lastly, of course, Twenge includes MySpace and YouTube as proof that media are increasingly capitalizing on the narcissistic tendencies of today's youth, sites which revolve around individual identity. but perhaps these websites embody the same kind of cultural shifts that lead students to respond differently to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. before asserting that changing attitudes signal dangerous trends in personal relationships, clearly closer research is needed to investigate how young people conceive of themselves, how they relate to others, and how they use (and produce) media.

surveiling the surveillant

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as danah boyd mentioned in her blog today, an Iranian student was tasered by campus police at UCLA last Tuesday, triggering protests from the student body. the event, however, was captured by a student's video phone, and quickly disseminated around the internet and on television networks. by Thursday night, a friend of mine was showing me the clip on Youtube, whose video-sharing capabilities had undoubtably facilitated circulation. as Roxanne Varzi, a professor of Iranian studies and visual anthropology at UC Irvine said to me, emerging media technologies such as camera phones and video sites now allow the surveilled to become the surveillant.

media analysis aside, i hope the exposure of this event leads to a meaningful investigation of the actions of the UCLA police, and to thinking more critically about the ways in which some students (middle eastern, students of color, etc.) are treated, especially in our current political climate of fearmongering.

Authentic Youth: Cultural Capital and Credibility in Digital Youth Culture

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(from a proposed paper on the role of digital media in the lives of young people)

For young people, commodity culture offers an important site for the production of individual and collective meanings. Digital spaces such as the internet provide an excellent arena for do-it-yourself culture and creative consumption, but are ultimately structured by the same logics that determine how popular culture operates more generally. Discourses of credibility and authenticity afford us a glimpse into how young people navigate the complex interplay of social networks, cultural commodities, and subcultures in a mobile, mediated society. Given the role of cultural engagement in developing social capital, digital media offer a means for young people to become more invested in their social and cultural worlds.

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