Thursday, December 14, 2006

MySpace as Inevitable...

I research and write about that social networking collective intelligence Web 2.0 beast of the internet known as MySpace all the time. But an unforseen event happened last week... The Nerfherder Gal finally created an account for me!

Despite the best tantrum I could muster, she created the MySpace page in my name and with my information, complete with a pink "Hello Kitty" background just for kicks and giggles. Needless to say, I have felt quite emasculated in all the days since. But I've also made a few observations worth sharing...

Observation #1 - MySpace is the ultimate popularity contest, in the high school, Mean Girls-type of sense. Each user has a "friends" count, which becomes an almost immediate obsession. Overzealousness and complete irrationality create a mentality of "I only have 54 friends, I've got to invite a few more!". And no matter how many friends you get, you always feel like a failure in life when you see that some loser you went to high school with has an ungodly number like 340 friends (not exaggerating). Who are these people?! Getting more "friends" becomes a mission; a purpose for your sorry existence - amplified a thousand times in MySpace even to a known social recluse such as myself. I would love to hear a psychologist's explanation of this phenomenon.

Observation #2 - The main reason people keep returning to MySpace is to stalk other people online. In nearly two weeks, absolutely none of my "friends" have updated their pages at all. No photos, videos, blog entries - nothing. So why do I keep revisitting each of their pages multiple times a day like a junkie looking for a fix? The answer is, of course, to snoop on their "friends" lists. "Jimmy's one of my closest friends, so who are all these people in his "friends" list that he's never even mentioned? It's like he's got a whole other life I don't know about!". It also lets you stalk, not only your friends, but your friends' friends. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that people's most frequent visitors are actually ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends checking up on them without them knowing they're checking up on them. (My brain is now officially ready to explode from this high school girl lingo). MySpace is so popular because it so easily allows people to be anonymous stalkers. Scary.

Observation #3 - It's actually quite ordinary and overrated. The technology behind MySpace is nothing to write home about, and in fact, most pages use nothing more than simple HTML. As a result, it's the ultimate "Build your own website for dummies" website, and the quality of most of its pages demonstrate that point quite effectively. MySpace lets its users make a basic web page, post photos, leave comments and email, instant message each other, maintain a blog, etc. But all of this can already be done in cyberspace in thousands of other ways, and usually better ways. It's the new AOL - simple and wildly popular, yet moronic. No self-respecting techie would be impressed with almost anything about MySpace.

That being said, please excuse me while I see if I have any new friends...
  

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Participatory Authoring in Lessig's "Code v2"...

As a student of Internet Governance, there is one seminal book which is THE must-read in the field (not to mention one of my all-time favorites) - "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace", written by Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig has just released the sequel, aptly titled "Code v2". While he claims that it furthers the same argument, what is unique is that the book was written through a collaborative effort with the general internet-using public. For the past year or so, people could go to his website and make their own edits to the book, add their own examples, update certain arguments, bring in new facts - basically write portions of the book that they thought applied. In doing so, and in the grand tradition of Web 2.0, Lessig has blazed a new trail of fostering user-generated content to act as his co-author.

While Lessig maintained final editorial control over what ultimately made the just-released final copy, this must be considered one of the first examples of participatory authoring in a print publication of such magnitude - which is quite a revolutionary idea, particularly in the world of academia. Furthermore, "Code v2" is licensed under the Creative Commons license, meaning that, similar to many Open Source projects in the computing world, the book can be freely downloaded, shared with others, and even changed or modified by anyone. The only caveat is that any modifications must be similarly licensed.

Imagine that - a book that incorporates the values of Web 2.0 participation, as well as the Open Source community. Lessig has officially broken down the ivory tower of academia by allowing non-PhDs to actually write "his" book. For these reasons, he may just be my new hero. But as a burgeoning PhD myself, I am ultimately left to wonder: Has my entire career just been rendered obsolete?

(And for the record, what the book argues is that, on the internet, "code is law". For example, when AOL programs its chatrooms to have a maximum of 12 users at a time, it is essentially creating a law that sets a limit on public gatherings (as opposed to in real-space, where the U.S. Constitution gurantees freedom of association). Lessig himself summarizes his full argument as the following: "Simple libertarianism will not preserve liberty in cyberspace. As the code changes in light of the values of both commerce and government, cyberspace will become an increasingly regulable space. The aim of anyone concerned to protect a particular mix of liberty in cyberspace must therefore account for this mixture of code and law that currently exist, and how it is likely to evolve... [T]hat mix will tend to overprotect intellectual property. It will underprotect privacy. And paradoxically, the failure of effective regulation in the context of at least two speech contexts will tend to weaken free speech values in cyberspace. Finally, ...the emerging architecture of the Internet will enable the reemergence of local regulation of behavior on the Internet.")

As fascinating as the "participatory authoring" nature if the book is, it also just so happens to be a very accessible and fun read :-)
  

Sunday, December 10, 2006

DVD Standards: Blue-Ray vs. HD DVD...

After a long discussion at a bar yesterday on the topic, I've decided to do a little research and inform you, my loyal Nerfherder readers, about the struggle between the next generation of DVDs.

For a few years already, two different standards have been fighting it out over which will become adopted by the mainstream as the preferred next generation optical standard. In plain English, high-definition DVDs are ready to be sold to the public with unbelievable picture and sound quality, but until one single standard wins out, consumers are going to remain unwilling to commit their money.

The battle is between the Blue-Ray and HD DVD standards. To understand the problem, think of the battle 25 years ago between VHS and BetaMax. Consumers don't want to invest hundreds of dollars in what might turn out to be obsolete technology and purchase a player with the wrong standard. No one wants to be stuck with a BetaMax in their garage.

So what is a worthy consumer electronics geek to do? I'd recommend avoiding both standards until the dust settles and one is the clear winner. However, for those of you with no patience who NEED to see Star Wars in high-definition one way or another, two MySpacers have a brief debate worth reading, and Jason's blog lists 5 reasons not to support Blue-Ray.

Basically, in a nutshell, Blue-Ray is better on a technical level (25 GB of memory vs. 15 GB) meaning it will provide superior picture and sound quality movies, however it's also more expensive and includes "super heavy copy protection" which many consumers find obnoxious.

Then again, if the primary way to watch high-def movies a decade from now is over the Internet, then this entire conversation is a moot point.
  

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Citizen Journalism: Yahoo and Reuters Get on the Bandwagon...

This week both Yahoo and Reuters announced plans to use photographs and video submitted by the public in their news publications.

The age of "citizen journalism" is upon us. For nearly a century, "professional journalists" dominated the media landscape. If you were a professional journalist working for, say, the New York Times, you were paid a salary and abided by professional standards and codes of conduct, and probably studied journalism in college as a prerequisite to employment.

But in recent years, as ordinary people have published articles and opinions in the form of blogs, and as they have contributed audio and video content to Web 2.0 and social networking websites (think YouTube and MySpace), this dynamic changed almost overnight. More and more often, "citizen journalists" - aka "normal people" - were covering and even breaking news stories.

It was bloggers who helped topple Senator Trent Lott from the position of Majority Leader, and it was bloggers who contributed toward Dan Rather getting the axe from CBS Evening News for misreporting George W. Bush's National Guard Service records. On the video front, it was an average schmoe at a comedy club who used his cell phone to record Michael Richards (who played Kramer on Seinfeld) spew his racist remarks on stage.

So citizen journalism is not entirely brand new. In fact, many news organizations have already been using photographs taken by amateurs to supplement coverage of events such as the Asian Tsunami, the London subway bombings, the military coup in Thailand, and the war in Iraq.

The announcement by Yahoo and Reuters, then, simply formalizes the already existent presence of citizen journalism in the media landscape. It is only big news insofar as anytime traditional institutions formally recognize new institutions is ever big news.

But buyer beware. While citizen journalism holds promise in democratizing the media, having more news stories covered, and offering a greater diversity of opinions, it also has serious drawbacks. There is virtually no accountability for citizen journalists whose "news report" might be factually inaccurate, if not completely imaginary, and indeed it is even possible that a "journalist" writing about his experiences in Iraq may actually be posted by a second-grader living on the Upper West Side.

Take it all with a grain of salt. As blogger Adelino de Almeida observes, citizen journalism is likely to thrive when it has 1) a local or community focus, and 2) a clear definition of roles. I would add that its particular contribution of photo and video content is vital, both in actual reporting of the news, as well as in acting as a watchdog on traditional media institutions.

And as we try to figure out, then, who should be considered a journalist - is it really anyone with a cell phone or website? - we must also address when constitutional protections of freedom of the press should be applied.
  

Using Proxy Servers to Watch NFL Games...

On Sunday I came across one of those clear instances where geeky knowledge of internet technologies had practical uses for normal people. A friend found a website that broadcast every single NFL football game (http://sports.yahoo.com/nflgamepass), the only problem was that, due to U.S. law, the service was not available to people in the United States. Our challenge was to use the internet's global architecture to find a way around this and watch the football games.

First, we had to determine how the Yahoo Sports site knew we were located in the U.S. Either our location was determined by IP address, or by the billing address used by our credit card when we opened an account. After some testing, we discovered our IP was what was being used.

This was a relief. With only a little effort, it is very possible to mask your IP address using proxy servers. We figured we'd use an international proxy server to mask our local IP address (and therefore our physical location). We then did a simple google search, went to http://www.publicproxyservers.com/page1.html, found an international proxy that worked, and returned to Yahoo Sports. Voila! The service was now made available to us. My friend purchased the football package and watched all of the games from the comfort of his own home.

A major obstacle in this process, however, is finding a proxy server that has enough bandwidth to reliably carry the football games - which are obviously streamed in video. However, we found there's a work-around to this: once you're logged into the NFL Game Pass site and you've brought up the video feed, you can stop using the proxy and switch back to your local high-speed connection. Basically, it seems that they only require the international IP for the purposes of validating your account at login. Once this is done, a local connection is sufficient to watch the games.

Let me stress that I am not encouraging illegal activities. I am only demonstrating how easily proxy technologies render people's physical locations indeterminable on the internet. The same technologies can be, and have been, used, for example, by political activists in China to access government-blocked websites, by First Amendment proponents of free speech, and by privacy seekers.

How can this behavior be policed, and how can such laws be enforced? It is very difficult, though not altogether impossible for the truly determined - for instance, if the CIA had a crack team of cyberdetectives tracking down terrorists, I'm sure they'd find a way. However, since most websites are still interested in making money, and considering the relatively small handful of people who actually use proxies to this end, I would think that these websites are likely to simply to look the other way.

And considering the other very legitimate and socially beneficial uses of proxies, nobody, not even the government, has any desire for the technology to go away. In fact, it's only likely to improve.
  

Monday, December 04, 2006

Best Blogs of the Year...

A mandatory annual right of passage in the blogosphere come every December is to create a "Best of the Year" list. But I don't have the time or the patience, so in classic blogging tradition, naturally I'm going to steal someone else's.

Technorati offers the "formal" top 100 blogs list - probably the place to start for newbies just to get familiar with the most popular sites. However, I found this list by Fimoculous, "Best Blogs of 2006 that You (Maybe) Aren't Reading", a whole lot more fun. My favorites are The T-Shirt Critic, Corpus Obscura, History of the Button, and their #1, Indexed, which I'd never seen before, but found to be a fabulous way of killing 20 minutes.

Want to recommend a list of your favorite blogs? Write a comment to share your thoughts. If you're lucky, maybe your list will be the one I'll rip off next time.