The joys of online noise

Facebook gets a lot of abuse. And it’s earned most of it. They routinely make privacy an opt-in feature, and then compound that problem by making it hard for people to find the right settings to change if they do, in fact, want to opt in. They mine our friends’ profiles for pix and prose that they can turn into “personalized” ads, and then compound that problem by telling us that these bits of purchased hucksterism are merely “featured” content. They scrape our so-called private messages (and the public ones too) for anything that looks like a political preference and hand all that info (in aggregate form only, we’re told) off to third parties. They change major design features every other week or so, and then compound that problem too by largely ignoring the complaints of thousands — even millions — of their users who were perfectly happy (or happy enough, anyway) with the previous look and feel of the site. You can, no doubt, add your own litany of things that Team Facebook gets wrong to the items above . . . but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

No, for all the things that Facebook gets mind-bogglingly, astoundingly, stupefyingly wrong, they actually get at least one thing very, very right. And, significantly, it’s one of the things that an awful lot of people think they screw up the worst. For all the redesigned walls, feeds, sidebars, and timelines, the one feature — and I want to insist that it really, truly, honestly is a feature — that Facebook has never changed is that the site is incredibly noisy. If anything, most of those redesigns have made it even noisier.

Assuming that you have more than a dozen or so friends — and I mean “Facebook friends,” of course, who may or may not be people you consider your friends offline (but that’s a topic for another day) — your encounters with Facebook are most likely an endless barrage of information. Status updates. Check-ins. Uploaded photos. Event invites. Game annoucnements. And so on. The vast majority of these bursts of trivia about your friends’ lives aren’t actually intended for you in any directed fashion. By default, Facebook assumes that everyone wants to share everything with everyone else, so your friends generally have to make an extra effort not to share that status update about their great bike ride (or their recent bout of food poisoning, or their trip to see their grandmother, or what have you) with everyone they know. And since most people don’t make that effort, Facebook is a very noisy place indeed. This is a large part of why so many people run away from it. Or at least complain about it.

It’s also precisely why it works.

The best way to illustrate this is to compare Facebook to its latest major competitor: Google+. Trying so very, very hard to be the anti-Facebook, Google+ is set up, by default, so that you only share things with the people you specifically want to share those things with. You can, of course, opt to share things Facebook-style — i.e., with everyone you know on the network — but (again) most people don’t make that extra effort.

And so while Facebook is noisy to the point of being overwhelming, Google+ is almost deathly in its silence. Tomblike even.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with quiet social spaces — and nothing intrinsically superior about noisy ones. But Facebook seems to understand — much, much better than Google+ does — that a certain level of noise helps to produce a palpable sense of energy and excitement. Or, at the very least, it produces a measure of variety that, in turn, fosters actual engagement. Whenever I check Facebook, it’s almost always different — even if the time that’s passed since I last checked it is only a minute or two — and so even if 99% of what appears in my feed doesn’t grab my attention (mind you, that’s too high a figure, but only because I’ve hidden a lot of “friends” whose daily routines matter to me less), I’ve almost always got some potential reason to wonder if something has happened to someone that is actually worth my attention. Which, in turn, means I’ve got a reason to spend time on the site . . . and that often means I wind up finding something worth commenting on myself, and so I add to the overall level of noise, and the cycle continues.

Google+, on the other hand, can stay unchanged — at least from my perspective — for hours at a stretch. Sometimes days. To be fair, some of this might be a simple function of numbers: I have more Facebook friends than I have Google+ friends, so I’m likely to see more traffic on the former anyway. Still. The drop-off is much, much sharper than that. People who are my friends on both sites are almost always much, much more active on Facebook. They (and I, too, to be fair) could be much noisier on Google+ — but the site makes you work harder to do that. And so, for most people, it simply never happens at all.

Put a different way, Facebook is sort of like a giant, open-air house party. You walk in, there are lots and lots of people, they’re all engaged in lively banter of one sort or another . . . and while a lot of that is just noise to you, it’s still got a vitality and an energy that you can feel. And it’s pretty easy to drop in and out of conversation circles at will. The party as a whole may not appeal, but you can still have a pretty good time anyway. Google+, on the other hand, is like a high-rise apartment building where you know that there are parties going on all over the place, but where the walls are all soundproofed, the doors are all shut and locked, and you either have to be willing to knock on a few of those doors or you have to get lucky and hope someone opens one of them as you’re passing by . . . otherwise, you’re just going to wind up wandering the halls all by yourself.

None of this means that Facebook doesn’t still have serious issues with their privacy policies (they do) or that they don’t deserve a lot of the flack they get (ditto). And i have no doubt that there are people who are perfectly happy with the quieter, more buttoned-up atmosphere of Google+. But a large part of what makes Facebook actually work well — from users’ perspectives, mind you, rather than as a business — is actually bound up with many of the things that it seems to do so badly.

More found haiku (more grad seminar reading)

must have money and
a room of one’s own if she
is to write fiction

– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Found haiku of the day (grad seminar reading edition)

to uphold basic
human justice you must do
so for everyone

– Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, p. 93

[And I know I'm sorta cheatin' the syllable count in the last line a bit, but no one really enunciates that second E in "everyone," do they?]

Lies we tell our students

It’s the start of another semester, so I thought it would be a good time to share what has become a standard part of my Day One spiel for my undergrads. I’ve taken to giving some version of this, no matter what the course actually is, partially because Day One is a good time for us all to reflect on the bigger questions of what this whole “higher education” thang is all about . . . but also because it helps to set up the more course-specific stuff that always follows this about active learning and the need for my students to participate in what we’ll be doing for the four months that follow. But enough preamble. On with the show.

You have been cheated. Misled. Lied to. By the U. By your high school. By your grade school. By your parents. By a lot of people. You’ve been cheated in many ways, but the ones I want to talk about are these:

  • You’ve been lied to about what your tuition buys you.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your education is supposed to be for.
  • You’ve been lied to about what you should expect from your courses.
  • You’ve been lied to about what your role in getting an education really is.

Big Lie #1. Show of hands, please. How many of you are paying for your own education? [Wait for it.] Sorry, but you’re wrong. This is not your fault. You’ve simply been trapped in one of the Big Lies that universities (among others) tell on a regular basis — and have started telling more and more over the past decade or two. You are, of course, paying good money. But you’re not paying for your education. Universities aren’t actually in the business of selling education — though they certainly want you to think they are — because education can’t actually be bought and sold.

Put simply, education is what happens when you learn something you didn’t know before. Ideally, that still takes place all the time on university campuses . . . but when it happens, it’s got nothing to do with what the university is actually selling. You can, after all, go sit in one of the big lecture halls on the West Bank from 9-5 all day every day for the next four months — most of the time, no one will know that you’re not actually registered for whatever courses you’re witnessing — and you can learn an awful lot simply by paying careful attention to lectures you haven’t paid a dime for. Similarly, you could take a copy of my syllabus (or anyone’s), go find all the readings for free in the library, and learn a great deal without ever writing anyone a check. In fact, you don’t even need a syllabus. The university library stacks are open to the public. Go in. Pick a floor. Start reading. Do that for 8 hours/day, 5 days/week, 50 weeks/year (i.e., as if it were a regular job) and you’ll get yourself a pretty impressive education.

What you get when you spend your tuition dollars, however, is not education. Rather, what you get when you write out that check to the U is the privilege of being evaluated and — if you meet a particular set of standards — of being credentialed. Ideally, you’re being evaluated on things that the university is helping you learn. But you don’t get an automatic refund if you don’t actually learn anything — nor do you get charged extra if you happen to learn more than what’s on the syllabus — because what you’re really paying for is for people like me to assign you a variety of tasks and then judge you on how well you perform those tasks. In the eyes of the university, if you actually get an education along the way, that’s great. Ideal, even, since it helps them keep that Big Lie in place. But the university isn’t selling education any more than health clubs sell fitness. In both cases, your money buys you access to the institution, but that’s it. Whether you actually get fit or educated depends on what you do after your check has cleared and you can’t get that money back.

Big Lie #2. You have been told that your education — particularly your college education — is the ticket to a Good Job. There’s a very tiny shred of truth in this, at least insofar as a college degree will make it more likely (though by no means guaranteed) that you’ll wind up with a job that pays you an annual salary rather than one that pays you an hourly wage. Eventually. Bearing in mind that “eventually” may still mean 10-12 years from now. But there’s much more to a Good Job than good pay. Lots of people, after all, make very good money working jobs they actively hate and that give them ulcers.

More importantly, that college degree hasn’t automatically translated into a Good Job upon graduation for at least 25 years. This sad truth is even sadder because it has nothing to do with questions of actual merit, skill, or brains. Most of you — even the best and the brightest of you — will graduate without a Good Job in hand . . . or even on the horizon. Again, not your fault. There simply aren’t enough Good Jobs for all the new college graduates who enter the job market every year. This was true even before the economy went into the toilet. But it is even more true now.

I still keep in touch with some of the best students I’ve had. People who I know are brilliant, articulate, creative, motivated, etc. People who I’ve written letters of recommendation for. People who will almost certainly succeed at anything they want to . . . if they’re given the chance to do so. As far as I know, none of these students from the past 5-10 years is actually unemployed right now. But most of them are still trying to find jobs that are more than placeholder positions that help pay the bills until they can find the career that they really want for themselves. These people aren’t lacking Good Jobs because they’re uneducated or unqualified or unmotivated. Far from it. They’re lacking Good Jobs because there simply aren’t enough of those out there.

Mind you, this is not necessarily the end of the world. There’s a lot to be said for taking some post-graduation time to breathe, to find yourself, and to figure out what you really want to do with your life — even if that means working a not-so-good job (or two) and living on the cheap for a while. Except, of course, that you’ve been told for most of your lives that the real reason you should go to college is so that you can get a Good Job. So you’ve been fed unrealistic expectations by people who really should know better. ‘Cause the non-connection between “a college degree” and “a Good Job” has been true ever since I graduated from college . . . way back in 1986. Which means that it’s been true for at least as long as most of you have been alive. Probably much longer. I was fed this big lie too, after all. And while I wound up with a Good Job in the end, that process still took about ten years after I finished my B.A.

Connected to Big Lie #2 is Big Lie #3: that the quality of your education is measured by your “grades.” That you should be worried about bringing home a report card filled with As (and maybe a B or two), because a high GPA demonstrates that you’ve gotten a good education . . . and that a high GPA will help secure you a Good Job.

Trouble is, in the long run, no one really cares about your GPA. But especially not future employers. When it’s your job to produce a presentation that will help your employer land the big contract that will keep your company afloat (and keep you employed) for another three years, your 3.8 GPA isn’t going to write a kick-ass presentation for you. It won’t guarantee that you’re able to write a kick-ass presentation. It won’t help you keep your job if you write a weak presentation. You will actually have to be able to write that kick-ass presentation.

Perhaps more to the point, the quality of your education isn’t measured very well by your grades at all. A grade simply demonstrates that you were given a set of tasks and someone evaluated you on how well you did those tasks. But it’s possible (for example) to learn a great deal but perform poorly when tested . . . or to ace a test without retaining anything meaningful about the subject after the test is done. In the former case, you’ve got a good education but a lousy grade. In the latter case, you’ve got a lousy education but a good grade.

Put those pieces of the puzzle together and most of you have been led to believe that the most important thing you should expect out of a course is a grade. As a kid, your parents are proud of you if you get As. They’re disappointed when you get Cs. And, typically, they’re much more likely to go to parent-teacher conferences and ask questions about your test scores (how can we help him get better grades?) than about the content of the curriculum (we think that it would enrich her life as a citizen of the world to learn French; where can we find a tutor for her?). It doesn’t take long before most children learn that they, too, should worry more about their grades than about their education.

Big Lie #4. Most of you — most of us — grew up in educational systems that were designed to produce good grades rather than active, engaged, productive citizens. Your average public school system, for example, gets extra funding when its standardized test scores go up, rather than when its graduates go on to become brilliant scientists or ground-breaking novelists. And so most school systems focus their energies on training students to produce good test scores. Which essentially means that you’re trained — from a very early age — to sit still, shut up, do what people in authority tell you to do, and regurgitate whatever they say on tests and exams and essays. Whether you actually learn something that matters is secondary to whether your school district’s test scores are higher than those in the next county.

And so you’ve also been lied to about the role that you should play in your own education. Which is not the role of the passive spectator who memorizes facts and figures and spews them back. There are contexts where rote memorization is valuable and important . . . but if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re not being educated: you’re being indoctrinated. A real education requires you to be actively involved. It requires you to participate. To ask questions. To engage in dialogue. To be challenged by ideas and opinions and worldviews that are different from your own. It requires you to analyze. To synthesize. To create.

These are the sorts of things you need to do routinely in the “real world.” A large part of what it means to be an adult, after all, is that you’re on your own, you’re independent, you’re taking responsibility for your own well-being — and those are difficult things to do if the major lessons you’ve been given on how to cope with the world are to sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told.

Now I’d be lying if I said that this course, all by itself, can erase all those Big Lies. We’re together in this classroom for a grand total of about 48 hours over the next four months . . . which is not a lot of time compared to the 20 or so years of lies you’ve been fed about how you should simply sit still, shut up, and do what you’re told. But, with any luck, this class can be a start.

La plus ça change . . .

Going through some old magazines that should have been clipped and recycled long ago, I found the following tidbit (time-sensitive details omitted for effect):

The public, as usual, is in a fog. If the [political party] and the media cooperate, the fog won’t be lifted until [. . . .] after [the President's] reelection, [when] you will finally be given the full details of another monstrous financial scandal — and the bloody bill that has come due. The media will belatedly begin searching for villain. Experts will explain that ordinary citizens have no choice but to provide tens of billions of dollars to clean up the mess. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because the same sequence of events played out in the [major financial crisis of 3-4 years prior], for which taxpayers are now in the process of ponying up $200 billion.

This is from a William Greider essay in Rolling Stone with the (probably familiar sounding) title, “Bailout Now, Pay Later.” Greider goes on to explain the depths of the then-current banking crisis, that the necessary solution — i.e., government shutdowns of big, Big, BIG banks such as Citibank — will almost certainly not be the solution pursued by the then-sitting administration, and that the government’s bailout of all these failing banks will come back to bite taxpayers in the ass later. Hard.

Sounds like 2008, right? It certainly does. But my magazine hoarding ways run much, much deeper than that. (Though I’ve almost purged everything by now. Honest!) This is from June 1991. Occupy Wall Street clearly got to the party much, much later than it should have . . .

Resolution on a stick

It’s a cliché of the highest order — especially for us academics on the humanities side of campus — but I’ve resolved to be better about writing this year. Book writing. Essay writing. Correspondence writing. And, yes, blog writing. I’ve cleaned up my home office. I’ve rearranged it a bit to make it a more comfortable, ergonomic space in which to work. officeI’ve set myself some (hopefully) manageable goals and am trying to settle into new routines. We’ll see how this goes in the days and weeks to come, of course. But one of those new routines includes a target of 2-3 fresh blog posts each week, with a potential tie-in to the grad seminar I’m teaching this spring. So here I am, poking away at my iPad, and trying to breathe some life back into this dusty little corner of the interwebs.

And, yes, I’m aiming to blog from my iPad as much as I can. The laptop is still always an option — and it’s certainly a friendlier typing machine — but I’m also not a touch-typist, so I’ve got no indelible home-key habits or tactile rhythms to disrupt when faced with a virtual keyboard embedded in a sheet of touch-sensitive glass. The iPad is also a much more frequent companion than the laptop as I move about town (and beyond) these days. And, perhaps most crucially, several months back, I splurged on a WordPress-friendly blogging app several months ago that has simply been gathering dust in its corner of my home screen. So this piece of my resolution also helps me recoup my major economic investment in Blogsy. After all, that’s $5 that I will never, ever get back . . .

I’ll admit that when the iPad first came out, I wasn’t even remotely tempted by it. I simply didn’t see the point. I already had an iPod Touch and a laptop, and I was perfectly happy with both. More specifically, the iPad seemed to me to be precisely the wrong combination of the two: an iPod that was to big to fit in my pocket, and a portable computer that was too small and too weak to fit my everyday needs. But then I spent a lovely chunk of my July in Belgium, where I watched some good friends zip around with these light, bright, tight little machines for note-taking, emailing, game-playing (etc.) . . . and I got a serious case of Gear Envy.

And so I splurged. And, six months or so later, I haven’t regretted it at all. The iPad won’t replace my laptop as my primary computing device. I’m still too big a fan of the penguin and open source software to join the Cupertino cabal as a full-time member. And, even given all the wondrous things one can do with cloud computing these days, I’m not yet ready to give up on a machine where several gigabytes of files — from old syllabi to new music, digital photos to PDF-ified readings — are always available to me, even when I’m not online.

Regardless of what device I’m using, though, (and, truth be told, I’ve now worked on this entry on both my available options) I’m aiming to drop more text in this space in the coming year than was the case in 2011. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a promise or a threat.

Accidental haiku of the day

Mother— “Shut yo’ mouth!”
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft!
“Well, we can dig it.”

All the news that’s fit to ignore

As I type these words, there’s a story about the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests sitting near the top of the front page of the Guardian‘s website. The Guardian, of course, is based in London. Wall Street, of course, is in New York City.

As I type these words, at the very top of the front page of the New York Times‘s website, there’s a link to an op/ed piece by Michael Kazin called “Whatever Happened to the American Left?” with the following subheading:

Critics of corporate power have failed to organize a movement against the policies that drove the nation into a recession.

Even if Kazin happened to write his piece before the Wall Street protests began eight days ago (so it’s not necessarily his fault that the world has undermined whatever truth his complaint might have contained), one would think that the Times‘s editors might have noticed the glaring contradiction between an essay they chose to feature so prominently on their website and the unfolding events happening just down the street.

Then again, the Times doesn’t appear to think the Occupy Wall Street protests are particularly newsworthy. Buried much, much deeper on that same page, there’s a simple link — no story, no photo, no additional detail — to a Times blog entry of a “Video of a Confrontation on Wall St.” That’s the only mention of the protests of any sort on the Times‘s website’s front page.

Meanwhile, as I type these words, over on CNN’s website, there are 21 stories listed under “Latest News” (i.e., stories that, in a print context, would be described as “above-the-fold”). Those big, Big, BIG stories include:

  • Python is 24-26 feet long, 300+ lbs
  • Campus bake sale sparks outrage
  • Police: Sorry for not uncovering sex lair
  • Scarlett Johansson on her privacy
  • Ben & Jerry’s sells ‘Schweddy Balls’
  • Tiger Woods hires new caddie
  • Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels on display

Not a single one of the 21 stories is about the Wall Street protests. Nor is there a link to a story about those protests anywhere else on CNN.com’s front page.

But it’s good to know that Tiger has found someone else to lug his clubs around for him. I’d been losing sleep over that burning issue for weeks.

Careful what you ask for

A little more than a month ago, I found myself in a conversation with some friends about the practice of making mix CDs. And while I don’t remember just how that conversation took this particular turn (except, of course, that there was beer involved, so anything is possible), somehow I found myself on the end of a challenge (or two). Said friends offered up specific themes, and it was my task to compile suitable mixes to match those themes.

I finished the first of those CDs earlier this month, popped it in the mail, and have just received word that it has finally reached its intended destination.

irene.jpgThough perhaps I should instead say that it made landfall, since the theme in question was “Hurricane” (see track listing below). And while I knew the timing of said CD’s arrival would come pretty close to the anniversary of Katrina coming ashore in NOLA (six years ago this coming Monday, for those of you who’ve forgotten), there was no way for me to know that it would also coincide with the ongoing movement of Irene up the eastern seaboard. (Stay safe and dry, all you peeps from the Carolinas up to New England.)

For the record (for the disc??), I’m open to future requests . . . bearing in mind that there’s already a line here (so I can’t guarantee anyone a rapid response), and that I suspect the uncanny “make it so” magic that happened this time only works by accident (so you probably won’t be able to produce an everlasting global utopia simply by asking for an “everlasting global utopia” mix).

  1. Rolling Stones — “Gimme Shelter”
  2. Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie — “When the Levee Breaks”
  3. Led Zeppelin — “When the Levee Breaks”
  4. Bob Dylan — “The Levee’s Gonna Break”
  5. St. Louis Jimmy — “Florida Hurricane”
  6. Lord Beginner — “Jamaica Hurricane”
  7. Jamie Lidell — “Hurricane”
  8. Marcia Ball — “American Dream”
  9. Liz Phair — “Hurricane Cindy”
  10. Neko Case — “Middle Cyclone”
  11. Hurricane Smith — “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?”
  12. Hurricanes — “Pistol Packin’ Mama”
  13. Hurricane Harry — “Last Meal”
  14. Johnny & the Hurricanes — “Crossfire”
  15. Johnny & the Hurricanes — “Storm Warning”
  16. Bob Dylan — “Hurricane”
  17. Dr. John & the Lower 911 — “Say Whut”
  18. Elvis Costello & Allen Touissant — “The River in Reverse”
  19. Bruce Springsteen — “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”
  20. Marcia Ball — “Louisiana 1927”

Where do you want to live?

Like so many interesting things in life (or at least on Facebook), this began by chance.

places

Actually, to be honest, I’m not sure exactly when it began. Maybe it was when I first created a “check-in” entry for a place that did not yet have one. Maybe it was when I first noticed a check-in option that was clearly some random individual’s awkward misspelling of the place I was at the time. Maybe it was when I first realized that Facebook will suggest places to you when you “check in” that are a mile or two away from where you actually are — and so the relationship between your real location and your check-in location is pretty shaky to begin with. Whenever it actually began, “it” was the recognition that Facebook’s openness when it comes to its “Places” feature allows for an . . . unusual . . . degree of playfulness.

And so, over the past several weeks, I’ve been “checking in” on Facebook far more often than I ever did before . . . but I’ve almost always done so by inventing the name of a new place and adding it to the Facebook database. Sometimes these have been completely whimsical (Drunken Cheetah Cafe). Other times, they’ve been more abstract (that spot at the center of your back that you can’t quite scratch). Occasionally, they’ve had some small relationship to where I’ve actually been (Brown. Tall. Who Are We?). But I’ve rarely used the same invented check-in more than once, even when I’ve gone back to the same place repeatedly.

What this now means for some locales in my usual circuit is that when I — or, presumably, anyone else — open up the check-in dialogue, I will see the actual name of wherever I am . . . surrounded by a dozen different invented check-ins. And so the digital city around me isn’t just filled with the names of various businesses: it’s checkered with a host of more fanciful locations. The First National Bank of Soul and Funk. Uptown Ska Palace, Divorce Court, and Tobacco Emporium. Fort DeSoto Park (East Beach) (secret Minneapolis extension). And so on.

I have mild regrets — though only mild ones — that, by avoiding the “proper” check-in choices for my favorite coffee shops and bars, I’m blurring their online visibility somewhat. At the same time, however, I’d much rather help to create a map of the city that isn’t based entirely around commerce. And I’m happy to undermine, even if only in a very little way, the logics of surveillance and marketing that “checking in” are intended to perpetuate.

What I’m still waiting for, however, is to open up that check-in dialogue and find that someone else has started inventing fanciful place names of their own. I can’t be the only person who’s started doing this. And it wouldn’t take a lot more people doing so to slowly fill the digital versions of our world with the places that we really want to be. Consider this your invitation to join in on the fun. . .

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