Debbie\’s Honours Thesis Research Blog

April 5, 2006

Browsing Happily

Filed under: General — honours @ 10:07 pm

This post isn’t related to my thesis topic, but I thought I might as well make somewhat of a fuss about it, because it does affect many people, including myself.

In response to Frank’s comment on IE6’s inability to properly load this research blog, I can only reply by saying that I too have the same problems when viewing my blog — and many others — using IE. (Thanks for your comment, by the way, Frank!)

I’m not sure how to address this issue of universal readability, because the template I am using for this blog is one of the default WordPress designs. What I do know about CSS though, is that IE is not very good at displaying websites in the way that they are coded to look like. I have encountered the same problem in designing websites over the years, and honestly I don’t know why IE is still unable to meet scripting standards. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

Here’s one site that could possibly give you a bit of insight on happy, trouble-free Web browsing. I just discovered it last night.

Identity Matters!

Filed under: Bibliography, Blogging, General, Interview Findings, People, Thoughts and Ideas — honours @ 4:56 am

The identity factor in online interaction, especially that which bleeds into offline relationships like my project proposes, has been the core of a pertinent question that I have been asking since I began my fieldwork interviews with bloggers. How can the Web be used to enrich the social fabric of geographic locales when one of its richest qualities, its ability to afford participants privacy through anonymity/pseudonymity, would be precisely the same quality that could disrupt relationships between people in the offline realm?

A List Apart features this new article, “Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters” by John M. Grohol, that I chanced upon through scanning my RSS feeds, and Grohol offers an insightful account of the pros and cons of anonymity versus transparent membership in online communities.

Many internet users have a number of different identities they use online, to allow them to explore different aspects of their persona, interests or hobbies. But pseudonymity is also the key to membership systems as well, as it allows members of the community to learn to identify other members they like or dislike based upon their behaviors and personality. Pseudononymous systems strike a balance between people’s needs to obscure their identities online, while still allowing them to build reputations in those usernames. These systems have been shown to work very well for an online community.

People build reputations in their usernames, and so their reputation becomes something they value and want to protect. Members who have an investment in something within your community are far less likely to blow that investment through inappropriate, negative behavior.

Grohol, John M. (April 04 2006) “Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters“, A List Apart.

Grohol mentions that even under an alias, individuals are still able to convey themselves in a unique manner while still maintaining some sort of distance between their selves and what they say online, and that despite their self-masking with a fake name, people are able to get in tune with an individual’s point of view and/or personality (provided that fraud is at a minimum).

One interesting thing that more than one of my interviewees brought up on the subject of identity, which I’ll simply paraphrase here, echoes Grohol’s statements on pseudonymity. I’ll use the example of me, for sake of simplicity. Basically, the point was made that no matter whether I express myself in an online community on behalf of either “littlemisskool” — my nickname for virtually all web communities/social software apps of which I’m a member — or my real name, Debbie Shing, it doesn’t really matter so long as my communication remains relatively transparent, cohesive and reliable over a period of time.

I concede, it does sound a little like the “if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck” argument, but let’s face it, at the end of the day, online communities are still the sum of all parts, which consists of people, screens and networks, and even with webcams attached to every single computer, the issue of verifying one’s identity is a moot point. How do I know the Girl Guide standing outside my supermarket selling me cookies is in fact a Girl Guide?

Before I start pontificating, let me bring up the fact that there are always Web protocols that can be adopted, as well as certain membership guidelines, that can safely assure to a reasonable level beyond doubt that this post on Tim Horton’s stock going public by “DonutFreak2006″ was written by the same “DonutFreak2006″ who previously blogged about Krispy Kreme.

When you establish a relationship with members, you’re more likely to get valuable, useful information and responsible behavior from them. They’re invested in the service precisely because they are members. And membership, as American Express has been extolling for decades, has its privileges. If there’s little difference between a website’s “member” and a random visitor to the site (e.g., they can both do a lot of the exact same things), then most users have little incentive to become a member (or “registered user” in web-speak).

Ibid. See above for full citation.

There seems to be a warmer approach to online communities today than there used to be. I believe that people are more prone these days to expressing themselves online as openly as they would communicating to someone offline, and there is less fear of retribution as technologies reduce the entry barriers to and social conflicts of interest within communications software. It remains to be said though, that what you consume online should more than likely be read critically and judged with a grain of salt, and that what you produce online will often be looked at critically as well, if not cynically. Luckily, on the upside, most online folk, as in offline space, are friendly.

To continue with my example, there are plenty of people out there (or at least a handful, I hope) who continually read my personal blog and do not know me as anything other than “littlemisskool”; however, writing under a pseudonym, and using pseudonyms to represent people in my life does not deny the reader any richness from my original story except for the real names of those that I mention. Likewise, there are countless members of group blogs, and writers of individual blogs, whose entries I am always eager to read, yet frankly have no interest in knowing “who they really are” — I trust their writings enough to believe that their blogging is an accurate portrayal of their personality, regardless of persona(e).

It is this notion of (mutual) trust that I think must be amplified in the public before the online-offline communicative mesh becomes ideally effective. Surely, with identity theft, scammers and intrusion of privacy on the other end of the online communication spectrum, it sounds rather dreamy and overly optimistic to expect or want full social inclusion in my idea of the neighbourhood/civic Web portals, but I think there are still many stops along the road, many of which include changes to online technology as well as to popular perceptions of online interaction.

Edit: For anyone who’s interested, I also made a little general comment on Grohol’s article, directly on the site.

March 30, 2006

On Community Building

Filed under: Bibliography, Blogging, General, People, Thoughts and Ideas — honours @ 11:10 am

Guy Kawasaki‘s post, “The Art of Creating a Community“, makes a pretty good summary of how to build an online community. The article itself is geared more toward corporations and e-marketers, but I don’t see why his points can’t apply to geo-centric Web hubs like I’m proposing in my thesis as well!

Foster discourse. The definition of “discourse” is a verbal exchange. The key word here is “exchange.” Any company that fosters community building should also participate in the exchange of ideas and opinions. At the basic level of community building, your website should provide a forum where customers can engage in discourse with one another as well as with the company’s employees. At the bleeding edge of community building, your CEO participates in community events too. This doesn’t mean that you let the community run your company, but you should listen to what they have to say.

Guy Kawasaki. (February 14 2006) “The Art of Creating a Community”, see above for permanent link.

Just replace the words “company” with “city”, and “customers” with “citizens”. As for “CEO”, well, in my opinion, with localized community blogging, we’re all on the same playing field, so everyone is pretty much the CEO of where they live. At least online!

March 29, 2006

Interview with Myself, Part 2

Filed under: General, Questionnaire — honours @ 3:02 am

I have completed some more interview questions and have now finished about 60% of my Interview Questionnaire — check out the blog archives for my answers to Questions 1. a. through 5. c.!

Meanwhile, if you haven’t noticed already, my posting on this blog is going to slow down a bit as I am heading into the final stretch of this Honours project and finish writing my mini-thesis. Apologies to all my in-person interviewees as I am still reviewing my recorded conversations — please bear with me while I try to send you podcastable versions as soon as I can.

Once my project is done, I think I will archive my essay on this blog, perhaps by chapter on separate pages, as well as my final presentation which will be a PowerPoint slideshow. Since the project revolves around blogs, it would make sense that the project itself be wholly blogged — I am trying to make publicly accessible as much information as possible.

In the meantime, please stay tuned as I will continue to update with links and other interesting findings!

March 24, 2006

History Repeated: Oral Culture is Blogging

I’m currently halfway into a very interesting essay by Michael Curry that discusses the relationship between technological development throughout history and human communication/representation of space and place and the environment in which we live.

Curry, Michael R. “Discursive Displacement and the Seminal Ambiguity of Space and Place.” In Lievrouw, Leah A. and Sonia Livingstone, eds. (2002) Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs. London: Sage Publications, pp. 502-517.

I like this article because it is helping me gain a new perspective on how to flesh out my concept of community blogging as a forum for public discussion and shared local experience. Curry goes into detail explaining the historical differences between topography (writing about places), chorography (writing about region) and geography (writing about the world/Earth in general), and draws a very intruiguing parallel between topography and oral culture, which I think can still be relevant to my thesis’ subject of constructing worlds through blogging today:

If within the topographic tradition places are represented through narrative accounts, we can see the places themselves as constituted through the practices that are the subject matter of those accounts. In constructing those accounts their authors describe what is acceptable and what is not; they define places as constituted of sets of possibilities and constraints. Places are defined in terms of those things that are in place and those that are out of place, those that belong and those that do not.

It may seem as though today we are far indeed from the primary oral cultures within which topography emerged. But this way of experiencing and representing places is in fact alive and well.

Curry, Michael R. (2002) See above; p. 504.

In terms of experiencing everyday life online in addition to offline, it seems to me as though we are presently in the “oral culture” stage of social evolution. Verily, there are developments in progress already that are blurring the boundaries between cyberspace and “meatspace”, for instance World of Warcraft and Second Life, which do have their own ecosystems but that are not completely distinct from “real life” — money spent in those realms affects the international economy, and offline cultural and social reverberations from online interaction abound, and vice versa.

Last month’s Northern Voice blogging conference started off with a lecture by Julie Leung on storytelling, which she advocated as the true essence of personal blogging:

Podcast of Julie Leung’s Northern Voice talk: “Starting With Fire: Why Stories are Effective and How to Blog Effective Tales”. Northern Voice, February 11, 2006.

What I am trying to say, I think, is that I want to make the link between blogging about place (“place blogging“) and creating an online experience for that place something that is both enriching and relevant to one’s feeling of connectedness/belonging to the world in general. This development of online communication through writing about places is reflected in Curry’s accounts of social and linguistic evolution.

Curry dates his research on topographic narratives all the way back to Ancient Greece (Hesiod). Just as until then, societies had been formed, languages were created, and communication evolved from primitive to sophisticated, the Internet has seen the same: the Internet-using population has grown, scripts and codes have advanced, and users have shifted from bulletin boards and chats to e-mail, to “homepages”, to blogging. The increasing complexity and sophistication of the Internet is how I see Curry’s example of oral culture being “alive and well” today, with blogging as the latest stage in the Web’s evolution.

Web developers constantly talk about making the transition from offline to online life more seamless, that online activity is merely part of the whole experience of life itself — a life, rather, that only a small percentage of the world today is possible to live — the Internet is far less the channel of anonymity and escapism it was years ago than it is presently a media- and information-rich dimension in which individuals choose to extend themselves.

One of my interview respondents said to me that we are indeed headed in the direction of “The Matrix”, where life is not only replicated online but s(t)imulated. Blogging (and by this I mean online publishing) about everything and anything we know about the world around us, and giving each thing its own “[set] of possibilities and constraints” (Curry; see above citation) according to our breadth of knowledge, seems to me to be the stepping stone toward perfecting this seamless experience.

Online Communities: Friendster vs. MySpace

Filed under: Bibliography, General, People, Thoughts and Ideas — honours @ 7:41 pm

This edited post was originally an e-mail I sent to Richard Smith, my project supervisor, and classmate Mell who’s writing her Honours thesis on the Bruneian diaspora via Friendster, but I thought I might as well share my thoughts on this article here on this blog:

Boyd, Danah. (March 21 2006) “Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?”, www.danah.org

I bet you’ve probably already come across this essay by Danah Boyd; anyway I just read it for the first time yesterday via Scoble and it really opened up my eyes as to MySpace’s impact on online interaction if not simply its cultural value among younger/hipper groups. Boyd wrote it originally as a blog post, but it has grown to become quite an opus — it’s not academic in the sense that it has citations and references, but it does critically examine the structural and demographic variables of both networks and offers a pretty strong argument for online community building.

She makes some reference to East Asian groups as strong Friendster groups, but not so much due to a cultural phenomenon than as a result of hardware issues. The essay also addresses Friendster vs. MySpace in terms of social capital (and other “capitals” including culture, coolness and economy), and also examines the question of how both networks are made useful/valuable by various groups of people.

Her points on “identity production” are quite intriguing to me (see Question 9. of my Research Questionnaire).

Friendster didn’t meet their needs and the core practices of identity production and social sharing that MySpace offered were not significant enough for this group. A huge part of the success of MySpace is an age and culture thing. Part of being an American teen is figuring out who you are, how you fit into society and culture, how social relations work, etc. Part of this process involves sharing cultural objects, hanging out and trying out different self-performances to find the one that feels “right” (think Goffman “faces”). There are plenty of adults who are doing this as well, but it is central to youth culture. Youth will always do this, using whatever medium is available to them. MySpace is far more deeply situated in the cultural values and practices of its constituents than Friendster ever was.

Boyd, Danah. (2006) “Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?” (See above for full citation.)

I would have to agree; the flexibility of MySpace’s profile feature is much more conducive to self-expression and has a much higher capacity for incorporating multimedia than Friendster’s rigid, fill-in-the-blanks interface — Friendster does provide individuals with blogs, but at a completely different URL than one’s profile page.

If I could only state one factoid about online behaviour that I have learnt through studying social software, it would be that there is an inverse relationship between information about people and the number of clicks it takes to access it.

Chalk one up for MySpace’s “one-stop-shop for multimedia interactivity” factor.

Boyd’s article is quite a good read; I might even refer to it in my own thesis!

March 21, 2006

Interview Update

Filed under: General, Questionnaire — honours @ 4:26 pm

Check the old posts for my additions to the interview questions! So far I have done up to Question 4. a., and will be completing the rest shortly. Please remember, if you have an opinion on any of the questions, feel free to leave your input in a comment under the post! My interview questions are sorted by topic in the sidebar, in the Categories bubble.

March 20, 2006

Three Weeks to Go

Filed under: General — honours @ 10:36 pm

There are exactly three weeks left until my final thesis presentation, so I’m buckling down now, gathering up the last bits of theory and trying to make sense of all my observations of the blogosphere so far. It’s also time to write, write, write.

Working on the written part of this project has sort of made my blog monitoring duties fall to the wayside, but I believe that I’ve made sufficient progress for now — at the end of the day, my thesis is the most important! I have taken a short break from fiddling around with the technology side of my project, but will return to fixing my interviews for podcast condition tomorrow, as well as blogging some of my interview results.

In podcast-related news, a new piece of French legislation may provide precedence toward more open audio file formats:

The idea behind the legislation is to encourage interoperability between devices—essentially allowing copy-protected music purchased from any music service to be played on any music player. Currently, music purchased from the iTunes Music Store can be played only on the iPod.

Christopher Breen. (March 14 2006) “Vive la France!“, Playlist: The iPod Blog.

Perhaps my frustrating days with Sony’s ATRAC3 format will soon be over!

March 15, 2006

Reading Retreat

Filed under: Bibliography, General — honours @ 6:36 pm

Do you ever get the feeling that they coined the phrase “Square Eyes” after you? Even as a child, I was nicknamed that moniker because of the amount of time I spent staring into a computer screen. (These days, contact lenses help me to foil the masses.)

Today I am going to spend most of the day offline in order to catch up on some important literature for my thesis. I finally read We’ve Got Blog in its entirety, and have since begun reading chapters in assorted books dealing with subjects including community, online interaction, and technology and society.

These are the two newest volumes on my reading list:

Castells, Manuel, ed. (2004) The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

Renninger, K. Ann and Wesley Shumar, eds. (2002) Building Virtual Communities: Learning and Change in Cyberspace. New York: Cambridge University Press.

March 14, 2006

Reflexive Research?

Filed under: Fieldwork, General, Questionnaire, Thoughts and Ideas — honours @ 3:24 pm

Today I have been thinking, even though I have a fairly extensive blog on my research, it isn’t very easy for the reader to get my explicit point of view. So I’ve decided to incorporate myself even further into my own research, to clarify to readers and as a personal experiment alike, and answer my own set of interview questions. Please stay tuned for edits and revisit the original post pages for my addendums to each interview question; and if you have the chance, tell me what you think!

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