The Ideal Image of the web

Last week’s reading gave me an idea of how the web was originally defined and envisioned. What is it now? How is it being taken advantage of? How can we change it? And what does the future hold for us?  Before last week, I did not have a complete understanding of how the web started I never thought about it as a huge space, since I personally spend most of my time online on Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms. Along with our study readings, I am reading on the side books about the history of business which I found to be similar to the history of the web. So in this blog post, I will connect the models discussed in  these two readings in an attempt to think outside the “loop” and find the common ground. One model talks about how, before, people used to own their space on the web and the other looks at how people used to work for themselves and have their own land. Then it all changed to working for someone else and using other’s space and information.

 

During the Agrarian era, the concepts of companies and workers exploitation did not exist. There were farmers, bakers, butchers, and more. Each of them had their own space to work with and get their own income from(1). This is similar to how the web was in the past. Each website had its own domain and remained within it. Each would work, write, publish, and, most importantly, own their information and have control of it. I agree with what Kelly said when Chimero mentioned it in his article about the Good Room, the web was a boundless and shared estate. Also, as it was mentioned in the article “The weird thing about the internet today”(2) by Madrigal, O’Reilly wrote that the foundation of the web is basically hyperlinking where the “the web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all web users”. For me, that is the nostalgic idea I kept of thinking after last week’s readings.

 

Then industrial age came by and government and businesses started employing workers. Nowadays, we live in a world where we learn that there is one single right path to take: study, work hard get a great job, then retire and live happily ever after. Looking at it from my perspective, it is one big loop.  We are taught when we are young so it is not easy to change; it is very risky to move away from the normal/correct path. So basically, we are used to following what we see everyone does and what we think is normal. This is relevant to how the web is now: a space that is owned by big companies. Most of the users are in stuck in the loop because of the convenience and the easy-to-use interface. Nowadays Hyperlinking is not something we even think about. As Madrigal mentioned in his article:

most of the action occurs within platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and messaging apps, which all have carved space out of the open web”

 

The two models discussed here are comparable., and they make me think about what the web can become. People started going back and opening their own business to generate their own income at during the recession. When people are struck with the reality of being in the loop they might realize that is not the only choice they have. Thinking of the future web, am I going to wait for a huge online “bomb” to awaken us?  Or am I going to start looking at all the space that is available on the web to make something valuable again?

 

References:

Kiyosaki, Robert The Business of The 21st Century,2014.

Chimero, Frank , https://frankchimero.com/writing/the-good-room/,

Personality++

I came to internet consciousness while the blogging wave was kind of dying. Things moved rapidly from there. With Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sucking up most of my online attention. Most of my age-fellows have a similar early memory of the internet.

However, the past few weeks have given the internet a personality I could not possibly have known about. Blogging-era sounds like a very mature, intelligent online space. A space where only people with some credit and a degree of intelligence were heard and had a voice. With no pictures, videos and similar gimmicks to distract the online user, the text had to be tasty. Bloggers were intelligent people, with smart, relevant opinions and a gift of the gab. That was how you attracted an online following. It was hard work that asked for diligence, time and consistency.

The contrast between then and now is stark. This contrast only emphasizes the fact that nowadays you just need to look a certain way to be internet-famous. The authors are right to be nostalgic since they would put in so much effort into one blog post and have it reach a small, interested audience; whereas now an “influencer” need only post a well-edited image and gain a wider audience that responds fiercely.

I appreciate this fierce response. I appreciate the fact that there is a little somethin’-somethin’ for everybody. Online, an old person with a passion for Salmon runs is as catered to a three-year-old’s crazy obsession with Baby Shark.

The authors’ reflections have brought about a change in how I feel about the internet: I feel a little warmer towards it. The internet is being sculpted into something new and I might be nostalgic about something ten years down the line.

No Place Like Home

The readings from this week have really made me start to question what I have been accepting at face value in the past. I see the web and the way it has evolved as an inevitable process, but I haven’t stopped to truly consider the effects that technological evolutions are having on my life and the lives of those around me, despite the fact that the web is something that most of us use every day and is rapidly shaping our societies right before our eyes.

The metaphor of the web as a place we live in such as a library as described by Frank Chimero in “The Good Room” doesn’t quite resonate with. Maybe it’s because of nostalgia I’m still hanging onto about my identity as a ‘print person’. I prefer reading on paper and getting my content and entertainment face-to-face/in person, which I attribute to the inundation of digital devices that I have to use in order to stay up to date and hold a job in society. Since I’m constantly glued to a screen for work, I want to be off of a screen for play. The web is a powerful tool, but as I use it now, it isn’t a place I feel at home in. Though it’s not a strong metaphor for me, it could be a trigger for the nostalgia some of the authors express in our readings including Hossein Derakhshan in “The Web We Have to Save”. Derakhshan misses the blogging communities of the past where he didn’t need to have a huge social media following to have his content read. Blogs to him were special diverse ‘places’ where unique thoughts and ideas flourished. I wonder if he would agree with Chimero that we should be purposefully shaping the web into places where everyone feels welcome, adding that a little piece of how things were before, should be preserved as the web evolves.

Echo made an interesting point on the Elizabeth Kolbert article, “Who Owns the Internet?” about Google being a digital colonizer. I found this quite compelling, because it is in direct opposition of Chimero’s concept of a “good room” for everyone on the web. “The Weird Thing About Today’s Internet” by Alexis C. Madrigal shows us how tech giants like Google and Facebook are, “the most powerful companies the world has ever known…” and they are absolutely taking over. They are the digital versions of the ancient empires trying to overtake as much land as they can, and make all people who operate on that land, follow their rules. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t feel at home anywhere on the internet.

As the “Google and advertising” reading from week five by Richard Graham will also demonstrate that Google is discouraging diversity in languages on the web (perhaps inadvertently but it is an incredibly important consequence to consider). When creating for the web, this is something we need to keep in mind to make sure minority or ‘less profitable’ languages are not wiped off of the digital world. To be purposeful in the design of our spaces on the web, inclusivity plays an important role.

When we are purposeful with what we do with the web, we also need to make sure that we are not just labouring and producing content for other companies to profit. Google is determining what content is worth and not worthy of promotion and whether that content is a compelling factual essay on today’s political climate or an alt-right promotional video is of no consequence to them. We’re renting land from Google for the convenience of using their multitude of services, but we aren’t careful in considering what this transaction truly means for how content is disseminated.

I appreciate the opportunities that the web affords us and the excitement of seemingly infinite possibilities for its use. I believe there is so much good that it offers including bringing communities together, teaching people new information that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, reaching out to people in rural areas, and developing products and services that truly do help humanity, but in order to ensure there isn’t some looming tech giant, twisting the underpinnings of those great services for its own needs, we need to be creating purposeful work and consider other possibilities that could allow us to operate outside the traditional capitalist focused models. This is a plug for the week four readings coming up on peer-to-peer services and platform cooperativism. Just because I believe what’s taken shape was inevitable, doesn’t mean I should accept it, and I am thankful to be learning about people who are shaking things up. We can be part of this change for the better!

Lemme Google This Real Quick

I overheard a conversation between my coworkers, a 50-year-old guy from the Bronx and a second year engineering student, the other day where they were talking about the impact of the Internet on the younger generation. The conversation went something like this:

The 50-year-old from the Bronx: “Man you kids have it so easy. You grow up thinking that what you see on the internet is true, all of it. Because that’s where you get your information these days. My kid the other day told me to just “look it up”. The truth is, the Internet only confirms that the truth is what you want to believe. You only read articles that reaffirm your viewpoint. The internet doesn’t know everything. Back in the day, we didn’t have access to the Internet, and in our hometown, the information we got was what we got.” 

The second-year engineering student: “Lemme google this real quick.” 

It reminded me of an annotation Alex made in the “How Internet gets us” that I’m still thinking deeply about. She shares that “the internet doesn’t know everything, though, and it’s that kind of thinking that gets us into trouble. It’s not there to be a spouse, or a friend, or a person… it’s a receptacle of information that is both true and untrue, and it’s up to users to sift through that information and form their own opinions.” 

I still wonder if we use the web as a tool for our confirmation biases. I, too, used to believe that the world wide web was the infinite place where we could get answers to anything: what’s the name of the 50th president? How long is a flight to Japan? What does publishing mean? When we go on the web to search for answers to our curiosities, sometimes we go in wanting to information to support our underlying beliefs. Sometimes we don’t know anything at all, but the more times we see an article of information, the more we believe it is true. I wonder if it is the mere exposure effect that helps circulate our ideas of what the truth is. Gillian Fournier in “Psych Central” writes that the mere exposure effect is a “psychological phenomenon whereby people feel a preference for people or things simply because they are familiar.” If People Magazine, US Weekly, and Meghan Markle’s dad, and Meghan Markle’s dog shares that she hates Kate Middleton, then somehow somewhere the idea must be true right? 

We familiarize ourselves with the web, to a point where it feels a place we belong to. But I’m starting to believe that the web is not only one specific place, like a library. The web doesn’t know everything; so can it be one particular place? Does the web know the answer to what the web is? Maybe on a literal dictionary definition level, but from webpage to webpage, the web knows no more than us all. The web then feels more like little places clustered together as if a digital community. Similar to the idea we learned the last lecture, the internet was built to decentralize conglomerates of information so information can be boundlessly communicated everywhere. Can the web be the same? 

While reflecting the role of the web and the Internet on our daily lives, I couldn’t help but feel a little afraid. We have become so reliant on using the web to find answers to any of our questions. The web should not become our only lives, consuming us as a whole. The web is a place for us to create. We should hold the authority to choose the impact the web has on our lives. We can have offline and online conversations to make well-informed decisions on what truth is.

To continue my nostalgia in midst of these anxieties, I’ll do another mini digital detox by going to bed early and dreaming of a life without the web. Little did I know the nightmare is still waiting for me when I wake up. 

Yahooligans to Decentralized Communist Internet

Over the past few weeks, I have really enjoyed reading all the articles about how the web has evolved and some of the nostalgia to past times. It has led me to question whether I’m nostalgic for anything on the web.

To be honest, for the first few years of getting my computer, I used it for Microsoft Word and playing CD-ROM games. In terms of the web, I remember it was connected to dial-up internet. I definitely do not miss that. There was also that fun search engine, Yahooligans, that I was taught to only use.

Though it looks fun, what we have now with Google is a million times better.  I remember it taking 30 minutes to download one song through Lime Wire. Not fun. I remember MSN Chat fondly. But I still do the same stuff now just on Facebook messenger instead. AIso I have the added bonus of video chatting and calling. And selfie filters.

I was still a kid when the Web was becoming widespread and I didn’t really use or understand its full potential or what people were hoping to do with it. I definitely wasn’t thinking critically about it. So reading articles from those who used the Internet as adults is really interesting. Similar to learning history, it is important to know what the Internet was like. So I don’t mind these nostalgia pieces. Even if they do romanticize it a bit – but that goes hand in hand with nostalgia.

Ther user-experience, user-interface, the speed, and our global connectedness has definitely improved over the years (at least I think so). I don’t mind the commercial aspect of the web as long as there’s transparency. Many of my friends have made a living off of the web by building an audience and selling content and I commend them for it.

I think what’s important to keep in mind is that these articles on the past are useful tools in looking towards and shaping the future. What comes next? In the Alex Singh twitter thread, there were some ideas thrown around: “decentralized communist internet”, “Industrialized internet”, “a shift to smaller communal and more personal or private online experiences”.   Looking at one of the B-side readings there was an article about peer-to-peer community run networks. The idea of looking back to the past to form a new future is highlighted in this quote:

“One thing that inspires me is that the original idea of the internet was a network of networks,” Hall says. “Different organizations like universities or the Defense Department would form their own network, and then they would join them together, and that is how the internet formed. We’re just getting back to the idea. We formed a network, and we join our network with other networks, and get rid of the ISP layer that we don’t really need.”

Using an idea from the past, people have been able to create their own mesh networks, changing the current systems in place.

I believe the same thing is happening with some new innovations such as Web 3.0 or decentralizing the web. In this Guardian article, it explains how Tim Berners-Lee (the founder of the web) is coming up with technology to store our data so that it remains our property. We are then able to move it around to different apps and websites without surrendering any control. It seems like a reinvention of what the web used to be where people owned their content and there was more privacy involved, just with some new technology.

I’m generally someone who enjoys change. So I’m looking forward to what the future has in store for the web. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve only had the web for such a short amount of time so we need time to make mistakes, improve, make mistakes again, and keep it evolving.

There’s No Place Like (A Digital) Home


When the web was in its nascent years I was too young to understand the possibilities it held. Although I did grow up digitally, and I think it helped that my dad was a computer programmer and our basement was packed full of PCs (at least 6 or 7) that he was constantly rolling his chair back and forth to. The whir of the fans was audible from the hall. Aside from coding he also ran a blog, one of those original blogs that Kottke reminisces over. According to my mom it was a place for him to vent and rant about all the things he disliked about the world, and there were other bloggers who hyperlinked to him and joined in the conversation. These are the times Derakhshan, Kottke, Meyer and Kolbert are nostalgic for, that they remember as golden years where the web was the next open space to pioneer. My personal anecdote was taking place in the late 90s and early 2000s to give context. To me, reflecting back on this now I see my dad as the equivalent to a cranky old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn (digitally). At the time, I was none the wiser and was tinkering away on my own digital expeditions, dutifully typing in the URLs I knew by heart to take me to the websites deemed safe by my parents.

Since I was five-years-old I was learning the way of the World Wide Web and discovering the places I fit in. There was always something tangible about the web for me, that each webpage had its own feeling and some were more welcoming than others, so when reading Frank Chimero’s “The Good Room” I deeply identified with connecting physical space with digital space. At eight-years old I was already coding my Neopets page to my liking with simple HTML (putting in a little MP3 player, changing the background and type colour etc). At 10-years-old I was starting to explore beyond the designated websites to meet my curiosity and needs. I was (and am) a writer, and I wanted to find other writers because I wanted to get feedback and not feel like I was just writing into the void. A need to find a digital space that meets my current creative needs is always what has pushed me to migrate from platform to platform.

This is when I found a community of writing RPGs, where you could collaborate with other writers and develop your characters in the agreed upon setting. The platform we used was a repurposed chat-board (for the life of me I can’t remember the platform’s name), but the URL would look like www.RPG_name.platformname.com. There were limits with the look and construction of the website, but as I got older and found more digitally experienced communities it went from the default structure and colours, to a more customized platform where programmers had worked their magic with HTML to the point where these platforms barely retained their original structure. Of course, this added to the “feel” of the place, but what made the website home or not was the community who existed on the platform. We never knew each others real names, only our created monikers (which is a whole other tangent I could go on, about having the ability to rename yourself and create a persona that you want without judgment). But what we did know, was that we were a supportive network of likeminded writers who helped each other hone our writing styles. Where are they now, who knows? And those URLs have long since expired or turned to digital ghost towns.

With the fallout of these RPGs I migrated to Tumblr at 15-years-old, where I began to code the digital nook I’d carved out for myself. The complaint here, as discussed by Alex Singh, is that this nook isn’t really mine, that this nook that I’d created really belonged to Tumblr and I was a visiting guest while they profited off the content I created. Which is true, because look at that nook now. Since Tumblr went on a censorship kick it removed over half of the content I’d curated, and so what if I’d spent hours coding my “blog” to look and feel the way I wanted it to because Tumblr didn’t care. They don’t care about artists’ creative expression or the need to have a community to express that, all they (aka Yahoo, who owns them) care about is turning a profit and getting back on the App Store. These benevolent overlords are only benevolent so long as it serves them, and this is what happens when they decide a venture is no longer profitable: you get kicked off your digital plot of land. Now here I am, wandering the digital landscape again. I’ve been a nomad all my life, and the metaphor I’d use is more like a traveling bard hopping from village to village… and moving on when I either get evicted or the village burns down.

As time goes on I find myself seeking more and more “open” spaces where I’m free to build the place and community that I like, or to at least create my space where an already established community exists. This is why I currently feel un-homed, because for the first time in nearly 20-years I don’t have a digital space that feels like my own. Alex Singh’s twitter thread claims that we’re working under a digital feudal system––Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. where we create the content and the platform reaps the reward. Alex pines for the time of digital nomads, where we were free to roam. I can understand the desire to have a non-commercialized webspace that is that limitless space of possibilities it once claimed to be, instead of feeling like your choices are limited to bouncing between the various social networks. Because what happens when you don’t fit into one of those networks? Where does your digital-self belong? I’m still searching.

What in the web?

Madrigal was certainly nostalgic about the idea of an open web, which is a concept I realized this week doesn’t really exist anymore. I would definitely agree that hyperlinking is generally an after thought for most of us. As a reader, I tend to gloss over it. I personally get distracted when I see a hyperlinked text and are often tempted to see what it is. Although an interesting place where hyperlinking seems to be very much a live is in scholarly journals. While writing this I recalled how a layout editor had pointed out to me that a number of links did not work, which at that time I didn’t realize that it was an issue, but I proceeded to find an updated one anyway. Ironically enough as someone who had read numerous journal articles in my undergrad, I did not realize that these hyperlinks work. Had I known that, I probably would have come to appreciate how helpful it is at linking ideas together.

It is really interesting to learn their views on how the internet was and their outlook on it now. I guess growing up with technology I do have an expectation of the internet being there. I would probably say I’ve engaged with most parts of the web as we know it now being a member of a number of online platform and owner things Kottke attributes to being the reason the open web didn’t stand a better chance. I don’t know that I’ve been deeply entrenched it in. I feel like I’m still at a point where I could disengage with it, if we collectively didn’t  rely on it so much. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I’ve never really found a place in the web that had served as a “good room” no single platform has really held my interest long enough to continue being an active participant in it. Take Instagram for example, since I got it in 2013 I’ve maybe posted less than 75-100 times (I have deleted a couple of post since then). I have found that my usage on it and other social media platform have decreased in the last couple of years. I do see the point Chimero was making about “technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.” As  the web has allowed for the creation and curation of different types of website to exist and what to engage in.

I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free

The metaphor that resonated the most with me this week was Alex Singh’s analogy of the internet transforming over the span of 25 years from nomadic culture to a “mostly agrarian one.” An agrarian society involves the cultivation of the land. Singh notes the transition from HTML-only sites to CSS and JS, citing it as a move that shifted the power from the masses to the privileged and elite few. Initially, web users used to navigate from link to link, and site to site discovering new content. In this sense, the web used to be boundless. In utilizing medieval terminology for the analogy, Singh equates the emerging elite class with the “literate Priesthood,” arguing that the few at the top of the hierarchy can build, interface, and moderate the web, but the vast majority of users are “peasants” whose labour is exploited by the lords of the land, and whose convenience comes at the cost of their freedom.

 

Countless times on twitter and Facebook I have encountered posts where people remarked “I can’t believe this website is free.” It is possible some users mean it in an ironic way, but the reality is that most major platforms are not transparent about how they monetize their platform and what we, the lowly peasants, are sacrificing without our knowledge. The analogy makes me think deeper of how platform creators regard their own user-base and where the value of that platform is really generated from. Dragging Tumblr into the conversation once more, I cannot help but compare it to platforms like Youtube. I once read a post where users complained that Tumblr was the worst platform to invest one’s time into – unlike Youtube, where users can make a living off subscriptions, or Instagram where users can get sponsorships and leverage their popularity, Tumblr offers no monetary reward to its producers.

The platform is monetized through ads, but none of those funds are circulated to its content creators. Another Tumblr user complained that her posts had been screenshotted and shared on other platforms, including Buzzfeed, with listicle writers making a profit off of the free labour she has been providing for years. Tumblr’s userbase is becoming increasingly aware of their exploited labour while platform owner Yahoo becomes increasingly aware of how unprofitable it is to be the feudal lord or king of Tumblr. Yahoo’s likely solution? Abandon the land altogether or poison it until the peasants grow dissatisfied enough to migrate to the land of another lord.

For Tumblr, the greatest resource to mine is attention. But Facebook and Twitter have thrived at monetizing not only attention, but also data. We users, the peasants (or serfs), are creating videos, art, stories, and all while surrendering data to our lords (platforms) who are siphoning that data and monetizing it. As Zach Scott and Singh point out, this process is neither fully consensual nor voluntary. The “give me all your data so that I can sell it” part is usually buried in fine print. Any time people start mass migrating to a new platform, or a platform changes its rules and regulations (whether discreetly or publicly), there are usually a small group of users who take the time to thoroughly read through the policies before vocally raising flags about clauses and terms that the vast majority of us would have never noticed. In 2018, Tumblr released a safe mode that by default set every user account to hide any potential adult content. It was users who brought this new feature to light and who shared information on how to disable it. Another example is Snapchat, an app that surprised users by adding a feature that automatically tracks users’ locations and display them on a map. This, too, can be disabled, but the fact it is the default setting makes it ethically questionable. A user’s freedom to make choices about their privacy or online experience has been abused by lords who value their users only as labourers.

As Singh mentions in his tweet thread, there is also class and accessibility to consider. With websites shifting to CSS and JS, many of us do not have the skills and resources to code our own websites. It is a dilemma we discussed in class and not one that has an easy solution, especially since users have gotten used to having their digital services conveniently but dangerously centralized on a handful of platforms. And then there is algorithms. Instagram’s algorithm is a mystery and twitter has rallying against chronological feeds for years now, allowing popular posts to thrive while new posts get buried. Not only that, but our communication within the land is defined based on the restrictions of our lords – Tumblr now hates images posts, Twitter has a maximum word count, and Snapchat is near impossible to use as a chat platform.

In “I Can’t Believe this Blockchain is Free,” Michael J Casey writes:

“The challenge, then, is to design an architecture that allows the producers of data – we, the users – to become less beholden to these centralized aggregators and create a more decentralized digital economy in which we can trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it…should, in theory, result in better economic and political decisions for all.”

We have to bring the power back to the users. It is time for users to start demanding more transparency to ideally dismantle the feudalistic hierarchy by becoming less dependent on a system that exploits and polices us.

Sources:

Digital Feudalism
I Can’t Believe This Blockchain is Free
Web’s Neolithic Revolution

Introducing My Virtual Good Room

From last week’s reading The Good Room, Frank Chimero claimed that “in the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.” I was intrigued by this place metaphor. He also mentioned that “the web is a marketplace and a commonwealth, so we have both commerce and culture”. It reminded of an online “good room” I feel belonged to and I would like to introduce it to you because I think it is an interesting example where culture and commerce have been married successfully.

As we all know, Facebook, Twitter and a lot of other social media platforms have been banned in mainland China but the Chinese created (or shall I say “copied”?) its own version of social media such as Renren mimicking Facebook or Weibo mimicking Twitter. Among all the social media platforms, one of them is an original platform that I cannot think of a Western equivalent so far. It is called “Douban” which means “bean paste” in Mandarin. It has multiple functions: rating and reviewing books, movies and music; socializing with people who share the same interests on in the same city; providing FM broadcasting services and podcasts; providing self-publishing services; selling their self-designed items such as cups, calendars or clothing. Generally speaking, it is a comprehensive website including the features of Goodreads, Rotten Tomatoes, social media, podcasts, self-publishing services and markets.

The logo of Douban

 

After moving to Vancouver, lacking meaningful, long-lasting friendship has been a problem for me for a long time. I found it was very hard to find people who share the same interests as me. However, since I became a frequent user of Douban from 2015, I met other Chinese living in Vancouver who also like reading, writing or watching films (as I mentioned last week, I had known my best friend through this website!). And now it has become part of my identity. I pictured this website as a virtual street in a quiet neighbourhood where there are bookstores, theatres, coffee shops and markets alongside.

Culture is the core theme for Douban as it has been trying to connect people through books, movies and music. Its slogan can be roughly translated as “Douban, a corner for your mind”. Comparing to other Chinese social media platforms, Douban is a slow-growing company. However, as the young generation in the Western society moving from Facebook to Instagram, its Chinese equivalent also gradually moved from Renren to Weibo or WeChat. But Douban has always been there no matter what the trend is. I am curious about how Douban makes its profit and maintains its status in the furious competition.

According to my research, it has several revenue strategies. First, Douban profits from redirecting its users to Dangdang, JD.com or Amazon to purchase books or to buy movie tickets from online ticket sellers. Second, it gains income from ads. Douban values the users’ experience so they strictly select ads that fit its target users (young urban white collars or college students). Recently, Douban also launched a variety of paid online classes which covered topics like creative writing, calligraphy, photography, design and philosophy. Overall, these are some of its revenue strategies.

In my opinion, I enjoyed my experiences with Douban so far and I don’t mind seeing ads on the website as long as it still provides high-quality content. I found the users on Douban also tend to tolerate some of the commercialized steps that Douban had taken recently. For example, they would mock at the badly self-designed hoodies or socks that Douban was selling but still continued to be frequent users thereafter.

The socks mocked by most Douban users

I think it could be an example of the “lively and nourishing digital environments” that Chimero was talking about.

 

References

The Good Room

6 Chinese Social Media Sites You Should Know About

Decrypting China’s most wonderful website: What is Douban thinking? 

The Idealistic Room: Strengths and Weaknesses of Framing the Web as a Library

I think a lot of what the readings this week taught me is that there’s nostalgia for what the web used to be, owing to both its past infrastructure and its potential: What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it? The web was originally a tool for the open and free (non-monetized) communication and dissemination of ideas[1], and the authors of our readings all seem to be yearning for a time when things like the Stream and rampant commercialization weren’t present in online spaces. That’s not to say all is lost, however: in his article “The Good Room”, Frank Chimero asks us to reconsider all the old, exciting questions—What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it?—in a different context:

“In the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live. If we’re setting out to change the character of technology in our lives, we’d be wise to learn from the character of places.”

Chimero’s metaphor for framing this conversation is to think of the web as a library. This is similar to Adam Gopnik’s conception of it, though instead of focusing on the beauty and openness of such a location, Gopnik describes sleeping among the stacks in a way that can be overwhelming. I really enjoy the idea of the web as a library, though I tend to imagine it as an infinitely ever-expanding room with shelves so high they can barely be seen from the ground, where knowledge and information are ripe for the taking. I like the idea of spending a large part of my life in this space, reading and interacting with people in the stacks, until I get sleepy. And so I agree with Gopnik, but Chimero’s point also resonates with me: wouldn’t it be nice if the web was designed like a library? I should note that I don’t mean all libraries, here—the one in my hometown is dark and dismal at best. I never did any work there. But I like the idea of a beautiful library; a space that serves as an open area for community engagement and is designed with the goal of making us feel inspired and relaxed. I also really like this metaphor because would allow those of us whose libraries and community centres are dark and claustrophobic the opportunity to inhabit beautiful, inspirational spaces and create/learn within them.

Still, I think we should exercise caution when framing our idea of the web this way. The web as a library is a gorgeous image, but libraries are bounded in a way that the web is not. Furthermore, the library as a space is often romanticized (whether or not the web suffers the same fate probably depends on who you talk to); it is a carefully curated collection housed in a subsidized institution—and if the idea is to create a space free of outside, imposed curation, this particular establishment might not be the best metaphor.

Even the idea of emulating how one feels in a library falls through when you think of current technology’s physical limitations. The library is a beautiful place you visit in order to read/learn/work, and the space is designed in a way that encourages groundedness and being present only insofar as it allows you to become engrossed in your work. Say I go to the VPL to read up on history, or science, or to start a fantasy novel… the ultimate goal is not to remain rooted in the space, but to become captivated by the material in front of me, and the space of the beautiful library eases that transition. Unfortunately, this translates poorly when using the web: my eastside apartment will never feel like a grand library reading room no matter how beautiful the website on my screen is—the feelings of airiness and openness can’t transfer. The harsh light of our devices is something to consider here, as well: our bodies become fatigued while looking at a screen in a way that they do not sitting in a reading room.

I think it would be fantastic to make the web a library; the idea of everyone inhabiting an open space designed to encourage creativity and community for all is something I wholeheartedly support. But I also think we should know the limits of this particular way of framing what we want the web to be.

 

[1] Note that the free exchange of ideas was still very much subject to who had the financial means and overall ability to use the technology available. Unsurprisingly, most of these individuals were white men.

The Web as Space

 

This week we examined the web through various metaphors. For me, the metaphor that was most interesting and agreeable was Chimero’s The Good Room, (2018) where he suggested that the web has transitioned from being merely a place we visit to a space in which we now live. In the following I will first explain why and how I agree with Chimero. I will then expand upon Chimero’s idea of the web as a space in which we live, and suggest that it is specifically a heterotopic space. Lastly, I will explore how this space shapes us, and how we can potentially reshape this space.

Part 1 Defining Space

To begin, I agree with Chimero’s suggestion that the web has transitioned from just a place we visit to a place where we now live, even if some of us don’t even realize it. It is much like a koan from David Foster Wallace of the fish who asks of another “how is the water?” to which the other fish replies “what’s water?” We are so surrounded by the web that it’s near impossible to see without first getting outside of it. Think of the terminology we use to describe things on the web–from “homepage” to “forum” to “chat room”, these terms reflect and imply a physical space where people meet and congregate. They are talked about as real spaces enclosed by four walls, discrete rooms with interconnected pathways between them, which we must navigate.

Growing up I always imagined the web as looking something akin to the Super Nintendo version of SimCity—a series of roads that connect buildings or spaces, both public and private. An ever growing network. It’s a simplistic simulacrum, but one that I have always found effective at understanding the web as a space (or a realm) where we roam. In his article, Chimero states (like my Sim analogy) that the internet is made up of spaces we choose to visit like a person popping into stores up and down the high street, but this not the only version of “space” that the web contains. Since the web is a ‘space’ is also must function in time and distance. In both cases, the web compresses and warps time and distance, or at times rendering them obsolete.

Part 2 The web as Heterotopic

To borrow an idea from Foucault, I would expand upon Chimero’s idea to say the web is not just a space but a heterotopic space. While I am not well versed in postmodern philosophy, I will try to break this concept down as simply as possible. According to Foucault heterotopic spaces are:

  • Spaces where norms of behaviour our suspended–while he obviously used the example of a asylum or jail, I think we can all come up with examples of this online. (Just look at what anonymity does to the typical forum member or youtube commenter)
  • Spaces that are reflective of the society which they exist—I will expand on this idea more, as I would argue that the current configuration of the web is a direct product of our economic structure
  • Spaces that juxtapose real spaces simultaneously—he uses the example of a garden, showing that different plants from different regions can coexist simultaneously. Space in regards to distance is defied, much like space on the web connects people and ideas from all over the world.
  • Spaces that are linked to slices of time – a place where time can either accumulate (like a museum ) or be transitory (like a traveling fair). The nonlinear nature of the internet fits in with this concept perfectly.
  • Spaces which are not freely accessible – they must be entered with a gesture or some sort of ritual—for the internet this can simply be the very fact one needs a device to enter, and a lot of online communities have their own gate-keepers.
  • Spaces that function in relation to other spaces that exist- either spaces of illusion or compensation (Jones, 2010)

In other words, the internet is not just a space where we visit sites, but it is a world within a world–one of warped space where time, distance, and social norms can be suspended.

Part 3 Reimagining Space

Like Chimero, I believe that our thoughts and experiences are shaped by our spaces, digital or otherwise. I also agree with him that we can reshape and redefine our spaces and the meanings we bring to them. Through creating alternative spaces on the web we can change our relationship with it and impose more culture into the commerce driven domain. But it isn’t quite this cut and dry. There’s often incentives to turn more cultural items into consumer products, to monetize your content, be it through changing the content itself, or through advertising. As Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it” (Gopnik, 2015). Although Chimero is slightly idealist in his view of the original web being a commonwealth built on strong social bonds and communalism, I agree that we can create more subversive spaces for creativity and reciprocity to shine.

Since we have the ability for expansive growth on the web, just imagine all the possible ways we could choose what physical web sites (or high street stores) we pop into, or what international communities we belong to, and what control we could have over our relationship with time.

Because digital space reflects the physical space in many ways it is fundamentally shaped by the broader socio-economic system. I believe this is why much of the web is a market place, built for subjects who have been socialized first and foremost as consumers. In turn, the web also influences the economic system – particularly in the way that it makes transactions instantaneous and creates new methods of distribution (such as amazon warehouses and a digital storefront replacing our old fashioned retail stores). It is hard to imagine a different web space without a different economic system. This is good evidence to support the thesis that we live in the web space rather than just visit it from time to time. The web is a structuring force in our lives, and it is so embedded in our society that it is hard to see the web change significantly without concomitant change in society more broadly.

If we agree that there is a strong structuring relationship between the web and the broader socio-economic system, then we can argue that changes made to the web (both cultural and economic) can have broader changes in the rest of the world.

Although here we would run into the same problem that Marxists have always argued about, which is if there needs to be a shift in the economic base in order to change the ideological ‘superstructure’ (culture and institutions) or if there needs to be a cultural shift before we can bring about change in the material base (capitalism / more of production). The web is just a space in which what Gramsci called the “war of position and the war of maneuver” takes place.

 

Chimero, Frank. 2018. The Good Room. Frank Chimero.

Gopnik, Alison. 2015. How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis. The Atlantic.

Jones, Victoria. 2010. An Outline of Foucault’s Six Principles of Heterotopia. Youtube.

Less “What Was”, More “What Is” and “What Can Be”

This readings for this week, in conjunction with the previous week’s readings, have encouraged me to think about the web more critically. I’ve grown pretty tired of the “something precious has been lost forever”, good-old-days rhetoric, but these readings have caused me to think about the web in a way that recognizes its fluidity as opposed to taking for granted a static sense of status quo.

I wrote last week about my frustration with the aforementioned something-precious-lost narrative, but for the purposes of this entry and this topic, I want to mention one other issue, and that is the rose-coloured-glasses effect of nostalgia. While the web of yore did definitely function in a way different from the web of today, and while some of the differences could probably be seen as a decline in [insert virtue here], I think it’s also important to recognize that romanticizing the past often has a tendency to focus on what was good instead of what was not-good. I’m a little out of my depth in this subject area, but I’m sure that there were things about the Web that Used to Be that aren’t so desirable.

That all being said, this examination of the history and evolution of the web has shifted the way in which I think of things in a way that I’m more mindful of the the fact that the web is a structure with architecture and technology behind it. It seems obvious, but the way I conceived of the web before was a lot more like a mountain—an inevitable landform resulting direct and indirect forces, but essentially inevitable, fixed, and to a certain extent, organic. The readings from the last few weeks, however, have encouraged me to think of the web more as a series of scaffolds—intentionally built and maintained by human engineering, very much un-fixed, and essentially mutable. The web as we know it today may not be functioning exactly in the way that the original architects envisioned, but the functions and structures that exist exist because someone (or, more likely, a team of someones) decided that this function or structure would benefit the overall whole of the structure or user base. No part of the integral design of the web has been accidental or organic. The web does not design itself.

This paradigm, where the web is fluid and built by humans (it of course seems so obvious when you put it that way). Is a much more empowering relationship to have with technology in general. It’s easy to take technology and the web especially for granted when you’ve grown up with it and you’ve also sort of grown and evolved in step with technology—it’s easy for it to all feel inevitable and fixed, but it very much isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it can be better.

 

On Using Historical Metaphors for Technological Change

Overall, the reflections that this weeks reading inspired in me haven’t necessarily changed my perceptions of the internet rather than strengthening a lot of my old perceptions and beliefs. I’ve known for a long time that the internet is not the ideal that a lot of people want it to be. That isn’t to say that it is bad, it just isn’t necessarily a place of free information where kings & popes have the same rights as serfs & fools, so to speak. Based on that horrible joke, you can infer which of the metaphors I liked most for the internet in this week’s reading. 

I really enjoyed the twitter thread by Alex Singh that compared the internet of the early days to the nomadic system and our current situation to a  more feudal system. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that summed up and clarified my image of the internet better. I must admit that I am a major history nerd, particularly medieval history, so I found this reading to be very interesting. I particularly liked the observation about the internet “nomadism” where people “had to navigate the web like nomads: from point to point, from link to link” and the comment about more tech-savvy users working as a kind of priestly privileged class that can navigate more freely than other users (Singh). This metaphor does a brilliant job of illustrating the power that companies like Facebook and Google hold over the proverbial layman of the web, ie the common user. The feudal lords do everything in their power to limit the power of the people by offering them something like a house, land or free internet space. The layman has no idea that he is getting the bad end of the bargain, only that he is being supported by the feudal lord. I think this idea makes it very clear just what kind of system we’re working with. 

It also makes me excited for what possibilities exist for the future. If we are now in the feudalistic part of the historical timeline, how will we advance? Will we become a democracy? A communistic system? A meritocracy? A constitutional monarchy? I think that by examining tech through the lens of history we revitalize it in many ways. We also give it historical significance, which is super important, especially in days like these with the news mirroring the 1940s and 50s in dark twists. 

I also really liked the fact that Singh didn’t really favor either of the systems. He had pointed things to say about both nomadism and feudalism. I really like this perspective, as I think it is the most realistic and unbiased, allowing readers to make their own judgments about both systems. 

Work Cited

Singh, Alex. 2018. On the Web’s transition from nomadism to feudalism. Twitter.

Where Do I Stand?

 

I have tried all kinds of personality tests to find who I am and where I stand. Funnily enough, learning about your own personality is not very easy and we are in need of tests and algorithms to tell us what we can do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t use these tests. On the contrary, with all the different point of views and opinions we hear and arguments we have, we (or at least  I) sometimes lose track of what we are standing for and who we are. Wondering where am I going with this? Well, for me, when I asked myself where I stood and what I believed in after reading the article by Adam Gopnik, How the Internet Gets Inside Us, I instantly thought I was Ever-Waser. I believe in technology and what it can accomplish in the world; I used to be the type of person who immediately updated her phone applications (I am now prioritizing). I also want my career to be solely focused on data and technology. Does that mean I am one of the Better-Nevers? I’m still not quite sure.

Two years ago, I did a presentation in my class about the utopia and dystopia of the internet, social media to be specific. I watched two Ted Talks before presenting. One showed how social media can end up taking over someone’s life and the other one how the Internet and technology were creating a better space for people. After that, I watched a video that talked about both, the utopia and dystopia of the internet, technology and the web, Digital Dualism, how some people differentiate their online self (not authentic, not the real you) and their offline self ( that show authenticity and reality). The video pointed out that we should look at the issue in a different way: what if our offline is our online life? Maybe we should start seeing the technology as a place we actually exist in instead of a space we go to.

 

Now, going back and relating to the main idea of this blog, where do I stand? Better-Never, Never-Better or Ever-Waser. One of the highest personality traits was a Mediator. Maybe I am actually a mediator; I cannot take an extreme side in most of the arguments I have, I always try to provide a solution that suits both sides/parties. So when it comes to choosing where I stand, I directly went with the Ever-Waser because I looked at it as a choice that combines both the better-never and the never-better.  It is the option that made sense to me. Hanna from the video mentioned that we sometimes live in a society that is “influenced with a dualist mindset” choosing between good and bad, black and white, offline and online instead of focusing on the connectivity and the opportunities the technology can provide us. So for the third time, where do I stand? I think for the sake of my technology passion and my inner thoughts, I will not be a mediator this time and although I 100% believe there is more to this than classifying yourself into three categories, I see myself in a new category. One that combines both the Better-Never and the Ever-Waser.

 

Reference:

Spegel Hanna, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uddoLwk6Ay8.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ever-Waser

It’s easy to put sets of beliefs into neat little categories, and I’m not saying this is a bad thing when Adam Gopnik does this in his article “The Information.” It’s a natural thing for us to do, to try and make sense of a complicated and confusing world by simplifying it. Our relationship with technology is complicated, so there’s relief when we simplify society’s relationship with it into three camps. On one extreme of the spectrum there’s the Never-Betters who hail the power and innovation of technology––they’re positive and optimistic. On the other extreme there’s the Better-Nevers who mourn for the past and fear the rapid change of technology––they’re negative and pessimistic. Right in the middle there’s the Ever-Wasers, who like the neutral party they are, believe that technology has always been a thing in modernity and that some people are going to enjoy the change and some people won’t, that these advancements bring positive effects and negative ones.

Like many binaries in life (sexuality or political preference for example) this Never-Better-Better-Never-Ever-Waser categorization falls on a spectrum, a sliding scale if you will and you can fall anywhere in between. These socially constructed binaries are a way of simplifying complicated relationships, and while they’re nice and easy they’re only a start to understanding these relationships and that while we may fall on the spectrum, we can also fall totally outside of it.

I’m not going to spend this blog post deconstructing binaries, and if we’re using Gopnik’s Never-Better-Better-Never-Ever-Waser binary then I’d have to say I fall in the Ever-Waser box, with a slight inclination to Never-Better (but I don’t sport rose-coloured glasses). As for society as a whole, well they’re all over the map and I don’t think you can make such a sweeping generalization to where they fall on the spectrum (or outside of it). As for myself, I don’t believe in new technology being inherently good, and I also don’t believe in it being evil. New technology simply is, and it depends on how we use it that makes it good or bad.

Whenever we’re debating the positives and negatives of our relationship with new technology I always have Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man running through my brain. Yes, this is crazy dated since it’s from the 60s, and wow times certainly have changed, but I think the core of what he was saying still remains. Mark Federman breaks down this phrase in his essay “What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message.” The “message” is not “the content or use of the innovation, but the change in inter-personal dynamics that the innovation brings with it.” The “medium” is any extension of ourselves, something that allows us “to do more than our bodies could do on their own.” The point that McLuhan is trying to make is that we can understand the nature of these innovations through the behavioral changes they create within our society. It’s not the content of the internet that matters, it’s how it changes our behaviour that reveals something about us and therefore the medium (the internet). The medium is neither good nor bad, it’s how we interact with it that decides that.

Which brings me to Frank Chimero’s piece “The Good Room,” where he writes “technology’s influence is not a problem to solve through dominance; it’s a situation to navigate through clear goals and critical thinking. Attentiveness is key.” It’s this critical thinking that is key when we engage with technology. We need to consider if what we’re doing is for the betterment of society or not. Unfortunately, what a “better” world is depends on the person you ask. This blog post is not going to deconstruct the values of good and evil and the subjectivity of that either.

Technologies live and die, change and evolve and they are always going to benefit someone, and simultaneously be a detriment to someone else. It all depends on who you are and how you’ll use the new innovation. One can hope for that utopian vision of open knowledge and the infinite expansion of the mind, and hopefully prevent a Terminator-esque robot take-over dystopia but in the end the choice is yours.




Utopia or Dystopia? – PUB802 REFLECTION

“I do not fear computers. I fear lack of them.”

— Isaac Asimov

 

Isaac Asimov’s quote puts him in Adam Gopnik’s defined category as a “Never-Better”: an optimistic who has embraced technological change. The issue with this overly-trusting approach is already highlighted in the quote that the reliance on computers and other technology that has the internet is a serious concern for the modern age. At a first glance, the fear of not having computers sounds extreme, but I am one of those people who has a miniature panic attack when I reach for my pocket and realize there is a possibility I may have forgotten my phone in class or at the restaurant I just left. There was a time when phone calls were exclusively done through landlines, but now? To leave one’s phone behind during a night out? Unthinkable. My phone is what I use to track which bus stop to get off at, to listen to music or podcasts during my commute, to alert my friends of my arrival, to take pictures documenting my night, and to order an Uber if need be. Being without my phone makes me feels uncomfortably vulnerable. And it is not just me — this is major cultural change. I like books, but I have never felt dependent on them.

So I will be the first to admit that I am reliant on technology. But does that mean that I trust technology? Am I a Better-Never; a believer that we are living in the Golden Age of technology and that every advancement signifies progress, an evolution worth celebrating? Not necessarily.

Upon being given the prompt, my first instinct was to say that I align myself with the Never-Waser’s. It is an imperfect binary, but I do not think modern technology will be our ruin, nor am I ready to start mourning books when my own collection of hardcovers is large and steadily growing. In many ways, I think what is happening now is not unlike what has happened throughout history where the older generation is nostalgic for a time when things worked differently and human connection was less complicated. There was a time when the older generation feared collecting information in books would mean having a less impressive memory palace and that reading was an antisocial behaviour that should be discouraged. Back in my day, kids used to play outside with their friends! I do not think it is unrealistic to assume that one day a new mode of technology will come out and those in my generation will share tweets and Facebook posts about how different things are. We already do to an extent—hey guys, remember when everyone had to wait their turn to use that one family computer and it used to take forever for one page to load? At present, my generation’s mentality has been “you kids have it so much easier than we did.” We are nostalgic about the shows we would watch during our childhood, but the technology we grew up with has only gotten faster and more intuitive, so maybe there has, in fact, been a recognizable shift.

I cannot conceive of my life without the internet, but not every change it has brought has benefitted humankind. Departing with the Never-Waser mentality of continuity, the following is a list of capabilities that distinguish the computer or the internet from any technology that came before it:

PROS:

  • Greater capability to bring people together
  • Widespread access to knowledge (knowledge of abuses, protests, revolutions)
  • Passive social connections
  • Networking
  • Near-immediate access to food, clothes, and anything else
  • Cultivating communities of people who share a common interest or goal
  • Fundraising (aka America’s healthcare system)
  • Portfolio visibility
  • New accessibility services and a job market that enables freelancing

It is amazing to reflect on how many creative projects and medical procedures like transition surgeries that the internet has made possible. The Parkland Teens’ protest for gun-control that went viral would not have been possible without the internet. It has enabled the global, widespread sharing of information in a way that far exceeds print. But at the same time, it has allowed for the spread of misinformation on an equally astronomical scale. Fraud has never been easier. Sure, there was a time when Johannes Gutenberg would print out indulgences and sell them to God-fearing Christians for a pretty penny, but that is nothing in comparison to how many Nigerian Prince scams have been ran since the advent of the internet. Catfishing is a serious problem and one that can lead to major trauma and depression for those who have experienced it. There has also been the advent of a new type of celebrity – the influencer. My generation loves them. The majority of them are young women who post pictures of themselves living and idealistic lifestyle full of travel, eating, shopping, and visiting anywhere they can to get the perfect shot for Instagram. Their online pages are full of hiding promotions for sponsored products that their followers are encouraged to buy to mimic this unrealistic lifestyle. The Kardashians are a good example of this phenomena.

One of the many issues with capitalism is that it profits from making people feel as depressed and unfulfilled as possible in order to sell them products that promise to provide happiness and fulfilment. Influencers are amazing at creating the envy and disillusionment that capitalism thrives at and they are professionals at promoting materialistic solutions that are packaged as “inspirational.” But these influencers are not reliable, and many are willing to promote products that are dangerous and unethical. The internet has been capitalism’s playground, which leads me to my con list:

CONS

  • The widespread sharing of false information
  • The gathering of racists and misogynists who validate each other
  • Sponsored advertising parading as content
  • Catfishing and general fraud
  • Cyberstalking and general lack of privacy
  • Anonymity
  • Revenge porn
  • Filters leading to increased dysphoria
  • Repaying labour with “exposure”

It is frustrating to be both skeptical of and reliant on technology. Like Never-Betters, I am optimistic that technology will continue to evolve and enable new forms of knowledge, connection, communication, innovation, and art to emerge. Like Better-Nevers, I am pessimistically concerned that our technology will continue to be abused and exploited by scammers, neo-nazis, and capitalistic companies like Amazon and Ticketmaster. In a way, the internet is like the megaphone. It is not inherently good (sorry, Never-Betters) nor is it an inherent threat to our humanity (sorry, Better-Nevers). Instead, it is a tool that is unmatched in its capability to magnify and enable the very best and worst of human behaviour.