01 Oct

Senseless

I was saddened this week by the story of the US college student who committed suicide after he discovered his roommate had secretly filmed his tryst with another man, and then published it online.

I add the emphasis, because it’s the most disturbing thing about an already tragic situation. Clearly we don’t know everything about the circumstances and there’s almost certainly a lot more going on than is apparent when a closeted teen commits suicide, but any way you look at it, his roommate’s actions were cruel, invasive, bullying and wrong.

There are two things jostling for attention in my head about this:

One: I’m not blaming social media, but I do worry about the habits that a social life (amplified by social media and networks) can fall into. Performing. Feeling like you have to constantly feed (/amuse/entertain/shock) a hungry audience, it’s easy to slither unawares across the line into behaviours and activities which are just wrong – like bullying – or stupid – like revealing too much about yourself online. I think some people – ok, many people – get seduced by the noteriety and enjoy the buzz of microfame, which means their boundaries of privacy and acceptable behaviour get ever so blurry. This can come back to bite them – or others.

Two: how do you support teens (especially) who are being bullied because of sexuality, appearance, intelligence, economics or anything else, especially within the artificial cruel crassness of a school or college dorm?

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17 Apr

Empty sky

Just found this 2003 photo from when we first moved to SW14

For as long as I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived under the flight path.

That’s not saying much, of course – most of central, west and south-west London is affected by plane noise, as they circle over the suburbs, make a languid turn over Tower bridge and then approach to Heathrow along the Thames.

I remember standing on the school playing fields (when I should undoubtedly have been chasing a hockey ball or hustling to class) and looking up at planes not so far overhead, trying to identify the airline from the tail fin design. Alitalia. BA. Pan Am. SAS. Lufthansa. Countries in the sky.

For most of the last decade, I’ve lived directly under the flight path, in Mortlake by the river, which is the point where the wheels come down on the landing approach.

When we first moved here, I was hyper-aware of the planes. I’d wake up as the first flight droned overhead around 04.30, before dropping off again. And then, throughout the day and evening, every thirty seconds, they’d rumble over on their way to landing: loud enough that you’d miss a few seconds of important dialogue in the film you were watching, or have to pause your conversation for a spell. Before Concorde stopped flying, the air would be thunderous for nearly a minute as it slid overhead.
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26 Oct

A work in progress

Back in the nineties, when the web was young…

…most web pages took over a minute to load
…the song of one’s home 14.4kbps modem was more familiar than any novelty ringtone (what’s one of those, then?)
…AOL was a groundbreaking kind of company
…chatrooms were still a non-sleazy novelty
…marquee and blink tags were in common usage
…a web-ring was a social navigational device, not a gang of kiddy-fiddlers
…many web sites had an entire page dedicated to links
…the use of nested tables to layout a website was cutting-edge
…Google, Blogger and Amazon were just a twinkle in the eyes of their founders
…Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter were just random meaningless utterings
…building a web page was something only total weirdos would do

…dear, (now) departed Geocities was a vibrant and bustling place for play and experimentation, consisting of “neighbourhoods” and suburbs with particular themes or personalities, named after real or imagined geographical locations – SouthBeach, TheTropics, EnchantedForest, Tokyo, MotorCity, PicketFence, Petsburgh, Athens.

And each of these was stuffed with hundreds of citizens, tending hundreds upon thousands of lovingly constructed pages, each brimming with animated gifs, eye-bleeding backgrounds and a never-ending stream of scrolling, blinking, neon, capitalised, centre-justified text and badly-compressed, rasterized photos.

Including me, for a short while.

At the time, one of the most common phrases on the internet was “this page is under construction” – a sort of excuse or explanation, I suppose, often accompanied by a representation or parody of the symbols usually associated with road-works or construction sites in the non-virtual world. Strips of black and yellow tape or triangular red, black and white icons of ‘Men At Work’.

But thinking about it, it was a strange statement to make. At the time, the entire Internet was itself under construction; being built and explored and defined and designed and conquered and claimed by users just like me. By definition, web pages could (and can) continue being constructed, built upon, refined and redesigned forever – there’s no end to the work: even now, a redesign is only ever a temporary thing and its unveiling tends to be just a brief resting status in between periods of intense redevelopment activity.

The point is, the Internet can’t ever be completed, at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a living work in progress. The constant ripple of activity keeps it being. When it stops evolving, it stops being relevant. That was the point of web pages versus print and then as now, the idea of publishing flat print-like pages without interactivity or hypertextuality or even contextuality and formatting to the web is quite daft.

The web is alive: as long as there is networking occurring – both social and electronic – the Internet will exist and be continuously re-invented, never quite the same from one second to the next.

Back in the nineties, I used the idea of being under construction as the central focus for my (now horribly outdated and quite shuddersomely facile) MA Thesis: Under Construction: (Re)Defining Culture and Community in Cyberspace.

Don’t read it though. You can garner more knowledge about internet culture and community from five minutes on Twitter these days – and if you do decide to plough through it, remember that in the nineties many, many people (including academics) didn’t know what the internet was, let alone a modem, which is why it’s so full of explanations and definitions of terms.

In fact, back in 1997 when I stated my intention to embark on research in this particular area, I was told by senior members of the Anthropology department that there was no such thing as culture and community in cyberspace, and that I should redirect my attentions to something proper instead.

WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, EH?

Ahem.

The phrase ‘Under Construction’ is interesting for Anthropologists and other social scientists, who sometimes theorise that that culture is itself a construction – made and reinforced by the actions of those who show up and participate. In my thesis, I explained that even perception is not a passive experience.

We are constantly constructing the world (through perception, etc.) as much as the world is constantly constructing (shaping, changing and influencing) us. The idea of a ‘passive media’ such as television takes on a new perspective when it is understood that the process of watching a soap-opera requires the brain to unconsciously perform startling feats of interpretation and imagination just to make sense – images – out of the millions of pixels and lines fired rapidly at the screen, not to mention understanding the plot.

Fascinated back then – and still – by the idea that just by showing up, we are causing the net to come into a new phase of being. Leaning forward makes that link even more tangible. That’s still true, of course. Perhaps moreso than ever?

As a sidenote, I was thinking the other day how long it had been since I used the acronym “IRL” or the expanded phrase “In Real Life.”

It used to be the thing we’d say when we meant “not on the internet”, and I’m glad that it has become gradually obsolete over the years, now that the internet is accepted as part of life.

The internet is real life: I am real, sat at my real computer, engaging with the screen and the world beyond that it unlocks, in real time, via my eyes, ears, keyboard, mouse, attention. Online and offline make much more sense, being descriptive of state rather than reality.

(Likewise, I’m glad that we don’t talk about “virtual communities” anymore – as if spending time with people interacting around common interests and deepening relationships over time was in any way less than real. Now we know it can be, and that gets proved and reproved every day.)

So anyway, today’s unplugging of the Geocities life-support made me think about how we shaped it, and it shaped us.

Geocities slowly became unloved, unused and eventually undermined by wave upon wave of new services which helped us to express ourselves; live out loud, on the screen; learn to create/tinker/experiment; play with our identities; find others; experience the thrill of seeing our words, our work in a public “space”.

But for all its faults, Geocities was, for many long-term residents of the web, the first place they called home(page). And because of that, we mourn its passing.

But its spirit lives on. The creative, tinkering itch still runs thunderous and irrepressible through us. Our web experiences – and we ourselves – are still under construction.

04 Sep

The many ways in which the experience of Twitter’s development and growing popularity is very much like the experience of early blogging

The reminder a couple of weeks ago that pioneering blog publishing engine Blogger was launched ten years ago got me thinking.

I’ve been blogging for nearly ten years now – since it began with a W – and being involved with something from the beginning, plus passionate (and sometimes despondent) about its potential and usage in the years since means I’ve had a lot of time to watch and think about how it has matured and been used. There are certain things which we can now look back on and consider milestones in the development and maturing of blogging – like how the media responded to it, how people embraced and used it and how it penetrated mainstream web usage over time.

Likewise, Twitter.

Like blogging (which I started doing in January 2000, and used Blogger to publish my blog from April of that year), I’ve been using Twitter since relatively early on – my earliest update via Twitter was in November 2005. I’d link to it, but
a) it’s in my private/personal account (@megp) and
b) all my archived tweets (pre July 31 2009) have disappeared, as experienced by many others in this thread on the Twitter help forum.

It’s actually that help forum – and the appalling petulant and rude manner in which some users are addressing Twitter staff – which got me thinking more specifically about how, in so many ways, the timeline of the Twitter story mirrors that of Blogger and early blogging. Both have seen similar patterns of early usage and behaviour and adoption by certain functional and social groups, and both have learnt – the hard way, sometimes – about technical and social scaling issues as well as being a playground for emergent behaviours and activities, and all the fun and challenge that comes with that.

This isn’t an attempt to demonstrate that startups and new technologies are subject to many of the same pressures and reception issues – that’s been clearly documented and brilliantly expressed in Gartner’s Hype Curve. Rather, I wanted to explore some of the striking similarities in specific situations, movements and experiences in the early days of both micropublishing and blogging, from the perspective of an early settler and long-term resident of both of these strange and wonderful new(ish) countries.

So here’s something I’ve been working on for a little while: it’s a very approximate timeline of the activities, patterns, behaviours and reactions experienced by both Twitter (/micropublishing) and Blogger (/early blogging) during their first few years.
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02 Sep

One in 10:10

Yesterday, a new empowering climate change campaign called 10:10 launched with the aim of encouraging as many people, companies and institutions as possible to sign up to a pledge to cut their personal carbon footprints by 10% during 2010.

Here’s a chunk from one of the articles from yesterday’s Guardian G2:

The 10:10 campaign, which is launched today in partnership with the Guardian, is designed both to answer the call for immediate action, and to offer individuals and organisations a meaningful way of taking it. It is the brainchild of Franny Armstrong, the irrepressible film-maker behind The Age of Stupid, a powerful docudrama about our failure to tackle climate change. The idea is compellingly simple: by signing up, individuals and organisations from multinational companies to schools and hospitals commit to doing their best to cut their emissions by 10% by the end of 2010, precisely the sort of deep, quick cut the scientists say is needed.

You can read much more about the initiative, the launch, the philosophy behind it and the difference that such an apparently small commitment would make here on the Guardian environment site (The Guardian is a supporting partner of 10:10, though this probably earns it a higher place on the IoS’s smuggest Britons list – this year we were included for being “Patronising toffs, taking their revenge on the world after being bullied at school.” Does that mean the IoS are pro-bully? Or just bitter? Most confusing. Anyway, I digress.) or at the official campaign site at http://www.1010uk.org.

I signed up yesterday:

I signed up

10% is a very achievable reduction for the vast majority of people, and can be made through a small number of very simple (and not too hairshirted) actions (which we should all be doing anyway and which take very little effort)..

I’m inspired to think that a committed movement of people making small, personal but significant actions might be able to make a real difference. What was it Margaret Mead said…?

I hope you will consider signing up, too, and encourage your friends to do likewise, even though I know that many people try to live in an environmentally-sensitive way already, for lots of varying individual reasons.

Proselytizing aside, I went along to the launch event yesterday at the Tate Modern on London’s south bank, and had a few thoughts and experiences there that I wanted to jot down while they were still in my head.
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13 Jul

Time tourism

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could not only visit a particular place for a holiday but visit it during a particular era?

Looking back at the city

I’ve been thinking about this in preparation for our upcoming visit to San Francisco, a city that I know and love and have visited a number of times over the past 20 years (erk!). It’s always good to visit (and especially so nowadays, as I have family and friends there), but on the train the other day I found myself ruminating about how interesting it would be to visit that incredible city, but during it’s hippified free-love-and-flowers-in-your-hair heyday in the late sixties. Or during the wild days of the Barbary coast?

San Francisco Panorama

What if you could book a holiday in the past?

That got me thinking about other places with particular times it would be interesting or characteristic to visit – like Manhattan during the late 50s and early 60s – the Madmen era.

Or London during the swinging 60s…wait, is this just a 60s thing? No, there must be other places with characterful or formative times associated with them…. Help me out here.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine that the tourism time machine doesn’t go further than 200 years without your face melting off, so no visiting of Pompei or having hot chocolate with the Aztecs.

Where would you choose? And when?