Posted by Joseph Peart

"U R dumpt"

Remember when we first heard that this was one of the most common messages among teenage texts? 

Analysts, commentators and futurists now call this process the ‘techno brush-off’.  It’s so much easier to carry out unpleasant personal tasks remotely, as result of the temporal and spatial separation that cyberspace allows.  At the same time, connectivity enables us to increase our social circle and socialise more easily and frequently.  There are already 500 million mobile broadband users worldwide.

One of the constant questions posed by behaviourists, net-watchers and pollsters is whether we will direct technology, or whether we will let ourselves be directed by it and its overlords.  For instance, I’m sure you also read about CDA (cellphone deprivation anxiety) long before the latest Telegraph story was republished in the Herald (April 21, 2011). A sample of 1000 teenagers confirmed their addiction by reporting symptoms from anxious to panicked and paranoid after 24 hours without their mobiles.  Some couldn’t even last the length of the experiment.

Douglas Rushkoff has themed a new book around this question and titled it Program or be programmed. (2010). OR Books

“Choose the former,” writes Rushkoff according to his publisher, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

That is, of course, overstating it, because there are laggards, resisters and luddites who can remain beyond the influence of digital socialising software.  And there are many others who understand social media well enough to manage their relationships on the net without Unix or Linux.

What Rushkoff appears to be warning us is that gaming sites such as Disney’s Club Penguin mean that children are developing social skills within virtual worlds along with ‘real’ relationships with flesh and blood friends and relations.  Perhaps they won’t be able to tell the difference.  But it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. The Futurist (March-April, 2011) reminds us that the Internet can also strengthen traditional family ties.  In Norway, for example, ‘one study showed that college students were in touch with their parents on average 10 times a week’, via Skype, texting, Facebook etc.

The question that remains is how well people will be able to continue to distinguish between the virtual and the real.

In the same article Arnold Brown tells us that advances in brain research cast light on the nature of virtual relationships.  Brown notes that neural devices allow people to control wheelchairs and televisions and he accepts the Hollywood extension of that science that avatars may soon be controlled that way.

On the next page, an article by William Sims Bainbridge describes Elf huntress, Caylee Dak, who will bless any member of the Alliance in World of Warcraft who brings her a poem beginning: ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there…’

Bainbridge tells us that Caylee Dak is an active memorial for a player named Dak Krause, who died of leukaemia in 2007, dressed exactly as she was when she served as his avatar in this virtual world.  Caylee still exists, giving Krause a kind of life after death.

If that sounds weird, Bainbridge goes on to tell us that he himself had 22 World of Warcraft characters, and invested more that 700 hours of his own life in each of two of them.

He notes that their degree of artificial intelligence is low by not negligible, because they can learn which of their enemies are doing them the most damage and respond accordingly.  He draws a parallel with our everyday use of ‘information technology agents’ such as the answering machine, which speaks with your voice and records a message left by the caller.  There are also those ghastly voice recognition systems that try to direct your call according to key words that you speak when it invites you to do so.

In his penultimate paragraph, Bainbridge suggests that avatars, agents and other technology-based expressions of ourselves increase the possibility that we can all have some kind of life after death.  He quotes Buckminster Fuller’s observation, ‘I seem to be a verb.’

Based on his 22 avatars and the continuing existence of Caylee Dak, Bainbridge offers us his own conclusion: ‘I am a plural verb, in future tense.’

 Posted by Joseph

You may well remember the fascination with which we watched the Barack Obama election campaign gather strength.  Much of it, especially its fundraising was attributed to the power of social media.  For once, American democracy chose a president who was not in the thrall of the military-industrial complex, and with massive debts to repay to ‘big money’ through presidential favours.

With almost equal fascination, we followed ‘Persian Kiwi’s’ twitter stream as events unfolded in the Iran failed uprising for democracy.

Now China and other monolithic governments regard with concern the domino effect of democracy fuelled by social media as it progresses to a nasty halt in Libya.  Will that be an end to it?  Have tanks and planes outgunned Web 2.0?

Since inflation and other irritants brought the growing educated middle-classes to Tiananmen Square to protest, the Chinese government has had sentries posted on the internet to detect and neutralise threats of a social network revolution. It seems they have every reason to be alert.  The people of Tunisia and then Egypt toppled despotic governments and rebels in Libya are being slaughtered – all possible due in part to the democratising impact of social media. 

When we set up the Centre for Social Media here at AUT, we did so with meagre resources but an idealistic vision of the democracy of the internet as its founders had planned.  We saw again the power of crowds in January 2010 when comedian commentator Conan O’Brien nearly toppled late night talk-show emperor, Jay Leno, from his swivel chair.

In brief, O’Brien left NBC in a huff and wrote a very public email to “People of the Earth” explaining his reasons.  As he did so, an unknown graphic artist was creating an image of O’Brien nicknamed “Coco”, as coined by Tom Hanks.  He published the image on a Facebook fan page he created, and via numerous tweets.

Meanwhile, the unsuspecting and unemployed O’Brien was persuaded by his team to use Twitter to promote a comedy tour he’d planned.  The show sold 120,000 tickets on its first day.  O’Brien now has his own show on TBS, watched by roughly 1.5 million viewers a night. His fan club ‘Team Coco’ delivers 8.7 million video streams a month.  There are over a million ‘I’m with Coco’ Facebook fans.  He has 2.3 million followers on Twitter and 2.7 video views per month on Youtube.

If that is what social media can do in support of an individual entertainer’s stand against a giant television company, we will watch with horrified interest to see what it can do in Libya.  Right now the ‘little guys’ there are being crushed, but you can be sure that other repressive governments in places like Myanmar and North Korea are also watching Colonel Gadaffi.  They will be especially interested to see if he is successful in turning social media into a propaganda weapon against those who sought to use it to assassinate his regime. 

Apparently, after the fall of Zuwarah, a Gadaffi functionary or supporter sent text and Twitter messages suggesting that other rebel towns give up.  News reports say those messages undermined the revolutionary movement, in the same way as social media had earlier bolstered the morale of the rebels.  Let’s wait and see, or follow #libya.

Normal 0 By now you will have read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and will be familiar with his thesis that web surfing is having a negative neurological impact on human brains.  Carr says, "the more we use the Web, the more we train our brains to be distracted".

Other futurists, notably William Crossman, believe the growth of web surfing, internet video, computer games and texting will lead to a significant global decline in literacy. (Patrick Tucker, Futurist,Nov‐Dec, 2009)

Just how much that matters will doubtless fuel an ongoing debate among educationalists and internet prophets for years to come.  The question it begs is whether we will continue to need high text literacy to be educated and competent communicators.  Perhaps sound and images will be sufficient.

For instance, around one in four searches on cellphones with Android software use voice input.  (This also collects valuable data on accents and pronunciation for Google's Translate service.)  At a visual level, Image Shack has more than 20 billion photos in the internet cloud to share and Facebook is gaining 2.5 billion new images every month.

Sound and image on the Web may not do anything more than text communication.  The growth of "crowd sourcing" via social media is challenging algorithm‐based search engines, but both still depend on text.  That need not continue as mobile devices are used increasingly and voice and image are compact short‐cuts to non‐fiction communication.

What’s more all visual media technologies, movies, television, mobile devices are going to become increasingly 3D capable, for news, sport and information.

As for fiction — storytelling and performance are taking new literary forms in e‐literature, including 3-dimesional formats.  This is currently laboratory‐based in complex virtual reality settings, but futurists tell us that those technologies will become increasingly mobile and even wearable. 

Meanwhile, at Brown University, Rhode Island, Robert Coover (novelist and critic) is professor of literary arts, where he has created an immersive virtual reality facility.  Students are now participating in non‐linear literary forms that allow the storyteller to create a setting in which readers, equipped with motion‐tracking devices, can wander through and interact with 3D narratives.  Like the movie, Avatar, you are your own avatar, rather than being represented by some composed imaginary figurine.

This concept goes far beyond transcending text‐based literature and literacy based on reading ability:  It could challenge the way we see ourselves.  New Scientist, 13 Nov, 2010, says: "Narratives... are instantiated physically in our brains.  We are not born with them, but we start growing them soon, and as we acquire the deep narratives, our synapses change and become fixed." 

These phenomena may or may not herald the end of text literacy, but more significantly, as human narratives are part of our sense of ourselves, could these changes to narrative lead to new selves?

Some years ago, I announced to anyone who would listen that knowledge management would be the next big adjacent territory for communication management/PR to occupy.  I said that, if we didn’t do so, I.T. professionals would take our place.  Well, open-source applications have all but overwhelmed my prophecy.  Now, any simple-minded computer user can manage knowledge with far less dependence on programmers.

In this context it’s interesting to talk to colleagues about Yammer and other “enterprise social networks”

The idea of these applications is to provide a secure network within which employees can collaborate efficiently and share knowledge without a whole lot of meetings (It is in-effect a knowledge management system).

Like Facebook and Twitter, Yammer offers profiles, messaging, microblogging, links, images and groups.  It was mentioned by a speaker at a small seminar I attended before Christmas.  Alongside Yammer was Jive – an application that connects the external community with the internal one to allow employees to act on information published on the external site. 

One of Jive’s features is that it can help monitor conversations about your organization a bit like MindTouch, which has traditionally been a tool for developers to produce intranets, extranets, and knowledge bases.

The other application talked about at the Internal Communicators Network seminar I attended in Wellington was Basecamp, so I had a look at it online .

Basecamp is a project management programme in the same genre as MS Project.  It is set up with more functionality and a focus on communication and collaboration within and between workplace teams.  It offers check-lists, wiki-style documents, milestone management, file sharing, time tracking, and a messaging system.  The main thing about it is that it is interactive and web-based, taking it into the realm of social media.

Like most similar applications, it is text-based but available in variety of iPhone and mobile apps with high visual potential for peer-to-peer viewing.

This may be a great strength in the “text-shallow” future of Web 3.0, where sound and images will communicate and colleagues will speak to each other instead of writing messages.

Communication managers and line managers might need to change any project or knowledge management set-up quickly if The Futurist (Nov-Dec 2010) is correct.  In that issue, John Smart noted that Web 3.0, comprising TV-quality peer-to-peer video delivered on the Web will transform content sharing by including features of social media such as many-to-many and chat-while-viewing.   These changes will change the way in which collaborative workplace projects and talked about and managed.

Get ready to wiki while you work!

Posted by Joseph Peart

 A behaviour linked to the rapid growth of social media is the direct sharing of copyright material, especially music and movies.

Some people think “peer-to-peer” is intellectual jargon for copyright theft.  Certainly Time magazine (December 6, 2010) suggests this is its view by its headline, “The men who stole the World”. 

TheTime article began its historic notes with the year 1997, when Justin Frankel wrote the free MP3 player Winamp.  The story continued in1999 with Napster, written by Shawn Fanning, plus a programme, written by Jon Johansen and two others, that decrypts commercial DVDs for copying.  All three men were in their late teens.

File sharing on the Internet was boosted further by Bram Cohen in 2001 when he released his file sharing application BitTorrent, which facilitates the distribution of large files.  BitTorrent is still favoured today for large packages of data.

Napster has been superseded by iTunes, but it still exists, while WinAmp was bought by AOL.  We all know that now the very-simple-to-use iTunes is currently winning the popularity contest with MP3 users, and Time magazine deduces from this that the best way to compete with being free is by being easy. 

Most intriguing is the determination of those youthful Internet pioneers to remain outside the big companies.  Johansen, for instance is in his own company doubleTwist, producing software which can interpret and organise files from hundreds of files and combine them on a single interface.  Time reports that, in June 2010, doubleTwist introduced an Android app and around half a million people have downloaded it.

It is interesting that Fortune is equally fascinated by Internet entrepreneurs, but in its December 6, 2010 issue this was more about the success of Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, whom it named number one business person of the year.

It did so because, during 2010, Hastings cannibalised his own $2 billion-in-sales DVD-by-mail business and streamed television and movies to customers over the Internet.  This was so successful that the company’s shares have risen 200%.

It was also easy, as in the United States video can be delivered within 30 seconds over a high-speed connection.  It is not stored on a subscriber’s hard drive, but viewed immediately on a range of devices, including video game screens.

Again, Hastings’ answer to what the music industry and Hollywood call piracy, is to make it so easy for people to pay and view movies that they don’t flout copyright.  And, while iTunes has provided a similar solution for music, other positive results of file-sharing have been that musicians are staging more live performances to make money, and independent musicians are able to compete with “pop music factories”.  Indeed, some say peer-to-peer sharing no different from lending a friend a book and that it has helped support better music.

Finally, despite its headline and use of terms such as “piracy”, the Time article concludes: “The pirates never wanted music and movies and all the rest of it to be free – at least, not in the financial sense.  They wanted it to be free as in freedom”.

Posted by Joseph Peart

Immediately before I sat down to write this blog, I was attending a lecture on Social Influence Analysis and Social Prediction by Dr Jie Tang, Tsinghua University, Beijing.  He is an associate professor of computer science.  Naturally, I was fascinated by his insights into the dynamics of social networks, such as how an individual user can influence others’ behaviours.

His study shows that about 90% of the human emotions are predictable, through social network mining, text mining, statistical learning, and semantic web searching.  How scary is that?

Such research is right on the cusp of the field of human communication, where science and art collide.

What I didn’t anticipate was the need to recall my own early science degree to follow Jie Tang’s explanation of his factor graph model for creating mathematical formulae that could learn by themselves.  But it is that very connection between maths and psychology that enables researchers to quantify social influence and the correlation between influence and social actions.

So I sat there fascinated by the creation of algorithms, which we so blithely talk about, but don’t always fully appreciate.  The equations on the screen looked like the chemistry of a nuclear bomb, and offered a glimpse of their potential to provide a similarly massive explosion in our analysis of mobile social networks to predict human emotion.

While AUT University is part of this marvellous open dialogue in the field of creative technology, social media are still being restricted in China itself.  Google has been displaced by the Chinese search engine "Baidu" which seeks to emulate Bing or Google inside China’s physical borders.  Firstly, the Chinese government set out to control Google: Now they have a search site which they can control.

Also in China, Youtube has effectively been replaced by Youku, which has 1,500 license holders, including television and film companies in that country regularly uploading content. 

Youku's video library includes many full length, popular films and TV episodes from the West, which can be viewed outside China only on Youku, since copyright restrictions prevent Youtube and others from broadcasting them.  Ironically, while thumbing its nose at western copyright law, Youku has its own strict rules on pornography and for content that the Chinese government finds politically objectionable. 

Furthermore, Youku has implemented a digital fingerprinting technology which is says is intended to eliminate copyright infringing content on the site.  It also sounds like a way of keeping a close eye on users.

Meanwhile, in the West, computer scientists at the University of Washington are reversing the “eye of God” on the internet.  They have created a way to put expiration dates on ea-mail, chat messages and Facebook postings, according to Futurist, Nov-Dec 2009: p.2.

Their software, called “Vanish”, encrypts the messages and spreads the data among different computers on the file-sharing network.  As people use the network, the portions of encryption are spread around to untraceable users making the original message indecipherable.

One of the benefits of Vanish will be for the artists among us who may express our emotions impulsively only to discover that they remain as an eternal record of our immoderation.  We should thank our scientific peers for this offer of a future where we can expunge our digital trails.  Of course, art in its other forms can and should remain preserved for ever.

Indeed, art provides the postscript to this blog, as Wikipedia tells us the delightful origin of the name “Baidu” is from an 800-year-old Chinese poem which says: “Having searched for him hundreds and thousands of times in the crowd, suddenly turning back by chance, I find him there in the dimmest candlelight”…. beautiful.


 A new threat has emerged, just when airlines began to think that Wi-Fi and cellphones could be safely used without “interfering with the aircraft’s navigation systems”.  The danger arises from packages containing bombs that could be detonated by a cellphone itself, or via a Wi-Fi connection to a handset.

So passenger aircraft may continue to create “black holes” in our web coverage, at a time when our appetite for constant contact is becoming insatiable.  

Social media is heightening this hunger.  When a young woman I know sits drinking coffee with a friend, her eyes are constantly flickering down to her cellphone screen for messages.  (Perhaps that’s a new meaning to the word “Flickr”.)

A young man I know was an hour late for band practice on the day that daylight-saving was introduced.  He was disappointed that his iPhone did not automatically adjust its alarm: Another black hole?

But back to Flickr for a moment: Consumer magazine (issue 507) has praised Flickr for the feature that allows you to copyright your own work with creative commons licenses.  That’s an important protection in an era in which disregard for intellectual property appears to be a trait of social media.

The same review in Consumer talks about the “netiquette” of social media.   Its commonsense advice focuses on “oversharing” and recommends that you don’t accept just anyone who wants to befriend you.  (Remember Dunbar’s number in an earlier blog on this site.)

Not that oversharing is likely to be a problem in China.  Apparently Twitter is only accessible to those in China who have the skills to penetrate what The Economist (Oct 30, 2010) calls “the great firewall”: Another black hole.

Mind you, people there are enthusiastically adopting weibo, China’s own heavily-censored microblogging service.  But like all anti-matter, black holes attract their opposites and light is flooding into weibo.

According to the Economist, efforts by authorities to delete mention of imprisoned activist and Nobel prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, were circumvented by bloggers using homonyms of Liu’s name, or abbreviations in Latin characters.  The other morsel in that story was the statistic from a China Youth News survey that reported more than 94% of weibo users saying it had changed their lives: Darkness is dramatically diminishing.

The biggest black hole for social media has always seemed to be the developing world, where only 18% of the population have access to the internet.  But wait… According to The International Telecommunication Union more than 50% owned a mobile-phone at the end of 2009, and this allows texting.  That presented an opportunity to Nathan Eagle, an MIT academic who did a teaching stint in rural Kenya.  So he introduced txteagle, an app which encourages crowdsourcing* of a kind (*see earlier blog on this site).

Nathan Eagle’s version of crowdsourcing allows the breaking down of work into small tasks that can be sent out by text to be performed by lots of individuals – such as local people checking street signs in Sudan for a satellite navigation service. 


Maybe, with social media, there soon will be no telecommunication black holes left except for airline passengers.


Posted by Joseph Peart

How Tweet the sound


How Tweet the sound:  When this pun popped into my head as a title for this blog, I binged it, mainly to tease Google.  I came up with

If you feel like something sweet then click on that as you read on about the debate which has raged since before I first studied psychology.  It is the vexed question of nature versus nurture.  It is again being raised, but this time in a business management context, linked to world of social media.

For instance, it looks as if Twitter has decided it needs more of a salesperson at the helm, as co-founder Evan Williams, @Ev, has stood aside for his colleague Dick Costolo, @dickc, to replace him as CEO @ Twitter.

This underscores the truism that different people are differently talented and differently suited to different management roles, such as entrepreneur, leader, creative genius, or salesperson.  This revived my interest in the question:

“Why are some people more likely than others to be leaders?”

And the related question: “Are leaders made or born?”

To find the answer, I looked at some of the most recent work done in the field pioneered by Sir Cyril Burt, who compared identical with non-identical twins.  Since Sir Cyril researchers have continued to regard this as a good way of separating the effects of identical genes with those of the same upbringing.

The latest work I looked at was that by Professor Scott Shane of Case Western University in Ohio, who has reviewed studies of twins in an effort to resolve the effects of heredity and environment.  His work is reported in The Economist Sep. 25, 2010, alongside that of Dr Richard Arvey who examined the role of genes in leadership potential.  Arvey and his colleagues at the NUS Business School were interested to find that wealthy and supportive parents tend to be more important than any genetic presence or absence of leadership potential.

The Economist quipped that there must still be some truth in the saying: “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”.

But it was Shane’s work that really caught my eye.  He observed that some occupations, notably those in the creative industries, were strongly linked to genetic make-up, while salespeople were more likely to be the product of their environments.

Other work by numerous researchers has shown that salespeople tend to be optimists and radiate happiness.  That can turn them into leaders, like Dick Costello? @dickc, because they build positive and productive relationships.  Other people like them and want to do things for those leaders, because they make those other people feel happy.

And so this blog on social media arrives at one of the most important social questions for all of us:

“Wherein lies the secret of happiness?”

Stephen Brewster, University of Glasgow, is keen to synthesise some happiness into AudioFeeds that alert us to our social network messages and news shots. His team have developed a 3D theatre of natural and pleasant sounds that could be built into a cellphone app.  

For example, Facebook updates could be signalled by a collection of joyful birdsongs, whereas stop-press news could be heralded through your earpiece or desk speakers as different bells, music and other happy sounds, according to the concept presented by Brewster to the Association for Computing Machinery’s Multimedia conference at the end of October.

So finally: Will that cellphone app make us happy?

Well, not necessarily, we are told in New Scientist, Sep 25, 2010, where Dan Jones summarises the research into human happiness by numerous social scientists in the words:

“Genetic differences account for about half the difference in happiness between people.”

Jones goes on to emphasis that it is that the same interaction between inherited characteristics and our social environment which explains the other half of our happiness.

To demonstrate that money does not bring happiness, Jones produces a riveting graph from which shows UK GDP per capita increasing by about 60% over 30 years, while UK ‘Life Satisfaction’ wobbled along without much change.

To find out what does make you happy, you could log in to and measure your own ‘Satisfaction with life scale’.  The web page also has a link to explanatory notes, to interpret your results once you have completed the simple test.

If you have survived this blog and its forced segues from one idea to the next, you have probably had a glimpse of the smorgasbord of knowledge that makes me happy.

Posted by Joseph Peart

 This Blog recently reported that Google has bought Metaweb for its open-source database, Freebase, with 12 million web “entities”, from science to celebrities. 

Now it is time to question where this will lead, or more specifically, where the semantic web will allow us to lead each other.

The thing about Freebase is that it tags items so that computers can understand what they are about, and then relate them to each other by meaning.  Freebase enables the whole web to behave a bit like GetGlue which allows users to rate things or discover new popular choices by finding out what their friends enjoy.

One shudders to think what semantic tags will do to the existing  imbalance between popularity and reliability of information on the internet.  Research already shows that we tend to follow each other like lemmings racing towards a cliff.

Adding to concern about the influence on popularity on credibility was an article in New Scientist (24 July, 2010) which demonstrated again what is sometimes called the “band-wagon effect” or even the ghost of “group-think”. 

The article asserts that sociologists have been searching for laws governing human interactions and social networks for decades, but now the world’s 500-million users of social media are providing researchers with a living laboratory. 

Duncan Watts of Yahoo Research and Matthew Salganik, now at Princeton University used a web-based experiment to demonstrate that when it comes to music preference, we behave like sheep (or lemmings).

To examine what made some songs more popular than others, they created a project they called Music Lab.  It used a website where more than 14,000 people could rate 48 relatively unknown songs.  They compared the opinions of experts with those of amateurs and measured downloads to assess a tunes popularity. 

They also cloaked the information some of the respondents received    to show that the number of people choosing a song influenced others into selecting the same one.  That is, human influence had a major effect on making some songs more successful. 

“So, like it or not, it seems that many of us follow the herd,” (New Scientist, 24 July 2010: p. 32).

This doesn’t only apply to something as familiar as popular music.  Even choices that require knowledge and expertise can be driven by mob-behaviour. 

For instance, by using Facebook researchers, Jukka-Pekka Onnela and Felix Reed-Tochas of the University of Oxford, have been able to show that when a new application becomes available on the Web, users adopt it independently of their friends’ opinions.  However, when the popularity of an app crosses a certain threshold, its popularity draws in other people and its adoption can expand suddenly and massively.

Suddenly the cliff ahead of the Lemmings can be a lot higher.