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Sunday, October 30, 2005

A meditation on the nature of social media online

In the wake of my jaunt into the city last week, I've been thinking about the nagging disenchantment I've been feeling toward blogs and Blogistan in the past year or so. I think a lot of it has root in something I figured out well before that, that the web in general and blogs in particular just don't afford social connection to the degree that some other social media, to use the current buzzword, on the Internet do. I've been online to one degree or another for almost 20 years at this point, and given a lot of thought to the formation of communities and relationships online. So maybe I can look at some of these other media and what their characteristics are to try and figure out why blogs and the web are in some way unsatisfying.

IRC is perhaps the most engaging form of social media on the Internet. It happens synchronously, in real time, with little delay between projection and response. In this way, it closely resembles real life conversation. The architecture of IRC is such that several servers around the world are knit into a seamless whole so that any given channel appears to be a single location. There are many networks, so there's a certain degree of Balkanization, but by and large, if you're interested in a particular topic, there's one place to go to discuss it, and once you've found that place, you can become part of the conversation. So if you want to discuss shortwave radio with like minded individuals in real time, there's one place you can go; if you want to discuss the lovely and talented Suw Charman, there's another place you can go, and all of the people who are also interested at any given moment in discussing these topics will also be there. It's a many-to-many experience. The closest real life analog would be a party. (As an aside, IRC can be dangerously addictive; I tend to look at it these days the way a recovering alcoholic looks at a bottle of scotch. It's almost too engaging.) The content of the channels tends to be brief interchanges. The tools do not lend themselves to lengthy writings. I'm not sure if it's just the client software I've used or a limitation of the server software, but messages longer than a certain rather short number of characters get truncated. As such, the tools lend themselves to more conversational content, short back-and-forths among people. Individuals can log the conversations that take place in a given channel, but it's not done as a matter of course as an inherent part of the architecture; this probably won't go down on your permanent record. IRC is a good way to meet people online, and because of the way conversation unfolds in real time, it's a good way to become friends.

Instant Messaging is similar to IRC in that it's synchronous, but there's no central locations to discuss given topics. It tends to be one-to-one, or at most few-to-few, rather than many-to-many. And because of the lack of central locations, in my experience, it tends to rely on existing relationships rather and is a pretty poor way of creating new ones. (I could be wrong on this; I only use IM at work rather than for fun, but this is my experience.) Short items dominate here as in IRC. Like IRC, the likelihood is strong that there will be no permanent record of conversations. IM is engaging in a similar manner to IRC, and because of its similarity to real-life conversation, can quickly strengthen relationships. IM's closest real life analog would be intimate conversation, or perhaps phone calls.

Netnews (USENET) and mailing lists tend work similarly, so I'll discuss them together. Both work asynchronously. Conversation unfolds over time, rather than in real time. Newsgroups and mailing lists both tend to coalesce around given topics, although the conversation may often stray from the putative topic of the list/group. The sense of place is perhaps not as defined as with IRC, but still exists; there is a mailing list or group for your interest, and that's where the people who are interested in your topic of interest congregate. The delays in propagation of material detract from the sense of place by increasing the perceived distance between participants, although with high speed networks and protocols like NNTP and SMTP greasing the rails, this is less of a factor than it was 20 years ago. It's certainly possible to form relationships in newsgroups and mailing lists, but it may take a little longer than in IRC because the conversation unfolds over days and weeks rather than minutes. Individual messages here are longer in general than those in IRC or instant messaging; the atomic unit here is the message or post, rather than the sentence. They do tend to form threads, or conversations, however. Strange conversations where one person talks at length, then others do, but conversations nonetheless. The tracks we leave in these media are more-or-less permanent (although that came as something of a surprise to those of us on Usenet in the late 80s when Google unveiled our permanent records....) I'm not sure what the real-life analog for these are; they may be entirely or partially new beasts.

Then there's the web. Conversations on the web, such as they are, take place asynchronously. Further, there is generally no central place to gather; if you're interested in a topic, there may be dozens, hundreds, even thousands of places to go to find like-minded individuals. As such, the distance between people is tremendous compared to other, more intimate media with well-defined gathering places. There is a strong sense of place on the web, but it tends to be parochial rather than communal: this is my site, just as my house is my house. There are a few topic-specific destinations that draw large crowds; people interested in liberal activist politics can go to Daily Kos, and those interested in technology can spend their time at Slashdot. But even where such destinations exist, there are thousands or even millions of other sites out there that address the same topics, most in the low-traffic, high-volume part of Blogistan referred to as "the long tail". There's no guarantee that if you write something in your part of the long tail that it will become part of the conversation, that anyone will even notice. The atomic unit on the web is the page, or in the case of blogs, the post, both (hopefully) fully conceived to cover their intended subject and to do so without requiring (or in most cases when speaking of the web in general, allowing) interjection by others. Thanks to Google cache and, this will, in fact, go down on our permanent record. I think of the experience of millions of Balkanized web sites engaging in conversation as being roughly akin to thousands of people standing on widely-dispersed rocks in a huge field, wielding megaphones, trying desperately to talk to those standing on the nearest rocks, and only occasionally succeeding. A few people have P.A. systems.

Humans are social creatures. We want to connect with each other. So we've seen the rise of certain protocols like trackback and tagging, and tools like Technorati and PubSub, that try to connect the various strands of conversation. These don't always succeed; trackback has been rendered largely useless by spammers with their P.A. systems, and the recent furor over splogs indicates that Technorati and Google are seeing their usefulness in this effort diminished and possibly destroyed. It's testament to our nature as social creatures that we try to make this medium work for us in a social manner. But the underlying nature of the web fights us. There are other systems that work better. I tend to see the flocking of so many A-list bloggers to other social media like Joi Ito's IRC channel last year and the rush by so many to attend blogging conferences as a kind of implicit admission that the connections made via blogs and the web are not strong enough to satisfy our need for contact.

Posted at 6:27 PM
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Friday, October 21, 2005

My Lunch With Suw (with apologies to Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory)

It wasn't like I wanted to take today off, but I didn't have a choice. My boss told us a few weeks ago that there wasn't enough money in the kitty for the contractors to work our entire schedule this month, so we each needed to take some time off. Being clever, we decided to hold out as long as possible before taking our time off, which paid off, as over the course of the month, most of the missing hours were restored and the financial hit was minimized. Still, as the fiscal month came to an end, they still needed a few hours back. So I took today off.

I was determined not to waste the day moping around the house. We've been meaning to get reprints made up of a few of our wedding photos, and the lab that our photographer recommended (the lab that had done a wonderful job with the prints in our album) was in the city, but only open on weekdays, so it occurred to me that this would be a great opportunity to go in and get the reprints done.

It was at this point that something cool happened. One of my blogfriends mentioned on her blog that she was going to be in New York City the week of October 17-21 to run a conference about blogging, and that she was sticking around for a few days afterward and if anyone wanted to get together they should let her know. "Ha!", I thought, "I'm going to be in the city that week!"

And so it was that, after an exchange of e-mails, I ended up having lunch today with the devasatingly charming Suw "Chocolate and Vodka" Charman, late of London, England. Knowing that Suw was an erstwhile student of the Polish language, I suggested a little Polish restaurant on the lower east side that Laura and I are fond of, Teresa's, over on 1st Avenue. I was surprised to find that Suw had never had Polish food, and so it was arranged.

I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who has met her, but Suw is a fantastic conversation partner. The poor waitress had to come over to us three or four times before we were ready to order. We spent a good two hours in the restaurant over golombki (me) and pierogi (her) talking about weblogs, IRC, the net in general, the history of radio, the production value of podcasts, the use of Welsh-language t-shirts as an intelligence test, the demise of simple web surfing (damned spammers!), the fog of running something, gadget lust, good fortune, the BBC, and music, among other things.

Afterward, we wandered over to Kim's Video on St. Mark's Place, where Suw's friend and host Dan Dickinson, who was squiring her around the city, was waiting (I'm not sure if Suw ever got the text message from him that she was expecting; I think we just decided that he would probably be there by now if we went, and so we did). We found Dan there, and they spent a little time expounding the virtues of the movie Shaun of the Dead, which they described as "a romantic comedy with zombies". Not much of a zombie movie fan myself, but I think I may have to check that one out.

One of the things Suw mentioned over lunch was how hard it is to find Welsh-language music in London, or even in Cardiff. It would pretty much require a trip to Bangor, in the northern Welsh-speaking part of Wales, to find anything. Well, one of the best record stores in the world for finding obscure music just happens to be on the lower east side a few blocks from where we had lunch, so I suggested we take a look at my favorite poison, Other Music. Dan had heard of it, but hadn't been there, so he was agreeable. Wouldn't you know that one of the first CDs we saw there, on the featured rack just as you walk in, even, was a compilation of Welsh rock and folk music from the 1970s. Suw pointed out the track "Y Brawd Houdini" by Meic Stevens in particular. I'm afraid our trip to Other Music did Suw's credit card a bit of damage; I think she found four or five Welsh CDs that she just wouldn't be able to find even in London. Hey, I like to share the pain; it's not uncommon for me to drop a hundred dollars or more whenever I go there (I resisted this time and only spent about half that....)

It was fitting that, as we parted company, Dan took this picture with my camera of Suw and me under the sign outside Other Music.

Suw Charman and Ralph Brandi at Other Music in New York City

It's been several years since I met someone in person who I had only known online. I did it quite a bit in the 1980s and 1990s, and am still friends with almost everyone I met back then. Hell, I met my wife that way. A number of the friends I initially met online even attended our wedding. Thanks, Suw, for keeping my unbroken streak of positive IRL experiences alive. I had a great time. I would have taken the day off anyway.

Posted at 6:46 PM
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Wild Bunch, Canadian Style

I was wondering how the CBC Radio 3 podcast would deal with the return of host Grant Lawrence to hosting duties after being replaced by a robot when CBC workers were locked out in August. I'm delighted to report that the matter was handled with all the grace and sensitivity of a Sam Peckinpah film. The first three and a half minutes of this week's podcast are priceless. Nice job, guys.

Posted at 11:59 PM
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Friday, October 7, 2005

He was spinning how fast?

I haven't been shy about writing about what a huge loss the death of BBC's John Peel was. I know a lot of other people feel the same way. But, for the love of Pete, there are some things that are just plain wrong. Just shoot me now, please. (Via WFMU's Beware of the Blog.)

Posted at 2:11 PM
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World Shut Your Mouth

On the subject of the recording industry picking a fight with satellite radio, The Future of Radio's Harry Helms says:

As someone whose career has been based upon the creation of copyrighted material, I fear these sort of heavy-handed tactics by the RIAA and others (like the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) will create a backlash that will result in a loosening of copyright protection for all content creators. The RIAA is essentially picking a fight with the entire world. And it's been my sad experience that when you fight the world. . . . . . . . the world always wins.

Posted at 12:26 PM
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Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The joy of not letting the bastards grind you down

I'm pleased to see that the lockout of 5,500 workers by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which I mentioned here the other day, is pretty much over. The CBC and the union announced an agreement in the wee hours of Monday morning. And where did the very first news of the agreement surface, scooping every other medium? On a blog....

Looking over the details as discussed on the workerblogs, it seems like it's the union in a rout over management. Even the most abused category of workers, the so-called "casuals", made significant gains. It's hard to see a single aspect in which management made gains. The union put out a statement thanking the rank-and-file for the manner in which they put their case to the public, with blogs and podcasts and pirate radio, oh my!

I'm sure that study I suggested in my last post of the role of the blogs in the dispute is going to be coming any day now. I hope that someone ( is saving the workerblogs and podcasts for future reference.

Now I can start listening to the CBC Radio 3 podcast (I unsubscribed rather than listen to the robot-hosted scabcast) and Radio Canada International (who weren't locked out, but had to replace a lot of the programming they usually get from the domestic network during the lockout) again. And I'm really looking forward to the arrival of CBC Radio One and whatever they're going to call their new other channel on Sirius later this year.

Posted at 6:56 PM
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This site is copyright © 2002-2024, Ralph Brandi. (E-mail address removed due to virus proliferation.)

What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio

There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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