Cyberculting

A blog about Cyberculture and ICTs.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Posted by candacewhitehead on September 28, 2008

For my final blog post, I felt it might be fitting to examine where the Internet is headed in the next few years. There is very little consensus on the matter – aside from the fact that the large companies will begin to monopolise the Internet more and more. Already, Google has more gidgets than even they know what to do with, and more and more people are flocking to Gtalk, Gmail and the like.

However, trying to decipher where exactly technology is heading in the next decade or two is difficult. Some people are convinced we’re heading for a fatalistic 2001: A Space Odyssey approach (or for you younger fans out there, The Matrix), where technology and artificial intelligence spin out of control and suddenly we find ourselves at the mercy of super-intelligent androids. Kinda like C3P0, only much scarier (Alright, I think I’ve exhausted all my science-fiction metaphors here).

That’s fine, but for me it falls in line with the Large Hadron Collider doomsday theories – “Ah! We’re all going to be eaten by monsters coming through the wormhole it makes in the time-space continuum” and the like.

A slightly more reliable source is the Pew Internet study conducted in 2006. Interestingly, 42% of the respondents indicated that they believe we will begin to lose control over technology in the future. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…” (2001 again).

What interested me, and what goes back to an earlier post of mine, is the fact that many respondents felt that the potential for addiction will grow as advances are made with virtual reality, ultimately “unbalancing the workforce”. I agree with the fact that more and more people will be enter into virtual reality scenarios like Second Life as bandwidth and equipment becomes cheaper, but unbalancing the workforce? I have images of hundreds of thousands of employers tearing out their hair as their workers call in sick or stop showing up to work. Not likely, either. People need to eat, and pay their Internet connection fees. Thus, they need to work.

What the survey also indicates is that the Internet will become more widespread, a “low-cost global network”. I love this idea. I attended the Digital Citizens Indaba on September 5 and blogged about Skyrove – which as you can see I visualised as being able to provide underprivileged communities with Internet access.

I really hope some bigwig in a suit gets off his high horse and sees the virtue in providing Internet to the poor. No, it probably won’t make you a wackload of money, but at least you’ll be able to say you contributed. I would like the masses of content and experiences available online to be made available to the disadvantaged. After all, the Internet is hardly as democratic as it’s made out to be if the only people who can access it are the middle class and above.

But hey, it couldn’t be called a cyber “culture” if everyone was included, now would it?

Here’s to a couple of months well spent, and I hope I’ve given you all something to think about.

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You sexy thing

Posted by candacewhitehead on August 19, 2008

For some people, picking a profile picture is an art. I have a friend who goes through literally hundreds of photographs of himself going “Hmm, the light’s not right on this one,” or “I wish this had been shot at a different angle” or “Oh wow, look at how the shadows fall in this photograph – I really like the composition, though I wish the branch of the tree was just a little lower, it would just balance out the whole photograph”.

A self-proclaimed social media addict, “Ms Herr” claims that one’s avatar is “a tool, an iconographic representation of self, serving to frame perceptions of their unique identity”. Ultimately, your profile picture becomes a logo to the brand that is you, and every aspect of that photograph (or cartoon, or lolcat image or whatever) says something about yourself. I, for one, am infuriated by people putting up images not of themselves. People who put up silly cartoons of Homer Simpson or the South Park characters grate my carrot – and I won’t even get started on people putting up photographs of fashion models. YOU DO NOT LOOK LIKE THAT. Most likely.

I found this little gem which had me laughing out loud (and all the people in the computer labs started looking at me funny). One blogger looked at what your avatar says about you – and it’s nothing if not hilariously entertaining.

Online, you get one image to represent all the glamour that is you – just one. So why waste it on an image stolen off Google? There’s a lot of interesting writing – not all of it academic – looking at “avatar psychology” – which includes real photos of you, and things like Second Life avatars. Obviously everybody has a different theory, but Digital Natives claims that teenagers are happier with their carefully constructed avatars of themselves (on SL etc) than they are with actual photographs of themselves. For the first time, you have ultimate control of how the world views you. And as a teenager, as we all know, what the world thinks is everything.

A lot of employers now look at your Facebook profile –  which in itself is a whole other can of worms - and a profile picture of you licking chocolate off someone or chugging down a bottle of tequila is not going to earn you any brownie points. As I wrote in my last post – first impressions are everything, even online.

You need to think about what you want to achieve with your avatar. Putting up a photograph of you and your boyfriend in bed in your underwear because you think it’s cute is fine, but when it comes time to go on the job hunt or it comes time for performance reviews, maybe change it to something a little more sophisticated.

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The little things give you away

Posted by candacewhitehead on August 18, 2008

In Real Life (IRL) you are able to create a first impression in a number of ways. You market yourself in whichever way you choose to, with an almost unlimited range of options.

Your Gucci handbag and snappy, bad-tempered little dog screams “poppie” – plastic, Barbie-doll. Rocking up on your first day of work at a law firm wearing flip-flops and smelling like rum might see you out on the kerb. Everything from the scent that you wear to the timbre of your voice helps to create an overall impression which can win you a date or lose you a job.

Online, the ways in which you can create a first impression are severely limited. For the majority of chat sites, forums, and Instant Messengers you are limited to a nickname, a limited “About Me” section and an avatar. And in a world where first impressions are everything, these are all you have to go on.

Logging on to an online chat room aimed at “free-minded individuals” contained a character called “Horny_male_69”. Classy. I picture some sleazy, creepy guy hanging at his computer waiting for the most desperate female in the room to latch on to him, and logged off. The next chat room contained someone called “nuttygirl”, another person called “jacobzuma” (I hope our ANC president isn’t trying to pick up chicks online on while his corruption trial looms over his head) and yet another person called “angeljelly”. (Seriously, “angeljelly?”).

Each of these nicknames conjure up a particular image in our minds – and accompanied with this comes the all-important avatar.

And then there is the all important “About Me” section. It’s on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, on the majority of Forums I’ve visited, on dating sites and some chat rooms. I’ve taken profiles from an online dating site, and will examine them, for interest’s sake.

wotsup my name’s nic and i love supermoto.i love going 4 jol wid da boys and jus having an awsum time all the time.yeah,i live in south africa and no we dont go 2 school on a frigging elephant u dumbass.

Wotsup? Wid? What is that? Awsum? Oooh he’s a South African, that’s nice. “And no we don’t go 2 school on a frigging elephant u dumbass”?! Way to make a “frigging” impression, mate. Call me stupid, cause that makes me feel sexy. Gar. Learn some spelling and grammar, moron.

I’m a combat veteran in the U.S. Army. Soon to be a civilian again. I enjoy reading and writing poetry. I’m an amateur magician and will be going pro once i’m out of the army. I’m from Oklahoma but will be moving to Paris, France in about 5 months.

Reading between the lines here (and read it as a woman): combat veteran – possibly slightly broken, will need fixing. We love fixing things. Enjoy reading and writing poetry – wow, sensitive. Amateur magician? He loves children! And Paris? I’m sold. Will you marry me?

Which one would you most likely send a message to? (And ignore my biased little assessments of each) My point is that online, bad grammar and bad spelling can be as much of a deterrent as body odour or bad teeth. Language is one of the prime methods through which we can identify ourselves, but it’s one thing to say something stupid, and quite another to have it recorded for leagues of mean bloggers to criticise.

I mentioned one’s avatar as being one of the most important means of identifying one’s self, and ultimately a logo to your personal brand, but I think I shall leave that discussion to my next post.

And in the meantime, I think I’m going to change my forum nickname. I think I’ve grown out of mine.

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Man, I feel like a woman.

Posted by candacewhitehead on August 12, 2008

I find it fascinating to see how men and women represent themselves on the Internet, in terms of the avatars or images that they use, the way they represent themselves in their “About me” sections, or how they “speak” online.

In 2006, Elizabeth Coverdale, a student at the University of Southern Indiana, wrote a paper called “Cyberculture and Gender Identification in Online Chat Communities”. Her interest lies in the linguistic aspects of online interaction – basically, how men and women talk. She conducted an experiment on Second Life (SL) where although she kept the same ID, she changed her avatar to a male one for a week – albeit a slightly feminine one. As she began interacting with people – both long-time friends and people she was beginning to meet – she found the way she spoke to people changed dramatically.

She writes “I found that my sentences were shorter, more direct and filled with less chat detritus: meta-language like emoticons, laughter, and other emotional responses”. There she highlights one of the key markers differentiating the language that men and women use on the internet: what she labels “chat detritus”. I find this a very useful description: it is those conventions which can be deemed as “excess”.

Women tend to do it a lot – they add smiley faces such as :), :( or ;) more readily than men. They often inject giggles such as “heehee” or “hehe” into paragraphs or at the end of a sentence – they use more words like “lol” or “hugs”, and are tempted to add dozens of little kisses at the end of each conversation. Research conducted in 1994 in Multi-User Domain Communities shows that female-presenting characters used almost three times the amount of emoticons and representations of laughter than their male counterparts. I took a look at my friends’ Facebook pages to see if I could spot these conventions, and I found this little gem:

“Hey Sally,
Iheard about you and Johnny shit I’m so sorry my lovvie but you know what he wasn’t worth it at all. I think you and me should hit [the club] this weekend for a little jam-jam, if you’re feeling up to it? :) Also just wanted to check if you are free for a little dinner tonight? :)

I’m making lasagne so if you could bring some wine that would be oss-um. Heeheehee.

Many lovvies and hugs
xxxxxxxxxx” *

I would love to see the male version of this, applying Coverdale’s rule:

“Hey Johnny
Sorry about your chick. I’m heading off to the pub for a pint later, you keen?
Shot for the burger last night, it was lank awesome.

See you at the rugger at five. GO BOKKE!!!!!!
Cheers bra.”

Generally, women seek more acceptance in everyday speech than men do, which is something that Coverdale points out. Women use flippant extras to their speech in order to convey enthusiasm, support and a desire to keep the conversation “buoyant” – something that is translated into their online interactions.

I know I apply a number of these conventions: I love using smiley faces – they make me happy, too. (Ha, I sound like a woman there) And I’m really sensitive to when friends of mine use or don’t use smileys. Although I don’t go as far as using “lovvies” or “whuggles” or other nauseating phrases, I am just a part of this linguistic convention as most other girls I know.

Man, I feel like a woman.

*Any similarities to persons living or dead are not coincidental. That’s because I stole this off your Facebook page.

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Lose yourself

Posted by candacewhitehead on August 3, 2008

In my first blog post, I talked about how people could lose themselves in their Internet identity: they choose an avatar, a nickname and ultimately, an alter-ego if they wish. The same is true of gaming – and the escapism for me is more intense than any of my cyber alter-egoes.

I researched this topic quite thoroughly throughout my July vacation. I clocked Dungeon Siege II, started and finished Fable: The Lost Chapters and carried on a bit more with my Morrowind character (which has been a work in progress since December, really).

The majority of the games that I play are fantasy-genre, you see. I love to take on magic-using characters, and for a couple of hours I can be a powerful sorceress (or sorcerer, if your game constrains you to one character of one sex) who battles against the evil of the world. I love the freedom, I love the possibility, but most of all, I love the story.

Successful games, I have decided, are actually good literature. The ones that I love the most have strong storylines which carry your character through the game. The only difference with literature is that you are shown what the character is doing – either through reading about Harry Potter’s last and great battle wih Lord Voldemort, or through watching the aliens battle it out in Aliens vs Predator, you aren’t in control. However, in a game, you are in control – or at least, in as much control as the developer allows you to be.

The hundreds of literature-based games available reveal just how important the story has become within the game. Mobygames.com gives a relatively comprehensive list of these. Serious gamers I have spoken to criticise a game on a number of criteria: one of the most important of these being the storyline. Is it plausible? Does it carry through the game? Am I still interested half-way through?

Gaming series such as The Elder Scrolls series have created an entire world for their games which resemble the worlds of great fantasy writers. Indeed, fantasy writers are often brought in by game developers to write storylines for games, or even to assist in developing games based on their books. Raymond E Feist, author of The Riftwar Cycle and novels such as Magician and his latest offering, Wrath of a Mad God, was approached by game developers to assist in developing games based on Midkemia, the world his books are set in. Eventually the games were turned into books, and have become an integral part of the Riftwar Cycle. Good games become good literature.

It boils down to escapism. I want to get lost in a good story – I want to sympathise with the main character and share their triumphs and their losses.

Gamers often cultivate their characters, rearing them as they would children, where each level-up is a personal triumph and a decision that is the gaming world’s equivalent of where to send your favourite kid to university.

I know that this is what I do. I want to forget how crappy my last week was, and I want to delve into a world as far-removed from mine as possible. And what easier way is there than to actually become someone else for a few hours, even if they are just a few pixels on a computer screen?

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I love myself

Posted by candacewhitehead on July 24, 2008

Yes, I know it’s late, and I’ve been a very bad blogger. But I have returned from my hiatus, and am back!

 

In our lecture today, our lecturer used the term “digital narcissism”, which has become a huge part of not only cyberculture, but day-to-day culture too.

 

I have a Facebook page, a MySpace page and a Twitter account, just for starters. Three things that are all about me. Photos of me, notes written by me, what I did for the weekend, what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling. All about ME. Not you, not Paris Hilton or Brangelina. My friends can write on my wall about how great I am (I delete the posts that say I’m a loser or whatever), they can all rave about something cool that we did together. I’m a celebrity.

 

YouTube’s slogan is “Broadcast Yourself”, as Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur” points out. And, as he writes, the new thing on YouTube is people broadcasting themselves watching other people on YouTube broadcasting themselves and… well, it’s potentially endless, really. And not very exciting.

 

Think about the abundance of people with webcams, who stream their daily activities (pornographic or otherwise) twenty four hours a day. I’ve never been one for watching somebody paint their toenails, but people do. Voyeuristic types feed other people’s narcissism.

 

Keen, it appears, has decided that the mere idea that anyone can change the face of media by publishing their thoughts is destroying our culture. According an article published on the Guardian.co.uk, Enough!, Keen feels that we don’t need the opinions of the majority of the people online, and that it destroys the credibility and the professionalism of journalism and the media. Ironically, of course, he writes this on his blog.  

 

He does, however, have a good point: people would rather broadcast themselves rather than listen to what other people have to say. I do not think this is restricted to digital narcissism, however. Many people are like that – listen to yourself speaking in conversation and see how many instances there are a day where you change the subject or try to interrupt to make yourself heard. It’s human nature.

 

However, in a world where people Google themselves to see what’s been written about them, and where over 90 million people have a Facebook page as effectively shrines to themselves, it’s a lot easier, and a lot more acceptable, to be a lot more narcissistic.

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Addicted

Posted by candacewhitehead on May 26, 2008

I’m addicted to a number of things – my cellphone, being the main one – but according to the Internet Addiction Test, I’m not addicted to the Internet – yet.

 

What started out as a hoax has become a chilling reality – although according to psychologist John M Grohol it is not a recognised disorder. However, more and more psychologists are being trained to identify and deal with Internet addiction.

 

Internet addiction can basically be defined as a compulsive disorder, which, like any other addiction, has a massive impact on the individual’s work and personal life. The Internet takes preference over other friends, family and colleagues – and without their daily “fix”, addicts experience withdrawal, which may include tremors and anxiety. Some patients even report suffering nervous breakdowns when they can’t go online.

 

Internet addiction can be further subcategorised into addiction to online gaming, porn, cybersex, compulsive surfing and eBay addiction. These have real effects on people, and Internet sites (oh the irony) have been set up to provide information for sufferers, attorneys and psychologists.  

 

Most psychologists do not recognise Internet addiction as a real problem yet. An article by psychologist John M Grohol written in 1999 and revised in 2005 – “The Internet Addiction Guide” claims that Internet addiction can be relegated into the same categories as watching too much TV or reading too many books – basically, too much escapism as a result of depression or other psychological disorders.

 

While I can see the merit in this argument, I disagree – I have seen people become physically addicted to chat sites, forums and even Facebook. These people sit on the Internet until all hours of the night, too scared to move from their desk in case something happens online and they miss it. They begin to neglect their friends, their family and even their professional life – an effect something like alcoholism might have. How then can this not be seen as a real disorder?

 

Like many other addictions, it seems that young people (children and teenagers) are most at risk of developing an addiction. Adolescents who are socially awkward are most at risk, which is logical to me. It is much easier to spend all your time online, most likely being someone else, than it is to deal with the “real world” – and I addressed something similar to this in my first blog post. But where to draw the line, and how to treat it?

 

Clearly it is impractical to go cold turkey and ban the use of the Internet entirely. The majority of the professional world makes use of the Internet for communication and research, so to say to your boss “I’m sorry, because of my Internet addiction I’m not allowed to use the Internet, could you rather get Jones to do it?” might lose you your job. Dr Kimberley Young, who maintains www.netaddiction.com suggests that like an eating disorder, the key to beating Internet addiction is to develop a healthy pattern of consumption. She also suggests treatment either as an inpatient or an outpatient – and counselling for you and your family should be arranged. Self-help groups may also be beneficial.

 

Next time you see that the same person has been on Facebook from when you signed in at nine in the morning to when you check your last inbox message at four am, don’t be so quick to write them off as being a loser. They are potentially suffering from addiction – as you might be. Hey, it’s not just me that compulsively checks their e-mail twenty times a day.

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Talking points

Posted by candacewhitehead on May 21, 2008

One of my first modules in my Linguistics class in first year was language change and variation. The lecturer suggested that in a matter of years written language could have moved from what we know today to shorthand “SMS” speak. Tracey has discussed this in her blog, so I won’t go into too much detail about it.

 

Much of what we consider “SMS” speak has developed from the language of the Internet – shorthand written language is extremely common in chat rooms, on forums and over instant messengers (IMs). And that has crept into the language that we use today – phrases such as LOL, WTF and pwned are all products of the Internet.

 

(And I won’t even go into l33t)

 

Language, as many linguists will tell you, develops differently according to the social group it operates in. All social groups may develop their own slang, catch-phrases or secret meanings in their speech. Eventually, accents and pronunciation may alter, turning their speech into a different dialect of a particular language.

 

The same is true of the language of the Internet, on a much larger scale, of course. Research has shown that the most common language of the Internet is English, with most Internet users utilising it for their websites, MySpace pages, IMs and forum personas.

 

Just as language develops and changes in certain groups and in certain contexts, the language of the Internet has changed, too, marking serious Internet users by the language that they use. For example, it is easy to tell who is a forum n00b by the language that they use. And, like most other groups, the n00b is ostracised until he or she can prove themselves to the larger community, at which time their n00b status may be revoked.


Kind of sounds like high school, but I digress.

 

Even the use of emoticons (what many people fondly refer to as “smileys”) can be considered an aspect of language use on the Internet (or, as my more computer-savvy friends assure me is the new catch phrase “the Interwebz”). I know people who have had entire conversations with just smileys, and maybe one or two words. 

 

What does this mean for English, then? Millions of people are on the Internet everyday, altering their language from “I laughed out loud when I saw that she had beaten him” to “I LOLed when she pwned him”.

 

Linguistic precedent would suggest that the fact that this is happening in Internet language usage now will eventually have an impact on English as a whole. Could this be seen as a development or a regression of the language? The general opinion seems to be that it is a regression. It seems to reduce English to a base form, removing some of the beauty of our language. This has been happening for generations though – slang has always been seen as a degradation of the language – and interestingly enough, some slang from the past has made its way to be accepted forms of our language.

 

What is most interesting, of course, is that where other languages develop from constant physical interaction with individuals of the same social group, the Internet does not have this. Much of the development of the language on the Internet has come from the written language of forum posts, blogs, IMs and chat rooms.

 

Internet society, like other social groups, has taken on a large number of its own characteristics, the most obvious of these being their language use. In the next few weeks, I’m going to start looking at the Internet as a social group, and how it could potentially develop to affect even non-users of the Internet.

 

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All I really want

Posted by candacewhitehead on May 12, 2008

My computer has a virus. Well, more than one. In fact, my antivirus claims to have picked up 8 849 infiltrations. And the first thing I thought – WHY would anyone want to write a virus?

 

I found an article asking the same question, and providing a more comprehensive answer than “because they’re bored/socially challenged/evil”, which were some of the responses I got when asking what people thought.

 

Basically the article suggests that people create viruses

  • To take control of a computer and use it for specific tasks
  • To generate money
  • To steal sensitive information (credit card numbers, passwords, personal details, data etc.)
  • To prove a point, to prove it can be done, to prove ones skill or for revenge purposes
  • To cripple a computer or network

One of these fascinated me – I could see the potential for all of the others, but I was interested in the penultimate point – to prove a point, or for revenge purposes. This is the one that contributes most to the stereotype of virus-creators. The example given is of the “MS.Blaster” virus. When it got itself onto your machine, it displayed two messages “I just want to say I LOVE YOU SAN” and “Billy gates why do you make this possible? Stop making money and fix your software!” This, supposedly, was to show how easily exploitable Windows is. And it worked. And possibly embarrassed the hell out of San.

 

This is the online version of sticking super-glue on the seat of the class bully after they teased you on the playground. It doesn’t permanently hurt them, it’s really irritating, and it makes them mad enough to come find you on the playground the next day. So why do it?

 

If the person who wrote the virus were to have marched into Microsoft and said “Your new software sucks, fix it”, they would have been thrown out the door in ten minutes flat. The executives would have politely laughed, had the poor sod quietly escorted out, and carried on congratulating themselves at how clever they were.

 

Instead, the virus-creator goes home and whips up a code that does not only show Microsoft how crap their latest OS is, but also shows millions of other people how easily it can be bypassed.

 

It is still annoying removing the other 8000 viruses that were created for the other purposes on the list. Fortunately, there has been very little visible damage to my computer – and I don’t have a credit card, or do Internet banking without my antivirus.

 

Point proven.

 

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We don’t need to whisper

Posted by candacewhitehead on May 5, 2008

Over dinner last night, some friends and I were discussing the merit of the Internet in helping us with our studies.

 

After hitting on the fact that at some point, all of us had used “Ctrl F” in order to find a relevant passage in a 300 page online journal, we began debating the pros and cons of the existence of the Internet in assisting with students’ studies – university students, in particular. And with this – the fact that for a large number of people coming into university, Wikipedia is the be all and end all for referencing

 

I found an interesting article – “University professor says Wikipedia fosters a climate of blind trust” in my research for today’s post.  This Professor Lichtenstein picked up what we were discussing over dinner – that people blindly trust the information placed on Wikipedia. Crazy, I tell you.

 

What terrifies me about Wikipedia is the way in which it invites you – the ordinary user – to input its information. Now, according to Niko Pfund, an Oxford University Press Publisher, the Oxford English Dictionary also had its roots in a wiki model – obviously in the days of the OED, they weren’t web pages, but you get the drift. According to Pfund:


The
Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the greatest reference work in the English language (and certainly the greatest reference work about the English language) found its origins in a wiki model, whereby scholars put out the word to English speakers far and wide that they would welcome hard evidence of the earliest appearances of English words.

 

Which is fine, really. But in my opinion, language is fluid and changeable, and open to interpretation. But facts are, well, solid. Unchangeable (for the most part).

 

Doing research for an article I was editing a few weeks ago, I decided to check on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s birthdate. Just to be sure. And lo and behold – the date this writer had put in was pulled off Wikipedia – and was out by a year.

 

And because of the number of times Wikipedia is accessed a day (in 2002 Wikipedia was receiving up to 12 000 hits an hour) once this information is put up, it’s most likely going to be picked up by hundreds of people in the first hour.

 

I can see the beauty of Wikipedia as a starting point – follow the links to the websites cited and all of that – but isn’t this laziness? Logging on to one website and having the rest of your essay references placed neatly into your lap? I suppose this is the one of the reasons that some departments at Rhodes insist on a number of printed (those things that we call “books”) references in your list of works cited.

 

I believe that web searches have their merits, of course. I can’t deny that the Internet provides us with a wealth of information that we would not otherwise have access too. But I’m a traditionalist. I struggle to trust information placed on the web, unless it’s strongly affiliated to a decent institution, or in the form of a web book.

 

Gone are the days that people spend hours pouring over books in the library, risking paper cuts and dust allergies, and the wrath of the librarian hidden behind the Dickens shelf. Instead, people Google the relevant keywords of their essay topic and take the first five or so sites list.

 

The first of those being Wikipedia. 

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