So read me maybe! (Or, Fifty Shades of Canadian Media)

(Image courtesy of stuffwecomeupwit.com

So what have I been doing with my time? Working hard to get Carly Rae Jepsen out of my head, mailing paperwork, crunching numbers, procrastinating by watching Girls under the guise of staying up-to-date with pop culture, and obviously not blogging enough. But while everyone (including Ellen) has been busy indulging in Fifty Shades of Grey, I have decided to take on a literary challenge requiring the intake of much more caffeine and the occasional googling of unknown terms…

That’s right, I’m reviewing a book for an academic journal. When I was visiting my hometown, one of my former professors suggested this would be a good move in order to add a newer publication to my CV next to my rapidly aging journal article from undergrad. That made sense to me, so here are the steps that have been involved so far:

  1. Identifying a journal within my area of research/academic knowledge and checking to see if they are accepting reviews.
  2. Browsing the assortment of books available to review. Keeping in mind that I’m still working 9-5, I had to balance my ambition with finding a book that had a reasonable number of pages and wasn’t so densely written that each chapter would require multiple readings (steering clear of any Judith Butler here…).
  3. Requesting to review a particular book as per the instructions on the site.

And voilà, it’s as easy as that. The publisher mailed the book directly to me with a complimentary bookmark and sticker on the inside cover that reads “REVIEW COPY – Not for resale”. So I feel like a big shot and I have 10 weeks to produce. It’s week 5 and I have rough copy that’s definitely suffering from my butchered writing style, which has mutated into bureaucratic sentence fragments infused with occasional theoretical jargon. It’s a byproduct of my four years away from academia and in a cubicle writing bullet points and summary boxes. Therefore, in an attempt to procrastina-clarify my thoughts, I’ll share with you:

Notable Points from “The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada” by Augie Fleras

At first glance, one would think the Canadian media is pretty benign. I can’t remember the last time I was offended by anything on CBC (this is because Peter Mansbridge is a deity, though sadly I can find no links to prove this so you will simply need to have faith) but I also cannot remember the last time I watched CBC, so I was glad that when Fleras came out swinging at the media he used some pretty vivid case studies. That was probably the strongest aspect of this book: through multiple examples, he pretty much brought me up to speed on several years of Canadian media that I had missed while streaming Jersey Shore and using my TV as a dusty, retro decoration.

During my time outside of the classroom, I had forgotten the way that critical sociology often rips the veneer off of social artifacts to reveal their seedy, destructive and capitalist-driven underbellies. Fleras does not disappoint. He talks about how Little Mosque on the Prairie depoliticizes Muslims by making them slapstick characters. He rips apart the Canadian news coverage that painted all of the Tamil refugees who sought asylum in 2009 and 2010 as Tamil Tigers – remember that this was quite the controversy back then. He shows how the onslaught of working-class reality shows, such as the Deadliest Catch, reinforces a one-dimensional view of masculinity that depicts these men as rugged, macho heroes but steers clear of portraying the struggles they face as a result of their position in society (e.g. lack of job security or fair wages).

Fleras also takes down the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Remembering how the related time-lapse commercial was glorified in one of my classes as a commentary on the social construction of women’s ideal bodies, I really wasn’t sure how he would go about exposing the evils of advertising soap in a way that makes women feel better about themselves. Even so, the models in Dove’s campaign were all pretty much conventionally beautiful according to mainstream gender norms except that they were simply a little larger than the models you generally see (though still smaller than the average North American woman). Fleras argues that Dove still targeted women in order to sell products, it’s just that instead of selling them hopes of attaining normative beauty they are being sold self-esteem: you’ll feel better about yourself if you buy [Dove product] because then you’ll know YOU are truly beautiful. The largest criticism of the campaign seems to have been Dove’s attempt to use the ‘real’ beauty models to sell firming cream (something my thighs and butt never have and never will experience), which sent the message that you can be larger but your body cannot jiggle or act out/deviate from accepted beauty standards in any way – even in natural ways.

So yes, my bias toward thinking of Canadian media as upstanding in juxtaposition with American programming, such as the Man Show or the Real Housewives of… series, has been slightly shaken by this book. In fact, by the end of Chapter 11, you can’t help but hear someone’s disappointed grandma in your head exclaiming, “Oy, oy, what has this country come to?” And this is where a lot of critical sociologists leave us. I remember reading Adorno and thinking: well, that’s it, so long as capitalism exists we should all jump off a cliff because it’s not getting any better. Luckily, Fleras dedicates a whole section to the ways in which the ‘dominant media gaze’ is being opposed through independent media outlets, such as Aboriginal newspapers and ethnic TV channels (I loved Omni when we had cable) and, of course, the INTERNETS. Fleras’ chapter about Web 2.0 adequately discusses how individuals have now been empowered to create their own content and can do so in order to challenge hegemonic ideologies. However, he gives a bit of a simplistic overview with generalized and overused statements, such as the Tapscott quote “The Internet changes everything”. Though I guess this is to be expected for a book that covers so much ground. Ultimately, what I like most about the last section is that Fleras doesn’t paint an unrealistic picture of a ‘power to the people’ media utopia developing anytime soon, but he does highlight how individuals can contribute to a slow change for the better by challenging media bull when they see it. He also leaves us with a larger-scale view of the structural and institutional ways in which the media industry and society as a whole must change in order to truly accept, embrace and foster diversity.

A link will be posted if/when they publish my actual ‘academic sounding’ review – wish me luck!

 

Research for Breakfast

When I woke up this morning the first thing out of my mouth was, “All I want to do today is watch the Theorizing the Web (TtW) conference and populate my Endnote library.”

I’m not sharing this to illustrate my obsession with going back to school (please tell me people still use Endnote – is there a different, newer software that’s replaced it?), but to highlight how happy I am that TtW is livestreaming its presentations all day. When I learned about the conference over Twitter (gee, so professionally useful), I actually Googlemapsed it and considered driving the 20 hours to and from the University of Maryland but eventually concluded that it just wasn’t rational for me to do so. However, with the miracle of technology, I was able to catch the “Logging off and Disconnection” session while enjoying my breakfast bagel. It was excellent – new, fresh, awesome research exactly in the field of Internet research that most enthralls me (the bagel wasn’t bad either).

Probably under the influence of Shelly Turkle’s recent TED Talk, I can admit that following the conference hash tags and taking in the livestream can’t entirely replace the in-person experience of being there. I mean, I’ve been waiting to unleash some of my less-academic, dorkier thoughts, such as “Have you guys noticed the increase of references to social media in pop songs? It’s really funny, but WHAT DOES IT MEAN?” Yes, I’m channeling a bit of Double Rainbow there. That’s the sort of stuff I’d never clutter up the Twitter feed with, just in case it’s completely and laughably naive – these people are obviously beyond analyzing Pitbull lyrics (disclaimer: I have no proof that Pitbull mentions Facebook in his songs, but I thought I heard it…). Though these are the things that also make for fun chats over lunch.

Regardless, it’s great to have access to an Internet-focused conference with hopes that one day I will be able to attend such events in person. Until then, I’m glad that TtW is helping to set the standard for sharing research instead of locking it down with copyrights and crazy fees.

 

How to Create a Useful Twitter Network (Stalking for Success)

(Image courtesy of I Can Has Cheezburger)

This is just to let you in on a secret: PROFS LOVE TWITTER.

Well, not all of ’em, but definitely the ones studying the Internet. When I began my search for potential supervisors at universities across Canada, I realized that looking for professors who study a specific topic could be a bit challenging. I ended up on a plethora of university websites that were littered with broken links, three-line bios and even the occasional out-of-date webpages of retired (or in one case, deceased) professors. Not to mention that in such an interdisciplinary field one must not simply keep the search limited to sociology professors – nope, there could be awesome profs studying amazing Internet-relating things under any of the following search terms: new media, social media, digital humanities, iSchool, communications and culture, cultural media, technology studies, media studies, and the list goes on.

Through a stumbling process of manic googling and even resorting to ratemyprofessors, I found some great professors to chat with at the universities in which I was most interested. However, for someone like me who wants to make sure I have all the bases covered, it was frustrating to not have the ability to do a full-out environmental scan of all the relevant research (especially with limited access to journal databases). I didn’t even check out American universities because there were just too many and it seemed like a jungle out there.

(Image courtesy of TDLFAN)

Fast-forward one year: I completed my applications and a pretty solid literature review about a potential thesis topic. I was also told that creating an “online presence” would be a good thing when studying the area of ICTs. I created this blog, a static LinkedIn profile and a Twitter account (I know I could have kept going but I’ve reached my threshold for accounts I can update on a reasonable basis – plus I wanted to keep Facebook and Pinterest for my personal life). Shortly after opening @DugStef, I was fortunate enough to hear Jesse Hirsh speak about how Twitter is social media for ‘grown-ups’ because it holds real business and professional value. It’s a good medium for transmitting information rather than sentiment or relational content. So I did what any aspiring soon-to-be-student  (or stalker) would do, I plunked in the names of some researchers I’d found during my lit review: @dalprof@pewinternet@zephoria@STurkle@mysocnet@nicole_ellison,
@blurky@marc_smith@barrywellman@anabelquanhaase@barrywellman.

I added a sprinkling of university sites or departments where Internet research happens along with other organizations and individuals who caught my eye (@davidgauntlett@SAGEsociology@USCAnnenberg@oiioxford, etc). I topped the list off with various professors and students I met during my world tour of the top five universities on my list. As all these people re-tweeted their colleagues, I followed them if their tweets included ICT-related content.

Then I hit the big money: conferences. Every now and then a professor would tweet about an Internet or ICT research conference (e.g. @webstock@TtW_conf) and that was pure gold. You can bet that the presenters at these events are researchers from all over the world, which saves me from sifting through each and every university website for Internet researchers.  And, surprise, these people are also on Twitter, so I’m able to keep them in mind as resources for future research (just like Pokémon, gotta catch ’em all).

Thus concludes that story of how I’ve begun to build my ‘professional’ network on Twitter. I thought it might be useful to share with anyone who also wants to study the Internet and doesn’t know where to start. Not a day goes by that I don’t catch at least some new journal article, magazine feature, or breaking news on my Twitter feed that relates to my research interests. I really do feel like it’s going to help me stay on top of research as I move into this area. On top of that, I’ll be pretty well prepared by the time I’m ready to begin stalking potential PhD supervisors.

 

If it tweets like a dog…

(Cartoon by Peter Steiner courtesy of Wikipedia)

Ever since I began talking about studying the Internet, I’ve had people quoting that phrase to me: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” They quote it when they complain about spam from India; they quote it when remembering remarkable episodes of “To Catch a Predator“; they quote it when talking about cybercrime and cyberbullying. Since this phrase was unfamiliar to me, I found it fairly laughable but it was always stated with nothing but the gravest of conviction. This motivated me to look it up and, no wonder I hadn’t heard of it, this phrase was born in 1993 with the cartoon depicted above. During this early period of the Internet, while I had been filling up my LiveJournal and tending to my hotmail account, the grown-ups were absorbing political commentary on the dangers of this new technology. My boomer acquaintances have simply been passing along to me a historical artifact that clearly illustrates the transformation of the Internet over two decades.

The reality these days is that on the Internet, more often than not, EVERYBODY knows you’re a dog. Most people have begun putting the details of their lives online, which is the only way to maximize its usefulness offline. In order to friend people we know offline, we need to create some sort of recognizable identity on Facebook. In order to build up professional credibility, we need to put our real work experience on LinkedIn. For the Yellow Pages to move online, for online maps to be effective, for the coordination of community groups in a world where people rarely pick up their cell phones anymore, we have to release information into the World Wide Web. This, in turn, has made for a more personalized online experience that, through the use of ‘always-on’ mobile devices, is pretty much essential to daily functioning.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still platforms that use pseudonyms or avatars, but these are sites where we want our information and activities to be contained online without any spill over into our offline lives. Benign examples include online gaming and individuals who blog anonymously because they have an occupation in the public eye. However, I would argue that much of the time, individuals generally want their identities protected when they’re committing questionable behaviours, such as participating in Reddit flame wars, leaving opinionated responses on news websites (or not) or engaging in illegal or ‘morally questionable’ activities. Even then, with all the debates over privacy and with governments threatening to change laws, being ‘anonymous’ might keep the average person from knowing who you are but it still doesn’t change the fact that your actions don’t disappear into cyberspace when you close your browser.

In my opinion, the Internet is largely a public space, and going online is like leaving your home: you can cover up your face, enter buildings or engage in activities where you are never identified by others, but ultimately you take your identity with you wherever you go. You might be anonymously hanging out in a back alley, but there’s no assurance that someone (or even some webcam) isn’t catching your behaviour. As a sociology major, of course I’m going to tie this into Foucault’s idea of the panopticon. If having online ads tailored to my preferences has had any effect on my browsing, it has caused me to further internalize the idea that anyone could be watching my online activity. Therefore, I self-police, usually not even consciously, and my online behaviour is shaped by the idea that I could be identified at any given moment.

While the early Internet carried along with it all the risks posed by anonymity and the creepiness that you could be MSN-ing with a dog, the present Internet poses the complexities of navigating our public identities online. There is no longer an online/offline divide; the alluring concept of escaping real life to create oneself anew and omnipotent on the Internet has been replaced by the benefits of having a stable identity across communication media. Individuals should be aware of the risks of being identifiable on the Web. They should know the boundaries of their (ever shrinking) private space online and understand that when they step out into public realm of the Internet, they are subject to the same norms, laws and consequences as are applicable to public life offline. And yes, it’s true that there are issues with a self-surveillancing society, such as the question of whose standards of ‘appropriate behaviour’ we are internalizing and what oppressive ideologies might be built into them. However, I do believe that understanding the Internet as a public space is more reflective of present day reality and it is likely to make us smarter online citizens in our interactions with each other.

Trending

(Screen shot taken this morning from cbc.ca)

I feel this reflects the way that conventional media is failing us these days. With a mother who studied journalism and a longstanding adoration of Peter Mansbridge, I of all people have heard the many arguments as to why we still need regulated press from news corporations. I agree with that: expert journalists need to bring us the most relevant facts, which they have painstakingly investigated (because that’s their job and random bloggers or independent media makers don’t always have the time/money to do such thorough investigations) and the facts need to be presented in a logical, straightforward manner. No disagreements there; let the people do their jobs – but if only they would…

Yesterday I was talking to someone about something completely unrelated when he turned to me and said, “Did you hear about this Kony thing?”

I blinked and said, “What? No? What’s ‘Kony’?”

Kony 2012, the Invisible Children documentary, it’s all over Twitter, it’s all over the Internet.”

Admittedly, I’ve dropped out of the web-o-sphere this week due to a lot of other things going on and so I hadn’t heard one thing about this. I thought ‘Kony’ could be a guy making creepy documentaries about ghost children who were invisible… Well, I didn’t know what I thought, my acquaintance hadn’t explained it very much and I was on to tackling other things.

This morning the topic popped back into my consciousness. I wanted the full story so I thought I’d go to a news website rather than simply check my Twitter and Facebook. There was nothing on the front page of CBC and then, when I clicked “World”, the display you see above is what I received. Really? Some little ‘Point of View’ piece by the ‘Community Team’ for something that’s on the tip of people’s tongues, something they just have to burst into conversation about?

The funny thing is that the article framed the story as though it was news that this video was trending on Twitter – kind of a “oh that’s cute, look at all the people posting about the same thing” mentality. But in reality, it was/is trending on Twitter because it is news.

News is what people are talking about. It’s what they’re interested in; it’s what is relevant to their lives right now. Critics might say it’s ‘not news’ if they broadcast something about celebrities all over the front page – all that comes to mind right now is Janet Jackson’s wardrobe failure from a few years back (which is still a thing) – but it IS news because it’s exactly what people are preoccupied with around the water cooler. It affects us in some way (don’t even let me get into a sociological analysis of the reaction to Janet’s little mishap). The more crucial/interesting/controversial/relevant something is, the more we talk about it. That’s why the Kony topic accrued even greater popularity than some of the regular celebrity babble that usually dominates the trending topics on Twitter.

Social media is just another way to talk about something. It’s a way to display and express what is at the forefront of your mind. If the conventional press takes a whole day to jump on board and begin giving us more well rounded articles about the situation (which CBC has now done; the Point of View piece has been replaced with this), it’s just too late in this day and age. We have already talked it to death and formed our own opinions, without or without their expertly investigated facts, which could have been pretty useful given the controversy I’m hearing over the actual video.

The conventional press must find a way to use their professionals to deliver quality stories in a much faster manner – otherwise the formal news will no longer be useful as a tool to inform the population as events are happening but rather will become simply a source of retrospective analysis after the fact just as we are all moving on to the next big thing.* The first step large media corporations can take toward redeeming themselves as true conveyors of news is to begin paying attention to social media and realizing that if people are talking about something, they had better get on it.

* I would be alright with this alternative. I believe there are enough reputable independent bloggers and smaller media corporations (who often tweet) to reliably alert the public when something is going on. It’s quite possible that in the near future journalism as a profession may need to stay alive by focusing on the in-depth analysis of events. In a global society that can connect across distances instantaneously, it seems that we can leave the capturing and announcement of ‘breaking news’ to the people at the scene of the action while still having a need for experts to supply an understanding of the larger context and overarching impact of newsworthy events.

 

Thoughts from the Bus: Subpar Internet

(Image source and a fun article about QR Codes courtesy of Mashable.com)

Sometimes news is better late than never, that’s why I’d like to share this article about OC Transpo agreeing to release their GPS data by March 22nd. Personally, I’ll only believe it when I see it but whether they find a way to make the best app and milk the ad revenue or if an independent designer makes the app of choice, hopefully they take into account my former recommendations. I’ve decided I’d like the notifications to subtly buzz and stick to my home screen, the same way my Facebook wall posts do.

That being said, I recently took a trip to the center of the Canadian universe (Toronto) and it appears that technology meets a wealth of challenges when faced with public transit’s faster, more reliable option of the subway/metro line. I don’t know about the rest of the Big 3, but Telus fails me every time I head deeper underground (yes, that is a throwback to the 1998 Godzilla soundtrack). I get infinitely frustrated when all the subway ads present me with QR codes, websites and apps that I obviously cannot access while I’m a captive audience and will definitely forget about once I emerge into the sunlight. In fact, if I move to a large city, I may even need to invest in books again* or start accepting those grimy free daily newspapers I despise so much (a rant about how they should solely exist online is atrophying in my drafts folder).

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION? I want to bump into some techies who can tell me whether or not there is any way to hook up the subway with wifi (though presently in Ontario, having more wifi in public spaces might be met with some protest, which I think is pretty questionable but I’m biased by my desire to wifi the whole world). Alternatively, I can envision the longest Ethernet cable ever, spanning the length of the subway train with millions of off-shooting wires connected to some sort of adapter that allows you to plug in your device – hmm, I just got flashbacks to the scenes in the Matrix where they plug in their brains, perhaps not the best idea. Anyways, there must be something. As we move away from print material and most entertainment and information gathering activities become available only through newer, online media (think about the death of personal files and anything that doesn’t exist in the cloud), there will need to be an answer.

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*Alright, I still buy books. I don’t want to carry another $100+ device on public transit (my iPhone almost got smashed by a fellow rider the other day) and I always tell myself I’m going to highlight or digest the book in tactile ways that can’t be re-created perfectly on a reader yet. Plus, I lose files left and right, so having books on my overloaded shelves at least ensures the information won’t just disappear or walk away.

However, a recent experience has caused me to rethink this stance. Usually I buy my books online from Amazon (see? I’m not a luddite) but I was in a rush before my trip to Toronto and stopped at the Chapters store to scour for something to read on the bus since Greyhound doesn’t have wifi yet (though its local competitor Megabus sure does). Even though I was in one of the largest locations in the city and looking up relatively new books, most of them were unavailable but the machine boasted that I could always instantly buy them online for the Kobo. I’m not sure how this feature in a physical Chapters search kiosk could possibly be anything but frustrating considering that NO ONE takes the time to walk to the offline store to buy e-books, guaranteed. But don’t worry…I’m still aware the ultimate moral of this story is that I absolutely need an e-reader or a tablet.

P is for Pinterest… And Pink

(Image I spliced together from here and here)

Inspired by its mention during a social media presentation by Jesse Hirsh, I finally got my butt on to Pinterest. And now in waiting for my invitation, I think I’ve worn out the refresh button on my Gmail and frustrated my Facebook friends with all the content that I couldn’t help but share (come on, cartoons! And P90X memes!).

It’s certainly easy to be impressed with the great functionality of the site (I love that it’s seamless to re-post content to my other social media platforms rather than Pinterest making me choose between them as competitors). It’s also easy to be critical, what with the heat they’re taking over making a profit on the consumer items people pin. Though, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Building on my last post, I find it strange that people would post stuff they want to buy and then get upset when someone makes money off the free advertising they’ve volunteered to do… Everybody gotta make a buck, even social media providers; sites have to be profitable in order to exist.

It’s also easy to be critical of the content. When I hit the homepage my first thought was: “I can see why 80% of the users are women, it looks like every women’s magazine I’ve ever seen!” which is probably what caused the author of this article to note that demographically it’s a “reverse image of the…male-dominated social networks like Reddit.” As someone who has tried to catch up to social media and what’s hot on the web by keeping an eye on Reddit, I’m extremely curious to see how this will all play out as Pinterest gains even more popularity and becomes fully public (MY INVITE IS STILL NOT HERE).

Although I think Reddit’s structure is genius – popular content floats to the top based on user ratings, ‘upvotes’ or ‘downvotes’, and users get cred, ‘karma’, for posting content that garners a lot of upvotes – I’ve been disappointed by the actual content time and again. I haven’t put a lot of effort into tailoring or customizing what shows up on my frontpage, but with the default configuration the items I mostly see are angry atheist rants, guys upset about their girlfriends or girls in general, geek/programming/computer/Internet-related items, and the occasional item related to bodily functions. The site itself is also pretty ugly, especially compared to the elegant look of Pinterest. That’s not to say I haven’t been entertained by the occasional cat video or ‘I Am A’ autobiographical threads and Pinterest will likely accumulate its own share of junk and seedy stuff that is inevitable on sites where content is publicly generated (which I’m not saying is necessarily a negative thing; it would be quite scary if sites were censored based on the tastes of the Martha Stewart devotees who populate Pinterest).

More serious than my lament of Reddit’s dumpy content is the controversy of it being downright sexist and a breeding ground for misogyny. With mostly male users, there seems to be somewhat of a groupthink phenomenon where one discriminatory remark is met with another and another until threads simply become hostile spaces toward women where sexist comments go unchecked. This is in contrast to the general trend in social media where communities self-regulate to rebuke and silence trolls who violate common human decency*. However, it seems that in the absence of a diversity of users who have the numbers to stand up for everyone’s rights, these sorts of uncontrollable and ugly situations take place.

While Pinterest isn’t identical to Reddit in that it’s more image-based, users can still hold a dialogue about the images. As the fate of this site unfolds, the question in my mind is whether or not we’ll see the other side of that sexism emerge. Will the 80% female population create a hostile or uncomfortable environment for men or will there be a different outcome of this reverse gender compilation?

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*Hmm, no sources coming up for this on GoogleScholar but I know I’ve heard it said many times. I’ve also experienced it personally with the social media projects in which I’ve participated and implemented. If anyone has some research relating to this, please post a comment.

Clearly biased by my love of Google

So, I received an e-mail today from Google that contained the same information they’ve posted on their websites/services about their new privacy policy. I thought it was pretty good of them to send me a direct e-mail, given that I’d been dodging the notice boxes in Gmail and Reader for a while. However, I already knew about the coming changes from having read a fairly sensationalist account of them on CBC. The main difference is described here:

In a company blog post, Google privacy director Alma Whitten says that “if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

This makes sense to me. It’s an enhanced way of ‘bundling’ goods and services for customers who can obtain them in a more streamlined, effective manner because they’re all coming from the same provider. I mean, how many of us actually bother to get our cell phones and internet from other providers if we’re with Rogers for cable and they can give us all three with less hassle while being responsible for all of them working together? In fact, one might argue a company is going to lose out if it doesn’t do this for its customers.

Without acknowledging this, the CBC article then goes on to highlight two main concerns of Google users, which are taken to extremes in the panicked reader comments:

1. Google is collecting too much information.

Well, what did you expect? How much info do you think Rogers has on you? I will admit that if Google gets hacked in any sort of way, we will be in big trouble. But it’s the same kind of big trouble a person would be in if the government, the banks or any sort of entity that serves the public en masse lost control of our personal information. This is the risk we take when we give service-providers our information (for offline or online repositories). Google, at the forefront of providing these services and with the perk of consistency across services, provides benefits to the consumer that outweigh the risk. In turn, they also have such a large volume of consumers and so much at stake that any slip up (especially after Google Buzz) could result in huge losses.

At the same time, Google’s new privacy policy clarifies that they’re not collecting more information, just consolidating information across services. They also state that they do not share or sell users’ personal information. That’s better than the deal I have with many loyalty points programs that I’ve willingly signed up for (Shoppers and Airmiles, I’m looking at you). I’m sure the fact that I buy cleaning solution for my glasses once a month gets sold to anyone who thinks it’s remotely valuable and I don’t get more than 30 points for it.

So then, what does Google do with that information (other than help me not have to type out “Mayfair Theatre Ottawa” in full every time I want to check the movie schedule)? Well, that’s what people seem particularly ticked about, see this CBC headline:

2. “Helps advertisers find customers”

Gasp. I get it; none of us want to be ‘corporate tools’ just buying what we’re told. Without specific information, retailers have to work a little harder to try and target us: they can assume that because I’m watching the Young and the Restless I’m a 30+ woman who makes all the purchasing decisions when it comes to cleaning supplies and children’s products but really I could be a bored 20-something at home sick and too lazy to find the remote. So yes, I get the idea that there’s agency on the consumer’s part in circumventing direct advertising, as demonstrated by this comment on the article:

 “Google really wants to know more about us, let them. We, on the other hand, can give them something to talk about. It won’t be too long before we have plug-ins that randomly searches and views stuff behind the scenes that will make your results meanless to Google. Success for me already is when I see ads for tampoons (sic).”

Well, I’ve never seen a tampoon ad but the reality of it is that, targeted or not, advertisements are going to show up no matter where you go. The internet is not an ad-free space (just like the rest of life) and what do you do when non-effective tampoon ads show up on the top of your Gmail? Well, you go out and use your consumer dollars on something else, something you really want, maybe even something underground and hipster since you’re so adamant about going against the mainstream. If that thing you’re going to buy anyways had popped up in your ad, it would have saved you some clicking to get to the online store selling it.

That’s my point: you’re going to purchase stuff anyways. I’m going to buy t-shirts from Threadless – it’s a fact, I own this one and many more. So why not have information about their sales pop up instead of “Study Medicine in Cyprus“. So really, if I’m going to waste milliseconds reflexively scanning the sidebar ads anyways, they might as well be something I’ll click on for once.

The only real issue I can see here is that peoples’ information bubble could become so insulated that they may no longer discover new information and products on the web. For example, Google’s assumption that I’m a feminist might prevent me from getting any anti-feminist search results, which could lead to me not knowing the knowing the extent of the current backlash. However, this can happen to anyone who gathers all their information from one or a few main sources and there’s a simple fix when it comes to Google: LOG OUT.

Of course, the full extent of the risks involved with these changes will become apparent once they’ve actually been up and running for a while. In the meantime, if you severely disagree with me, I won’t be upset if you voice your opinion and Google won’t guilt trip you if you take action, just have a look at their FAQs:

What if I don’t want to use Google under the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service?

If you continue to use Google services after March 1, you’ll be doing so under the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. If you’d prefer to close your Google Account, you can follow the instructions in our help center. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can.

(Image source here)

 

Thoughts from the Bus: Absent-minded no more

 

(Image “Waiting for the bus” courtesy of Allan Rostron

I’ve heard that our city’s transit system won’t release its real-time GPS info to the public (yet). This is such a shame considering the amazing things citizens are doing for various levels of government – mostly free of cost – with the open data movement (e.g Vancouver’s trash day app).

Well, in hopes that this fair city will one day realize that it can boost its customer satisfaction by barely lifting a finger (let alone actually improving service), I have one suggestion for the ultimate OC Transpo app*: live notifications.

I know pop-ups are pesky, but how many times have you become engrossed in something on your phone or tablet and actually missed your bus? It’s happened to me at least 3 times in the last year (that I know of… Perhaps there were times I just didn’t look up to see the bus whizzing by) and a couple of times I’ve even been on the bus reading blogs and have missed my stop.

So I propose a functionality that allows riders to specify their common bus routes and schedules. Then, when they’re waiting for the bus or when their stop is approaching, they would receive a brief, easily dismissible notification. Of course this would be completely optional for those of us who hate being told what to do by a computer. However, I believe it’s just another great way to let computers do the worrying about mundane, everyday life while we submerse ourselves in more fascinating things.

For more perspectives on the power of open data, check out David Eaves’ blog.

* This is in addition to the would-be awesomeness of being able to look up where the buses are at any given time so that we can know just how late they’re running.

An aside: This post was composed entirely on the bus, on my iPhone, using only my thumb. It was edited later on Lappy 2.0 (a MacBook Air; Lappy 1.0 is a dead, whirring PowerBook), but still, I feel that’s quite the feat!