Thoughts from the Bus: Apps that Make me Sweat

As the biting cold of January settles in, it’s become apparent that I’ll be continuing to take the bus on what seems like my ever-lengthening commute to and from work. This is in part due to my inability (read: shyness) to coordinate a carpool, the guilt for which I’ve repressed into bitterness toward our highly criticized transit system: #octranspo

This gives me approximately two hours each day where I am avoiding eye contact, attempting to keep my balance between stops and exhausting my supply of podcasts (many of which are inaudible over the noise of the bus – iTunesU profs speak up!). And when my media run out, it’s the perfect time for thoughts. “About what?” you may ask. Well, in order to curb the negative internal soundtrack of resentment toward not being home yet, I’m going to work on developing these thoughts into ideas – something to blog about, in essence. I’ll try to keep them fairly on topic: ICTs, sociology, research, grad school panicking. However, I cannot guarantee what may come to mind while surrounded by strollers, grocery carts, giant parkas and more.

And so, the series “Thoughts from the Bus” begins today:

Apps that Make me Sweat

With the masses running to the gym, it’s no surprise that fitness features in blogs (see #6) are all the rage this week. One popular piece of advice is to join an online community of people who are also trying to get fit.

My first run-in with this sort of peer-supported health was when the “MyFitnessPal” app was updated last year to include a Friends section where you could announce your progress to others. Unfortunately, this section also includes automatic updates for all to see regarding either your lack of activity (“StefanieDuguay has not logged in for 2 weeks”) or your progress/weight loss. I have to admit, this app was a big help to me last year. I spent time using it to track calories and determine appropriate portion sizes until I essentially taught myself what ‘healthy’ eating looks like. Now I barely need to crack it open unless I’m eating some sort of food that’s not in my regular routine and I want to see what the damage is. However, it was a pivotal tool during those crucial learning months (it even has info on Tim Horton’s menu items: 1 chocolate Timbit = 60 cal).

Despite its intended purpose of behaviour reinforcement, the Friends feature of the app completely creeped me out. I have a “don’t sweat with friends” rule, which means I never take anyone to the gym with me but, on the other hand, I know some people who thrive on that. People who go to the gym like to talk (and talk and talk) about it – they like to share – so these online forums give them a place to do so where it’s welcome. I can absolutely see how these communities could be important accountability tools, ‘commitment devices’ as defined in Daniel Goldstein’s TED Talk, but personally, I feel like it raises the stakes a bit too much. I’m the type of person who’s liable to feel guilty enough if I break promises to myself, but if I let all my online friends down, well then I feel like my fitness program would become riddled with guilt and shame, which isn’t much motivation to keep on doing it.

BUT, it could be possible that these communities are filled with positive, supportive people who don’t guilt trip each other about not logging in everyday. The efficacy of the forums in helping people achieve real, healthy goals would likely be directly affected by the types of conversation taking place. A group of people focused on a single purpose have the ability to create positive discourses about it (“every little bit helps”) or pretty destructive ones (“what? you had some CAKE?!! You’ll be fat tomorrow!”). It’s hard to say if either or both of these types of narratives is being enacted on these sites and, as I said, I won’t be joining any time soon but I’d really be interested to hear of peoples’ experiences or any research that’s been done on this topic.

More enthusiastic communities:

(Image source here)

2012 and Beyond

In an attempt to make my procrastination productive this week, I began downloading journal articles from various university course reading lists. Although I have a relatively small framework from which to analyze this research, since I’ve been privy to few academic commentaries about the Internet (though the OII podcasts are helping to provide this background), I still feel that having a look at the relevant material helps to raise some questions, which I’m about to unleash in 3…2…1…

The article “Slouching toward the ordinary: Current trends in computer-mediated communication” by Susan C. Herring left me wondering: HOW DO WE PRODUCE ICT* RESEARCH THAT REMAINS RELEVANT INTO THE FUTURE?

Sorry for shouting, but this worries me quite a bit. The article was written in 2004 and provides a pretty decent description of the Internet landscape as it emerged from the late 90s with crazy, cutting-edge developments like ICQ, MMORPGS, and SMS. If none of those abbreviations mean anything to you (you’re probably 23 or younger), it’s alright because they’ve pretty much fallen out of use, even if the technology has endured. And that’s the thing, it’s unusual to come across video games that aren’t in some way ‘massively multi-player’ these days, what with the ‘achievement’ system on XBOX, etc. Interactive chatting, gaming and messaging has all become commonplace with the integration and even necessitation of these things in our everyday lives, which is exactly what the author predicted in 2004 – hence the catchy title. However, I’m at odds with the author in my opinion that just because something becomes commonplace, it doesn’t mean that its effect is simply ordinary, unimpressive and pretty much the same as everything that has come before.

This is where relevancy into the future features: I’m willing to cut the author some slack because in 2004 it would have been pretty difficult to properly conjecture the future of these ICTs. For example, it would have been nearly impossible to predict the social ramifications of SMS before widespread adoption of the practice in North America and well before the birth of the iPhone in 2007 as well as the increasing popularity of other smartphones with QWERTY keypads. However, in light of the uncertainty surrounding the future effects of technology, a key to retaining relevancy may be to avoid blanket statements such as “SMS is essentially e-mail sent over mobile phones” (p. 31). Such dangerous, evidence-lacking declarations could in the future turn out to be just plain wrong. Research is emerging to demonstrate that text messaging is used for different social relationships and different purposes than e-mail (I believe this is touched on in Wellman & Rainie’s forthcoming book and a direct citation would include accounts from young adults collected in Rhonda McEwan’s PhD dissertation).

In essence, it seems that the study of an ever-developing field poses the challenge of producing research that definitively uncovers the impact of these things on our lives right now while pointing us in the right direction for studying them into the future without drawing unjustified or unknowable conclusions. If we dismiss a means of communication as commonplace and boring right now, we risk missing something phenomenal about it in the future since we simply won’t be looking anymore.

*ICT = information and communications technologies

PS. I spent the morning discovering Maru.

(Image source here)

Positive Brainwashing

 (Image from here)

In the work world, the one filled with grey cubicle farms, there can be a lot of need for motivation. I’ve been delving into the cheesy side of motivational resources lately, considering doing things like listening to upbeat music and putting up posters of people who’s abs I want (these, of course, would be confined to my home to avoid sexual harassment complaints).

While not the BEST article about motivation that I’ve read lately, this guy makes some good points that ring true in my life. However, what struck me most about the article is that he gets up and switches his iPod to “a list of prerecorded affirmations” REALLY? Like I just have those sitting around on CDs in my house… Or is there some sort of cheese factory website where I can download these affirmations for 25 cents a pop? Even that’s kind of risky because I could get a few that don’t apply to me (e.g. “Your children are not monsters, they are beautiful and you can deal with them.”). Perhaps I should pre-record them myself? “Stef, the world is your oyster today.” Ugh, I don’t even like seafood. Even so, if it makes him pumped up enough to go jogging in the morning, it could be worth a try. There are many things people would do for that kind of energy. So, anyone got any prerecorded affirmations kicking around?

Hey Internet, take your capitalization and…

TIL (Today I Learned) that in most cases capitalizing the word Internet is still the correct way of writing it. Jeez, I really thought this had gone the way of the dinosaur, I mean, seriously, the Internet is as common as Sliced Bread these days. I’m thinking we should change this and, according to Wikipedia, there are a few who agree with me:

Critics of the usage as a proper noun argue that other things that are unique yet distributed, such as “the power grid”, “the telephone network”, and even “the sky”, are not considered proper nouns, and are thus not capitalized. Since at least 2002 it has been theorized that Internet has been changing from a proper noun to a generic term.[4] Words for new technologies, such as Phonograph in the 19th century, are sometimes capitalized at first, later becoming uncapitalized.[4] It was suggested as early as 1999 that Internet might, like some other commonly used proper nouns, lose its capital letter.[5]

(Image source here)

Why study the internet?

Disclaimer: This is simply brainstorming for an application and so you can expect that the ideas presented will not necessarily be fully formed or logical (read: be patient if I don’t make sense).

Why study the internet?

Why not? Done. … Nope, I don’t think that one will fly.

(Image from here)

Have a look at what I did today:

  • Checked e-mail on my iPhone;
  • Dragged out the laptop to look up new recipes;
  • Verified the hours at the gym (not today, but I sometimes look up classes);
  • While exercising, was bombarded with TV commercials directing me to websites or Facebook for more information, along with Goodlife’s posters doing the same (of course I want to read more about their Drink Milk campaign – ugh, more on that another day);
  • After grocery shopping, was reminded to look up online the rewards I can get with my PC Points;
  • Returned home and reviewed the specifications for this application, which I will submit entirely online;
  • Lost interest; looked for Christmas-related events on Apartment613; 
  • Browsed Facebook for the latest updates since yesterday at 8:00pm: noted that it has snowed a lot in my hometown, as shown in pictures posted by a friend of my partner’s parents; ‘liked’ a picture of my niece and nephew in front of their Christmas tree; and creeped on pictures of an old friend now living an infinitely more trendy life in San Francisco;
  • Now I’m updating my blog.
Are those not enough reasons to study the internet? I feel that the key is not the focused study of the internet itself (though, that of course is a fascinating field from many sides: web development, programming, etc.), but to study our lives with the internet. It is a key tool in almost every aspect of what many people do daily. However, examining those who do not use it in the same way is just as fascinating (think digital divide, digital illiteracy, the impact of socioeconomic status and location, lapsed users and anti-internet fads). So, those topics of differences in use, the invasiveness and omnipresence of the internet, its use in communication (and appropriateness for communication in certain instances or situations  over other means such as phone and in-person contact – after all, the ‘medium is the message’ still applies), as well as information-gathering and dissemination practices along with all the filtering and media interpretation skills that individuals must develop.

All those areas of interest arise before we even approach the actual content of the internet. Pretty much every subject, community, or event that exists offline also has an equivalent reference online. The way these are expressed, presented, accessed and applied in cyberspace and how they interact with or enhance their offline manifestations is absolutely fascinating. This gives way to current hot topics in internet research, such as the use of social media for activism as well as political and corporate campaigns. Then there are also the communities, events and cultural trappings that only exist online – internet memes being the ones I currently find most amusing.

Yes, these are such broad areas, but this is necessary because upon starting my applications, I zeroed in on a very specific thesis topic without really digesting the larger landscape of this area of study. I think I’ll find the gem of an introductory paragraph for my application somewhere in here…


I guess that answers that…

What’s this?

It’s a list of my “academic interests”, you know, things I could possibly fathom researching, reading about and teaching in the future without my narcolepsy kicking in (well, it will anyways, but without the severity that it strikes me with the minute I enter a boardroom). It includes the following.

The obvious:

  • The internet, ICTs, social media (e.g. social interactions using social media and, in turn the effect of social media on social interactions), etc.
Theoretical frameworks:
  • Critical theory/conflict theory (Adorno, Gramsci, Marcuse, Althusser, Bourdieu, etc)
  • Poststructuralism (Foucault, Baudrillard)
And various other topics:
  • Sociology of health (fitness culture, health product marketing, gender differences in defining health)
  • Media/Culture (pop culture – deconstructing music and TV trends, advertising)
  • Gender, sexuality, queer theory, “deviant” genders and sexualities
The thing is, none of these topics are completely separate. People with ‘deviant’ gender identities are likely to use the Internet to form communities, media and culture have a huge influence on the definition and marketing of health, and power relations play into all of these areas. This is almost overly apparent; it’s like going back to Soci 101 where we looked at the application of the ‘sociological imagination’ to the world. Not to mention, it suits my interdisciplinary nature just fine to mix and match, since nothing is a completely separate area of study, even in the hard sciences like biology.
I guess what I’m trying to come to terms with is that I should set myself on the career path to become a sociologist. Not a media theorist, not an internet specialist, not a highly-paid social media (or knowledge media) consultant – though those all have nice rings to them. A career can last a long time and although it might make me less employable, I’d rather specialize a bit and still have the foundational knowledge to pursue different interests throughout my life than narrow myself to one skill set, one methodology and one concerted area of research.
Not sure why figuring all this out took so long but it will surely have implications for the rest of the applications I send out.

Evening Future Planning

There’s a point of complete and utter exhaustion that causes everything, funny or not, to be downright hilarious. Usually it’s reserved for laughing fits at 3am, waiting in the poutine shack line-up for a woman who resembles Seinfeld’s ‘soup nazi’ to serve us up some of central Canada’s most notorious junk food. However, after a long day of work and a seemingly longer planning session to determine just when and how I’m going to work on university applications (everything should be mailed by January 17th!), all it took was one simple pun (though, in all seriousness, this is a pretty impressive and informative video; I really appreciated it).

Thank you Oxford, the school that produces E-literate graduates.


I’ll take a microchip instead

(Image found here)

I’ve decided I want to learn everything. Well, not everything, but I’m certainly not picky enough. The more I read about graduate programs, the more I’d love to take them all. I skim through course listings and would mix and match from multiple universities if I had a private jet to take me across the country (or at least the province) so I could attend all of them. All this background research makes me think it would be so much better if my brain were simply an iPad and I could download all these degrees from iTunesU, waking up in the morning with my brain full of completed Masters and PhD programs, just spewing out research papers left and right. Okay, that would be a bit much to handle before breakfast.

My major crossroad lies in whether to take sociology or a more interdisciplinary program, such as media studies. You must understand that just narrowing it down to this point was a huge win. I took my BASc. from a liberal arts university, specializing in both sociology and psychology. The ultimate apex of my undergraduate research was in fourth year when I took an independent study we called “Social Formation of Mind”, which sought to marry the areas of psychology and sociology as a comprehensive study of the human, whose very being necessitates examination of both the microcosm of the individual (starting with genes) right up to the the globalized mass of societies. Ultimately, my thinking has always been interdisciplinary and so wherever I end up, my research will always include multiple perspectives as well.

Back to the dilemma at hand, forced by the absurdly early OGS deadline, which has asked me to choose a university before I’ve even been accepted. I’m starting to see the humour in how much of this applying for universities is mere speculation of what the next couple years of my life will resemble. If only I could pretend my day job doesn’t exist and spend my time gallivanting around from campus to campus discovering the real nuances of each program until an undeniable answer arises before me. I’d have beers with departmental advisers from each school and in the din of the room, ask them to confess, “Now, old chap, what really is the deal behind the MA in Communication and Culture? Will I be written off as a journalist or eccentric artist?” or “How about that MA in Media Studies or the one in Information Science? Is that just a new name for contemporary librarian?” While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the careers of artists, librarians or journalists, I know enough to have determined that my calling is more research-based or, alternatively, in consulting and advising of some kind (Stefanie Duguay, Knowledge Media and Technology Consultant – has a nice ring).

But today I was reminded that connecting the dots is never quite the incredibly challenging task that I believe it to be. I was sitting next to a guy on the bus who was simply decimating crossword puzzles in newspapers, one after another. I was astonished and impressed by the way he attacked the paper with his pen. I’ve never been able to do crosswords; I always feel that I can’t commit to putting one word down when I don’t know what the other 25 might be. How can I, using permanent ink, declare this one answer if I’m not sure that it and the next 24 will be 100% correct? Thus is the paralyzing thought pattern of a perfectionist. However, the more I read, the more it seems as though academia has a fluidity. Since anything worth studying in the world can be examined from multiple perspectives, it allows academic professionals to slip into their research niches, no matter how obscure their starting points (trust me, I’ve read a lot of faculty profiles by now). And so, it’s time to wander to the OGS website and fill in “number 12, across, ____ letter word for academic institution” and just let the rest fall into place.