DIGITAL AMERICA

Author Archives: Elizabeth

Experience 5: At the James

// Posted by Elizabeth on 11/26/2014 (12:18 PM)

I knew that our final experience on Monday would be unique and cool, because it was required that it take place at the James River. But the simplicity of the project was even better than I expected. We were each… Read more

I knew that our final experience on Monday would be unique and cool, because it was required that it take place at the James River. But the simplicity of the project was even better than I expected. We were each asked to bring a snack to share, and we basically had a class picnic. We drove to the river and walked around to check out the area for a few minutes. We then found a nice rock, laid out our blankets, sat in a circle and, quite simply, chatted. And snacked. Again, it wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was great.

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The beautiful river provided a great setting for our last experience.

Then, about halfway through our time at Pony Pasture, the announcement I had been waiting for came: Nicola collected our phones, and Emily explained that for the second half of the experience we’d be asked not to check or use them in any way. The goal, we found out later, was to evaluate how or if the difference would change our conversation and see if it could reveal something about the effects of smartphones and social media on our daily lives.

I really didn’t notice anyone in our class that was attached to their phone during the first half of our conversation. Our attention was certainly directed towards the snacks in the middle of the circle, but we were mostly engaged and listened to each other as we spoke about TV shows, our futures as liberal arts majors, the upcoming holidays, the dominance of coffee shop chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and all the awesome stuff to do in the city of Richmond.

I actually think that in this particular experience, we really provided support for Tufekci’s argument that social media and portable digital devices are not the problem, and that there may be bigger issues in our society that undermine connection and relationships. We were able to hold a consistent and interesting conversation that involved nodding and eye contact, and while we didn’t necessarily discuss anything very profound, I didn’t feel like we were just making small talk, either.

I think there are two reasons why our experience was so successful in avoiding the distractions of social media. First, I think that the small, discussion-based character of our class, and the fact that we’ve all worked together in even smaller groups in our experiences, made it easy for us to talk casually. That I’m comfortable speaking in front of the eight of us about deep, theoretical academic texts makes it much easier to chat nonchalantly with everyone without it feeling forced.

Second, As Damian mentioned on our ride back to campus, I think we were all still partially in the “class” mindset, so I wasn’t eager to check my phone even during the first half of the experience. I remember sending a few texts in the back seat of Dr. Rosatelli’s car on the ride there, and thinking that it was a little odd to be texting in front of my professor. When we arrived at the river, I considered leaving it in the back seat until I heard someone remind us to bring our phones so we can keep track of the time. Thus, in general, I think that we really avoided the “problem” of social media and a lack of connection that Turkle so passionately promotes, and I didn’t honestly see a significant difference in the quality or character of our conversation after our phones were forbidden.

But it’s also true that when my phone isn’t right next to me, especially in an outdoor and theoretically less phone-friendly setting, I am often looking for it or wondering where it is and if it’s safe. There were certainly multiple jokes made while we were there about phones dropping in the river, coupled with frantic pocket or bag checks just to make sure that the iPhone was safe and sound, for real. Perhaps you could say that I feel lost without my phone, but I think that might be an exaggeration. If I leave my phone at home, or if I had left it behind in the car, I might not worry about it or even think about it. While it is a conscious choice and I sometimes have to remind myself of the value of being “tuned out” or “off the grid,” I actually can appreciate not being attached to my phone.

I say all this, and then this evening as I sat at a restaurant with five of my high school friends, I noticed that for at least 5 minutes about halfway through our dinner all of us were staring at our phones. And these are some of my very best friends that I haven’t seen in a couple of months! It was a sad moment, and I must admit that our discussions in Digital America came to mind.

The truth is, I think, that Turkle and Tufekci both make powerful arguments, which is certainly a conclusion we reached in class. I see ways that Turkle is right, and its scary to think that my friends and I couldn’t just enjoy each other’s company and forget about the texts from our college friends for a few hours of catching up.

This video popped up a few times on my Facebook newsfeed (How ironic!) a few weeks ago, and I think it fits in well with this debate:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY4uWLOLKzU

I certainly think it’s telling that this is spreading around. Maybe Turkle is right, and I think that the negative effect of social media and digital technology on our ability to form long-term memories is frightening. But social media and smartphones definitely aren’t going away, and just like I didn’t want to be “that girl” that called out all of my friends last night at dinner for being on their phones, I feel pretty hopeless to solve this problem. How can I accuse someone else of checking his or her texts in the middle of a conversation, when I know that I constantly do it too? What’s the solution?

Predictably, as I say in many of my experience reflections, I think my solution to the danger of connectedness making us more selfish and separated is awareness and self-reflection. As I mentioned, I feel fairly confident that I have the ability to disconnect and leave my phone behind when I need to. But I could certainly improve, and maybe not pull out my phone at what should have been an exciting and engaging reunion of old friends. I’m not sure there’s a way to restrict time spent on social media for everyone, but perhaps with more knowledge of Turkle’s beliefs, people would be willing to do so on their own. Then, maybe, it would be easier to evaluate Tufekci’s argument and see whose proposal really holds more weight in everyday life.


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Final Project Research–Cyberactivism

// Posted by Elizabeth on 11/10/2014 (7:02 PM)

12/7

Bringing together all the research and feedback I’ve done to write my final paper on cyberactivism seems really overwhelming, but it’s also exciting, and I think I have a lot of great stuff to pull together into what will… Read more

12/7

Bringing together all the research and feedback I’ve done to write my final paper on cyberactivism seems really overwhelming, but it’s also exciting, and I think I have a lot of great stuff to pull together into what will hopefully be an insightful and interesting work. It seems like my project pitch on Monday went well and that everyone understood how my research on Bye Felipe, Greenpeace Greenwire and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge supports my argument. I think using these case studies will really keep my paper focused and make my argument seem very well supported.

I was so grateful to receive feedback from my peers about my project as it has developed so far. Specifically, I asked them to consider the presence of “hashtag activism,” or their friends or acquaintances posting about political or other social issues, in their day-to-day use of social media. I hoped they would reflect on what this means for cyberactivism, and think about if it’s at all effective or just irritating. While there was some variety in the answers I got, there was a general consensus among all four responders that activism doesn’t necessarily belong on Facebook. Damien, for example, brought up the worthwhile concern that many people who continuously express political opinions on Facebook or other networks are actually very uninformed. I think this is a great point, and it will be interesting to consider with regards to slacktivism; I could definitely see this as a component of the issue, but I’m not sure what the theory might say about such an idea. Emily and Nicola actually both confessed to deleting or blocking users who post about societal issues on their pages and have opposing views from their own. Aisling seemed to mind less that such users were present on her social media networks, and she said that she appreciated observing the conversations her peers are having about social issues. But she also recognized that activists might be better off in their own spaces. It will be really interesting to consider all this insight as I write my paper.

In general, I still plan to argue that because of the dangers of slacktivism, cyberactivism will continue to be most effective when coupled with offline organized and acts of protest. Evidence for this argument can be seen in an analysis of the success and progress created by the Bye Felipe and ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and in my paper I’ll specifically consider issues of slacktivism and awareness raising as they relate to these two campaigns. In this space I’ll also consider what the research says about slacktivism and try to tie in this theoretical evidence with my own thoughts on the first two cases. I’ll then take the argument a step further by analyzing the purpose and effectiveness of Greenpeace Greenwire, and considering how it could shape future uses of cyberactivism. What I find most significant about this final case, however, is that its creators and users have no intention of exclusively using Greenpeace Greenwire to promote environmental protection, and I’ll argue that while cyberactivism is a powerful tool, it will be most successful in creating change with supplementary efforts. In this section I’ll reflect briefly on the comments I received from my peers about activism on their social media pages and networks, and I’ll use their comments about these experiences as additional support for the idea that activists could probably benefit from the creation of spaces catered to their interests, whatever they may be, online.

 

11/30

Quick thought re: ALS Ice Bucket Challenge–what about Ebola?? Where is the giant campaign soliciting donations for a disease that’s devastating Africa? Is there proportionality here?

 

11/30

As I’m going through and reflecting upon my research so far to solidify my argument, I want to highlight a passage about the Bye Felipe campaign that I think is really relevant to my overall topic of cyberactivism and its strengths and flaws. The creator of Bye Felipe writes:

“While Bye Felipe (a take on the meme ‘Bye Felicia‘) uses humor to take away some of the power these insults may carry, I also like to point folks to the Tumblr ‘When Women Refuse,’ which chronicles the serious problem of actual violence women experience at the hands of men who have been rejected.

I have been asked multiple times, ‘What’s the answer to this? What can these dating sites do to curb this problem?’ And I struggle to answer, because this is just a symptom of a larger problem. Censoring these messages may help in the short term, but the messages featured on Bye Felipe are like an immortalized version of the catcalls and threats women receive on the the street every day, just walking around and existing. Until we change the cultural atmosphere, women will continue to receive these hurtful messages online and in real life.”

An interesting perspective on the point of the online campaign–Tweten implies that Bye Felipe is a humor-based approach to cyberactivism meant more to chronicle these offensive messages and empower the women receiving them, not necessarily to call for corrective action to this problem. Of course, in a very Quinn Norton-esque explanation, the campaign creator also implies that these messages are a greater reflection of the treatment and harassment in society, and not isolated to the online spaces that can be seen on the Instagram account. To solve this issue, she seems to argue, would require a greater cultural shift in the treatment of women in our society.

Here’s the blog post: http://msmagazine.com/blog/2014/10/31/why-i-created-bye-felipe/

 

11/29

http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2014/08/19/think-the-ice-bucket-challenge-is-stupid-youre-wrong/

Interesting proposition in reason #2: The author claims that the Ice Bucket Challenge creates a sort of competition among charity organizations to develop their own viral campaigns. Is this true? What about IBC spin-offs? Also, does this imply that charities are/will be creating online campaigns specifically?

Here’s a list of a few international Ice Bucket Challenge offshoots: http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-09-04/these-eight-ice-bucket-challenge-spin-offs-are-boosting-causes-worldwide

 

11/29

http://www.dailydot.com/society/activism-slacktivism-history-timeline/

It seems that “slacktivism” is a term inherently associated with digital technology. This article defines it as “…the use of low-barrier digital actions to effect change. These actions are somewhat less energetic than traditional activists are used to, to put it mildly: clicking on a button to upvote a statement encouraging change, adding your name to an online petition, and in its most persistent (or pernicious) forms, adding a hashtag to a tweet, changing your online avatar and altering your status.”

But were there “slackers” in historical protest movements outside the digital realm? What form could a “slacktivist” have taken in the past?

 

11/29

One of the (very important and valid) questions Dr. Rosatelli posed after I submitted my research proposal about cyberactivism concerned the parameters I’ll use to measure the “success” of activist movements. Certainly, success would consist of governmental or societal change; these are tangible results that provide evidence of progress. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, though, is a little bit harder to evaluate, and I’ve run into a bit of a roadblock in answering Dr. Rosatelli’s question in the context of this campaign. Its tangible results are certainly the money raised for ALS research, but the campaign is also praised for raising awareness about the relatively unfamiliar disease.

So, what about raising awareness? People throw around the term constantly, and I’ve heard it used both mockingly and genuinely. Does raising consciousness, as it’s also called, really matter? Does this count as success in any activist movement? Or did it only really apply to ALS because it was previously such a little-known problem?

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/07/awareness-is-overrated.html

The author of this piece says no: “But the funny part about all of this awareness-raising is that it doesn’t accomplish all that much. The underlying assumption of so many attempts to influence people’s behavior — that they make bad choices because they lack the information to empower them to do otherwise — is, except in a few cases, false. And what’s worse, awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question.”

The author goes on to explain, and seems to particularly attack hashtag activism.

Note::: Googling “raising awareness”  and “the importance of raising awareness” automatically brings up articles about the Ice Bucket Challenge!!

 

11/29

To add to my case study about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the issue of wasting clean water, (see the photo from my very first research post) I wanted to dig a little deeper and compare the two problems. Obviously, they’re both devastating issues, but is the critique of the challenge as an ignorant campaign to correct a “first-world problem” really valid?

Matt Damon, co-founder of a nonprofit called water.org, really called attention to this issue with his ice bucket challenge video: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/25/matt-damon-ice-bucket-challenge_n_5710431.html

Here’s a blog post from a particularly bitter observer of the IBC: http://dustinlyle.com/als-and-your-priorities/

And a photo from that post–it’s thought-provoking, despite its grammatical error:

http://dustinlyle.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ALS.jpg

 

11/29

A few additional sources:::

The Guardian on slacktivism: http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/mar/14/online-activism-social-media-engage

I definitely would like to hunt down this book: http://www.tweetsandthestreets.org/

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/oct/13/social-media-stew-plays-potent-role-in-global-digi/?page=all

I also need to look for more information about “researchers Phillip Howard, Mary Joyce and Frank Edwards of the Digital Activism Research Project (DARP)” as mentioned in this article–looks like it could be a great source for scholarly research on this topic

 

11/29

Part of what I’m looking at in my final project is Greenpeace’s social networking site, called Greenwire. It’s really the first of it’s kind in terms of a social network designed specifically for activists to connect online outside of traditional platforms like Facebook and Twitter–and I find it really inspiring. Check out the “About Greenpeace Greenwire” link (at the very bottom of the page) if you want to read a little bit more about the site and its purpose: https://greenwire.greenpeace.org/usa/en

Recently on Greenwire, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts in response to and in support of the protests going on in Ferguson, Missouri since the shooting unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Of course, Greenwire and Greenpeace is primarily designed to promote grassroots environmental activism, but all conversation seems to be welcome. I think it’s really interesting to consider not only specific activist campaigns and social media use, but the presence of the greater progressive movement as a whole on social media sites and how people interact and start conversations on these platforms. A couple of articles/issues I’ve found discussed on Greenwire include:

Sweatshop labor–http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/11/12/the-haunting-poetry-of-a-chinese-factory-worker-who-committed-suicide/

Again, Ferguson–http://greenpeaceblogs.org/2014/08/18/ferguson-matters-us-really-matters-greenpeace/

 

11/28

A comprehensive video about Bye Felipe, shown on a segment Good Morning America. The video talks about publicly shaming the men sending these offensive messages, revealing the harassment women face in online dating, the effects of anonymity on these mens’ comments, and making positive social change to combat the issue:

https://gma.yahoo.com/bye-felipe-instagram-account-singles-rude-online-daters-164623331–abc-news-sex.html

 

11/28

I don’t think I want to extend my project to include a discussion of Ferguson–this would add a lot of material to an already far-reaching paper/project, and it could also perhaps be difficult because it is still such a current and ongoing issue. Still, I’ve seen post after post discussing the topic, particularly on Facebook, and I feel like I should record some of the most powerful statuses and links I’ve come across.

One person wrote about this article: “If you read anything about Ferguson, read this:”

http://www.khq.com/story/27489010/nfl-player-benjamin-watsons-ferguson-post-on-facebook-goes-viral#.VHZ-jo7-16r.facebook

A petition calling the government/people to take action even after Darren Wilson is not indicted:

http://act.colorofchange.org/sign/justicemikebrownforward/?sp_ref=87958060.176.10569.f.41006.2&referring_akid=3921.1739924.Ug7NK5&source=fb_sp

An unorthodox Thanksgiving post:

“As we all prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is important to acknowledge that it was not a day that commemorated the unity of indigenous Americans and settlers, but of the massacre of Pequot people. This country was built on the genocide of people of color with the slave labor of people of color and continues to function as a system of militarized racism. Unarmed black men are shot down without consequences, and yet people are still more concerned about rioting. This is not an isolated incident. It is a pattern of systematic oppression that causes many people in this country to live in fear of law enforcement, because this is not a system that was designed to serve and protect them. ‪#‎IndictAmerica‬ ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬ ‪#‎Ferguson‬

This one deals directly with slacktivism! :

“Please, please, please everyone, channel your anger into something other than Facebook rants. DO something real.”

 

11/10

An interesting critique of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge I found on Twitter:

 

https://marcsimony.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/the-other-water-bucket-challenge.jpeg

 

 

11/10

Some simple background articles about my project and cyber activism:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/05/08/bringbackourgirls-kony2012-and-the-complete-divisive-history-of-hashtag-activism/

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/10/rise-of-the-feminist-creep-busting-web-vigilante/381809/

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/boston-made-the-ice-bucket-challenge-go-big-facebook-says/377159/

 

 


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Experience 4: What’s at stake?

// Posted by Elizabeth on 11/03/2014 (1:05 PM)

I remember chatting nonchalantly with Damian, my fellow group member for this fourth experience, after class a week and a half before our project was due. We both agreed that it would be so cool to do develop and participate… Read more

I remember chatting nonchalantly with Damian, my fellow group member for this fourth experience, after class a week and a half before our project was due. We both agreed that it would be so cool to do develop and participate in some sort of protest to go along with our class discussions of the rebirth of counterculture and new forms of activism in the digital age. We were concerned, however, that organizing an effective and powerful protest would be difficult to do with the limited time and number of students our class alone offers. We ended the conversation with a sort of mutual shrug, a casual promise to keep brainstorming what we could do with our class, and a cheerful “See you on Wednesday!”

Flash forward to a week later. Our group met, discussed our options, and eventually put Damain and I’s initial concerns aside and pursued the idea of participating in a protest. We wanted the campaign to have two parts: a physical and a digital demonstration. For the physical protest, we would make signs and stand outside the library for approximately half an hour. For the digital protest, we would utilize social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and apps like Yik Yak and Instagram. We decided that it would be most relevant to protest a campus issue, with the hope that something affecting our campus community would have the greatest potential to start a conversation at UR. We brainstormed such problems and came up with a concise list: UR’s coordinate college system (the separation of the men’s and women’s colleges and Dean’s offices), the problems with our campus’s dining options (in particular, the lack of dining options after 9:00 PM) and the conditions of Westhampton Lake, which contains high levels of bacteria such as E. Coli and is generally polluted. In true democratic fashion, we would allow students to vote on their preferred issue. And thus the CleanURlake campaign was born.

Inspired by the social movements in recent years that we read about in class, including Occupy Wall Street and the hacktivist group Anonymous, our group decided that we too would adopt a policy of “horizontalism” for our two-part protest. In his piece “Inside Occupy Wall Street,” Jeff Sharlet describes this value simply; in the context of Occupy, it was “the evasion of organized leadership,” and an attempt by the 99% to avoid a hierarchy or power structure in their movement—which made sense, considering that the existing hierarchy in American society was essentially what they were protesting. In the context of our project, the idea was simpler: we just hoped that our protest would be a truly collective effort, that we could organize the campaign together as a class and that our group could be participants, not instructors, in the experience; this was done both to test the effectiveness of leaderless-ness and to ensure that no one was made uncomfortable in the process of our protest.

As we all discovered, our “horizontal” approach had its issues. First of all, we as a group made a big error in choosing not to reveal to the class that we were attempting and testing this tactic. Initially, instead of inspiring them to participate (although they did eventually, and were very creative and engaged in the effort), this generated confusion while they awaited instruction from our group and we ultimately wasted time that could have been spent “getting the (digital) word out.” And in reflecting on the literature and history of the term, this is something we should have recognized and predicted: horizontalism didn’t just develop in either of the two movements we studied, but rather was established from the start as valuable to each of the groups and thus inspired participation from thousands of individuals, each bringing their own beliefs and goals to the table.

Fortunately, though, our issue and the mini-movement we attempted to create didn’t necessarily have all the problems of horizontalism faced by those larger groups like Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous. Because there were only eight of us in the class, we were all clearly in agreement that we were choosing to protest the conditions of Westhampton Lake because the water is contaminated by E. Coli and other hazardous bacteria and elements (namely, Nitrous and Phosphorous from fertilizer run-off) and because we all agreed that the problem was too significant to be as unknown as it is on our campus.

Then again, each of us seemed to bring different reasons for our feelings against the lake to the table. Emily was frustrated with the inability of her organization to host its philanthropy event that involved boating on the lake. Damian had a friend who accidentally fell in the lake and suffered sickness afterwards. I was most angered by the persistence of this problem, despite a continued awareness by school administration that the lake’s water quality is dangerous, and the lack of demonstrated action to improve its conditions—as The Collegian article reported, the school banned students from swimming in the lake due to its toxicity thirty-eight years ago, in 1976. Perhaps, should our campaign to clean up the lake continue and grow into a larger effort by the campus community to address the issue, we would begin to differ in opinions or proposals about what should be done to solve the problem of the dirty lake. Without a leader to streamline our beliefs and represent our general views to campus administration, we could come off just as disorganized as Occupy or Anonymous—but that’s only speculation.

To return to Damian and I’s original hesitation about executing an effective protest for this project, we were right to be as worried as we were about the potential of our small, short class. I’m not sure what ultimately allowed us to overcome these concerns, but somehow they fell to the wayside, and I think our group went into the experience overly optimistic. Again, that we didn’t communicate our “horizontal” intentions contributed to this confidence, but we should have at least considered the need for an established campaign name, slogan and hashtag without Dr. Rosatelli’s help.

But this is not to say that I regret our decision to protest the conditions of the lake or that I am not satisfied with the results of our experience. We inspired an article in our campus newspaper, The Collegian, and there was a real, if temporary, “buzz” around our efforts. So the question remains: were we successful?

On the one hand, I certainly see elements of “slacktivism” in CleanURlake’s digital presence. There are now eighteen likes on the Cleanurlake Facebook page. The truth is, I believe I could increase that number easily, as could the other students in the class, if I invited more of my friends to like the page. But as sad as it is, I believe that even if I did get 50 more people to click the like button on our page, those additional likes wouldn’t necessary make our message more powerful or our campaign to clean up the lake stronger. And in fact, of the eighteen existing likes, ten are my mutual Facebook friends, and I wouldn’t be surprised if five of those ten would admit that they actually don’t give a sh*t about the pollution in the Westhampton lake and really just liked the page in an effort to support me as their friend. The reality is that likes on our Facebook page, upvotes on our Yik Yak post and followers on our Twitter and Instagram accounts aren’t necessarily an accurate reflection of student concern or even awareness about the conditions of the lake, because liking a page or following an account are mindless actions that require minimal effort.

On the other hand, I do believe we raised awareness about this issue, and while we can’t measure it to be sure, I’m confident that our various posts on social media inspired someone to search for more information about the polluted lake; the threat of E. Coli certainly caught people’s attention.

What’s more, we have no idea the potential this small effort may have for the future. While we intentionally chose an issue local to UR’s campus, who’s to say it couldn’t inspire support from other places outside of Richmond? I think if we had chosen to combat an issue more like the coordinate college system—an institution that many argue is old-fashioned and even promotes sexism—perhaps we could have garnered more attention. Either way, it’s true that anyone who searches, intentionally or not, #ispyecoli or #cleanURlake online will discover our various social media outlets. This is still a powerful notion to me, even if nothing ever comes of the project, considering that we were just eight students with computers and a cause. And this is certainly an instance where I believe that Saskia Sassen is right to argue that with the help of the Internet, the local can become global and vice versa in a sort of “feedback loop” that makes digital technology an incredible tool and creates a new realm for global activism.

Maybe one day, another group of students will decide that they want to be able to take full advantage of the Westhampton Lake and be able to paddle around it in canoes on sunny afternoons. I hope that they’ll search The Collegian’s archives, as we did, and read our story. But even if that never happens, I’ll still consider our protest to be a meaningful, thought-provoking and fun fourth experience that allowed us to reflect on the impact of digital tools and Internet culture on activism and social change.

 

A clip from the physical protest outside Boatwright Memorial Library


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Experience 3–Books and Blisters

// Posted by Elizabeth on 10/15/2014 (12:56 PM)

I remember being pretty quiet in our class discussion of the digital divide. Perhaps it was because I had just been in a class where we discussed global poverty, or perhaps I had just had a conversation about the Ebola… Read more

I remember being pretty quiet in our class discussion of the digital divide. Perhaps it was because I had just been in a class where we discussed global poverty, or perhaps I had just had a conversation about the Ebola epidemic in Africa. (Oh, the woes of a Leadership major.) But I distinctly remember being shocked at the fact that there was yet another terrible manifestation of the disparity between rich and poor in the world, and even in American society—and this time that it was one I had never really heard of before. It had left me speechless.

And while our experience last Wednesday afternoon was also disheartening and difficult to wrap my head around, I’m really glad we did it, and I’m thankful to the group that organized it. In essence, the experience was the digital divide in practice. The group divided the class into two teams, each meant to represent a group of students in a high school classroom similar to the ones journalist Jessica Goodman observes in Newark, New Jersey. In her piece “The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind,” Goodman describes the term “digital divide” as the gap between people with and without access to the Internet and digital technology, and a divide that can be seen “among distinct regions and demographics.”

To recreate this divide among our class, the organizers of the experience gave us an assignment. We were instructed to answer the question, “Does digital copyrighting perpetuate inequality?” in an essay of 250 words or less. We were asked to use only reliable sources and to provide a reference list for our completed work. We were given a little over half an hour to complete the project in our groups of four. The final parameter: each group had restricted access to digital technology. Group A had limited access—these students were allowed to use a smartphone with a notes app and Internet access and a library computer in a specified section to type up their completed work. Group B, my group, was given no access—we were forbidden from using laptops, smartphones and the Internet in general, and could only use the library computers in the same specified section to type and print our finished essay.

Needless to say, the task was daunting. We were forced to rely on the help of a librarian to complete our research, and even as knowledgeable as she was, she relied on her computer and the digital card catalog to look up sources that might be helpful to us. My group ended up jogging across campus to the law library to find books on copyrighting and inequality—we got blisters, endured several dirty looks from law students and lost one of our teammates among the shelves of thick law textbooks. When we finally located the books we were looking for, we had about ten minutes to skim hundreds of pages of texts, find relevant information to write about and run back to the other library to type it up and print it out. It was inconvenient, stressful and generally unpleasant. I’m not sure what the “essay” that we eventually turned in really said, but I’d be surprised if it received a passing grade from any honest high school teacher.

And yet, again, I’m grateful that I had this experience. Perhaps I’m a more hands-on learner than I’ve ever thought, or maybe I just couldn’t imagine the real difficulties of restricted access to technology because I’ve never experienced them.

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Above: As we begin our trek to the law library…this is before we started running. Below: Struggling to skim the books for relevant information to answer our essay question with 10 minutes remaining.

As Mark Poster discusses in his book Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines: “People object to having not enough information, to a lack of access to information, to exclusion from sources of information, to the unequal distribution of information. The assumption in this position is that information correlates directly with life chances. The more information one has, the better one can live” (Poster 153-54). This activity really put Poster’s theoretical work into more concrete terms, and certainly convinced me that the “assumption” of a direct relationship between opportunity and information delineated here is an accurate one. A continuation of this point would be that the tools needed to access Poster’s “information,” like the computers that house the digital card catalog in the library, also allow people to live better, and in this case learn and work more easily.

Thinking back again to our first class discussion of the digital divide, I recall that I struggled to clearly articulate my objection to Vinton Cerf’s article “Internet Access is Not a Human Right.” I also remember that in reading the article, I was particularly challenged by his attempt to articulate the difference between a human right and a “tool” to fulfill a human right. The author creates a metaphor: “For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse.” And yet I remained confused…if you need the horse to make a living, meaning that you’re jobless and maybe even starving and homeless without one, how is it not a part of the equation? Can you just dismiss the horse, the Internet or any other “tool” as unnecessary, or declare that it should not be made available to all people, with a discussion of language? This seems to me like a loophole, and it seems to be missing the point.

.As this experience demonstrated, equal access to the Internet and to other digital technologies creates, or inhibits, equal opportunity. It seems like Americans would agree that education is a right we’re granted as citizens, but if you need access to the Internet and digital technology to make the most of your education and to even complete your assignments at the most basic level, doesn’t it follow that digital “tools” are an essential component to your “right” to education?

My blisters have (almost) healed, but I’m sure that I won’t quickly forget this experience with the digital divide. I’m actually almost thankful that I was in the “Access Denied” group. Being subjected to the frustrating effects of the digital divide has left me more able to articulate my thoughts about the problem—and very confident that in today’s high-tech world, digital access is certainly a civil right, and one that remains unfulfilled for many Americans.

The end of our experience–we discuss our mistakes while Brendan struggles to type our muddled assignment


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Experience 2: (Insert Surprised iPhone Emoji Here)

// Posted by Elizabeth on 09/22/2014 (1:45 PM)

When our “Top Secret” group decided to develop a simulation for the class experience we were to lead last Wednesday, I was excited that we would be assigning characters to each individual student, and thrilled that we would be making… Read more

When our “Top Secret” group decided to develop a simulation for the class experience we were to lead last Wednesday, I was excited that we would be assigning characters to each individual student, and thrilled that we would be making our experience into a kind of game for everyone in class to play.

We sat in the group meeting and I continued to internally brainstorm how we would have rounds for the experience, how we could potentially eliminate players and how we could have chosen a “winner” to be made out of one of the many players in our game of cyber security versus cyber freedom.

Obviously the initial ideas I had did not come to fruition; this was for various reasons and I don’t intent to suggest that there was conflict in our group. It just worked out that our experience remained more of a simulation within the framework of the eternal debate between cyber security and cyber freedom. Students still adopted the role of their character and were able to represent that character’s individual interests in the simulation, but it was more of a discussion focused on critical thinking and decision making than a lighthearted game between some very real players in the world of cyber security.

Of course, when the experience was over, I was very pleased with the results of our group’s idea and planning. I was particularly comforted because I entered the experience very nervous for how it might go, and concerned that this wasn’t something I could entirely predict. When you’re counting on others to come and be prepared for something you’ve planned, you’re relying a lot on their preparation for a successful execution, and that made me nervous. Fortunately, as I said, I left the classroom thinking that things went well and was happy that we designed the experience the way we did.

Then I ran into a fellow Digital America classmate, and everything changed. I joked lightheartedly, asking her how she thought the experience went and congratulating her on having done a good job and having a great costume. She said that she thought it went great and she was thankful I was there to add some “personality and charisma” to the experience.

I was pretty shocked when she said this. It wasn’t necessarily a negative or defensive reaction, but it did surprise me that this is how she described my role in the discussion. (No offense Emily!) Then I realized that she was right—I laughed a lot, and especially when I was speaking in character as Silicon Valley, I adopted a tone of silliness and exaggerated my voice. I used the example of an executive’s obsession with his BMW, which is probably a fairly accurate stereotype, but is more mocking of my character than it truly represents Silicon Valley executives’ priorities and business decisions.

Afterword, I was thankful that I had this encounter with my peer and had the opportunity to reflect further on my role in the experience. Again, I had never considered myself as having played the role she was describing, and yet at the same time I could see myself doing it. Was it in the name of avoiding awkwardness or conflict? Was I just trying to keep it light and fun? Was this a reflection of my initial idea to make the experience into a game? Truth be told, I’m not sure why I adopted a sort of “class clown” role, or why I felt the need to laugh at Damian (In the nicest and friendliest way possible, of course!) when he went on rants about the political interests of his character, the government of Hong Kong, and tried to sound entirely diplomatic in “negotiating” with whistleblowers like Snowden and other countries like the U.S. and Russia.

More questions remained in my head: What if it had been more serious, and we as a group (myself especially) had tried to make the tone more realistic? Would it have been even less awkward that way? How would it have worked if the experience was set up as more of a game? Would my jokes and lighthearted tone have been more or less appropriate?

Of course, I still can’t answer my nagging questions, and yet overall I’m happy with how the experience turned out and how the class was able to engage our discussion. I think one of the biggest takeaways from this that I have as one of the organizers, as I wrote in my evaluation email to Dr. Rosatelli, was that it’s difficult to control the outcome of an experience like this. And even though I wish I had spent less time stressing about the success of the project before it happened, it’s true that as the leader it’s hard to anticipate how the plan is going to play out. In this case, I failed to predict or control how seriously people (even myself!) were going to take the simulation. But truth be told, I see that as part of the beauty of the creative process and of dynamic class assignments like these experiences: it can seem that they’re very meticulously planned and detailed, but the actual results and situations can still surprise you.

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Experience #1–The AIM days are over

// Posted by Elizabeth on 09/08/2014 (1:00 PM)

When I rushed home from work on Wednesday evening to join the LA Live Chat and participate in our first Digital America class experience, I immediately typed in my old AOL Instant Messenger username as my username for the chat… Read more

When I rushed home from work on Wednesday evening to join the LA Live Chat and participate in our first Digital America class experience, I immediately typed in my old AOL Instant Messenger username as my username for the chat room, fully aware that I would be interacting with my classmates and would have to see these people again on Monday afternoon. I used my silly “iscream4icecream” username because it was 9:28 and I didn’t have time to think of anything witty and modern, but I also did it because it was comfortable, and because that was the identity I’d always had in my past experiences with the semi-anonymous instant messaging I did in middle school. Needless to say, when I joined the chat and saw other folks’ clever, cool and fresh usernames like “Off the Record” and “Lux,” I was embarrassed. Truthfully, I hadn’t put much thought into what my username would be at all, but suddenly I felt like it was a big deal and was really happy that the chat room was anonymous.

Of course, I got over my embarrassment very quickly, and I realized it would actually make a slightly funny and very thought-provoking story: why did I automatically think back to the days of AIM and my preteen identity when I was about to enter the LA Live Chat, and why did I react with confusion and concern when this chat room was different than what I expected?

I make this confession about my initial feelings during this experience because the chat room surprised me. Technology is something that most people in today’s society are very accustomed to. I was comfortable with the idea of online chatting because it was something that I thought I had done before, and I had no idea that such a primitive website could throw me off like it did. In reflecting on this experience, I realized that I rarely find myself in a digital environment that I’ve never been exposed to before—apart from downloading a new app on my iPhone, which I rarely do. I suppose I’ve never been very innovative in the way I use existing technology, and I certainly don’t see myself as someone who seeks out new ones—I still had a sliding, not-so-smart phone until about a year ago. The LA Live Chat was something outside of my previous experience with online communication, and it immediately startled me.

So not only do I have a greater appreciation for those early inventors and users of the WELL and other beginning online communities, but I also think I have a greater understanding of the “transcendence” these folks might have felt in their first online interactions. I can’t imagine joining the WELL with no clue how it really worked and no concept of social norms on the site—the idea alone takes the above phrase “outside of my previous experience” to a whole new level. I can certainly see how this would feel psychedelic and “out-of-body” to someone who had never used online communication technology before.

Fortunately, I got over my embarrassment and ended up very much enjoying the conversation. I found comfort in our topic of 90s culture and memories, which was actually another surprise about the chat experience. When the theme was suggested in class I was only reminded of countless online Buzzfeed articles listing “The 25 Things You Miss Most About the 90s,” which promise to invoke happy memories and nostalgia but usually consist of cheesy captions and some strange, low-quality images. The chat room experience was different in that even though the technology was older and more frustrating to deal with—reloading the conversation every few seconds certainly seemed like a huge burden at first—the discussion and the connection I felt with the other chatters was real, and it was great to be able to anonymously joke and bond with my peers without the pressure to say something intelligent that I sometimes feel in the classroom. Again, this allowed me to put myself in the place of early WELL users in that those people were joining the community to talk about things they cared about and to connect with like-minded people. Deadheads certainly joined with the ability to discuss a music genre and a culture that they were truly passionate about, and women in the workforce logged on to find other women struggling through similar issues of gender and identity. I can imagine that these contexts and conversation topics instantly established a compatibility between WELL users, and that they would have brought people some sense of level-headedness even in a new and astounding experience—just as talking about the 90s did for me.

Overall, I’m thankful for this first experience in that it really did get me thinking differently about early technology, and while I know that’s the right conclusion to draw because it was the whole point of the experience, I also know it’s true because of the way I felt when I joined the chat. The situation surprised and almost challenged me, and I’m certain that if I ever find myself participating in an LA Live Chat again, I won’t choose to call myself iscream4icecream.


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