Archive: Oct 2008

One of these days, I’m going to make it to Educause. Until then, I will just have to enjoy the presentations I can find online. Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins has a marvelous slide show (featuring an excellent use of presentation software) called “Social Media and Education: The Conflict between Technology and Institution Education, and the Future,” that’s well worth a look:

Educause08: Social Media and Education

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: 2.0 web)

I was especially struck by her insights about the changing role of educators in an information society, “relating as more experienced co-creators rather than employers.” I see this in my own practice in a class I’m teaching now in which I, and all my students, are blogging. I’ve done this a couple of times before in different classes, and in those courses I’m very much a co-creator with them in that experience rather than an employer-professor-taskmaster.

There are some real challenges to this as a pedagogical strategy, however. If you’re working at anything but an elite educational environment with hyper-motivated and highly skilled students, it can be difficult to get students who are used to the professor-taskmaster model of education to engage with social media in a meaningful way. The dilemma is not the technology, per se, as much as it is the shift in pedagogical strategy. For students who are used to mass-produced textbooks and multiple-choice exams, the unboundedness of blogging and being in charge of their own educational process can be a little disorienting at first. I try to provide my students with some structure by giving them a “Blog Rubric” for how their blogs will be graded, but still, this can be a daunting task for some students. Even with these challenges, I think it’s worth the effort for those us in front of the classroom to figure out ways we might shift our pedagogical strategy so that we become a “guide at the side” rather than the traditional taskmaster-employer-professor.

One of the perils of the migration to digital format for books, magazines and newspapers is the threat to future generations of researchers.  In fact, one researcher warns that if the current trend continues we could be headed for what he calls a “digital dark age,” according to  Jerome P. McDonough, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.    The problem is accessibility.  Think about trying to play a VHS tape when there are only DVD players around.   Several generations from now, much of the data we produce could be lost to inaccessibility.   And, there’s a lot of digital content, some 369 exabytes at last count.

This has very real implications for sociologists and not just those of us interested in digital culture.  A wide range of cultural products (think music or film) and large data sets (think GSS or the census data) are vulnerable to being lost in the “black hole” of inaccessibility.   Part of the problem is proprietary software.   Remember WordPerfect?   Perhaps you don’t, but it was a word-processing software product popular about ten years ago.  Today, no one’s using and few people have heard of it.  If you get a file that’s saved as a WordPerfect document, chances are you won’t be able to open the file and whatever content is in there is effectively lost.    McDonough argues that part of the solution to the threat of a “digital dark age” is open source software.   So, for example, instead of using Microsoft Office’s proprietary “Word” program, if more people used OpenOffice (an open source word processing program), digital content would be less vulnerable to unintentional loss.

That’s only part of the solution, however, as digital content is also vulnerable to deliberate erasure:

“E-mail is a classic example of that,” he said. “It runs both the modern business world and government. If that information is lost, you’ve lost the archive of what has actually happened in the modern world. We’ve seen a couple of examples of this so far.” McDonough cited the missing White House e-mail archive from the run-up to the Iraq War, a violation of the Presidential Records Act.

The power to erase content, and along with it, important parts of the historical record is not new.  This is something that sociologist Poulantzas warned about thirty years ago in his Political Power & Social Classes.   The difference with digital content is that this sort of information-power-move is much easier to accomplish.    Of course, some are taking note of this threat, and working on preservation through a variety of digital collections, but sociologists would be wise to take note of this trend.

A new agreement in a $125 million lawsuit by the Author’s Guild against Google  would expand online access to millions of in-copyright books and other written materials via Google’s Book Search.   This, along with several other new developments, raises a persistent question about the future of the book in the digital era.  With the recent endorsement by pop culture icon Oprah of the Kindle,  has prompted some to suggest that the e-book reader may go mainstream.    Whether or not people want to read books delivered via electronic delivery devices remains to be seen, as there is still considerable resistance to the format.    In his article, The Battle to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World,” Clifford Lynch argues that the literal translation of entire books to digital devices is less likely than the emergence of new genres of texts created specifically for digital devices.     I doubt that the book will go the way of the card catalog, but this is certainly a moment for contemplating the place of the book in the digital era.

These articles from June’s Atlantic are a couple months old now, but they’re still interesting reads in the run-up to the election:

  • The Amazing Money Machine: How Silicon Valley and the Internet shaped Obama’s campaign. The key argument:

    In a sense, Obama represents a triumph of campaign-finance reform. He has not, of course, gotten the money out of politics, as many proponents of reform may have wished, and he will likely forgo public financing if he becomes the nominee. But he has realized the reformers’ other big goal of ending the system whereby a handful of rich donors control the political process. He has done this not by limiting money but by adding much, much more of it—democratizing the system by flooding it with so many new contributors that their combined effect dilutes the old guard to the point that it scarcely poses any threat.

  • HisSpace: Previous communications technology revolutions have shaped how Presidents govern. Here’s a look at how the internet is influencing government today and, in particular, how this might matter in an Obama Presidency. The historical angle, in particular, is interesting food for thought:

    Improvements to the printing press helped Andrew Jackson form and organize the Democratic Party


    Abraham Lincoln became a national celebrity, according to the historian Allen Guelzo’s new book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, when transcripts of those debates were reprinted nationwide in newspapers, which were just then reaching critical mass in distribution beyond the few Eastern cities where they had previously flourished


    Franklin Delano Roosevelt used radio to make his case for a dramatic redefinition of government itself, quickly mastering the informal tone best suited to the medium.


    And of course John F. Kennedy famously rode into the White House thanks in part to the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, in which his keen sense of the medium’s visual impact, plus a little makeup, enabled him to fashion the look of a winner (especially when compared with a pale and haggard Richard Nixon).


    The communications revolution under way today involves the Internet, of course, and if Barack Obama eventually wins the presidency, it will be in no small part because he has understood the medium more fully than his opponents do.

A couple of days a week now, I’m commuting to work via MetroNorth (regional rail line). It’s not bad as commutes go, but it does have me scouting around for good podcasts. I’m a bit of a news junkie, so tend to catch up on Olbermann’s show via podcast (and of course, there’s Maddow), but that tends to wear thin after a bit even for this ardent political news junkie. So, I was delighted when a friend put me on to the Canadian Broadcasting’s series on “How to Think about Science.” It’s got some wonderful interviews with some notable scholars, including the two I listened to on Monday: Richard Lewontin and Evelyn Fox Keller. Certainly not for everyone, but fun times indeed for geeks who enjoying thinking about science. You can access the podcasts via the CBC’s website or via iTunes. Enjoy!

This article, from Bryan Alexander, illustrates the way that the web, and particularly social media gets talked about in higher education. Bryan does a nice job deconstructing the – ooh~scarey! – image that the editors chose to run with the story. It’s ironic that this piece appears at just the time when the Pew Internet & American Life Project has just released a new study, co-authored by sociologist Barry Wellman, that addresses the talk the pervasiveness of social media in most households.  The study also points out the way that technology brings families together. Here’s a little from the Pew on this study:

Instead of driving people apart, mobile phones and the net are helping them maintain social ties, says the Pew Internet report.

Families are also among the keenest users of technology, the survey of 2,252 Americans revealed.

It found that using the net was often a social activity within families, with 51% of parents saying they browsed the web with their children.

“Some analysts have worried that new technologies hurt family togetherness, but we see that technology allows for new kinds of connectedness built around cell phones and the internet,” said Tracy Kennedy of the University of Toronto who helped to write the Networked Families report.”

Personally, I see a lot of fear and loathing of technology in higher education.   And, I also come from a family that’s not incredibly connected via social media.   Yet, my chosen-family and friends are mostly in the “always connected”  category.  I’m curious about what sorts of things people may be hearing and seeing unfold in their own institutions of higher learning and in their own families. Do you see the kind of disconnect that my juxtaposition of these two articles suggests?

My friend Howard Rheingold, (author of Virtual Community and Smart Mobs), has just launched the Social Media Classroom. The site includes an open-source (Drupal-based) web service for teachers and learners. It offers a whole bunch of stuff, generally referred to as “social media” (or, “digital media”) in an integrated platform. Courses using the SMC can select from a menu of social media, including integrated forum, blog, comment, wiki, chat, social bookmarking, RSS, microblogging, widgets and video commenting. There’s also a “classroom” side to the platform that includes various bits of curricular material: syllabi, lesson plans, resource repositories, screencasts and videos. And, possibly the best part, is that it’s all free. Or, as Howard puts it: It’s all free, as in both “freedom of speech” and “almost totally free beer.” Free is good.

It’s Blog Against Poverty day, and that coincides with the unit in my Intro Sociology courses on social stratification.  Coincidence or the divine intervention by Durkheim?  Who’s to say.

I’ve been screening documentaries to show with this unit and ran across, “People Like Us.” It’s a fine film for the intro classes and one I’d recommend for most sociologists teaching at most universities in the U.S.   It’s got some good expert interviews and some amazing footage of rarely-seen people of the upper classes!  And, the story of “Tammy” – a woman who walks ten miles a day to her job at McDonald’s is heartbreaking.  However, the film’s got a fairly pronounced white-suburban bias, or at least, that’s pretty clearly the intended audience.   About the only place that people of color ever show up in the film is in the section on “Bourgeois Blues” about the struggles of the black middle class.   I just don’t know that my students, who are predominantly black and Latino, urban and from poor backgrounds,  are going to relate to the film in a way that’s meaningful for them.     Instead, I’m thinking of either using “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” or “The Corporation,” to provide them with some insight into the current financial crisis.

As part of one of my current research projects interviewing feminist bloggers, I attended a Blogher conference over the weekend. is a syndicate of 1,500 blogs written by women.   At the opening session, one of the organizers discussed some interesting stats about women blogging from a recent random sample survey. The survey, conducted in 2008 by Compass Media with Blogher, sampled 1,250 female Internet users through a nationally representative panel, and 5,000 visitors to BlogHer’s network. Here’s some of what they found:

  • 36.2 million women actively participate in the blogsophere every week (15.1 publishing, 21.1 reading and commenting)?
  • Women are so passionate about blogging that large percentages of women said they would give something up to keep the blogs they read and/or write:

    – 55% would give up alcohol

    – 50% would give up their PDAs

    – 42% would give up their i-Pod

    – 43% would give up reading the newspaper or magazines

  • More than half of women surveyed consider blogs a reliable source of advice and information

You can download a presentation with more about that survey here. One of the things I found most interesting about the opening remarks was that among women who blogging at Blogher, 43% are watching less television to keep up with the blogosphere.   I find that’s generally true for me.  What about you – blogging more (including reading more) and watching the tube less?

“Hack the Debate” is a joint effort of CurrentTV (the network founded by former Vice President Al Gore) and for all the debates in the US presidential election this month (hat tip to Stephanie Tuszynski and Anders Fagerjord on the Association of Internet Researchers listserv).

This means that if you watch the debate on CurrentTV, you’ll see running commentary of live “tweets” along with the regular broadcast. The way it works is some producer working over at CurrentTV will be working “backstage” during the debate and selecting messages from Twitter and sending those to go live and appear on your TV screen at home. (The backend of this is very similar to the job I used to have in the IT-world, back when I was producing live online events, but I digress.)

While Current and Twitter are both promoting this as a “first” time this has ever been done, it’s not. In fact, these sorts of short messages (SMS) over television has been common in Norwegian TV for at least five years now, possibly more. You can read more about it here:

Enli, Gunn. “Gatekeeping in the New media Age: A case Study of the Selection of Text-Messages in a Current Affairs Programme.” Javnost – The Public 2007;Volume 14.(2) s. 47-63