Tag Archives: Facebook

Catfish meshes screens with real life

12 Jan

It’s the final stretch of winter break and that means boredom. Not that I’m complaining all that much. In just a few days my schedule will once again be revved up for the new semester.

But for a a few days I have a lot of time on my hands and that has meant ample opportunity to watch films.

Watching The Social Network last night followed by Catfish today has provided two spins on social networking.

Both films are controversial, but The Social Network has clearly been the more successful. You’re probably familiar with the story of TSN, but Catfish is hard to describe in any great detail without giving much away. It should suffice to say the story, shot in documentary style and presented as true, shows a young New York filmmaker’s burgeoning relationship over social networking with a Michigan family. Trust me, there is a big catch, but I won’t spoil it.

What kept my attention in Catfish was not so much the story but how the film interweaves the virtual and the real so well on the screen, and in a way that’s not really done in The Social Network (even though it’s about Facebook). At least in the early part of the film, shots of Facebook and smart phone screens and Macbook desktops are as numerous as shots of real people, real places, real things. A flight from New York to Colorado is shown as a Google Earth flyover. When Nev, the filmmaker, receives a text, we see the text on his iPhone screen.

I found the interweaving shots of the real and the virtual in this film very true to how many people, especially the 20-30 something young professionals crowd the documentary seems aimed at, actually live. In our lives, young people especially make less and less distinction between real interaction/real life and virutal (or electronic) communication. We spend our days in a blur between screens and physical reality. We don’t separate those realms as much as we use to.

Catfish is one of the first films I’ve seen that acknowledges this reality and embrace it visually on screen.


Why academic writing sucks

17 Nov

Students write boring essays all the time. Big surprise.

The problem is they’re being taught to write boringly.

This conclusion is what I’ve come to after thinking about the topic of writing and education over the last few days. A short post over at 37 Signals set off this round of thinking. In it, an educator proposes a writing class that would essentially work in reverse, teaching students to cut down their compositions, rather than expanding them.

4 pages > 1 page > 1 paragraph > 1 sentence.

That’s the idea. I love it.

The entire focus of writing is turned on its head. The shortest written expression of an idea becomes the most valuable. Editing information is equally as valuable as the production of information.

It evokes the paradigm of journalism. The paradigm of journalism is editing. What is the best way to tell this story? What is the best way to write this article? Those are the questions writers and editors ask every day in journalism. The guiding principle driving decisions of how to present information in journalism is how to most clearly communicate information in a way that will be most accessible to your audience.

Most people in academia (primary, secondary, and the academy) who teach writing in some way would probably say they teach and value clarity and accessibility in writing. That’s good and I think they’re sincere. But these educators, from my experience, teach students to write clearly and accessibly to the wrong audience.

Most educators want students to write to them, the educator. The educator is the audience. Now, the educator is a valid audience. And knowing how to write about a subject area to an expert in that subject area is a valuable skill. But this is the primary audience students are taught to write to from cradle to diploma.

The cumulative effects of this focus on a single audience is devastating to teaching students how to actually communicate in the real world.

A five paragraph theme may be the most logical way to present information to educators, but for most real-world writing situations, this template fails. Think about what most of your writing is. Is it multi-page, thesis-based topic papers? HECK NO!

Our writing is the dozens of texts we send every day. It’s the short (and longer) e-mails we send everyday. It’s the comments we write on Facebook. It’s 140 character bites we spit out on Twitter. It’s the 200, 300 word blog posts every so often.

Now think of the writing we do occasionally. It’s resumes. It’s cover letters. It’s more formal letters to family and friends. It’s invitations to events. It’s letters to businesses. It’s instructions to babysitters and caretakers during nights out and vacations. It’s the longer, more deep blog posts (like this one).

Finally, think of the writing you almost never do (in the real world). It’s academic, topic-based papers.

Educators are teaching students to perfect a form that no one uses (except them).

The lack of use might have to do with the idea that the way in which academic writing is structured is designed to turn away all but the most interested readers. This form is actively trying to turn away potential audience.

The thesis often gets buried at the bottom of the first paragraph, which itself can be quite long. The thesis itself usually doesn’t actually communicate the most important information but rather just acts as a roadmap for the reader.

Key information is strewn throughout the body and is obscured by filling. I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of undergraduate papers contain filler. Students, including me, inject crap into their papers in order to meet what sometime seem like arbitrary page requirements.

Often, I lengthen my papers by including extraneous and extra adjectives and adverbs and other various parts of speech that are not needed or prudent and for which there are absolutely no logical and necessary reasons to demand their inclusion and use in my topical, academic essay.

I would never do this in journalistic writing. But I do it on purpose when writing papers. And teachers eat it up. Do they spurn my extra verbs? No. They don’t even realize this results in totally uninteresting crap writing. If they do, they usually don’t make their displeasure known on my grade.

It’s an example of how disconnected educators can be from how most people read.

On the other hand, journalism is a great example of writers trying to get as in touch with how people read as possible. Why are news stories written in inverted pyramid style? Because people naturally don’t want to read 300 words to get to the point. They want the point now.

We teach students to write introductions. We also need to teach them how to write leads.

Students are taught that they need 4,5,10 pages to explore a topic satisfactorily. They also should be taught that they need to earn the readers’ attention every page they write. No one’s going to read 10 pages of garbage in the real world.

Students are taught that detail is good, that context is valuable. They also should be taught that unnecessary modifiers kill pace and that strong verbs glue readers to the page.

We teach students to write conclusions. We also need to teach them to write kickers.

Teachers sometimes complain that young people vulgarize the English language through ungrammatical text messages and unpolished Facebook updates. But teachers haven’t taught students how to write to these mediums or express ideas in a short-writing world.

That’s what’s truly vulgar.

The Daily Roundup

12 May

Too much stuff going on not to write.

A big shift is happening in British politics as conservative David Cameron and liberal democrat Nick Clegg have become prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively. The Guardian examines.

Arizona banned ethnic studies. Yeah.

CNN has an ascot problem.

Facebook is conducting an all-company meeting Thursday to talk about privacy. Facebook has taken quite a beating lately for its privacy policy.

Some are saying that a picture of Supreme Court nominee playing softball that was on the front page of Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal implies she’s a lesbian.

The Columbia Journalism Review takes a look.

Seven kindergartners were hacked to death in China.

A single boy survived a jet crash in Libya.

I’m so ready for finals to be over. Hopefully I will be updating more over the summer.

And that’s the Daily Roundup. Have a great evening.

Facebook privacy and pondering before you post

9 May

Facebook recently unveiled some new features, most notably, the implementation of the “Like” button all over the web. The feature is suppose to allow you to share content more easily. It also, conveniently, provides Facebook with a new level of psychographic information that can be leveraged with advertisers.

In addition, Facebook has steadily been changing some of its features and privacy settings from opt-in to opt-out, thereby making more and more personal information on the site public or at least visible to more Facebookers.

U.S. Senators are concerned. Some users are upset.

So I’ve been considering these issues for the last few days and reading various voices on the subject, and realized that I’ve never written about the issue before (as far as I know).

So a few thoughts on privacy, Facebook, and the web.

1. Facebook is currently invincible.

They have reached the point of critical mass, meaning that enough people use the site that is the by far the de facto social network. No matter how angry people are, many are unlikely to leave unless their friends leave because there is no similar web application that people could turn to and still find the same usefulness that Facebook offers. So as long as the number of people who leave the site is minimal, there is almost no chance that users will suddenly abandon the service en mass.

And because of that, Facebook has no incentive to create a privacy policy that will make users more comfortable.

2. Your view of Facebook and privacy is probably dependent on what you ultimately want Facebook to do for you and all its users.

As I see it, there are really two ways to view what Facebook’s role should be. Of course, there are variations, but here are the two sides as I see it, distilled.

  • Facebook is like a dinner party. You and your friends are there. Everyone knows everyone else. You might not know them that well, and occasionally someone there might actually only be a friend of a friend, but everyone is still fairly close to you socially. You talk and visit with everyone quite freely. People who weren’t invited to the dinner party generally don’t know what happened at the dinner party. Inevitably, people will talk to other people who weren’t at the party and will find out a few details of went on, but the majority of what happened remains secret.
  • Facebook is like a bar or a crowded restaurant. You and your friends are seated at a table. You still know everyone around the table, but you’re in the middle of a crowded room with many other tables and people around those tables having their own conversations. Now, if you listen, you can understand the conversations going on at the other tables, or at least get the gist of them. Now, while you spend most of the time at your table, if something absolutely intriguing or disgusting or amazing happens at one of the tables, you may get up, walk over and give your two cents. Here, it’s most likely that people won’t know most of the conversation at your table because they’re busy with the people at their own tables, but you never quite know who might have heard what.

Hopefully those similes (yes, they are similes because I used the word “like”) are helpful.

Now, some people think Facebook should be like a dinner party. Others think it should be more like a crowded restaurant.

The dinner party is exclusive. It’s the idea that Facebook should be a place to share information and photos with friends and should basically stay out of everything else. The purest form of this view would be when Facebook was just for college students (and later high school). Creating a place to allow the exchange of information with a select group of people.

As I see it, Facebook is currently more like a dinner party, but is trying to become more like a restaurant.

The restaurant is open. Anyone can come. Sure, you’re going to spend most of your time with your own friends: reading their walls, looking at their photos, browsing their profiles. But every once and a while you’ll stumble across something completely outside your social graph (indeed, perhaps it’s something outside of Facebook that draws you in). Maybe it’s a link or a video or a cool site. Or a product, as many corporations hope. Here you can easily share those things with your friends, the people at your table. But the price of all this is that everyone else can see more of your stuff, too.

Now, I think it’s a bit divisive to argue about which side is better. After all, plenty of people like both dinner parties and restaurants.

But as a matter of reality, I think in the end, those who prefer only dinner parties are going to lose out. Because the restaurant model will eventually win.


3. Because the web (not just Facebook) is destroying privacy.

The web has been destroying privacy probably since the creation of Google. And people have largely allowed this happen without protest, probably because less privacy allows you to do a lot of cool stuff. You can find information more easily and see trends with ease. Also, most of the information publicly available up until now has been fairly innocent, relatively speaking.

But now, with Facebook moving closer and closer to throwing your photos and profile information out into the open for anyone to see, people have started to notice. Up until now, people have been comfortable putting very personal information on Facebook because they understood what was said at the dinner party would largely remain at the dinner party.

The primary reason I believe people are threatened by the erosion of privacy by Facebook in particular but more importantly the web in general, is that it makes it harder for people to present different identities to different groups.

Currently in order to integrate fully into different social spheres, such as work, family, and friends, they must present at least slightly different identities of themselves to each one.

For example, your work identity includes your work habits, your professional skills and aspirations and perhaps a few trivial personal details. But not much else.

But without privacy, all of these identities are eliminated. There are no longer multiple identities. Just one. Your workers have the same access to information as your friends do. Your family can see just as much about you as your friends.

Naturally, people don’t like that. Some things are embarrassing.

But if everyone’s privacy is gone, as people like Jeff Jarvis argue, then you can see your bosses embarrassing information just as easily as he can see yours. If everyone’s embarrassing stuff is out there, then things aren’t quite as embarrassing as they would otherwise be.

That’s one possibility. Others, like Robert Scoble, argue that having everyone’s junk out in the open will actually make us less likely to put our junk online in the first place, instead of just being more overall accepting. I think the most likely possibility is a combination of the two options.

The stigma with making some information public will be eliminated, while the stigmas attached to other kinds of information will remain, causing people to post that kind of information less often. What will escape stigma and what won’t, I don’t know.

This whole debate is a bit jarring for me, and as I’ve read, for others journalists as well, because it’s counter to how we already operate. It’s forced me to consider how other people view privacy.

Journalists operate in the public sphere. Many journalists, when they join a news organization, are drilled with the fact that public will not separate our work (our work identity) from our personal life (or familial or social identity). Therefore, we are always, in a sense, “on.” We are told to always consider how every action we take reflects on our work and the organization to which we belong. We live are told, essentially, to live always as if every moment is a public moment.

So while journalists most likely retain some privacy, we live with a smaller expectation of it online. Which is why it is jarring to me when I had conversations with friends who have disabled or deleted their Facebook account because they do not want employers to access their information. I’m actually less likely to be hired if I don’t actively participate in social media. I just do so with the understanding that whatever I post may become public or read by anyone.

That means sometimes I don’t post things I would otherwise. Most of the time, I do anyways, however.


And the point?

Self-censorship will probably take care of the problem. Yeah, I know that’s a really reductionist answer.

Yes, social networks will become more open. And yes, new, more exclusive ones will always pop up.

But self-censorship is the best way to ensure that we don’t make public information that we don’t want made public. Censorship when directed by an individual at another individual can be a very destructive thing. That’s why we have the First Amendment. But when we direct the power to silence speech at our individual selves, the results can be quite positive sometimes.

People think before they speak. It shouldn’t be that difficult to think before we post.


The citations for the two major readings that spurred this essay are below.

Much ado about privacy on Facebook (I wish Facebook were MORE open!!!)

By Robert Scoble

Confusing *a* public with *the* public

By Jeff Jarvis


29 Mar

Many of you have told me over the course of several weeks that the links that I post to my Facebook are your primary source of news. First of all, I find that scary. Seriously people, make CNN your homepage or something. But absent that, I felt I needed to do something to leverage (in a good way) the influence I have over your news consumption.

So I’m starting this site.

Here I plan to post a daily roundup of stories and links I feel that are important and deserve your attention. I may or may not include commentary and will post other items as I see fit.

Even though I’ll be posting my links on here from now on, that doesn’t mean you need to bookmark this site or remember to go to it each day – I will post a link to the daily roundup each day on Facebook so all you will have to do is click on one link to see all of today’s noteworthy stories.