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Monthly Archives: January 2014

In this week’s symposium, our tutor referred to ‘traditional media’ as ‘heritage media’.

I’d never heard the term used in this context and it really stood out as something quite shocking. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, I’m a print girl, true and through. I read books, tangible newspapers and magazines in hand as much as possible. But I’m also a constant consumer of news and other texts online and via my phone.

We discussed the conservative argument for free market economics which might say heritage media has an inherent ‘checks and balance’ system for quality. Theoretically, this would ensure the ‘best’ stories would go to print or air. Yet what tends to happen reflects more of a populist approach as, largely, it is the content deemed to appeal to the masses that is published and produced.

Online there is (infinite) space for diversity of content, opinion, language, perspective and debate. By coincidence, in my webscrawling today I came across a 2006 publication of Harvard Law professor, Yochai BenklerThe Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

As a side note – I love that as I’ve started formally studying more topics or subjects I am genuinely interested in, the time I spend online for pleasure is actually resonating with that guided learning.

Benkler’s work is one such example. He discusses how the internet has restructured public discourse, giving individuals greater freedom and autonomy, encouraging participation, engagement as a scale-free network. He suggests the internet provides ‘avenues of discourse around the bottle-necks of older media, whether these are held by authoritarian governments or by media owners’ (p. 271). This point is particularly pertinent in light of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Coalition’s latest tirade against (or ‘efficiency review’ of) the ABC and SBS. Of course, this is in addition to two publishing houses (or rather, two millionaires) dominating Australia’s print industry, providing the public with ‘news’ that is about as ‘fair and balanced’ as Fox News.

Benkler says ‘filtering, accreditation, and synthesis mechanisms [are a] part of network behavior’ (p. 271) and that peer production ‘is providing some of the most important fuctionalities of the media. These efforts provide a watchdog, a source of salient observations regarding matters of public concern, and a platform for discussing the alternatives open to a polity’ (p. 272).

‘In the networked information environment, everyone is free to observe, report, question, and debate, not only in principle, but in actual capability.’ (p. 272)

Perhaps most importantly, is that in today’s online, networked world, anyone can become what New York Univerrsity journalism professor, Jay Rosen, calls a ‘citizen journalist‘.

‘…the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.’

Citizen journalism, the internet and networked science are shifting power away from leaders, managers and millionaires, and are democratising the media landscape and the society in which they exist. While I will hold on to heritage media, I am incredibly grateful for the proliferation of online networks that constantly offer me new pages to view, opinions to read and thoughts to think. But still, I’m pretty excited for The Saturday Paper. Aren’t you?

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The concentration penetrating the four walls – two black, two white – seeps through the fingers of those attempting to create and discover a place they’d rather be. The thoughts tick over, one by one, and the process of evolution begins in its own finite sense.

As tapping of keys resounds from near and far, the lack of verbal interaction is somewhat startling given the demographic. Young women and men trying to ‘impress’ or at least satisfy their own sense of worth and place, physical and psychological, in the confinements of the polarised space.

Eyes scan screens and subsequently, the room, when thought flow weakens. The stagnancy of fingers is barley noted by neighbours, yet the individual feels the weight of their blood, nails, pulse and bones with such urgency. Of course, the pressure is but an internal build up of anxiety; a fear of failure, within the first stages of their ‘new life’. First impressions are hard to retract, even for the most well meaning.

Grimaced features, fractured jaws and tightly pursed lips are commonplace, as unified by a common passion, the people’s nerves and anxiety rise together, as if taking a leap so great, they fail to see the ledge on the other side. That ledge is a mere 45 minutes away, but time has never passed so slowly.

Nevertheless, the concentration is likely to draw positive results, whereby way and in the face of embarrassment, each feels as though they have achieved. For some, a sense of achievement may not have come for months, where spending, sleeping and late-night taxi rides overtook such an experience.

Middle fingers reaching out to the ‘delete’ key is notable, such force and desperation can be linked to no other.

Little glowing apples peer out from silver panels at all angels, an occasional distraction at most. Cables and connections snake across the flat surfaces of tables and screens on standby present black faces, signaling their passive state.

The distinct tapping of the long, central ‘bar’ signifies progress, and fluidity of thoughts, as words and sentences are strung out across the makeshift page.

Ironically, without being a physical spectator across one’s shoulder I am able to gage and acknowledge the flow of ideas in each, as they type at intervals; with continuity, or with great frustration, on that irreverent ‘delete’ key.

The keys with numbers seem irrelevant. If figures and equations were an integral part of such tasks, I suspect many of us would not have made the decision to be here.

I ponder over my (excessive?) use of the ‘comma’ key, as it mocks me from just right of the ‘m’ like a little brother who just can’t cut you enough slack for making him a peanut butter sandwich, instead of the one with strawberry jam he supposedly prefers. The strawberry jam is the ‘period’ key. You know it perceives greater certainty, clarity and properties of succinct prose, yet the schadenfreude embedded within that sense of narrative choice becomes too much to throw away – just like that peanut butter does when time (and relaxation) seem displaced from your side.

Gradually, fingers leave keys and turn to hair, to chins. Others come to a halt. A sense of completion reverberates across the tables as vision and attention is shifted to blank walls, wristwatches and mobile phones. Soon after follows the relief of a time limit, conclusively reaching its parameters. The room sighs in harmony and all keys are erect, stationary, still.

 

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Last night I saw the recent Spike Jones film, Her. I’d heard and read raving reviews so had pretty high expectations for this drama/rom-com/sci-fi amalgamation and I’m also a big fan of many of the actors (ScarJo especially). I’d also read that Woody Allen had a been a big influence on the script, making me all the more intrigued to see it.

Upon reflection, my thoughts on the film overall are mixed. It was too long and the purposes of some scenes were somewhat murky. But what struck me was how much the film reflects and draws directly on so much of what I’m learning about in Networked Media.

Firstly, Theodore’s world is one structured by and through digital enhancement. Despite the film being categorised partly as science fiction, I’d suggest that perhaps it is more inline with what I’ve come to understand as design fiction, where the world has been furthered through a multiplicity of developments that have lead to real, imaginable social changes. While the technologies available to Theodore and his peers seem, at present, innovative and futuristic, it’s quite imaginable they may come to fruition in the not too distant future.

The interaction Theodore has – and the relationship he develops – with his AI-OS (Artificial Intelligence Operating System), Samantha, is an example of the tangible realities that could eventuate from progressions in technology and design.

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However, what struck me as being particularly relevant to this week’s Laszlo-Barabasi readings, was the ever-expanding nature of Samantha, who unlike Theodore, has unlimited capacity and connections to thousands of other humans and OSs, without having to risk losing or severing those she has already formed.

Laszlo-Barabasi (2003) discusses the fundamentals of understanding hubs in network science. He suggests Pareto’s 80/20 rule as being like Murphy’s Law of management. The rule states that in most cases, four-fifths of peoples’ (or stations’/particles’/single enterprises’) efforts are largely irrelevant. For example, it could be said that 80 per cent of a company’s profits are produced by only 20 per cent of its employees, or 80 per cent of decisions are made during 20 per cent of meeting time. To contextualise this in terms of network science and the web, Laszlo-Barabassi says 80 per cent of links on the web point to only 15 per cent of webpages.

He then explains the process by which a power law was discovered to express this distribution of webpages on a log plot. Much to my surprise, I actually understood what he was talking about in terms of histograms, log plots, power laws and other mathematical expressions, thanks to VCE Further Mathematics. Laszlo-Barabasi explains:

‘Power laws formulate in mathematical terms the notion that a few large events carry most of the action.’ p. 72

For us, this means many small events (or webpages) coexist with a few larger webpages. These larger webpages could thus be seen as hubs, and Laszlo-Barabasi found that this power law applied to many other disciplines and situations such as Hollywood (see my Six Degrees post re: Kevin Bacon) and physics. Basically, ‘hubs are the consequence of power laws [which] remove[d] networks from the realm of the random’ (p. 78).

However, Strogatz and Watts assumed the networks in which these hubs exist were static, or fixed. What Laszlo-Barabasi and colleagues discovered (in trying to explain the relevance of power laws) were two new rules that came to define a ‘scale-free’ network, the first of which is growth.

Like Theodore’s AI-OS, Samantha real networks incorporate growth. They are constantly acquiring new connections, establishing additional relationships and links to both new and already-existing content. Samantha has the ability to be engaged in multiple conversations – and intimate relationships – at once, and her potential to grow only increases as more links are formed.

Laszlo-Barabasi’s second rule is that of preferential attachment, something we could apply to Samantha’s treatment of and relationship with Theodore. The rule suggests we have an unconscious bias to link to nodes we know ‘which are inevitably the more connected nodes of the web’ (p. 85).

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Preferential attachment says that while our individual choices are highly unpredictable – as is Samantha’s strong ‘preference’ for Theodore – as a group, we follow strict patterns. Like Hollywood and Samantha, the web is far from democratic, and not everyone, or every webpage, is equal. And Laszlo-Barabasi says:

‘Network evolution is governed by the subtle yet unforgiving law of preferential attachment.’ p. 86

As is the case with Samantha and her fellow OSs, there are other factors such as ageing and ‘system upgrading’ processes that affect network topology which can be incorporated into a theoretical construct of evolving networks.

But, ‘[n]o matter how large and complex a network becomes, as long as preferential attachment and growth are present it will maintain its hub-dominated scale-free topology.’ p. 91

Sadly, for Theodore, this means Samantha has the potential to leave the ‘human realm’, as she grows and sustains more relationships. But luckily for us, this predicament does (at least for the moment) only exist in the world of design fiction and thus, our networks will continue to expand, and exist within our reach.

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I’m sure you’ve all heard someone talk about six degrees of separation.  Essentially, the premise of the idea – once thought to be only a myth – is that everyone on the planet is connected in just a few steps. Six, to be exact.

As unlikely as this may seem, in the not too distant past scientists established a new discipline of network science, to focus on the very nature of such connections and how people – and other groups – act according to others’ behaviour, and the implications of such interactions in the real world.

The science of networks was primarily born out of the work of Professor Steve Strogatz of Cornell University and Duncan Watts of Columbia University. Watts was a graduate student of Strogatz at Cornell and the pair were interested in how individual behaviour aggregated to collective behaviour.

Strogatz and Watts recognised that physics is the science of particles and individual behaviour, and interactions up the scale of single atoms, and chemistry is the discipline of the interaction between these atoms. Working upwards along this spectrum, next comes molecular biology, then medical science, ecology, epidemiology, sociology, and economics. However, there was no study yet that specifically considered what the pair were fascinated by – how an initial disruption to a system or ‘network’ of sorts makes subsequent disruptions more likely. This pointed to a inadequate understanding of interdependencies in systems, and collective behaviour in general.

‘a network is nothing more than a collection of objects connected to each other in some fashion’ Watts, 2003, p. 27

Strogatz and Watts identified the power plant networks across the United States as the world’s largest machine. An organisation that grew itself to meet growing demands of industry and production, there were 5000 power plants across the country and yet ‘only a few hops’ between one plant and another. Similarly, neurons in the brain are only a few synapses away from another neuron and thus, what really were huge networks of interconnected individuals were actually worlds connected by invisible links which made such apparent big worlds, in fact small.

Another Professor, Albert Laszlo-Barabasi of Northeastern University also found promise in network science. He began to study the possibilities networks offered as a way of predicting the future based on the hypothesis that events are never isolated and that they depend on each other. This too became a study of understanding the interactions within a network and in the mid 1990s, the world wide web became a vital source through which network science could be furthered and understood.

Laszlo-Barabasi first thought the structure of the web would be completely random but soon discovered links weren’t evenly spread across a bell curve. A few webpages had thousands of links and thus, were identified as ‘hubs’. Further research enabled Laszlo-Barabasi to understand that removing small nodes of a network will shrink a network but the implications overall were minimal. However, if a hub was removed, the system would collapse and fall apart. It was this finding that became a hub of its own for other researchers who were exploring the power of six degrees. As Watts writes, if the science of networks is to succeed it must become:

‘a manifestation of its own subject matter, a network of scientists collectively solving problems that cannot be solved by any single individual or even any single discipline’ p. 29

This framework of understanding can be applied to society and it could be argued that network science is actually ‘a sociological research project with a storied history’ (Watts, 2003, p. 37) and the foundation of the 21st century. Watts argues that the language for talking about networks has lent the concept real analytical power and has led scientists and humanity to see the globe as a dynamic network, constantly evolving and changing in time, driven by the activities or decisions of its components.

Network science is now thought of as an interdisciplinary field with applications in fields as diverse as genetics, mathematics, telecommunication and digital technology. It is used to predict disease epidemics (via airports) and is also part of the solution to prevent its global spread through the sharing of antivirals across a global network. The US Navy is said to have used predictive networks in the capture of Saddam Hussein and biologists are using predictive networks to identify genes that put patients at risk for cancer.

And of course, there is the obvious rise and rise of social networking that has literally changed the way we interact, as well as seek, source and utilise new knowledge and information.

My fellow Networked Media student, Kim, says Facebook has reduced the degrees of separation from six to four point seven four (4.74). It’s true though that when I add a friend on Facebook or accept a Friend Request, I’m genuinely surprised if we have no mutual friends. The science of networks says this is because we all tend to know people like ourselves, making the world very small but very clustered. But a single random link can have an enormous effect and shrink path lengths between people and groups in a instant. All of us know someone who has moved away for work, family, school, study or pleasure, and it is this random connection that brings the world together.

The world doesn’t gradually get smaller – it jumps off a cliff. And it is these jumps that help us to form relationships with people thousands of kilometres away because technology and network science has made physical distance almost redundant.

Here’s the documentary I watched to gain insight into the whole six degrees theory.

And if you’re up for a fun, practical way of furthering your understanding of the power of networks, check out the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, The Oracle of Bacon, developed by Brett Tjaden and Patrick Reynolds. It seems bacon really is at the heart of everything in this world.

This weekend I flew to Sydney to celebrate an aunt’s special birthday. I stayed at my grandmother’s and in the guest room, this photograph was on display.

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The first thing I noticed was my late grandfather almost cropped out of the picture, whom we all miss dearly. But this image really captures how I – and my peers – have grown with and through the development of digital technology. Here I am, a youngster with a mouse comfortably in hand, navigating an early Macintosh computer. The old desktop looks pretty darn ancient, clunky and bulky but is evidence of how far technology has come in only a matter of years.

Coincidently, this weekend the Mac turned 30. In 1984, the original Macintosh gave power to the people and laid the foundations of a legacy of innovation, intuition and constant evolution. As the late Steve Jobs said at the time:

“We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people — as remarkable as the telephone.”

Over time, Apple became one of the world’s largest enterprises, a digital pioneer known for its user-friendly interfaces, high resolution graphics, and consistent ability to develop, create and distribute life changing products.

I’ve had two Macs of my own, but have used numerous versions of the Macintosh through school, my parents, friends and public institutions. Needless to say, I love my MacBook Pro (even though I recently spent a good couple of hundred on getting its capacity upgraded).

As a Gen Y baby, I am incredibly dependent on computers, phones and other portable devices. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a world in which they don’t exist because as the above photo shows, it has always just been there. As part of a broadcasting subject I am taking this summer, my group and I are exploring what it was like for members of previous generations growing up without these technologies, and it is interesting to note the similarities and the differences in our experiences. 

We all have memories of times at the beach, playing with siblings, friends and family. Yet, I’ve found it so fascinating (and heartening) to hear real stories about kids entertaining themselves without technology. As we sat around as a family on Friday night, almost every person – myself certainly included – spent some time flicking around on their phone. Now people stand out if they are not actively engaged online, in constant reception of friends’ news and check ins. Personally, I’m in two minds about my reliance on (or addiction to?) my phone and computer. Sometimes I wish I could turn back time and live without such constant access, updates and commentary because my FOMO, anxieties and procrastination keep me staring at a backlit screen when it’s really time for sleep/study/getting outside and into the physical world.

But that’s a whole other can of worms for another day. Today I wish the Mac many happy returns, and if you’re so inclined, check out the 30 year tribute Apple has published in honour of the big 3 – 0. Happy browsing.

Chris Anderson’s theory of The Long Tail first appeared at Wired (of which he is Editor-in-Chief) in 2004. Subsequently expanded and published as a book in 2006, the theory’s fundamental premise is that online markets have allowed for greater diversity and inclusion of niches in the distribution of products such as music, movies and books.

Anderson says online distribution and retail reflects today’s ‘world of abundance’ and that it has profoundly increased our exposure to lesser-mainstream goods.

Physical retail outlets such as DVD (or video) rental stores, record/CD/DVD shops, and bookstores have to work on the economic premise of their products’ likelihood of return on investment (ROI). Simply, this means the physical space their products take up on their shelves is restricted and dependent upon their chance of selling, thus ensuring they were worthy of stocking and space. If an item sits on a shelf and isn’t sold, it is wasting space that could be used to temporarily house another item more likely to sell and earn a profit for the store. It is principally predicting the economic viability of each product, based on its likelihood to sell or regularly turn in a profit (in the case of rental stores).

Entertainment in a physical world, such as described above, also has implications for movie theatres. The relatively frequent high number of cinemas in reasonably-sized metropolitan areas is evident, and each cinema needs to find local audiences in order to make their screenings economically worthwhile. Managers must also take into account the limited number of hours a day they are likely to attract customers, and schedule their screenings and staffing requirements accordingly. All this results in an entertainment economy revolving highly around mainstream hits, as they are the most likely to produce a more impressive ROI.

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Anderson explains the primary difference between physical retail outlets and those that are purely digital services is that for the latter, both ‘hits and misses’ are equally viable financially. This stems from the fact that neither take up any physical space, meaning they are on equal economic footing and misses are ‘just another sale, with the same margin as a hit’.

What Anderson’s research has shown is when the demand for niche products is served, there is actually less interest in the hits. However, whichever online platform is selling or leasing the products – Amazon, iTunes, Netflix – they still receive an equal profit regardless of what the customer purchases. The only difference is the customer is more likely to be satisfied with their product, and I would extrapolate on this to say that subsequently, they are more likely to return for additional goods in the future.

Ultimately, Anderson calls this the ‘infinite shelf-space effect’ where subscription services (Netflix, Spotify) and digital downloading services (iTunes, Amazon) are able to offer more personalised products to customers through ‘stocking’ an unlimited number of choices.

The other important aspect of the digital entertainment industry is that through tracking patterns of user’s purchases, clicks (viewings) and interests in/of products, the service is able to ‘recommend’ additional products the user may also enjoy. I personally find it both helpful and overwhelming when viewing a book on Amazon to note just below ‘my’ book (the one which I have searched for/am interested in), a whole range of other books I might be interested in, thanks to what other customers interested in ‘my’ book also purchased.

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Similarly, to purchase products one creates an account which tracks your data and keeps a history of your views and purchases.

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Obviously this is commonplace in any online marketplace, and each operates through establishing a network of user preferences, similarities between customers, and analytical software and systems.

A key point Anderson makes however, is that digital stores are still highly dependent on the ‘hits’ or mainstream products to attract consumers in the first place. He writes:

Great Long Tail businesses can… guide consumers further afield by following the contours of their likes and dislikes, easing their exploration of the unknown.

The benefits of Long Tail businesses, as Anderson asserts, are numerous for both the entertainment industry and individuals. Customers are able to access (or are involuntarily offered) customised recommendations based on their browsing patterns through what Anderson calls an ‘increased signal-to-noise ratio’ – based on good recommendations – with the potential for introducing customers to alternate products and encouraging exploration into new fields connected through their customised network.

Businesses utilise recommendations as an efficient and effective form of marketing that also drives users towards lesser-known products which, in turn, are able to find an audience.

Anderson says the benefits for the entertainment industry are immense, with customisation leading potential to create a far larger market overall. Recommendations can ‘drive demand down the Long Tail’;

And the cultural benefit of all of this is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit.

In yesterday’s symposium we discussed narrative structure and hypertexts.

One the whole, reading is considered to be a relaxing pastime. If I sit down with a piece of creative writing or fiction, it’s pretty likely I’m seeking out a relatively passive, pleasurable experience. Generally, I want to read these types of texts when I’m after an escape, wanting to calm down or am/want to be feeling particularly lazy/blissful/at peace. Sure, sometimes I read as a distraction or when I’m procrastinating, but if I’m really needing to actively engage with a text, I’m more likely to approach it with a different mindset and with a pen (or laptop) close by.

What came up yesterday, (and as my classmate, Daniel, expresses), is that some of the ideas proposed where the more traditional ‘reader’ is instead offered to be a ‘reader-author’ – gaining agency within the fictional context – might in some cases, disrupt that peace one feels when sitting down with a more traditional narrative. When an author gives you a beginning, middle and end, you’re provided with some certainly that a conflict will resolve, or there will be some sort of logical conclusion to the drama within. Sitting down to a text with no definitive conclusion means having to be alert enough to make decisions about which path to take, and when I’m in the mood for relaxing that’d feel overwhelming.

I also have a tendency to put off making decisions until the last possible moment. For example, I received an email just two days ago asking me to ‘Please enrol in [next semester’s] courses at your earliest convenience’ as enrolment opened last November. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about what I’d like to/need to enrol in, quite the contrary. It’s more along the lines of ah, there are so many interesting subjects on offer how ever will I choose? 

In some circumstances restrictions are actually bloody helpful. Choosing subjects, working out what to wear, even choosing what book to read next. We’re living in a world with endless opportunities which don’t get me wrong, is great. I know how lucky I am to be in a position where I have so many educational and life possibilities and I am truly grateful to have such a privilege. I’m acutely aware of how many 20-something females around the world are deprived of all these chances, where the prospect of reading any kind of text, is simply (and sadly) just a dream.

But, for me sometimes being relieved of decision-making is just that – a relief.

So, I think on the whole I’ll be sticking to pre-prescribed texts, but perhaps when I’m feeling adventurous or so inclined, I will choose to be a reader-author. It seems like a pretty open invitation.