Thursday, February 26, 2009

on social networks, paranoia, and the proper metaphor

(If you're one of my Facebook friends, I want to be clear: I'm not talking about you...I'm talking about the person behind you.)

For a long time, I resisted joining the rising internet trend of social networks. To the uninitiated, they struck me as remarkably similar to the "internet for dummies" approach of AOL...and the very thought of slipping into an AOL-esque wonderland of corporate stupidity made me shutter in fear.

Why? Two reasons. First, when I was getting my MA, some of my colleagues worked part time at AOL. Their job? Scouring the chat room transcripts and customer e-mails for "banned" words and phrases, so the offenders could be kicked off the service. That let me know that AOL was basically fascism rapped in the flag of "family friendly." Even at my then politically unenlightened state, something about this really gave me the heebie-jeebies. Thank goodness this kind of censorship doesn't still happen online, right?

Secondly, when I first met her, my lovely spousal unit subscribed to AOL for some unfathomable reason. I remember being over there and hearing the computer hard drive freaking out. When I asked spousal unit (then only "significant other unit"), she told me that AOL automatically updated their software on a normal basis. Yes, this means that they essentially hijacked her computer hard drive. This wouldn't be so bad if they were just providing bug fixes and security updates, but with the aforementioned censorship, I became very scared, paranoid, and suspicious. Plus, AOL's software was basically a bloated warthog anyway, and it had slowed her computer down to a crawl.

These factors led to my first attempt to classify social networking: it was like volunteering to have all your keg parties and weekend bashes observed by the KGB.

So this is what I thought of social networking. However, I was (by this time of my live) smart enough to know I couldn't entirely rely on my prior conceptions and really needed to figure out stuff for myself. Yes, I bit the bullet and signed up for my own MySpace account.

What happened when I dived into this new virtual playground? I would like to say that I learned the error of my ways and discovered a wonderland of openness and communication, entirely new models of interaction. However, at first, I was mostly listening to the sound of crickets. Then, however, something funny happened...I was contacted by someone from high school on whom I had a crush (and calling it anything other than that would be pure fiction on my part). Then I was contacted by another. And another. And then several long-lost high school friends.

What was funny about this, however, is how the conversations inevitably went. They would, on average, start with a "remember me?" message on either side, then a "this is what I've been up to" message, then no more than 2 attempts at ongoing conversation, then whomever contacted me would not reply to a message, and I'd go back to being out of touch with this person. This was the procedure the vast majority of the time.

I really started to get paranoid (or, as I'm going to start calling it, I went all "Mike") when contemplating the sudden fall-off of conversations. Did they quit talking to me after remembering what I was really like in high school? Were they put off by who I had become? Did they stop writing because they felt the whole idea of reestablishing ties with me was, in hindsight, a huge mistake?

I decided that maybe the lack of a real discussion was because of the forum, so I got myself a Facebook account (profile name Mike S. DuBose), and damnit, if the same thing didn't happen there. It is this point where I came up with my second social networking metaphor: it was a high school reunion attended by classmates with whom you didn't really have anything in common...and therefore only fun in the beginning when it was still a novel experience, or later on only if you keep drinking heavily.

After a while, I decided the whole social networking thing was silly. Instead, I put my energy/need to kill time into Twitter, which I found much more effective. It seemed to attract a much more serious clientele, revolving more around thinkers than "hey, remember me?" figures from your past. Twitter devotees just weren't interested in sending you survey/questionnaires/chain letters, inviting you to play games, or trying to trade fictional prizes and gifts...things that, much to my chagrin, seem to pervade MySpace and are starting to invade Facebook.

Twitter also has a simple yet awesome interface. I loved its 140 character format (which rewards brevity and works well as a 1-liner dump), but I liked that I got into funny, serious, and intriguing conversations...instead of empty "high school reunion" talk, which accounted for about 90% of my Facebook and MySpace experience. Twitterers seem to talk to you rather than just spout enigmatic oddities as they do in Facebook's status update (those of us who are truly weird, by the way, can be strange and say something meaningful). Simply put, Twitter is just better. So I abandoned both my MySpace and Facebook accounts for a good long while, twittered, blogged occasionally, and put the whole concept of social networking out of my head.

Then, however, I got the bright idea to see if I could cross-post my twitter feed into the mainstream social networking...mostly so I could use it all as promo for this blog. Myspace had no easy way to do it and refused to let me include links. Facebook, however, allowed for direct posting access. So I linked up my tweets with my status update and tried to re-embrace Facebook.

I discovered a few things. Facebook is easier to get non-internet-savvy people to join, for some reason. It also becomes tremendously more powerful when you get above the 50 friend mark...then there is enough input to guarantee a workable signal to noise ratio. In other words, you gotta get enough Facebooking junk to be able to find the good stuff.

I really only look at the status updates, though, so I am essentially using Facebook as an inferior version of Twitter. But this seems to be the method of use preferred by many users. I have one or two friends with whom I've IM'd via Facebook, but by and large, if I could convince five or six of my Facebook friends to move over to Twitter, I'd probably abandon it again.

Some Facebookers persist, however. When I asked a while ago why people Facebook, no one could give me a good answer. One friend, also disdainful of Facebook, had a great metaphor: it's like the bar in your town that sucks but you go to because your friends like it for some reason.

I like this. However, I always have real conversations in bars...or at least funny/bad/memorable conversations. The same rarely happens in Facebook. Contact there is usually fleeting, impermanent, and entirely surface.

Where else have I seen this?

Finally, last week, it hit me. Where did people just try to shock rather than engage? Indulge in two second bursts of conversation before going on about their day? Are more worried about the appearance of nicety than any real depth?

This led me to the perfect Facebook metaphor: Social networking is like being stuck the halls in high school between periods. It's a fine place if you really loved high school. However, for those who developed very few lifelong friends in high school, had hardly any lasting relationships, really deplored the shallow nature of the social structure, or just wished we were somewhere else, somewhere meaningful, well, it's not an ideal hangout. It's a place between places, an insignificant interstitiality, where seemingly nothing meaningful ever gets said or done.

I realize that it might sound like I'm being harsh here. There were plenty of people in high school who I really enjoyed, who I either hung out with constantly or wished I knew better. I had many great conversations, learned a lot by talking to people, and even gained a certain level of strange notoriety. I could work the limited social opportunities of the non-class periods of school well enough. However, people only ever really got me if we had the chance to get away from school and settle into the real work of knowing each other.

That kind of connection didn't happen between classes. Will it ever happen in an online place which is remarkably similar? I've had some very memorable Facebook moments, but frankly, the ratio is not all that high.

Facebook is high school between classes. It's a starter kit for sociality, a place to practice gaining and maintaining the connections. It's not a great place to live your life, though. Sooner or later, we're going to have to grow up and find a better way to really connect.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

programming note

Today is a special is the anniversary of the day where the higher powers blessed this earth by giving us my spousal unit. And if you know her, I want you to do a favor. When it hits 8pm, please take a minute out of your day to dance in celebration of Lori. It doesn't have to be a tango or anything, but I feel some celebration is in order, so shake it for my baby.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

backing up

Way back when I was starting college, computer were just starting to really make inroads into education. I knew that computer skills would eventually be a necessity, so I signed up for a "Microcomputing Skills" class at the community college, where we learned dBase, Lotus, and WordPerfect 5.1. Ah, the days of DOS. It was less an operating system and more a special magical language, designed to alienate the technophobes and elderly.

One of the first things the teacher tried to impress upon us was the importance of making multiple backups, and we needed to buy disks to store these copies. Feeling like I was on the edge of the future, I eschewed the 5 1/4" floppies in favor of pre-formated 3 1/2" disks. I ended up doing a lot of work at the campus computer lab, and I kept all of my papers on those disks. I would say they became my friends, but at the time, I didn't really care that much about my disks or my work. I was 19 and, as a result, fairly stupid. College was more a way to avoid getting a real job than anything else, and these disks were as valuable to me as the paper on which I'd doodle when bored in class...which was, unfortunately, quite often.

Then I got my 2 year degree and decided to take a semester off. Nearly 3 years later, I realized that there were probably better career options than my job as a water salesman, so I applied to the local commuter college, went back to the pizza place (for the flexible hours and free bread sticks), and searched for my old computer disks. Luckily, I had landed on the proper side of the 5 1/4" versus 3 1/2" debate, so my disks still worked. I only found one of them, but I was fine with did have most of my work still on it.

Going back to school meant that I would be doing a lot of work at the university. I had a brief stretch of owning my own computer...a glitzy, hi-tech 16 megahertz machine that I couldn't get to do anything useful. However, in the two years between buying that computer and going back to school, it was already obsolete. That was fine, though...I was used to working at labs, and they provided me more opportunities to run outside for a smoke than would working at my parent's the time, they were still pretending that they thought I didn't smoke, and I also kept up the illusion while around them.

Anyway, I soon sank into my own college routine...classes in the morning, working entirely too much, then driving back to the university. My nights at the U would be spent either reading on the top floor of the library or typing on some fairly hefty IBM machines in the computer lab, saving my drafts on my prized 3 1/2" and reveling in my hi-tech knowledge of special WordPerfect keystroke commands. I did notice a few new-fangled machines with some weird peripheral that people called a "mouse," but they were more an oddity than anything else. During my occasional breaks sitting outside the lab, smoking Winston Light 100s and drinking dirt-like vending machine coffee, I thought of myself as some multi-class hi-tech scholar/adventurer, pushing the limits of technology unseen only a few years before.

One day during my senior year, I pulled up to the university, trudged across the campus, found an empty seat in the computer lab, pulled out my disk case, went to grab my one disk containing everything I'd written in over three years, and started whimpering as its case fell apart in my hands. Suddenly, I realized that among all the lessons I should've learned in my community college years, the Microcomputer class's lesson of "always make multiple backups" might've been the most important thing I ignored.

Luckily, the lab attendants were well-versed in dealing with panicky students. More than once, I had seen frightened undergrads approach the techies almost in tears because of some work-destroying glitch. I stumbled up to their desk and moaned, "" They were indeed able to help me get the disk together just long enough to copy it to a spare disk. From then on, I learned the cardinal rule of computers...indeed, I had it burned into my soul:

This is a lesson I have never forgotten. Nowadays, I keep copies of everything

  1. on my office computer
  2. on my flash drive
  3. on my laptop
  4. on at least one online site
  5. on my desktop
  6. on an external hard drive (for monthly backups)
  7. and even on cds, which I will occasionally burn and mail to an out of state friend or relative

Thus, in the event of a nuclear war, my scholarship would probably survive. I'm still uncertain on whether I deserve such posterity, but there you go. I can never violate the backup rule, and online storage is one of my many weapons.

However, lately my appreciation for online storage has led to weird complications. As more and more online services follow the draconian Facebook terms of service model, this means that ownership of the stuff I've backed up online might be questionable. Does the university own my online class stuff, or do I? Say I post something both to my course website and to a blog, does the university now have to fight with Wordpress or Blogger? If I link to this post on Facebook, who owns it? If I back up this blog on Wordpress, the same issue exists.

Some people think the real solution is to go to open source blogging and social networking. I disagree. I think we should all back up everything with at least three different web companies, so our stuff is owned by a bevy of different, competing companies. That way, we might go far towards pushing Wordpress, Google, Facebook, MySpace, several major universities, and about thirty other companies to all get involved in a major mish-mash of interconnected lawsuits when one of them expresses interest in one of my bon mots. They'll spend so much time suing each other that we, the humble users, will be free from their lawyerly gaze. All major web companies will lawsuit each other into bankruptcy, and we'll be back to fending for ourselves online.

It would be a better world...we would bring a lot of evil corporations to their knees by turning their own terms of service against them! Of course, we'd also have to reintroduce the floppy drive, but no great deed is without its costs, I guess.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

thoughts on an ending

Lately, I've been feeling lethargic. I have all new class preps this semester, and that, in addition to the usual array of puzzling student battles (someone is complaining to my boss that I'm making him bring his book to class), has me not really touching my book. The cyberpunk chapter is the sticking point. Sure, every so often, I do reread Neuromancer, but I don't have the time to do a sustained blast at the analysis....and this is turning out to be the kind of scholarship which I just can't drop and return, drop and return. Much like my inability to actually find the time to do more than simply imagine playing my guitars, my inability to write has led, from time to time, to me questioning exactly what I'm doing with my life.

This uncertainty seems to be an increasing element, encroaching on me beyond its normal "winter depression" boundaries. I should be used to it, but every so often, it still takes me by surprise that I am not where I want to be in my life, and that I seem to not be making much progress. Usually it's little things that nudge me into an apathetic lethargy...another job rejection letter, hearing about how my friends are struggling on the market (most worse than me), not finding anything on television, my drinking partners holed up with their computers instead of sharing minipitchers, and so forth. Sometimes its nothing at all. Other times, however, something sizeable comes along and does some real damage.

Last Thursday, I was throwing stuff together for the second of my two night classes. With ten minutes left, I checked my mailbox, hit the restroom, and started filling up my water bottle when my cell phone rang. It was a friend of mine calling from Florida...a really good friend, but I fear he's a bit of a Luddite, so I tend to lose contact with him in between my visits to the ancestral homeland of Jacksonville. The call was, in short, unusual.

I was happy to hear him, but before I could let him know that I was off to teach, he told me "I'm afraid I have to hit you with some bummer news." A friend of ours, it turns out, died that afternoon.

I taught the class pretty much on autopilot...luckily, I've been doing this long enough to where I can go into my "blank space" and just unconsciously ramble on for an hour fifteen without thinking of much of anything...which is what I did. I hurried down to my office, ran into a student, and came very close to snapping off said student's head before heading out to the frigid dark, with car scraping and an icy drive ahead of me. I tried to play loud disgusting rock music for the ride, but it didn't help me much.

The whole time I was heading back home, my brain was locked in the most depressing battle in recent memory. In this corner, I had all the memories of my deceased friend R....and they ranged from life-of-the-party moments, to memories of performing petty vandalism, to the times where my friend would come close to snapping, whether from too much alcohol, girlfriend problems, or, on occasion, for no real reason whatsoever. I remembered when R. began therapy, which somehow made him less social. I remembered hanging out with him and other friends, listening to new (to us) music, smoking way too many cigarettes. I remembered R.'s smile and infectious laugh.

In the other corner, however, battling my varied memories of my late friend, was something else. It wasn't the standard dark, morbid, "what happens when you die?" stuff, either. Instead, something was reminding me of exactly how long it had been since I saw him. I also started to wonder how well I really knew him in the first place. I knew he had some issues, but I never really knew what they were. I knew R. could snap, but I was never able to predict when it might happen...or know if I could anything do about it. This friend was a friend of my brother's first, and during that drive home, something was reminding me that as much as I liked hanging around him, I was probably mostly "the little brother" to him.

Coming home provided no solace. The lovely spousal unit was at a conference, so the house was dark. I called the friend who broke the news to me for more info, but it was not a comforting conversation. R. died of liver failure...but, of course, the story was more complex than that, and I have to wonder if his body gave out or if he simply gave up on living. Knowing I couldn't make it back for the funeral didn't help any.

After the phone call (which I had to break off early because I just couldn't think of anything to say) and a few moments of quiet reflection, I finally decided that, for the love of all that's decent and good, I had to do something fun. Luckily, a friend of mine was available, so we had some drinks and played video games where we smashed stuff.

This isn't the first time I've experienced loss. Both my grandmothers have died in the last few years, and I wasn't there for either one of them. My paternal grandmother had slipped into a coma by the time I could've seen her, and my maternal grandmother was in another country. I don't think I knew either of them nearly enough (especially my dad's mom)...I'm not sure that's entirely my thought in either case, but that doesn't stop me from feeling guilty.

This one was different. I knew R., spent plenty of time with him, and enjoyed his company immensely. However, I always had the sneaking suspicion that, as much as I liked him, I was probably only a blip on his radar. Sadly, this is a suspicion which extends to many people I know...there are many people who I value highly and enjoy immensely, in spite of my suspicion that they don't really think much of me at all or (in one documented case) actively dislike me. But with them, I guess there's always some part of my mind which argues there is still time to make those connections, even though it will probably never happen. No such time exists with R., his death was like having hope torn away.

Even though this upsets me, it's not the thing on which I find myself dwelling. From the sound of it, when R. died, he was not the happy, friendly, lively person I remember. Instead, he was lonely, depressed, and, to some extent, destroying himself. I wonder how he felt about his life, about the impact he had on the world...and, unfortunately, I am not optimistic.

Of course, I've been thinking about this a lot over the last week. I know of no list of "good ways to die" or "good thoughts about death." I hear lots of advice, but most of it seems trite, beside the point, or incredibly naive. It would be easier if I was a Klingon or something...a glorious battle would be enough, in that case...but instead, I just have to struggle on and do the best I can.

What have I come up with? Two things that at least provide a bit of comfort and guidance to me.

One of my favorite tv shows deals with death a lot, and earlier this season, the protagonist told a dying patient that the best he could come up with was to hope your last thought is a happy one. I like that. There are lots of marvelous things out there to see, amazing people to know. Warren Ellis once said that every day we're here is a bonus. I tend to agree. Any day that I know I can converse with friends, learn something, see my beautiful spousal unit...those are good days, and those are things I want to remember when the time comes.

The other good thought comes from one of my favorite books, where the progatonist goes on a rant, which I find notable:

we drink 'til we stink and we smoke 'til we choke because that's how we get things done, you and me. Spending our lives making things and making things out of our lives, because anything else would be dull as hell. And we're damned if we're going to sit at the other end of whatever years we get, saying, well, what the f*&# was that for?

Doing something helps. But it's more than just that. It's good to make an impact on the world, to change things in some way, but there are other issues to consider. Am I helping? How can I make the world a better place than before I got here? What can I do to improve the place, to help people's lives? I firmly believe it's the most moral question we can ask ourselves, the best thing we can do.

And that's all. Know people. Enjoy their company. Try to help them. I hope it's enough.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to dive into that mound of work, try to make some headway...and maybe that will help.