Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sticking With It

In our interconnected world, the ever increasing ability of individuals from a vast array of backgrounds, places, and socioeconomic strata to produce online content creates an absolutely endless selection of Internet content for users across the world to access. Despite being plagued by the digital divide—or the disparity in access across social strata—the Internet is perhaps the most equal realm of communication in existence in our modern world (Martin). Once a realm reserved solely for those with power, influence, or sufficient capital, the Internet is now a place that functions as a modern soapbox. Through its very public platform, viewpoints and opinions representing every part of society are voiced, creating a medium with significant social, economic, political, and cultural influence. Though I did not initially realize just how extensive the influence of the internet was, the truth of its impact was made abundantly clear while I worked on my IDM project. In fact, one of the reasons why I feel I found such success in creating my IDM project is because the Internet functions as a very public forum, enabling individuals such as myself to publish and distribute information to the world.

Acting as a public forum, the influence of the Internet is quite strong throughout the spheres in which it influences. While the economic and political power it exerts should not be underestimated, to most individuals, the social and cultural pull of the Internet is what is felt most directly by the general public. Working in conjunction with web 2.0, which consists of the emerging, collaborative Internet and its technologies (i.e., social networking sites, mashups, and wikis), the reach of the Internet continues to spread even further, becoming even more deeply entrenched within our society (Beer and Burrows). Socially, the Internet and web 2.0 have been revolutionary in the way they have so drastically changed the way in which individuals occupy social space. Today, the bounds of space and time are easily bridged—the “here and now” becomes a “there and now”—and connecting with others has forever been changed. While the space individuals occupy has been changed within a social context, the cultural implications of the Internet and web 2.0 has altered the way an individual’s space intersects with others. Even if the scope of an individual’s influence does not make a large impact on a grander scale, the change effected within their social and cultural influence is undeniable.

For me, the opportunity to create my own unique online content presented the chance to fully engage in the Internet and web 2.0 and to bridge the last parts of my own digital divide. Socially, while I thought that the space I occupy through the Internet was rather large, considering my active engagement in social networking, creating web content only slightly enlarged my social space, but in a cultural context, more significantly altered the way in which I interact within those that social space. Though I would have much preferred to be able to create an original website, using WordPress introduced me to the versatility of blogging. Using WordPress to create the field hockey team’s website and exploring the wide variety of options a blog enables one to use, I realized that its more narrow focus better suited the scope of my project.

Knowing that my audience would fill a certain niche, consisting of my own teammates, alumni, parents, and other teams within our league, using a blog provided just enough depth and detail for the project I envisioned. Though the project didn’t expand my social space, it did alter the way in which I used that space. Deciding to “go live” only when I felt the blog was finished, I chose to utilize the social space I already inhabited in order to promote it. By emailing the team and sending a message to our Facebook group, the website garnered a huge influx of page views once the word spread, resulting in a one day total of 200+ visits. In addition, I utilized my field hockey specific social space in other ways. For example, in order to create a site that truly represents the team as a whole, I asked for feedback; this constructive criticism will not only help me to improve upon what work I’ve already accomplished, but allow for a sense of ownership among my teammates, which I hope will carry the blog into the future.



Monday, December 7, 2009

Outings with the Old and Innings with the New –Having your Cake and Eating it too!

As a senior in high school I can remember scowling the internet to find out what activities were available at the University of Virginia. I remember before I had even stepped foot on the grounds of the University of Virginia, I found an “in” to my new university through the Theta Kappa Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Website. I didn’t know the people on the screen smiling back at me, and I had never been to the Rotunda…but seeing the website I hoped I one day would.

Thus, when I decided to re-do the “old” chapter website I wanted to maintain the element that had drawn me “in” in the first place. I wanted to maintain the idea that anyone anywhere could look at the chapter and it could translate into a future relationship with the chapter and or its members. Furthermore, I didn’t want to out the “old” but I wanted to incorporate the “new”. I wanted to make sure those same faces I saw four years ago smiling back at me felt that their off-line participation and ongoing love for the chapter was translated in the new online content. I wanted to make it easy for off-line relationships to transform into online content, and for online content to just as easily transform into off-line relationships. It was a task that I envisioned would be harder than it eventually turned out to be. “Online content” is in essence the abstract materials and virtual world created by the internet and those who participate in the creation of it. Consequently, because almost anyone could create it and almost anyone can interact with it is usually seen as extremely accessible. However, although the online content is extremely accessible it doesn’t always mean that off-line relationships will result from knowing online content. For example, most college kids have tons of Facebook friends they’ve never spoken to, who they’d never invite to their birthday party, and whom never take out to lunch. Subsequently, on the other hand “off-line social relationships” are seemingly the opposite. Off-line social relationships by nature are exclusive. Furthermore, it is not always acceptable to make off-line relationships into online content without consulting with that person. Keeping with the Facebook example, posting on a girl friend’s wall the intimate details of a night-out you had together without off-line permission could be grounds for a break in that relationship. Therefore, it can be assumed that there is a thick line between online content and off-line relationship, having one doesn’t always translate to having the other.
In the Facebook examples it might seem like the two worlds don’t playing together nicely, but I found through the Theta Kappa website that fare-play is possible. In working with the website, I found that the two worlds fed off each other, tussling back in forth like a game of hacky-sack. I engaged in old off-line relationships; then I engaged with new content that lead to new relationships; then I talked to past members and current members about what they’d like to see the website look like; then I created content that looked similar to the old in a new way; then I emailed webmasters for permission to access servers; then I got help from the more technology sound; then I created more new content; then off-line people started to create online content; and then people who just knew the chapter by content began to talk to us in person. Then in the end I couldn’t remember where online and off-line began and ended. I couldn’t remember what was old and what was new. I couldn’t remember that the virtual and the physical worlds had ever been apart.
Although the end result was an amalgamation of the two worlds, compromises had to be made for their cohabitation. For example, privacy settings was one of the issues that I feared would either out the “old” or fail to embrace the “new”. As stated before, off-line relationships aren’t always eager to share in public content but new people are often disenchanted when they are blocked by privacy settings. The compromised I made was to keep the blog open to all users while restricting the use of the Twitter to people affiliated with the organization off-line. Ultimately, it allows for both worlds to feel like they can participate with the site online by creating content and hopefully translates to equal opportunity off-line interaction.
Through the process of updating the new website for the chapter I saw that online content and offline relationships are capable of more. I am not saying that what I ultimately created was an equal interaction between the two worlds (I admit that the most visible participation in the online content is fuelled by pre-existing offline relationships) but I am saying that the interaction is there and therefore capable of more. I think a universal message that can be taken from this project —you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water to add more babies—you can just get a bigger tub! That is, in terms of online content and off-line social relationships you don’t have to see them as two separate worlds. There is a way to incorporate online content into offline relationships just as there is a way to incorporate offline relationships into online content. Thus it’s not necessarily out with the old, in with the new, but you can keep the old, and bring in some new. So to all those readers out there, whether you are updating your Facebook page or randomly sitting by that person that popped up in your mini-feed the other day, you can have your cake and eat it too! You can combine the virtual and the physical worlds we inhabit to embrace the future while holding onto the past—just say “hello, ______”!

It Makes Me Wanna Stomp!

Step It Up (S.I.U.) is the University of Virginia’s first co-ed non-greek step team on grounds (campus) whose mission is to inspire an appreciation for the art of stepping at the University. As a past member of the team, I have always found it necessary to promote the team in any possible way; however, with the busy lives that SIU’s members have outside of step in addition to the varying level of technological background of members, it’s very common for members to neglect the team website. For a student organization at UVA, a website can serve as one of the primary liaisons between an organization and its supporters, on and off campus.My aim in creating a site for SIU was something updated, new, innovative, fun, and easy to navigate. I decided to create a new website in the form of a blog (short Internet jargon for a weblog in which users produce a series of posts and receive feedback from visitors in the form of comments). Below is a screenshot of the homepage of the site:

When creating a new site for the team, I sought to create a page that would facilitate the characteristics of a standard web 1.0 page with the ingenuity of web 2.0 applications. My audience heavily influenced which types of applications I incorporated into the site. In 1964, McLuhan discussed the ways in which media engages its audiences, specifically emphasized by his statement: “the medium is the message.” McLuhan asserts that the choice of medium has as much significance as the content. Based on that principle, I was very meticulous in the choosing the theme, layout, and content of the blog so as to integrate certain traits of web 1.0 and web 2.0 applications.

During the process of creating content for the site, I learned that old media forms are still relevant, especially in attempts to promote a student organization, there are basic pieces of information that new media doesn’t accommodate. Old media, in the form of basic websites provide a surfaced perspective to viewers, allowing them to observe and learn about the team, which may deter them from visiting the site again. New media, on the other hand dispenses the information to visitors while utilizing innovative and interactive ways of drawing them in, allowing for frequent visitors. New media, such as “blogs” (weblogs consisting of short posts), YouTube (video sharing site), Flickr (photo sharing site), Twitter (short status updates fed through a timeline of those “following” you), or Facebook (social networking site), targets the audiences of those particular sites by placing the step team’s content within one of the aforementioned realms. For instance, if someone delves into every aspect of Facebook, they will be more likely to access SIU’s Facebook page or if someone enjoys photos, but isn’t really interested in other content, they can access step team photos on Flickr without the interruption of other content.

In designing the SIU blog, the process has taught me that in order to target all Internet users, you have to be able to accommodate them, which is an attempt at lessening the gap of the digital divide. In choosing a theme for the site, I chose a wordpress theme that provided tabs, which I felt were an extremely useful trait of web 1.0 which would augment the functionality of the site while maintaining the standard web-look of a page. The use of tabs makes it easier for a team member’s parent to access basic information about the team through these tabs. On the contrary, a web 2.0 Internet user could navigate through the site using more advanced methods, such as the “tag cloud” (a visual depiction of word content on posted in various places on the site) (seen below) or by commenting on posts on the homepage.

In creating each page and presenting information about the team, I was always aware of whether or not the form of medium I chose conveyed information about SIU in a succinct and concise manner. In order to ensure the merge between new and old media functioned well, I embedded a Twitter and Flickr widget on the side of the page (both externally link to their respective pages, shown below) in such a way to invite audience members who are familiar with those sites to use them, but not to distract viewers. This was yet another aspect of the process which made me aware of the interaction and interconnectedness new and old media have, despite the fact that new media is becoming more prevalent.

Keeping in mind the blog would eventually be maintained by a team member who could possibly have less background with html code (web language) than me, I decided the blog was indeed a better choice over the standard website because it could alleviate issues of the website being neglected yet again. The use of new media via a blog enables the average team member to become a producer of content in a few steps.

The ongoing process of this project exemplified in many ways how the principles of new media have been built upon those of old media, while also proving how both forms of media remain connected in attempts to target audiences. Moving away from McLuhan’s era when content was solely produced unidirectionally, new media encompasses various means of production, both by the producer and the consumer. This mutual relationship between the two addresses some issues of the digital divide by closing the gap (depending on how the media is used) to accommodate varying levels of Internet savvy. This project has also taught me about the indispensable use of new media in promoting content because of its wide array of users. The fusion of new and old media attests to the fact that the medium is the message—the way in which content is present will affect its promotion, distribution, and consumption by others.

Recession Proof

Before I begin on all the sociological reflecting, I will devote the introduction to explaining exactly what my blog is all about. Essentially what I was looking for was a way to share my thrifty tips for college students with limited incomes. Living in a city like Charlottesville provides one many opportunities to cash in on their inner hippie and I was hoping to create a blog engaging those sorts of activities. As I began my blogging I had the mindset that I was going to keep it strictly to recycling tips and sustainable living ideas but I found it getting a little dry, so I decided to spice it up a bit with some humorous tips and videos that I found around the web.

This went well and the blog did not present many problems, besides that of Google Analytics, which proved to be an user error. Everything was sailing along smoothly and was proving to be a bit too easy for a class project. About half way through the semester I decided to run a parallel project/experiment on connectivity. I wanted to challenge myself to create the most wired blog and incorporate the widest array of technologies that I used in my daily life. I was interested in seeing how difficult it would be to completely wire myself silly with this project. While the creation and distribution of the blog was providing me the ability to participate in the web in the sense that I was a working and active contributor, it was the integration of all of the social mediums that gave me the greatest insight into how one truly interacts with technology and web 2.0.

I was also interested in exploring the limits of what we have come to know as Freeconmics. As a user and participant in this digital global community, I was afforded many rights and capabilities that allowed my information to disseminate more quickly and efficiently than those using a standard connection from a computer tethered to a desk. This also allowed me to experience the pressing issue of the digital participation/knowledge divide. I was able to use preexisting knowledge of how these applications interact in order to gain a wider readership and make my blog as efficient as possible. The knowledge of how all these social mediums interact allowed me to tap into a wealth of tools that would take my blog to the next level.

How was this done? With the diagram above, I sought to produce a visible representation of how all these mediums interact in order to form a perfect union between digital contribution and promotion. Viewing the Blog as the main hub of this diagram, I first created a gmail account under the same title ( in order to bolster the name and marketing of my blog. Secondly I established a twitter account under a similar account name to continue with this strategy and was easily able to link it with my blog as well as my gmail account. After this I found various ways to incorporate my personal technology (my iPhone). With a twitter app and the ability send SMS messages to Blogger in the form of blog posts, I had now increased my personal utility and that of my iPhone. Later on I imported my blog posts into my personal Facebook in the form of notes, and later was able to create a fanpage detailing the work on my blog. The fanpage also possessed the ability to be linked with my twitter, creating this massive web of interconnectivity that proved to be quite fluid in the exchange and deliverance of information from one medium to another.

The main topics from class that I was really able to explore were that of Freeconomics, issues with the participation/knowledge divide and that of the internet as a public forum. As stated earlier, with the Freeconomics I was able to utilize a wide variety of free social and networking tools to increase the overall efficiency of my blog, with posts being delivered through tweets, texts, and facebook messages. Again, while the availability of these tools are there for most (if not all) purveyors of digital technology, it was the preexisting knowledge that I possessed of how these tools interact that allowed me to swiftly sync all into this compounded technological exchange. When all of the tools began to work together, I was astounded as to how much creative control I possessed in how my messages and ideas would be delivered. The internet no longer existed as a forum bound by the restrictions of years past, with expensive equipment or unbearable startup costs, but was now a free flowing exchange of ideas that I could access through a bevy of inexpensive technological means.

Francis Photos by Cappie

In the process of creating the content for my IDM project, I was able to learn a little more about the visibility divide in content distribution that is undeniably observed in today’s Internet age. This visibility divide is characterized by an inequality among Internet users in having their content seen online. The web is such a vast place where a limitless amount of people can create and distribute whatever they desire—as long it doesn’t infringe on copyright laws or break, say, child pornography laws of course. Some glorify this aspect of the Internet as they deem it to be one of its most democratizing features. However, just because anyone can put something online doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be seen.

Anyone can start blogging about their personal political beliefs or perhaps their favorite television shows, but it is only those with the right resources and right sort of social capital that are able to gain visibility on the Internet. Similarly, anyone can start a Flickr account and upload photos that they have personally taken. The chances that their photos will be seen by many, however, is quite slim. I experienced this in the initial steps of my project. After uploading my friend’s photographs, I saw that it would be quite difficult to get my Flickr profile noticed above all others.

This is where the tagging system comes into play. Tagging is an integral part of getting visibility of your content. Because there are so many different people on the Internet with such a wide variety of interests, there understandably needs to be some sort of taxonomic system wherein people can easily search for things that interest them. Flickr and Deviant Art, the two image hosting websites I used to showcase my friend’s photos, both utilize a tagging system in which people need only to search for a subject that fascinates them, and they can then easily browse all the pictures on that subject.

While tagging systems can certainly help one’s content get noticed, they can only do so much. I found that establishing your place in a community is much more conducive to getting your name out there. By joining groups of people with similar interests and initiating a discourse among them, one can certainly gain more followers and get noted. While I was not really able to do this (because I myself do not understand the photography process), I noticed that those people who were receiving the most comments and “favorites” and requests for downloads were those people who were members of various communities and who had made actual friendships with people online. Placing oneself in networks of like-minded people certainly seems the best way to get yourself noticed.

All in all, it has become quite evident to me during the process of this IDM project that gaining visibility online requires much more than simply having the ability to access the Internet. One needs the proper resources, skills, and social capital in order to actually be visible. Quite regrettably, not everyone can necessarily acquire these things all that easily—and thus we have the visibility divide.

Flickr page:

Deviant art page:

Come Work for the President!

Although new media is often credited with increasing accessibility to knowledge by many, it is undeniable that there still exists both a digital and participation divide that largely falls on gender, racial, geographic, and socioeconomic lines. In America, elected officials are charged with the task of governing the people in the best way possible and creating policy that is in the best interest of the citizenry. This is considered especially important at the federal level of government and the most known figurehead is non-other than the President of the United States of America, which is currently Barack Obama. In order to enact the best policies possible, the White House must both hire the best people to join their staff and find the best interns to assist this staff. As a former White House intern, I was charged with this very task and assigned the responsibility of reconstructing the White House Internship Program webpage as a means to increase applicants and the quality of the applicant pool. However, in this role, I certainly learned more about the digital/participation divide in the process of creating content this summer.

Under federal law, the internship program was fairly limited in how much we could advertise the program and the types of ways that we would advertise. In addition to these barriers, there was also less than five hundred dollars worth of funding allotted towards advertising the program, so promoting it electronically was the most cost-effective way to go. Although we attempted to advertise to every demographic group possible in order to have a wide range of diversity, after advertising for several months, once the deadline ended and all applications were received, it was clear that this goal was not as successful as we had hoped. While there was certainly a racial and gender disparity in terms of our college applicants, the lack of potential interns from all socioeconomic classes, specifically the lower, was easily visible. What I found most frustrating, however, was the lack of applicants that we received for the D.C. Scholars Program, which is a part-time internship offered to public high school students that reside in the District of Columbia and the digital/participation divide was certainly one of the most important places to look, as D.C. has a majority poor black population specifically within its schools.

I personally found out about the internship from three of my relatives and family friends when they each forwarded me a press release from the White House concerning the internship via e-mail. Upon receiving the e-mail, I immediately followed the webpage link to the internship program webpage and researched this opportunity, eventually applying. All of my fellow interns surely had to follow a very similar process, but as I gathered my internship class demographic statistics in order to see which groups should be highly targeted for the fall intern class, I saw that Latinos and Native Americans were significantly underrepresented groups in addition to a lack of people from families with less than $50,000 income. Not yet knowing about the internet participation divide at the time, it did not cross my mind, but applying this concept to the stories I heard this summer with interns from these above mentioned groups, I realized that the internet is highly effective for advertising purposes, but only for certain types of people.

We held a diversity recruitment forum a few days after my report was complete and one particular story that stood out for me was one of my fellow interns, who is Native American, describing the difficulty she faced with attempting to upload the intern application, fill it out, and send it back in since there is a lack of good infrastructure and internet accessibility within her tribal community. I heard similar concerns, specifically about a lack of targeting minority groups, from other interns and I believe this relates directly to the digital divide. The White House staff had assumed that only using the internet in order to promote the program would be an effective route to take, but they forgot that not everyone has a home computer or the knowledge to navigate the internet and research the program. Moreover, the people who typically fall into those categories are racial minorities and those from lower socioeconomic classes so we had to take a new approach. This new approach involved calling and e-mailing non-profit groups associated with Latino and Native American groups, as well as those providing scholarships to students from low-income backgrounds. We figured that although we could not target a lot of students non-electronically, we would notify institutions, professors, and administrators that see these students on a daily basis and could talk to them in person about the benefits of a White House internship. This strategy seemed to work, as the fall intern class had a modest increase in Native American applicants and over a 5% increase in Hispanic candidates.

As sociologists Steven Martin and John Robinson have reported, the digital divide in America is not so much based on having the highest level in inequality in the world since Britain shows similar levels yet possesses much less of an access disparity, but instead a lack of programs to spread internet use and knowledge. In addition, Menzie Chinn and Robert Fairlee have proposed the viable solution of investing in human capital and telecommunications infrastructure. Perhaps the best place for a digital/participation divide to be so easily visible is none other than for a program run by a branch of the federal government. If national policies can be reformed based on expert proposals, perhaps there will be a two-fold benefit where the White House Internship Program becomes extremely diverse and the digital/participation divide within this country lowers and everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from new media technologies, regardless of uncontrollable conditions and circumstances.

Have A Look: