Babycastles on Broadway

Thoroughly steeped in media theory, fluxus art, game design, and dance music, Bushwick-born Babycastles knows how to throw a party. But are they ready for Broadway?

Last weekend, the video game art collective hosted a summit at New York’s Museum for Art and Design, combining presentations on game design with musical performances and access to a dystopian children’s playroom.

The presentations were a high point. Clever pop culture deconstructions from the AV Club’s John Teti complimented working game development sessions from NYU’s Eric Zimmerman. Panels of “public game makers” such as a Ramiro Corbetta, JR Blackwell, and Matt Parker dove into frenzied debates about soccer and what makes games ‘accessible.’ Later presentations brought in stars of New York’s indie game and game art scene including Doug Wilson and Eyebeam’s Kaho Abe.

But the actual games and game art experiences proved rough and incoherent. Arriving on the 7th floor, visitors confronted a rich jungle made of paper, aluminum foil blanketing and wooden staging. Screens had been installed into paper tree trunks and in silvered crawlspaces, but few were working. An unused CRT monitor sat in a sea of mini beachballs, suggesting either an unrealized project or something broken.

For the entirety of Saturday afternoon, this focal point of the Babycastles residency at MAD sat in disarray. A few artists tinkered on electronics, but it took hours during the museum’s busy Saturday before a Duck Hunter mod and enchanting two-player Marioball interface were fit for play.

The result was a museum exhibition that captured the raw energy of Bushwick experiments but failed to translate to something audience-ready. The Babycastles team was understandably focused on the summit’s programming, but wandering its rich- and broken – physical media environment left something to be desired. Perhaps the team should have closed the floor for certain hours while they worked on restoring function to their displays and games. As it was, visitors wandered perplexed and confused – sentiments Babycastles more often produces with their game where those emotions can be captured and re-focused back on the liberating act of play.

If the Babycastles summit wanted to solidify the growing importance of New York’s indie game community and bring their rich art theory toward’s the city’s marquee museum world, it succeeded. But if MAD wanted to bring the creative energy of Babycastles and game art to a broader audience, it fell short. Attendees seemed quite familiar with each other, likely having seen Babycastles work in the past or been to similar game/art events at NYU’s Game Center.

In contrast to events like Come Out and Play, where hundreds of families in park space have felt called into public games, Babycastles at MAD pushed museumgoers back with lack of invitation or explication. It also lacked a curatorial dimension that Cory Arcangel’s Whitney Retrospective provided to successfully guide the uninitiated through game art and it’s concerns. While the summit certainly shows courage from MAD and allowed insight into Babycastles frentic design process, it lacked a clear way in for many visitors.

Posted in art, Culture, culture studies, games, ideas, media humanism, museums, new york, soccer | Leave a comment

Why Goal Ref is the better Goal Line Technology

Every year questionable and missed goal calls mar football’s reputation and incense fans. This is not only because the blown calls change the score line. They are also frustrating because advanced television replays make the error so unmistakably clear. Technology has long made assessing the validity of a soccer goal simple, but FIFA has refused to add implement such changes to the game.

Until now.

Illustration of the Hawk-Eye System at Work (from FIFA TV)

A few weeks ago, FIFA announced it was finally willing to turn a page and add goal-line technology. In fact, they have promised it will be ready for the World Cup in 2014.

There are two contenders.

  1. Hawk-Eye technology – currently used to determine line calls in Tennis.
  2. Goal-Ref, a set of magnetic field sensors built right into the ball.

Most fans and critics have been quick to champion Hawk-Eye. It’s incredibly accurate, fast, and offers great visual content for television broadcast. But it’s also expensive to install and requires considerable calibration.

Goal-Ref may not be heavy on visual content but it’s clearly the better choice. With sensors in the ball, teams could track a variety of rich details including the speed of the ball, the distance it is kicked (how high was that punt?) or the time in spends in quadrants of the field. With the technology coming into cleats, it might also be able to formally recognize the foot of whoever is kicking or controlling it. This would create new sets of data for commentators, trainers, and teams to use in describing the nuances of play.

Big Data in the Big Leagues 

Real-time data is fast becoming an important part of sports culture. Nike has led a charge into consumers possessing rich tech products to measure and socialize their athletic performances. Devices like Nike+ Running, the Nike Fuelband and recently, the Lebron James approved smart HyperDunk are allowing athletes to gain real-time assessment of their own athletic performances. But this is just the beginning. According to a SxSW presentation from my colleagues Richard Ting and Kyle Bunch, real-time athletic data will soon become a standard part of basketball and football games layering in new types of exciting performance stats. A recent article from Grantland forecasts the NFL’s own rich data revolution, set to explode with the Sports VU video system at games.

Now imagine the sensors were in the actual object of play. In a world where data devices will already be built into footwear and gloves, making a smarter ball will close the loop and enable all sorts of radical analysis. Are Lionel Messi’s passes more successful with his left foot? Do NFL receivers catch more balls thrown at high speeds? Where’s the vertical height point of release on a Kobe Bryant jump shot?

All of these things can be computed now, but they are labor intensive defying network commentators, writers, and coaches, who might like to test hypothesize in the most important real-time of all: game time.

So while Hawk Eye and video replays may seem the most obvious solution to football’s overdue scoring review solution, I enjoin Sepp Blatter to think long range. The future is dataful. Make sure Football’s ready for it.

Posted in ideas, media, soccer, Sports, technology, visualization | Leave a comment

Artists in Social Media: Comparing Cindy Sherman and Damien Hirst

At the moment of their retrospectives, which artist is more popular: Cindy Sherman, now at the MoMA, or Damien Hirst at Tate Modern? Opened within 6 weeks of each other, the Sherman and Hirst shows represent two of the most powerful global art institutions anointing two of the most influential contemporary artists. But do Hirst’s sharks and spot paintings beat out Sherman’s movie stills and satirical portraits? I decided to investigate the question through social media, looking to examine which artists resonated louder and with more positive sentiment in the “networked public spaces” of FourSquare, Twitter, and Instagram.

McCune social media comparison cindy sherman damien hirst

:: Shout Count (Twitter Volume)

Whenever people interrogate topics in social media, they gravitate towards Twitter mentions, hoping to quantify discussion in Twitter’s public sphere. One of the best tools for this very broad research is Topsy, which allows one to compare up to three terms in a month-long window. I actually had Topsy recommended to me by @AdamS who leads Twitter’s work in News and Social Innovation.

In the straightforward comparison of terms “damien hirst” and “cindy sherman” Hirst clearly leads in volume. This is partially down to good timing. His show opened on April 4, days before this graph’s range, so we’re seeing the buzz of that opening dominate on the left side.

As time goes on, Hirst has another explosion of discussion (on Topsy you can sample the top tweet of each day by clicking the node) before leveling out, very similar to Sherman, at about 200 tweets per day.

Twitter mentions of "damien hirst" and "cindy sherman"

Next, I wanted to see how these numbers stacked up against other shows at MoMA and the Tate Modern. So I decided to add a third term of “yayoi kusama” who is also currently having a show at the Tate.  Her mentions are remarkably erratic, and while lower on average than Sherman’s or Hirst’s, still compares closely to their consistent mentions per day. Is their something about artists and 200 mentions a day?

Adding "yayoi kusama" (also having a show at the Tate Modern) to the comparsion

For a third comparison, I looked at “kraftwerk moma” overlaid on our artist comparison. It’s clear that during their MoMA performances, the German techno troupe were widely mentioned and discussed. If you use the term “kraftwerk” alone, the electronica group far exceeds the amount of daily mentions Hirst and Sherman put up. But many these are related to fan’s listening to work, unconcerned for specific performances on institutional partnerships. Because Topsy defaults to finding both phrases in a tweet but not exact phrasing, this search returned all mentions of kraftwerk that also discussed MoMA.

Looking at the use of "kraftwerk moma" alongside our individual artists

:: In their own Words (Twitter Sentiment)

Twitter volume is a solid foundation for assessing popularity online, but it tends to favor news stories and major media outlets that are retweeted heavily, boosting mention totals without adding unique voices. And it completely neglects the actual things people are saying, which may be quite negative. So sentiment analysis (or better yet, some qualitative assessment of tweets for topics and tones) produces a more nuanced understanding of popularity in social media spaces. 

Unfortunately, Twitter sentiment software is pretty bad. That’s because it requires heavy language processing and prefers to go with keyterms rather context . If ‘hate = bad’ and ‘love = good’ what does “I don’t get people who hate something as amazing as Damien Hirst” mean?

In any case, TweetFeel is one of the more accurate services and will sample about a dozen recent tweets on a subject and offer a positive/negative scoreboard overview. On TweetFeel “Damien Hirst” the score was tied 6-6. The TweetFeel for “Cindy Sherman” meanwhile returned a 12-3 score heavily biased towards the positive. Hate messages re: Damien Hirst focused on his (dishonest? exciting?) preference for hype and audacity, while positive messages about Sherman complimented her composition and humor.

On Sentiment140, mentions of Cindy Sherman were again very, very positive. Of the few “negative” mentions, all but one were actually positive.

Hirst, again, proved a debatable subject suggesting that one of causes behind his triumph in mention volume is engendering debate rather than simple affirmation. Compare:

With more time, it would be great to dig further into the actual tweet mentions and see what topics or themes unite and perhaps explain Twitter volume.

:: Checked-In (FourSquare)

Smartphone location check-ins allow a peek at actual retrospective attendance. This is particularly valuable as museums rarely offer real-time show attendance data. And FourSquare’s own search tools are simple and fast, offering quick assessments of location popularity.

Unfortunately, smartphone location check-ins are also the “least popular smartphone activity” with just 12% of smartphone owners using services like FourSquare in a 2011 survey. In March 2012, FourSquare announced that it had just 15 million users, though half of those were outside the U.S.

In comparing the check-in counts, Damien Hirst’s show is clearly the winner. Not only does the show have 4x more checkins, it also features a slew of photos uploaded along user check-ins.

But is Hirst’s dominance only a symptom of the Tate Modern’s general dominance? No. MoMA roundly trumps the Tate Modern with 3x more total people and check-ins. Curiously, the photo upload race is much closer.

  • MoMA                                           50,470 people        76,690 checkins    1623 photos
  • Tate Modern                                14,093 people         17,969 checkins      944 photos

:: Seeing the Crowd (Instagram)

With more than 30 million users and a rapid adoption rate, Instagram is an excellent network to gauge the popularity of elements in contemporary visual culture. Though both retrospectives disallowed photography, users still managed to take hundreds of photos offering a good set of comparable data.

Searches through Instagram browser webstagram revealed that “#damienhirst” had been used on nearly 1,400 photos more than “#cindysherman.” Adding a misspellings of Hirst as “#damianhirst” and “#damianhurst” added another 140 photos, while just the surname delivered a further 522 images, almost all of which were his artwork at the Tate Modern.

  • #damienhirst                   1,731
  • #damienhurst                  86
  • #damianhirst                   54
  • #hirst                                522

On the Sherman side, tagged photos were much smaller in number and mispelling searches for #cindiesherman, #cindyshurman, and #cindysureman returned no results. The #cindysherman photos were also largely from MoMA promotional materials and views outside the show. It seems MoMA security guards are better at preventing photos than their London colleagues. Or MoMA crowds are just more respectful.

The #sherman tag did return over 600 images, but only some of these were related to the artist. Many were mentions of the fashion brand Ben Sherman.

  • #cindysherman               396
  • #sherman*                       637

Since Sherman’s work is usually left untitled, it is very difficult to find specific mentions of her art pieces. Hirst, meanwhile, uses far more memorable titles which return clear mentions of his art. Of 102 photos tagged “#fortheloveofgod“, 21 were from the Tate Modern’s display of the diamonded skull.

Wondering if Hirst’s advantage was due to a photographic preference for the Tate Modern over MoMA, I compared the two terms and found MoMA the clear winner. As with FourSquare check-ins, MoMA has a substantial overall edge, but Hirst continues to outperform Sherman.

:: Conclusions

While Damien Hirst has resoundingly outpaced Cindy Sherman in volume of mentions, photos, and check-ins, his popularity is connected to some debate and discord. The popularity of his Tate Modern retrospective also goes against the trend of MoMA being more popular than Tate Modern on FourSquare and Instagram. Sherman’s photographs seem to have a more niche audience that celebrates her work and keeps twitter mentions affirming and complimentary. Hirst, meanwhile, captures something in the photographic imagination that has hundreds more smartphone users illicitly snapping and sharing pictures of his work. Perhaps this has something to do with his penchant for the large, outrageous, and unnerving. Or perhaps its simply that smart phone users are more willing to post to social media outlets when confronted by sharks, skulls, and butterflies.

:: About this (Casual) Research

My approach this research is fundamentally casual, something like a “weekend research project.” Rather than use advanced data sets and costly analytic tools, I decided to only use free tools that could be used by just about anyone online. The idea was to sketch an answer to this question, and provide a cocktail of services and approaches could be used by others to likewise quickly detect suggestive trends in quantified culture. I would also like to admit hat polling social media spaces does not singlehandedly prove the popularity of an artist, an art show, or an art institution. The audiences who could be pressed to answer those questions are not necessarily speaking about art in social media. But many are. And for those populations who trace their thoughts and interactions with art in social media, we have a rich trove of data to examine. My hope is that museums and artists will not only consider assessing their work in this public sphere, but also find ways to engage these spaces around the very debates and themes their creative practices rely on. 

Posted in art, Culture, culture studies, sociology, visualization | 1 Comment

Occupy Anything

I walked down to Occupied Wall Street the other day. Just strolled right on down from Chinatown. I wanted to see it for myself. Not hear about it from my hard left facebook friends, or settle for tepid media coverage. Especially coverage from men and women in business casual clothing talking about what all this means. Like they were even trying to understand it.

So I walked down to see it for myself.

The northeast is wonderful this time of year. This is truly the great season. When the fall gives you one of those bright clear days in October, you seize it. Far too often I watch through the glass of the office window, a passing mirage of sheer meteorological pleasure.

But when I walked down to Wall Street, I was firmly seizing the moment and the season. The weather was right and no further sense of professional responsibility was going to keep me in check.

First came the barricades. There were barricades everywhere. They were casually thrown up on sidewalks and in front of Dunkin’ Donuts. I was sure the heart of the political beast was around the corner, and felt a distinct twinge of fear as I imagined citizens with unchecked anger calling me out for merely passing through.

But I simply couldn’t find Liberty Plaza. So I took a corner near City Hall and there they were: at least two thousand people of all walks of life streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge.

They were clad in multicolored shirts and holding illuminated balloons. As they streamed across the bridge, dusk fell over Manhattan creating the most serene and majestic testament to peace and human unity.

I got closer. This truly was a middle class movement. Here were the ninety-nine percent in action: families, the elderly, school children. All were here.

Then I noticed something odd. They were being ushered across the street by volunteers in blue t-shirts with the words Barclay’s Capital plastered on the backs. The balloons too were branded. This wasn’t Occupy Wall Street. This was a walk for Leukemia! And god damn it was beautiful .

I pushed through the hordes of cancer protesters to get further south. There were dejected looking Wesleyan students coming against me. In there hands were hand-painted signs. Surely the protest was nigh!

On my right, the 9/11 memorial opened up. Goodness why has no one in the news thought it fit to mention how close the protests are to Ground Zero?! Perhaps that’s just a political nightmare waiting to unfurl. Perhaps it’s simply that in New York, everything is next to something else significant and historic.

The occupation was dark and feral. There were cops everywhere around the narrow park. But inside, the benches and fountains had been totally re-invented. It was what political theorist Hakim Bey once called a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Though the park is flanked by police and office buildings of banking firms, these people in the heart of Liberty Plaza believe they are a part of something new and different: they believe they are in the bosom of a new democracy.

Signs littered the pavement. You could comb through to pick the message you believed it and hoist it up for the world to see. That’s been the supposed problem with these protests: no unified message. But standing there with the signs before me, I felt that democracy does indeed work best when it looks like this. A hundred people willing to stand for something they believe in, or at least, listen to someone else who does.

This post was originally published in the Newport Mercury as a part of my ongoing column “Every 7 Seconds” 

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A Ping Pong Table in Tompkins Square Park

There is a ping pong table in Tompkins Square Park. It is a strikingly wonderful thing. For it’s made of stone, and quite immovable. Like all hopeful things, it invites play. Like all magical objects, it renders play into something else: something more enveloping and substantial. And because it is nestled in the very middle of the park, just a few steps from the dog run, quite suddenly, centrally in a path, any game played there is enveloped in the park’s life.

Friends meet and walk off, dogs scurry by, students gather and gossip, musicians sit down to strum a melody.

The table is tagged with graffiti and often sprinkled with fall leaves. But a sweep of the table is all you need to make it playable.

And playing there, well, playing there is among the greatest pastimes in the world. Let the great world spin- you will care only for the motion of the small ball. It’s harder to push in the open air, with even slight breeze affecting its transit. So you play it safe and rallies abound. The games expand and excite. They are far better than indoor games.

The world becomes a blur that becomes a powerful sensory game plane. For you can smell the trees and the grass, and you hear dogs yelping at play, and kids squealing in the playground.  But you cannot notice them lest the spell break and the game fail to be all-engrossing. For against and within the life of a relentless New York, the ping pong game becomes something else at that stone table in Tompkins Square Park.

Play, Johan Huizinga once wrote, is older than human culture because animals have not waited for man to teach them to play.  All great games rekindle this essential truth, for in play, an absolute freedom and single-mindedness emerges. Play, at its best, collapses us into a primal self in which we are not lost to irrationality, but allowed to revel in the co-construction of joy and purpose.

There is a magic ping pong table in Tompkins Square Park, where playing transforms the players. And all you need is a small ball, two cheap paddles, and a half hour. Nirvana is a racquet game.

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Sign of the Times

A huge show of iPhoneography in London will open this weekend. It’s a watershed moment in the history of both photography broadly and iPhoneography in particular. Though hardly the first show to celebrate the aesthetic and cultural implications of a world instagrammed, the exhibition brings iPhoneography to the ultimate stage: recognition as an art form in a capital of world culture and politics.

The show holds massive personal significance for me because it fulfills many of the observation and analyses put forward by my Master’s research at Cambridge. Recently, that research was profiled by the University of Cambridge itself as part of its official portfolio of University scholarship. But far more importantly, the show is the work of several good friends who I met on a beautiful spring evening in London nearly six months ago. At that meeting, almost all of us were strangers to one another, bound together only by a passion and a network. From that niche moment to this triumphant exhibition, one can see an culture in rapid growth. A small photograph of that first Instameet (above), now a who’s who of the London Instagram/iPhoneography world, is stained perfectly with a sepia petina, suggesting my own nostalgia and pride at this fascinating moment.

Posted in art, Culture, culture studies, Internet, iphoneography, london, sociology, university of cambridge | Leave a comment

The White Geist of Projection Art

Wall street, McKenzie Wark recently wrote, is not a place but an abstraction. It’s a host of ideas and projections. It’s what Roland Barthes would have called a mythology, or Foucault may have called an episteme. It is an idea that wraps around and emanates from a physical place, but is purely mental, making it bright in the night of the social mind.

Brooklyn is a likewise an abstraction. What it meant in the nineties, defined by Spike Lee and Biggie, has been pushed aside by a host of hipsters and posturers. Finding New York necessary but uninhabitable, they settled on the island off-island, and began writing careers leading them (hpefully) towards Malcolm Gladwell or Jonathan Lethem or n+1 semi-notoriety.

They revel in the semi-obscurity of Brooklyn, which Brooklyn being the second borough, gladly revels back in.

I went to Brooklyn for an art show. Not a Brooklyn art show mind you. This was not an arts organization’s tribute to the chetto through found photography. This was something proven and contemporary, an arts movement in the true sense of the term: it wants to go somewhere.

Digital art has been ill-defined since its inception. This is because it’s characteristics are only its media, which are themselves far too unconstrained to suggest any mission or impetus. Digital art, from my understanding, is that which unmasks, re-invents, exploits, advances, celebrates, and critiques digital technology. It is an offering of what will come and what we have already forgotten. Digital art is a media critique offered in the truest manner: through the media itself.

Two years ago, sitting on the steps of the Ars Electronica pavilion in Linz, Austria, I confronted a microcosm that had rendered digital art cohesive. The Europeans, being ever enlightened, had found a way to make the One Laptop Per Child project, WikiLeaks, Processing, Pixar, and Graffiti Research Lab into a single movement. Their technique was curation. It you hail it, it loosely coheres.

But in the wilds of culture, particularly in the feral cultural landscapes of New York, digital art willfully resists such unity. It’s bits, after all, share little in terms of agenda or belief. Only aestheticians can overlook ideology for effect, bringing disparate elements together.  So this Brooklyn art show, called Nuit Blanche, after European precedents, focused on a single digital art form: light art.

Light art, or more formally projection art, reinvents the night as a found opportunity for intervention. It follows a certain modern assumption: that the night is chaos, and that light is order and narration. It finds the built environment as a playful forum for re-invention, much like the space-hacking principles of skateboarding, graffiti, or parkour. Light art is marked by its mobility, its powerful reach, and its transience. The art will not be there in the morning. It may not even remain consistent for a few instants. Light art is unheavy. Light art is fundamentally about the strangeness of living spaces made into cinematic and into televisual receptacles.

At Nuit Blanche, I wandered with Colleen through hordes of awed and amazed visitors. It was the most successful art show I had ever attended in that it

  •  required no introduction, no wall text, no rsvp, no explanation
  •   it’s transience was self-evident in the art itself, one had to savor each piece because it was clear one could never return
  •  it immediately indicted the very technologies that produced its effects, begging one to look for the projector or shadow maker, or computer rigging
  •  it’s relationship with it’s space was direct and essential, most unlike the one-size fits all attitude of white wall gallery art
  •  it’s strangeness felt like the future, and simultaneously like an unconsidered present

Projection art does best what all digital art should do: it asks us to reconsider the present as an ideal permutation of the cultures and technologies we have available.

Re-purposing Brooklyn, playing on its abstraction and imagining its projection, this art show proved a moment equally surreal and lucid. It is a dream of art made public and practical, contributing to the public good a vision and a hope that no (Richard Serra) corporate sculpture can ever accomplish in the name of purpose and idealism.

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The New New Yorker

Playing Soccer in Central Park

I’m fascinated by Dutch Manhattan. I like imagining it’s wooden homes and windmills. I am stunned by its perceived closeness with the Lenape tribe, the very people whose primal Manhattan identity has been all but obliterated by the city. I romanticize pre-New York as something manageable and intimate. An experience peeking out from monuments and hidden in urban details of the modern metropolis.

This makes Manhattan more human to me. More human and fundamental. Seeing a New York when it was New (Amsterdam) resonates deeply with my own newness to this island with my off-the-boat awe and its new world grandeur, openness, and prospect.

Since the week before Labor day, I’ve been in NY working as the Community Manager at Piictu. It’s a social photography start-up that fits in wonderfully with my love for creativity and technology. We’re based in Union Square for the next month or so, as the team completes the ambitious TechStars program. Work is a joyous blur. I put in 10-11 hour shifts without noticing. Some days we listen in on product pitches for tech products of yesteryear. Other days we take advice from ex-CEO’s of major businesses telling us what they wish they had been told. There are lunches with VC groups and open bars for TV events (which happen to be about TechStars in NYC). It is the most dynamic and frontline situation I could have wound up in, and I’m absolutely loving it.

Evenings and weekends offer little in reprieve. Manhattan is where nights run away with people. If I’m not careful, an afterwork drink because a romp through Ft. Greene Brooklyn, or a few rounds of pool in an obscure part of Chinatown.

My first months in Manhattan have been spent in the Upper East Side, crashing with good friends near 86th and Lexington. The prime position allows 15 minute express access to werk, and easy ambulation to Central Park, that most mythic and enchanted of American backyards. Last week, I realized an ancient fantasy from Stuart Little and rented a model sailboat on Conversatory Water. The breeze was a touch light, but my allotted half hour flew by as I got the hang of darting across the pond, tacking in wide, fast reaches.

September rushes by. The skyline grows more familiar as I find New York’s habits and hustle more predictable. I am stitching its cultural postcards together to form a united, mythology for myself: A McCune’s Gotham.

This is the Upper West Side, here’s the Hudson. This is Lincoln Center, shall we find a cheap show? This is Wall Street, why is it so empty and inhuman? This is Chinatown, where I buy ancient coins from a street vendor 3 for $2.

If you walk halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge, at sunset, you can see the torch on Lady Liberty sparkle out on the sea. Meanwhile, the Bridge’s imposing arches will make clear that it’s architect imagined the future of the city as an intimidating neo-gothic expanse, heavy with stone and peaked Cathedral keystones. It never happened. Rampant modernism clad the city in glass and steel, raising her financial stellae towards the heavens, cloaking them in color, filling them with new jazz sounds.

And now, a new age in Manhattan opens, on the very same bedrock into which the Dutch first shook hands with the Lenape promising a stability that a sleepless city will never deliver. I imagine that handshake like the splitting of an atom (the Manhattan Project after all, an inextricable part of this same island) in which the meeting of old and new released an impossible energy the world is still infected by: the inevitability of New York City.

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Good User, Bad User

It’s time for the tech world to get serious about users.

Users, of course, have always been a part of the tech world, and there’s no denying that their tastes, opinions, and preferences have been business and design concerns for some time. But if the Air BnB scandal teaches us anything powerful, it should be that not all users are equal.  It can be said, somewhat reductively, that there are “good users” and “bad users.” The tech world needs to get serious about cultivating good users and avoiding bad users by consciously understanding the people who use and create their products. The reason is simple: good users empower companies, while bad users (looking at your AirBnB) can threaten and destabilize great projects.

:: virtues of the good user

Good users are defined by their commitment to a network, their respect for other users, and their supportiveness of new users. Good users help networks grow quickly but also securely. They are not like rats looking for an easy feast and then moving on when a product’s newness and trendiness has been exhausted.

Like good neighbors, good users are committed to the virtual community that today’s social media and web 2.0 businesses promise. They believe in a set of values (almost always unwritten) that form the heart of acceptable behavior in online spaces. They are also motivated by a love of the network and what it creates, be it photos, stories, videos, restaurant reviews, or places to stay. Good users have meet-ups, share skills, compliment other users, and give constructive criticism to company developers and fellow users alike. Good users take ideas well and enjoy thinking up ways to improve a work-flow or set of tools. Good users are the core of tech business that will succeed when the age of a-startup-a-minute crashes down. Good users will help companies solve their own problems and even monetize their products because they will believe in the network. They will be invested in it. They will be committed to it.

:: vices of the bad user

Bad users bully. Bad users stake out territory and intimidate rather than instruct new users. Bad users look for ways to take advantage of everything and everyone. Bad users may help a network grow quickly, but insecurely because bad users are temperamental and capricious. They do not invest in a community, they exploit it. Bad users are looking for forms of virtual power rather than community. They seek audiences rather than peers. They set up hierarchies to protect their anxieties and support their egos. They criticize others harshly, they do not take criticism themselves.

Users matter. Not simply because they are customers, but because they create the very content that has constitutes the objects and activities that define social media today. The brilliance of YouTube or Vimeo are not the sites’ designs and functionality although they certainly inform user behavior. The brilliance is the content users create and share. YouTube and Vimeo are like open cinema spaces: Vimeo ends up being more art-house, while YouTube brings any type of content, blockbuster FAILs and family films alike.

Users matter. They reshape and create. They thrive in certain circumstances and abandon sites that begin constraining them. Users cannot be a secondary concern of tech companies, but too often that’s exactly what they are. While it’s easy to find the engineers of a product, or the designers of a site, the user liaisons are often only hired later in a company’s development. But that’s absurd. If you are building a technology that relies on users, you need to have user research and co-ordination running in parallel to coding and designing. Because this is not customer service, it’s product development and customer service and strategy rolled into one. In web 2.0, the users are not just the content “customers,” but also the indispensable content “creators.”

Users are not just the future of successful technology, they’re the present.

:: This analysis will continue with case studies in good and bad users and how they impact a media company’s networks

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Thoughts on a Master’s Dissertation

A few months ago, I undertook a study of contemporary social media through a sociological study of the iPhone instagram app. The research project was multidimensional:

  • I used the app for four-weeks, interacting with other users and sharing images
  • I traveled to London for the first Instagram meetup in the UK, talking with users IRL (in real life)
  • I collected 23 open response questionnaires from users in the UK and around the world

Then I wrote an 80-page dissertation and turned it in.

So much good research stops right there. Project complete, research finished, product typed and handed to the right people, a scholar may move on to new ideas and inquires.

But I didn’t want this project to stop there. I wanted it to have life- to circulate among other academics and especially among the people who are making and defining social media – USERS. So I distilled the results into a five page executive summary and began emailing blogs pitching my research as a story. I had discovered six common motivations for Instagram use across all of the responses. I had undertaken an academic study of a technology not even a year old at one of the world’s oldest universities. I must have emailed 30 or so different targets before the responses started coming in. The go-to unofficial blog of Instagram users, Instagramers.com, published a round-up of the report. A post at AppFreak followed, focusing on why social interactions are among the most ‘addicting’ apps. Then the story exploded on The Next Web site, as over 200 people tweeted a post about my research, and the summary received over 2,000 reads in just a day. People began messaging and emailing me about the piece following up on aspects of the research, questions relevant to their own research, or invitations to participate in fabulous online discussions like one at Theory Thursday.

Within three weeks of publishing the dissertation, over 5,000 people had read it.

I measured this as an immense success against the general experience of Master’s dissertations languishing in departmental libraries ad infinitum. The point is, though the subject of my dissertation really lent itself to internet promotion, students and researchers must find the time to really push and promote their work. This is no vanity and though challenging (emailing endlessly) it will probably be the most rewarding part of a research project as the study will gain life and its own agency. There’s no telling where your work will go when you let out into the world, but isn’t that better than knowing the few places it resides?

Post-Script: About two weeks ago, I received my marks, which were far, far higher than I had expected. Earning a distinction on the dissertation was an immense, unexpected honor. Even more stunning was being told that this had ensured my degree was awarded “with distinction.” I am still happier to receive the odd email from a stranger asking a follow-up question from reading the summary online.

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