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ImageThe 1993 softcore classic Sex and the Single Alien contains a moment of unexpected clarity. On his way to a clandestine tryst with a young lady, our undersexed lawyer/strip club owner is kidnapped by aliens. His travel companion is a gladiator (these are time traveling aliens). One alien asks the other ” Why do they dress this way?” The other alien replies, “It is to impress their women.” Then our hero is granted the superpower of involking orgasms with his mind and returned to earth to wreak vengance on those who have done him wrong. Oh TNT’s up all night with Gilbert Gottfreid, how you are missed.

13-year-old me, whose interest in the movie may have been other than purely ethnographic, may have missed the moment of insight. Just a year earlier I’d endured my first teenage crush, a skinny lad in my 7th grade Intro to Computers class. His name, alas, is lost to posterity. The class was taught in BASIC, the command-line kind, and, being a lady of the world I decided the best way to woo my love was a personalized computer program.

For two weeks I skipped lunches to sit in the poorly-ventilated janitors closet that was the computer lab and wrote my labor of love. It was a fill-in-the-blank affair, a set of questions feeding into a story mad-libs style. The story probably had something to do with asking him to the next dance.

The elderly matron who acted as lab monitor thought it was charming as hell. The object of my affection not so much – when I finally presented him with my completed valentine he gave me a confused look (granted, 7th grade boys wear that a lot). A week later he made fun of my plaid leggings in front of everyone, probably out of self defense, and my digital affair was over.

Oh the music careers launched on the not incorrect premise that ladies dig a dude who can play the guitar, the cartoonists who picked up a pen for the first time on the completely incorrect premise that some dude might be impressed into makeouts… I suspect that puppy love is never about the object of our affection, always about what it inspires us to do. I’m not sure if self betterment is always best invoked in an environment of dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t hurt. I learned to program for the first time in an effort to impress…what’s his name. Thanks skinny dude from 7th grade Intro to Computers, wherever you are.

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18408619-brain-on-the-plate-with-fork-and-knifeWhat better funereal tribute could there be for a dearly beloved aunt than to eat her brains? If the cause of death is an ill-timed antelope stampede, or a disagreement with the chief over who makes the sharpest spears, then go right ahead! Let her memory be preserved, at least for a couple of hours, through the digestion of her venerated noggin.

But if her method of decease was almost anything else – sickness, poisoning, more sickness (there are so many interesting ways to get sick), then that is precisely what you won’t do. Neurological body bits are where many of the toxins that can cause death are densest, and passing them along in culinary form is one of the fastest ways to create a vicious spiral of grey-matter munchies. The diseased brain is consumed, which spells the end of the eater, who is then consumed as part of her own mourning rituals, which then causes…but you get the idea.

Outside of cannibalism, the only other area I’m aware of affected by this issue is the pet food industry, which routinely buys euthanized animals from shelters and zoos to mix into Fluffy’s dinner. However, Fluffy’s consequential mess on the floor might never be connected with the penguin who passed away a year ago at the Baltimore Aquarium, whereas surely, we assume, someone would notice if half the community suddenly goes the way of our beloved aunt. Surely someone would say “Hey, maybe just this once, let’s eat the toes instead“.

Not so, says the law of negative memes! One study noted that a negative meme can wipe out 70% of a population before someone questions its underlying validity. But here it becomes more complicated because it’s not just a blindness to facts that must be overcome. Without an understanding of germ theory, we can imagine our poor cannibals mulling over the issue of a population die-off, and after many long days of pondering, coming to this conclusion: “We are all dying! The gods must be angry with us! Quick, pacify them by eating more brains!”

An interesting natural experiment of just this phenomenon is occurring in Japan as we speak, and no one has to eat anyone. Since the 60′s, Japan’s anti-feminist culture has been playing havoc with their population prospects. While men and women receive the same education and early professional pressures, women are often let go after marriage, and professional ladies with children can expect to be stigmatized as “devil wives” (at least one female CEO recently visiting Japan was forced to re-title herself as a secretary to her male subordinates in order to attend her own meetings).

With almost no tradition of daycare, and, do forgive me, no system of child-brides or slavery in place to counteract female unwillingness, it’s not a surprise to find that a huge percentage of the lady population has chosen to opt out of relationships. And not only them – lots of men are rejecting the monetary pressures of keeping a spouse in a society that won’t allow them to share the stress of being sole breadwinner. Celibacy in this sort of climate is one route to freedom and equality, and as a result, the Japanese population will soon be losing a million people every year. Current trends place its complete extinction sometime in the next century. Which, to use a scientific phrase, would just suck full of suck.

As a western-raised feminist white Jewish liberal short lady (I’ve been assured the shortness has a lot to do with it) it’s very easy to point the accusing finger of righteousness and demand, how hard would it be to just to pass a couple little equal rights concessions? Offer a couple daycare tax breaks? Maybe even, dare I say it,  full-pay maternity leave like that offered by that bastion of women’s rights Iran (yep, even Iran has better protection for working moms than Japan. Full disclosure, they have better protection than the US as well, so.) And yet, such risque proposals haven’t made much headway.

Like our unfortunate cannibal friends, when a negative meme is firmly entrenched there can be a lot of confusion about where the problem really comes from. Many of Japan’s conservative LDP party would argue that the true issue is not Japan’s anti-feminism, it’s that Japan has not been anti-feminist enough. If only women (and increasingly, men) would adhere more closely to their traditional pre-world War II roles the problem would be solved! As of yet there have been no dystopian-style attempts to criminalize female employment or enforce a one-child-per ovary policy, but it seems imaginable as the situation becomes more dire. The true power of a negative meme is hidden and subtle: the meme offers a solution to the problems it causes by propagating the meme even more strongly. Our people are dying! Quick, eat more brains!

This all sounds really depressing, but the good news is that negative memes, the truly virulent ones that can take down an entire population, are usually self-correcting. Here’s a good metaphor: the absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying super-virus Ebola. Ebola can rip through an entire population in weeks. It’s intensely contagious and can survive outside of the human body for years, a combination that should have turned the world into a scene from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ decades ago.

And yet, we’re still alive to spout social science at each other. The key is in its extreme virulence – the virus is so deadly, and kills so quickly, that there’s rarely enough time for the victims to spread it beyond the immediate vicinity. Ebola’s very toxicity acts like a natural quarantine – in a small, immobile village population, the virus perishes with the last available host.

Now consider the case of Krokodil. Like Ebola, Krokodil turned up in the 70’s, this time in Russia, as a quicker, cheaper, more addictive alternative to heroine. Krokodil is the crack to heroine’s cocaine, the Ebola to heroine’s mild flu. It will also kill you stone dead in a particularly gruesome fashion, by rotting your skin off from the inside, but that’s almost beside the point. Krokodil is relatively easy to manufacture – any number of websites will give you the instructions on how to stir up the codeine/iodine/phosphorus mix. And yet, so far, the streets are not full of rotting zombie corpse people.

The key seems to be in Krokodil’s very virulence – even though any kid with access to a CVS and her mom’s stove can saute up a batch, who would want to? Like biological pandemics, memes survive through repetitive propagation – the passing of a piece of information from mind to mind, or in this case, victim to victim. But while someone could technically take Krokodil for a year or two before checking out, they usually succumb to a gory list of secondary infections long before then.

There is no peer pressure to sample Krokodil because no one lives long enough to pass the meme along. No one is saying, “Hey, I just tried this stuff and it’s awesome and you should too” because, not to put too fine a point on it, that would require still having a mouth, and anyway, who would take advice from someone who looks like they’ve taken Krokodil? Despite its persistent availability, Krokodil as a meme is just too nasty to spread beyond isolated outbreaks here and there.

Krokodil is back in the news this month thanks to a scattering of reported incidents in Illinois, none of which have come up conclusive. Let me repeat that – without even a single verified case, that is to say, not one person who has actually tested positive, media outlet after media outlet has spent the last two weeks seeking to outdo each other in righteous condemnation and gory pictures. This isn’t yellow journalism, or at least, it isn’t just yellow journalism. This is what a negative meme is up against: society’s immune system is extremely clumsy in its targets, but it can be fantastically powerful in its effects.

For example, in a different section of these same outlets earlier this year many sites devoted a few paragraphs to “Gallon Smashing”, that brief-lived prank which saw teenagers walk into grocery stores and stage a massive pratfall while carrying (breakable) containers of dairy. Like many pranks, a forgiving viewer might view this as a sly social commentary: the action loses money for a large corporation and inconveniences it by the necessity of cleaning up the mess. All while the stores’ wrath is hamstrung by their own customer service policies and existing social mores: it looks goshdarn mean to take out your wraith on a kid who just metaphorically wet themselves in public.

Now, that feeling of control over a large institution, even when it’s through an act of self-humiliation, has a lot of appeal. The high-minded might attempt a parallel to the passive protests during the civil rights era, when workers who could not outright rebel nonetheless protested by pretending to be more stupid or clumsy than they actually were. That’s the idealistic view of it. In reality, let’s be honest, this was just unbelievably dumb. Grocery stores are often locally owned, and the wage slaves forced to clean up might easily be classmates of the perpetrators. A long-term propagation of this meme might have meant damage to the nearby economy, the complete collapse of the national dairy industry, mass calcium deficiencies, plagues of hungry kittens everywhere

News outlets duly wrote up the Gallon Smashing phenomenon, with many a ‘crying over spilled milk’ pun, as the new Harlem Shake. The elements weren’t that dissimilar – the same ritualized humiliation and the same sly anti-authoritarianism (part of the fun of Harlem Shake videos lies in witnessing a sedate office environment transformed into…whatever). And yet days went by, and the internet reacted to Gallon Smashing, not through a loud outcry of support or condemnation, but through the worst possible punishment that can be meted out, to ignore it. Despite high viewing numbers – in the same class as early Harlem Shake videos, milk spilling videos received just a fraction of the Harlem Shake’s comments. Very few clips, meme-wise, were actually ever made, and even fewer once perpetrators began to get arrested. Eight months later there are less than 38,000 spill clips on youTube. That might sound high, but for comparison, even a year after the Harlem Shake broke there remain more than 4,640,000 clips, and every single one is hilaaaaaarius.

We’re well-aware of the ugly side of social pressure – the side that advocates on behalf of established social standards against the rights of the individual. The Oscars love nothing more than the story about a hero’s valiant struggle against a fiendish societal presumption, and rightly so. But it’s easy to forget that social pressure has another duty: to nip negative memes in the bud before they get going. This is social pressure at its very best. In a way it’s what social pressure is for. When a meme goes wrong, the white blood cells of our disapproval swing into action – whether it’s to prevent an epidemic of zombies, or just a little spilled milk.

Low grade negative meme-infections surround us all the time- in fact, fighting them is an important part of a healthy society, and it gives socially awkward undergrads a reason to get excited and meet new people, which is also of vital importance. I’m looking at you, me­­­­ of 1998. Japan is a rare opportunity to witness a negative meme so subtle that it has managed to use a society’s own natural defense system against itself. What sort of inoculation might jump-start Japan’s baby-friendly antibodies is anyone’s guess.  Speaking as an outsider, all I can say is, whatever you do, stay away from the brains.

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Downton Abbey fandom is knee-deep in Season 3.  My goodness me, every magazine and blog has turned into a smorgasbord of content both official and fan-generated, not to mention the gorgeous influx of new fan text (and more importantly, fellow fans to experience it with).

Is it possible we have that unusual specimen, the perfect fan object? Whatever the reason for an individual’s fandom, this show can provide: for class-conscious identity builders we’ve got a enjoyably upper-class Anglophilia. For those seeking to up their cultural capitol there’s quote-happy text galore, and who-did-what-to-whom trivia to memorize.  And for the merely lonely we’ve got hoards of fellow admirers to idolize, mimic, and impress.

Not so a fan of Regency House Party, a little known 2004 historical recreation reality series.  A few articles, interviews, and fan activity may have trickled out briefly around it’s release, but these days even the most assiduous researcher will find neither a grain of news, nor a fellow fan with whom to commiserate about it.  A couple of the participants have Facebook pages, carefully locked, and one has a twitter account where he talks about advertising. The message boards have long gone dead and the bloggers have moved on.

Both these fan texts have the same titillating veneer of English drama and romance.  The difference? Without a robust fan context the Regency House Party fan finds themselves gasping like a fish in a dry stream bed.

It’s surely the goal of all fan objects to produce such a robust context that it becomes self-fueling long after the text is complete (think Star wars, Jane Austen, or Rosie the Riveter posters).  But at the same time, proclaiming the value of an under-appreciated fan text is one of the purest marks of fan status, or for that matter, regular old boring status too. This illustrates an interesting paradox potential fans might find themselves asking:  how obscure is too obscure?

Depending on an individual’s motivations the answer might be:  never!  This is a familiar cry for many an indie music fan (“I’m a fan of bands so new they don’t even exist yet!”).  But that’s only true when there’s a possibility of spreading the love, engaging in a group, having your personal taste mean something to those about whose opinion you care.

There’s a status to being known as that lady who likes that group that’s still unknown, or better yet, that group who is too innovative to be famous.  Whereas there’s no satisfaction whatsoever to being known as that guy who keeps going on about that random soft drink they only sell in one store in Ireland, a breed of dog that went extinct in the 1100′s, or that board game they don’t make any more and there are no copies but you would have loved it.

The answer is probably a Bell curve – up to a certain level of obscurity, devotion to a fan object allows a user to really pinpont that self-definition.  The more obscure the higher the possibilities (“I’m not just a wine lady, I’m the type of lady who prefers a 1994 vintage of Vino Davvero Oscuro from Luogo Lontano over the 1995, but only if I have enough time to let it breath…”).

After that point it gets more complicated.  How satisfying can it really be to be the last and only fan of Regency House Party?  The answer is probably not very – the possibilities for fan-like activities are simply so limited.  You might watch the show over and over, and perhaps do a little evangelizing to your friends.  You might even go as far as to take a pilgrimage to England to trespass on the Chateau used as its set, but without any fellow fans to report back to, it’s rather unlikely.

Fandom just can’t thrive in a vacuum – at its heart fandom is a performative ritual, and it fast uses up the surrounding oxygen without someone to perform for.  But never fear, oh devotees of Regency House Party, I hear that Downton Abbey has just been signed on for a 2014 season.

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So here we are knee-deep in summer, and I bet you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, there’s just too much relaxation going on right now.  I’m feeling too darn happy with the world.  I need some pretentious reading to sandpaper my nerves so I have something to bitch about.”

Well TOO BAD, cause one look at this summer reading list and you’ll notice that none of us have anything to complain about at all.  This summer’s topic is the economic impacts of fandom in a digital age, and baby is it a delicious one.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky – Obviously every list with any kind of buzzword has to start with Clay Shirky’s tasty musings about all that’s good about heavy connectivity. You’ll want to spend most of your time on the chapter dealing with fan motivations.  Start off your drinking game by taking a shot every time you slap your head and say , “Huh, teenage girls make sense for the first time ever.”  It’s summer, so the shot should be something with watermelon.

Fan Cultures, Matthew Hills – Ever wonder what academics do when few people care about their subject?  They write for each other! Painstakingly plotted out,  most of this is a refutation of the heretical theories espoused by the dozen or so other fan theorists active in the world.  But look a little closer and you’ll see some interesting points about gender and decision-making in pre-digital  fandom. Take a shot of something with iced tea in it every time he claims that someone’s theory didn’t take the X-Files into account

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker – How does what we buy reflect our social affiliations and sense of identity?  Rob wants to tell you! He makes a great case that our commercial motivations are thoroughly tied to the image we build up of ourselves. Take a summery shot of something with cucumber in it every time he uses a euphemism that isn’t quite “fan group” but really means “fan group”.  Don’t worry Rob, we know what you’re talking about.

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott , Anthony D. Williams- At two years old this is kind of ancient for a  tome about digital whatsis.  But be not deterred!  This is the classic ‘Origin of Species for crowdsourcing’ – not first and certainly not completely right, but it’s held up remarkably well for a book that relied on examples that, in hindsight weren’t actually the next big thing.  Take a shot of something minty every time you feel a smug sense of superiority.

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray (Editor), Cornel Sandvoss (Editor), C. Lee Harrington – More academia!  This collection of nifty essays spans everything from early proto-music fandom to Korean pop-stars.  Ignore all that and highlight every third word in the introduction where the different stages of fan theorization are spelled out.  Take a shot of something with ginger every time you have a mood swing between “Oh-my-god-I’m-dying-from-bordom” and “oh-my-god-this-just-changed-my-life”

Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, Eric Qualman – Any book that adds the phrase “-nomics” to the end of  their title is good by me: freakinomics, wikinomics, MICRO wikinomics…there’s nothing ‘nomics can’t do.  A lot of this book has been said before, but the conversational tone is helpful for beginners and the examples give a great insiders view. Take a shot of something with lemon every time you suspect there’s something intrinsically, horrifically terrifying about all forms of marketing.

Fans Bloggers Gamers, Henry Jenkins – By the dude who wrote the much-touted Convergence Culture, you can believe this is a serious page turner. I’m totally not being sarcastic.  Compared to most other books from this time period, these essays are less dated, and more , what’s the word, AWESOME than its contemporaries.  Spend most of your time in the early chapters about fan fiction and gender.  You’ll never look at man-on-man stories written by middle-aged straight women the same again. Take a shot of Champagne every time you feel the urge to google “Kirk/Spock”.

Now go drink some water.  What were you thinking reading all those at once.

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Journalism outsider is a lonely role.  It’s a little like being a Janitor, a hired hand who tackles the unsavory duties avoided by the more  fastidious and mainstream staff.  You can find them doing web updates, or mobile app development, or “dealing with all that social media stuff”, or maybe, in more forward-thinking organizations,  the R&D, but one thing they’ll rarely be found doing is much journalism.  News with a capitol ‘N’ promotes from within, and the number of its High Priests who started as anything other than a writer is still pretty low.

As a Journalism outsider myself (using the traditional definition, my bona fides extend to only two semesters as Comics Editor at the Johns Hopkins weekly back in ’99) it’s interesting to observe that writing is still sometimes considered the basic journalism accomplishment. It would be like declaring that the default unit of Marine Biology is ‘naming fish’.  I mean, it’s certainly a foundation skill for every marine biologist, and, depending on the job track, they might even end up doing some seriously classy fish naming, but it’s hardly the exhaustive definition of the career.

But as the search continues for a new skillset fit for a post-writing industry,  seriously, how tempting is it to say:  ‘But of course!  We need more of those janitorial skills we’ve overlooked for so long!’  It’s a great ‘gotcha’ solution, isn’t it?  Everyone loves to hear about a young savant coder who overcomes the cynical traditionalists and saves the day.  Teach the Journalist of tomorrow how to livestream and podcast!  There shalt be coding in 5 languages so they can make all kinds of news games and mobile aps and social media channels and data visualizations!  It’s as though sprinkling technology over the field like pixidust can make the underlying bulk fly.

Surely on the changing menu of journalism, arguing if steak should replace chicken seems rather pedantic, no?   We’re debating the merits of one limited skillset over another, an exercise which rather misses the point.  Why are we still deciding between chicken or steak?  Why are we arguing about the best dishes to put on the menu?  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to just  teach tomorrows journalist how to cook?

Myself I come down on the side of methodology. The world has plenty of delightful news writers trying to find their relevency, but it’s just as easy to imagine the world full of of delightful news technologists trying to find their relevency. What does the world have very few of?  Folks with the background training to orchestrate either group.

Skills are for interns. Everyone should know what the skills are and how they work, but if the Head of Digital is still spending his days thinking about HTML bugs then you’ve got a problem.   The power in any field lies in the planning, not the implementing.  It’s  in the ability to see the bigger picture and plot a course through it, and to relay that vision to those who were hired for their limited skillset (who, increasingly, aren’t employees at all but rather someone’s college  friend who’s between jobs, or  a dude bidding on projects from Poland.)

Yes, anyone arriving at a journalism school should be expected to know a basic level of  technology just as their counterparts of yesteryear were expected to know how to read.  Perhaps there could still be remedial tutorials for those getting up to speed. But for the core experience?  Perhaps it’s time to really take a page from software development.  Instead of co-opting its low level skills, co opt its high-level ones!  The Agile design cycle.   Iterative Project development.  Pitching.  Usability testing.  Gamification. Entrepreneurship.    You know, the tech skills that actually matter.

Otherwise we risk turning Journalism school into a certification degree like Nursing or Air Conditioning Repair – full of important protocol but with a focus on skillset, not strategy. Taking a step back and thinking a little bigger would go a long way to making sure that students don’t end up as outsiders in their own field. Journalists are too valuable to waste as highly-paid Janitors for hire.

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In the summer of 2004 I was poor. I was fresh back from playing the wandering European for a year and I was cashless, homeless, jobless, and had spent too long living on what I’m proud to call “Zoe’s stolen spaghetti stew” (secret ingredient: stealth).

The first temp company had no design jobs, but on the way out the receptionist asked me if I knew anyone who could use Visio. Why yes, I said, I’m a Visio expert, did I forget to put that on my resume? She called my interviewer back, who said  in that case the job started tomorrow.

I left the building, went the the nearby Barnes and Nobles and looked up what the hell this Visio thing was. Then I called the guy on whose whose couch I was crashing and had him pirate me a copy. I spent the night working through the help files, and started my new job designing userflows for SAP the next morning. It lead to what’s been a rather nifty career in interaction design.

I am proud to say I have never been hired for a job I didn’t have to lie to get. Not about my achievements, those are stupid to lie about and anyway they’re easy to check on. But when it comes to skills, to take a job you’re absolutely sure you can already do seems silly. Taking career risks is the only way to make sure of having one, and I’d sure as hell prefer to try and fail than demur until some imaginary time when I’m 100% sure I’ll be perfect.

This is the time of year when students start coming to me for career advice. The dudes in general either have something or don’t. But for some of the ladies its not so clean-cut. Yesterday, for the third time this year I heard a variation on this theme: girl has a job, usually an internship. Girl is offered a promotion to full time. Girl is nervous she’s not ready yet and decides to turn it down. Or this variation: girl is offered dream full-time job. Girl is also offered dream freelance job on the side. Girl decides to take full-time job, but turn down freelance one because she wants her performance in the full time job to be perfect. Neither of these scenarios have happy endings, at best her career stalls from lack of trying new things, and at worst at some point she’ll be replaced by someone with a bit more guts.

From where came this bizarre female aversion to self promotion? This insistence on perfection to the point where, like OCD, it handicaps the victim and ruins their  prospects? Why is taking a risk so impossible to contemplate for some otherwise brilliant ladies ?

Lets run through these scenarios again. Girl gets offered promotion. Girl takes promotion. Girl fails. The boss is disappointed. Or this one: girl takes both jobs. Girl does marginally less well at both. Girl will be forced to quit one of them. One of the bosses will be disappointed. Bottom line: disappointed bosses. Is that truly the worst possible thing that could happen? Without resorting to the highly improbable, the answer is yes, yes it really is. But hamstringing a career from  fear of letting down an authority figure is something even the most  desperate of daddy issues should balk at.

Well ladies, being successful takes guts, and having guts means taking the type of risks that sometimes result in looking stupid and disappointing people. That assurance, that strike of lightning that says “Why yes, I just realized I am the best possible person in the world for this particular job” may by long coming.  As Nietzche points out, “claiming to be good only because you have no claws” isn’t actually being good at all, and cowardice masquerading as politeness does no one any favors, least of all your boss.  Speaking as one now myself, I’d surely rather have my employees ambitious than submissive.  It makes them more fun to be around, for one.

So go after that job ladies, even though you don’t have a clue if you can handle it or not. Grit your teeth and tell that lie about your confidence that, for you all you know, might just be the truth. And maybe you’ll fail. Maybe you’ll be fired. Maybe you’ll have to cut back your hours. Maybe your boss will yell at you in front of everyone and they’ll all point and laugh while you cry. But maybe, just maybe, you will be amazing at it.

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Today’s post is brought to you by the backchannel, that swirly, seething collection of tweets, FB posts, and I suppose technically Google+ comments that makes up the realtime reaction to any presentation. If used right it provide instant audience interaction, keep folks paying attention, and guards against awkward silences when the presenter asks “anyone have any questions?” If used wrong it’s great place to heckle.  It’s what you would be saying if you didn’t have to wait for the darn speaker to be done.

Generally, the line of thought is, the audience is gonna talk about you anyway so you can either force them to turn off their phones (which makes you look like a dick) or you can harness their sniping for the powers of good.  Usually this is accomplished by projecting the audience’s twitter feed or chatroom somewhere the presenter can see it.  More rarely it means building the feed directly into the presentation software.  Even more rarely it means hosting the chat yourself.  That’s the one I wanna talk about.

After all the backchannel excitement at SXSW I started getting curious about how they could be used in an academic setting.  One sign of a good class is when I see that the students have gone ahead and made their own group chat (using partyappchat, or some such) so they can talk during lectures.  Usually it’s to make fun of the professor, but sometimes it’s to share resources or ask advice.  The point is, they only bother in classes where there’s some level of engagement.

I tried experimenting with this a little during a class I was involved with last semester.  During the student’s final presentations I tried projecting the live twitter feedback on the wall near the speakers. Students sent a pre-list of all the quotes and links they wanted re-tweeted during thier presentation, and that, plus the reactions, made up the backchannel. With a couple of exceptions, this totally failed.  There was a lot of excitement and retweets, and a little joking in the feed, but not a whole lot of conversation.

I think the issue is that people might retweet interesting quotes, and people might heckle or offer encouragement, but no one is going to clutter up their feed with comments like “Could you repeat that?” or “What’s he talking about?” or “Actually, I think that’s wrong but I’m not totally sure, anyone?”  We’re all too worried about the persona we’ve created on our social networks to risk polluting it with anything resembling real conversation.

Here’s one possible solution, this Fall I’ve implemented a new experiment with the same class. During each four hour lecture every week, all students, and also the professors and visiting critiquers are logged onto HipChat.  If you haven’t used hipChat yet I must say this is a pretty great tool – complete archiving and searchability in a nice chat package.  What goes on there?  Whatever!  Reactions to the presentations, side conversations, reference material, and yeah, a little bit of snarking.  Why is this so great for us:

  • Each presenter ends up with a complete transcript of reactions throughout their presentation.  When listening, especially to a lecture that’s a little long, it’s so easy to forget the more nuanced points of feedback in trade for the big ones.  And likewise, if there is good feedback there’s pressure to tune out the rest of a conversation in favor of remembering your comments.  Either way, better to just get it down on screen.
  • As moderator it’s a whole lot easier to see who’s engaged and who isn’t, the commenting and the not. I await the day that this thing has some analytics built in so I can see participation a little more easily.  It’s great to no longer wonder if someone is taking notes or on Facebook.
  • Questions get answered a whole lot faster, and without breaking up the presenter’s train of talk.  It’s so easy to derail a line of thought when a concept doesn’t make sense, and the jump to boredom after that is pretty fast.  This way confusion gets resolved immediately, and moreover without stopping the stream of the  lecture to do it.

Is it a panacea?  Not at all – there’s one glaring issue:  it’s hard to pay attention while typing.  This method almost requires small lapses in attention.  And second of all, it does require a healthy dose of control to keep things from devolving into ascii art.  If the presenter isn’t pretty darn dominant, this isn’t the tool for them.

Of course, that’s a bit of a gamble in any presentation, whether academic or otherwise, but I heartily suggest giving it a try either way.

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The road to professional academic success often seems to be paved by wild refutations: pick a pet theory by another leading academic and disagree as loudly as you can. Maybe the concept is to to provoke a response which will drive traffic to your site. I’d feel bad for all of the recent flack Malcolm Gladwell is receiving for his well-researched and thoughtful New Yorker article from people who obviously did no more than skim it, except that Gladwell himself is occasionally guilty of this method. Another prime example, well, Evgeny Morozov love him though I do.

The lesson here: it’s never too early to backlash. Let’s call it the ‘Remora Effect with a twist’, although I’m sure there’s an official name for it (and someone who loudly disagrees with that name). Romoras  (AKA Suckerfish) are fish that hitch rides on a host to save themselves the effort of really thinking about a topic.  Alright, I added that last bit.

The concept does bring up an interesting question though, how much of news media released is original thought, that is to say primary source reporting and editorial, and how much of it is a rehashing of other sources. Jay Rosen points out the surprising amount of “reporting” is taken directly from press releases, and anyone following Japan on twitter the last two days sees that new developments come about once every six hours, not on the second by second basis that the firehose would have you believe.

To do this xkcd style, I’m guessing the graph of actual news before and after digital tools looks something like this:

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