Happy birthday Google!

Consider this: Google has officially turned 10 years old. Ten! It’s not even a teenager yet! But can you imagine your daily life without Google, or everything it has impacted in the development of Internet search? I can’t. I was trying to remember my search engine of choice back in the day and can’t clearly remember BG (before Google), although it might have been AltaVista. Does anyone even use AltaVista anymore?

Anyway, in honor of their birthday, Google has brought back its oldest version, from which you can search its database as of January 2001. I tried googling myself (because I’m a narcissist) and only had three results, compared with the 650 or so I get when I search my name now. Pretty cool, even if none of the links for me actually worked.

I don’t care what other people say about you trying to take over the world, Google. I still love you. Happy birthday!

New Pew Internet report looks at teen gaming and civic effects

During my last six months in DC, I worked almost exclusively on the Pew Internet Project’s most recent report, Teens, Video Games and Civics, which was released Tuesday. This report looks at the gaming activities of 12-17 year-olds in the U.S.: the types of games they play, how they play them, and the social aspect of gaming. Furthermore, the report found positive connections between gameplay and civic behavior.

Having been a gamer since about age 6 when I would play Space Invaders and Breakthrough on my parents’ Atari, this report is very near and dear to me. Gaming is now ubiquitous — 97% of teens play video games. this means that girls are now playing games about as often as boys, which was certainly not the case 20 years ago. I remember being one of the only girls in my gradeschool who actively played video games on a regular basis; while it didn’t seem to bother me at the time (because finishing Ninja Gaiden was too important!), I am heartened that kids share games to a larger degree now.

Based on the data in this survey, I think we can safely say that video games are not the devil-spawn that some more of the more outspoken conservatives like to proclaim. Gaming, like everything else out there, has a good and a bad side, but in my opinion, the good tends to outweigh the bad. Kids who game are not missing out on life, but are instead interacting with their peers, and in some cases, learning from their experiences and getting more involved with their community.

Learning the rules (the hard way) in WoW

When I moved to Michigan last month, I decided that one way I could bide my time while waiting for school to start would be by checking out World of Warcraft. Not only am I an avid RPG fan going back 20 years to the days of the original Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, but online gaming research is a hot topic within my PhD program. So not only would I be having fun, but I’d be advancing my academic knowledge, I told myself. (Fabulous excuse, I know.)

At first, I started a character on a random server, not really understanding the whole concept of servers and how your character is locked to that server (unless you’re willing to pay the relocation fee). In fact, I didn’t really ask anyone for advice or look up anything online at first, choosing instead to just dive in. The game is rather self-explanatory on a basic level. As you get into the nuances, however, it can become very complicated. Especially when you are interacting with other players.

So I’ve been playing for almost a month now and have several characters on different servers so I can play with various friends. When playing alone in the last week though, I’ve had a couple rude awakenings that have shone me a very fascinating aspect of WoW community that surprises me, even with my research focus on online communities.

One would think that with so many players (10 million +), people would not be very organized. At the very least, one would expect there to be a high degree of things like flaming and lack of courtesy. This, however, is far from the truth. Instead, it is I, someone who thinks of herself as a generally courteous and polite person in the real world, who is repeatedly committing offenses and being reprimanded for not being “nice enough.” This amazes me. And people have no sympathy for my ignorance either.

Take tonight, for example. Two other players asked me to join a group. I didn’t need to join, as I was finishing a low level quest, but I accepted because I thought that it might speed up the process. For a reason I am not aware of, they set the looting option to free-for-all. I didn’t notice, because the only other times I’ve ever joined a group, it’s been set so that it is spread out among the group members. Yes, I should have realized this was not the case when I could loot all the enemies, but I just assumed since one of the two players was a high level player (level 65) and the other wasn’t jumping to loot the enemies, that they had gotten what they needed. When I got the item I was looking for, I asked if they still needed my help, they said no, and I left. Five minutes later, I am assaulted textually by one of the group members about how rude it was that I ninja looted everything when he needed an item (the same one I was trying to get coincidentally). I apologized and said that I had asked if they needed help. He proceeded to get very angry about it and how horrible what I did was. I said I was new to the game, not aware of all the rules, and asked why no one said anything as I “ninja looted” away. He decided to ignore this question and continued harassing me for a good 7-10 minutes, mainly just to drive the point home that I was horrible. I kept saying that if anyone had said anything, I would have stopped. Finally, I told him that now I know better and basically thanked him for reprimanding me. That seemed to placate him, and he wished me well. Very weird.

What I perceive from this interaction is that it is very important to the community of players (and perhaps critical to the world’s stability) that these unwritten rules of interaction be followed. Deviation from these rules needs to be punished quickly to ensure that no further infractions occur. This other player, who didn’t know me, had no reason to pursue the matter so far. I can’t imagine I affronted him to such a degree that he wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight, yet he still carried on a long conversation with me. And I actually felt bad afterward! Mission accomplished, I guess.

I also think it’s pretty safe to assume that the vast majority of players have been playing the game for a long time and thus know the “rules” inside and out. So maybe it made sense for this other player to assume that I was a veteran player who was simply taking advantage of the situation. This makes play even more difficult for new players like myself who may be venturing through the game without someone to guide them. While I certainly don’t forsee this instance of WoW “hazing” (for lack of a better term) to deter me from playing the game, it certainly does not make me feel like I am being welcomed with open arms. I guess in the realm of WoW, respect must be earned in hours of play. And I’m thinking I probably need a few thousand more hours of playing before I have half of it figured out.

Tired of their kids’ $1200 cell phone bills, Congressmen stick it to mobile providers

I used to be anti-texting. Why send someone a poorly worded, 160-character-or-less message when you can call them (if it requires an immediate reply) or email them? Texting encourages bad grammar, is impersonal and can sometimes be downright annoying.

That quicky changed, however, once I began graduate school. For all intents and purposes, I was forced to get a texting plan on my phone after my new-found friends started texting me. A lot. It wasn’t a lot of texts compared to other people I know, but $0.10 per received or sent message adds up very quickly. My first month at Georgetown, I noticed my cell phone bill was $15 or so higher than normal, so I caved and got a 500 texts per month plan for $5. Even then, I was surprised at the priciness of texts, as I was pretty confident the transferral of such a tiny amount of data between phones was not costing the phone companies that much.

Since I’ve been on a texting plan ever since (and now on a data plan too with my Verizon Voyager — I’m so hip), I had no idea that rather than prices for texting decreasing, they have instead been increasing over the last year. The price of sending or texting now costs $0.20 per message on each of the four major carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile). I can only imagine the first billing cycle after the price increase in many an American home: parent opens phone bill, sees their 12-year-old has decided to become hyperactive with her texts at exactly the wrong moment, and now has to pay nearly $100 extra on the phone bill so her kid can engage in conversation via text with the person sitting next to them. What’s up with these kids anyway? Haven’t they heard of whispering? And what kinds of pressing secrets do 12-year-olds have anyway that need to be communicated via text?

Anyway, it seems that the ridiculosity of these increases has reached Congressional notice, and one Senator (hopefully) plans to do something about it. Herb Kohl (D-WI) has sent a letter to the presidents of the four majors, demanding an explanation for their outrageous texting prices.

Who knows if this discussion will actually lead to any pricing changes for the millions of texters in the U.S., but I must say I am looking forward to reading their lame attempts at justifying their pricing plans. It seems pretty obvious to me that these companies thought they could get away with jacking up prices because of the exponential increase in demand over a few short years, but they must have forgotten Moore’s Law along the way, which when applied to data technology, says it should be half as costly now than it was just two years ago.

Read the Ars Technica article here.

As if the chance of accidentally sending love letters to your boss wasn’t enough, new study finds 1/3 of IT admins read your work email

It is always embarrassing to have private information about yourself shared in a public manner. For example, if you share a secret with a friend, who then gets drunk and regales everyone at a party about the time you [insert highly embarrassing “secret” here], that really sucks. Or how about the time you accidentally reply to all to an email thread, and badmouth one of the recipients? Yikes, that could be painful.

In my six or so years of working in offices, I have *luckily* not had any highly embarrassing slip-ups, but I have had friends make such mistakes and even heard about large-scale accidental email sharing. For example, my department had an internal address that included the 10 or so of us in editorial. One coworker sent accidentally sent an email intended for his girlfriend to the internal address instead of hers — understandable because we each sent at least 30 emails per day through this address, but also pretty embarrassing for him. He asked that we just delete the email without reading it, but being naturally voyeuristic, of course we all read it! An even more damaging story comes from an employee many years ago who actually sent an email to his girlfriend over the wire (i.e., out to journalists with real news stories). It’s bad enough getting called out for having a pet name of “snookie bottom” by your coworkers, but having hundreds — if not thousands — of people know this would probably be pretty damaging to one’s ego (and most likely to one’s career as well).

Because of stories like these, I have always avoided sending personal information via my work accounts. The chance for mis-sends is high, and I prefer to avoid explaining to a future employer about why I was let go from a previous job for inappropriately using work email.

Seems like I had the right idea about this, as we now have another reason to not use work email for personal interaction: In a recent survey conducted by tech company Cyber-Ark, 1/3 of respondents (all senior IT employees) admitted to using their admin passwords to read confidential or sensitive information. What this means is that if you have managed to draw attention to yourself by either being too attractive, too important, or too annoying, the chances are pretty good that admins are reading all your email. And if you fall into the annoying category, they’re probably not only reading your email, but they’re trying to find a way to use it against you.

So leave off the work emails kids, or your next job may not only have no work email, but will probably require you to ask “Would you like fries with that?” about 500 times a day.

Thanks to Josh for sharing this with me from Techdirt.

C’mon ladies, let’s get posting! — Gender gap applies to Internet creativity

New research out of Northwestern confirms what should be no surprise to most Internet users — men are more likely to share creative work online than women. While nearly two-thirds of men and women in the survey report that they participate in creative work online or offline, the gap emerges when considering creative work such as videos, photography, writing and the like that is posted online.

There are many possible reasons for such a gender gap. The one that jumps to my mind immediately lies in the differences between 18-year-old boys and 18-year-old girls (the respondent base was 1060 Northwestern freshmen). Boys at that age, to put it simply, have no shame. When I think of all the videos on YouTube of college-age guys performing “stunts” and the like, it completely dwarfs any videos from girls that age. Furthermore, girls at that age are very conscious of the image they present to others, and are likely to focus more on how they look and who their friends are then how popular their blog is. Eighteen is not exactly the most popular age for girls to go techy.

Another area this research touches on is perceived knowledge of the Internet, and specifically of the ways in which users can post their creative works. While sites like YouTube make posting videos as easy as pie, the idea of posting video will intimidate girls much greater than boys, who are more likely to spend the time figuring out the technology. This goes hand-in-hand with the (somewhat justified) idea than men are more technologically inclined than women. Research (including my own) has shown that women like using the Internet to communicate with their friends and use sites like Facebook more often and for longer periods of time than men. But once you enter the more technical side of the Internet, it is far-and-away a male dominated world. I read a lot of technology-based blogs; when you consider contributors, men outnumber women at least 3 to 1, and probably by a lot more.

A final consideration for why men are more likely to post content than women could be privacy related. As my research (among others) has shown, women are much more likely to be concerned about their privacy online. This is probably a result of early-on scare tactics that suggested that there were legions of men prowling the Internet looking for young girls to prey on. I guess it wasn’t such a bad thing really. I had many a run-in during the late 1990s with rather, um, direct men via AOL instant messaging. But there are certainly ways to share content online without revealing intimate details about your life.

I may not be a programmer or an expert on the Web, but I certainly know my way around the Internet and how various applications work. I am certainly adept at posting a variety of content online and can do so without having stalkers pop up at my front door. I think girls need to move past the stereotypes that science and technology are for men and get more involved in this thing we call the Internet.

Watch Jonathan Zittrain on Colbert Report

Jonathan Zittrain is the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, a book on my “to buy” list. He is also a cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, which is pretty freakin’ awesome. He appeared on the Colbert Report last night to talk about his book and why he thinks Web 2.0 and the Internet are headed in the wrong direction.

The Colbert video can be found on the front page of the Future of the Internet website (stupid Comedy Central video embedding isn’t working). If you’re so excited by Zittrain’s ideas, you can watch a presentation he gave at the Berkman Center about his book via YouTube (video below).

Giving in and getting even more social

I have already admitted my “problem” (aka obsession) with social media, especially via the Internet, and how I how decided to embrace the social aspect of the current trend in interaction. In the last 24 hours, I have taken two (one small, one big) steps to make myself even *more* social than I already am.

Yesterday, I finally caved to the combined strength of the many tech blogs I read and signed up for Plurk, the supposed “Twitter killer”/slightly different take on Twitter. It’s quite obvious that the site is still in the “we need more users!” phase, as you accumulate “karma” by posting more and especially by inviting your friends to join the site, and open up more page design options as your karma increases. So far, the jury is still out, but my immediate impression is, why do I need this when I have Twitter? Then again, I saw no use for Twitter eight months ago and now keep it open at all times in the coveted fourth tab of my browser (following two mail accounts and Facebook, in case you were wondering). As per usual, I am the first of my good friends to join the site, which dramatically decreases its use to me as a beneficial service. And, most likely, as with Twitter, it will become more useful as more friends join (if that happens — which, as Twitter has shown me, will most likely not happen, since I have less than 10 actual “friends” who use Twitter).

The much bigger step for me was finally purchasing a phone with all the fun internet goodies. As of this morning, I was officially able to upgrade to a new phone without paying retail prices. Being a very happy Verizon customer, I chose to stay with the company rather than switch to AT&T so I can get my hands on the new 3G iPhone. Instead, I chose to go with the current cream of the crop, the not-so-much “iPhone killer,” the LG Voyager. Now, I am well aware that this phone can still not compete with the iPhone and I will not try to convince myself otherwise, but the phone is a huge improvement over my two-year-old, toilet-soaked (gross, I know) Razr. The Voyager has a touch screen on front with a large clam shell screen (not touch) when you open it up. It also has a full QWERTY keyboard and navigates pretty easily. I tested it out last week in a Verizon store and found it rather intuitive, although many complain about Verizon’s wacky UI. After the discounts/rebates, I managed to snag the phone for just $100 — which is, surprisingly, the same price as the inferior Glyde — so I was very happy. My phone plan obviously had to be upgraded to support the mobile email/VZ Navigator/VCast, etc., but it’s not too big of an increase ($20).

Of course, the implications of me owning this type of phone are a little scary. If I’m the type of girl who loves being connected at all times, and is suddenly given the opportunity to do so, will my communication patterns change even further? Will I be a texting whore like some of my friends? Will I be checking my email at 3am, since I will now be able to do so without getting out of bed (yes, I sleep with my phone, and no, I see nothing wrong with that)? It will be interesting to see how much I get sucked into the phone, but I really think it will be more of a benefit than a detriment, especially with school beginning in the fall, and me being chained to desks and subject to the whims of my professors.

My master’s thesis is online, free for all to read!

I spent nearly eight months of my life researching and writing my master’s thesis on Facebook and identity, and now it has *finally* been posted online by Georgetown. Hooray! I know some of my fellow students would rather forget their theses now that they’ve graduated, but since I will be continuing this research (at least related research) for the next four to five years at Michigan State, I am happy to share my work with the world, especially since I am truly proud of the final project.

For those not familiar with my research, my thesis considered the evolving role of social networking sites in transforming users’ methods of communication with various members of their social network. I conducted a survey of 600+ Georgetown University undergraduates to try and get to the heart of why they use sites like Facebook and how social networking sites have changed the ways in which they form and maintain relationships.

The thesis can be accessed here.

And here is the full abstract to whet your appetite.

We live in an increasingly networked world. We are connected to each other through numerous types of ties, with social networking sites offering one of the most popular methods people currently employ to link themselves together. But do “old-fashioned” ways of developing and maintaining relationships suffer from the evolution of computer-mediated communication? Have we become too reliant on the instantaneous, answer-producing quality of the internet that can reveal others’ most intimate personal details before we even introduce ourselves?

This thesis examines social relationships online to see how they differ from traditional offline relationships, focusing on how people create an online identity and how that identity affects the formation and maintenance of “friendships” in the digital world. The thesis will then consider how the social networking site Facebook impacts relationships in the real world. This analysis will be based on a survey of 644 Georgetown University undergraduates regarding their uses of various technologies to interact with different members of their social networks, and especially their use of Facebook to form and maintain relationships.

Google may not have made us dumber, but it’s certainly changed the way we think

The cover story for the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly considers the impact of the Internet generally, and Google specifically, on how people consume information. In the article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nick Carr looks at the evolution of reading caused by the rise of the Internet. He references himself and others who say they can no longer read books, as they cannot keep their attention on a single piece of writing for more than a few moments. Sheer quantity has replaced quality of information in terms of importance. I become a social media expert because I have five different social networking accounts; really, I can become an expert on anything thanks to search engines and sites like Wikipedia. The fear of a generation of ADD adults seems inevitable, right?

Not necessarily. I admit I am an information addict, checking my email every few minutes and keeping it open in a tab in my browser 24/7, refreshing my Facebook and Twitter pages whenever my attention drifts from whatever I’m currently doing (which is usually about every five minutes), subscribing to 50+ blogs in my Google Reader…I could go on and on. I, like many others in the technology-driven 21st century, have become masters of what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.” This means that no matter what I’m doing on my computer, one eye is constantly twitching to my Gmail tab to see if I have a new email or IM. I mean, god forbid if I miss that email about a party in two weeks and don’t read it until 20 minutes after it comes in!

While I need this constant stimulation, I found that unlike the author and others cited in the Atlantic article, I have luckily not lost the joy of immersion reading. Even while writing my master’s thesis, a time during which I did little but research and write the thing, I made sure that I spent at least 20 minutes of “pleasure reading” before going to bed. Now that I have more free time, I am rarely without a book and can easily spend hours reading it (as long as my laptop doesn’t go to sleep and I can’t see Gmail!). While I do agree that I find myself skimming a lot more now when it comes to more “academic” reading, the pleasure reading I do is slow and extremely enjoyable.

I also know that while information overload is causing widespread ADD tendencies in terms of searching for information — and that this is obviously leading to problems related to the validity of information (what? are you saying that not everything on the Internet is true?) — we’re certainly not all slaves to our computers. One thing I’ve noticed among a significant number of friends that I can’t wrap my head around is how many of them have hundreds of unread emails in their email accounts. Now I am rather meticulous with my email, reading every email I get (unless it’s spam obviously), and labeling/cataloging/archiving it regularly. If there are more than 50 emails in my inbox, then I’ve been slacking. And I tend to keep everything. But then I look at some of my friends’ email inboxes and there are maybe 1000 emails in the inbox, 200 of which haven’t been read. WTF I ask? That would drive me crazy! Then again, I know whenever my roommate looks into my post-Chernobyl disaster of a bedroom, her skin probably crawls too. But at least that’s my room. When people allow their inboxes to get that cluttered, they’re not the only ones who suffer. How many times have I asked a friend, “Did you read that article I emailed you?” or “Are you coming to the barbeque tomorrow?” only to receive a puzzled look because they were too lazy to read my email.

Okay, now that I’m going off on quite the tangent, let me attempt to bring this back around to my point (assuming I have one). As Carr says in the article, conventional wisdom regarding our brains being “hard-wired” after a certain age can pretty much be disregarded now as it is obvious we can change the ways in which we think, learn, read, etc. So if you see yourself changing the way you process information and you don’t like it, you can change it. You could try what my friend Ashley is doing after she determined she’s too reliant on technology and separate yourself from it. There are other ways of finding out information, such as newspapers and phone books (you know, the big, heavy yellow and white books you keep under the bed on in the darkest recesses of your hall closet). You can try to slow down your information absorption rate — after all, as much as you enjoy entertaining your friends at parties with all the random bits of information you’ve collected over the years from random websites, it’s just taking up valuable space in your noggin. Or you can be like me and just come to terms with the fact that the Internet has officially laid claim to your soul and all you can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.