Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gardening in New England Rocks (Bad Pun Fully Intended)

Anyone who lives in New England can probably tell you what our most common native crop is-- rocks, of every shape and size.  Just this morning, I was working with my dad to reopen our old vegetable garden, which has been empty for a few years when we were all too busy for it, and found at least fifty rocks in a 10' by 12' area.  To put this in perspective, the garden was in use for at least ten to twelve years prior to the few years it's been lying fallow.  Somehow, in all that time, we still failed to remove all the rocks.  Every year, more appear.

Boyfriend attributes it to erosion, arguing that as the topsoil washes away, more rocks are revealed.  This makes sense, but he's never lived here to get a perspective on how ridiculously many rocks can show up in a brief period of time.  Thus, I prefer my own argument-- that New England rocks know how to migrate.

Either way, and despite all the rocks, I'm really excited to be reopening the garden.  Unfortunately, the more I sank into school and work over the past few years, the less time I got to spend outdoors, and I miss that.  Homegrown vegetables are also better than ones from the store, if only because you appreciate the work that went into them!  This year, I'm attempting , zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, carrots, radishes, watermelon and a few varieties of tomato.  We'll have to see how they turn out!

Farming in New England is overall an interesting phenomenon.  When I was driving to Virginia a few weeks ago, I was listening to the very funny book A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, where the author and a friend attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail.  When discussing the New England segment of the trail, which spans almost all of the East Coast, Bryson wrote that colonial New England was (I believe) 30% forest and 70% farmland.  At the time when he was writing his book, the late 1990s, these numbers had swapped entirely, a really unusual reversal of progress. 

In large part, however, this didn't result from a lack of good soil for farming.  Rather, it was a result of increasing economies of scale associated with mechanized farming.  The hills and rocks of New England meant that farms simply weren't large enough for the huge machines that work so well in the Midwestern states.  So farming moved there, and New England reverted to forest.

A recent article I found, however, argued that with rising gas prices, the worth of local farming might increase, bringing year-round production back to New England.  I have to admit, it's a persuasive argument.  The Farmer's Market near my house in Ann Arbor has great food of all types, fresher and cheaper than those at the grocery store.  And when buying plants for my garden this morning, I got all seven varieties of vegetables and fruit for under $20.  As long as I do it right, the amount of food they'll produce for me is well over that amount. 

Regardless, it'll be a nice change to have something manual to do this summer in between my research and writing.  And the results should be delicious!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Upcoming Video Game Work

So I'm a little busy today, trying to work on a paper and prep for a job interview I have tomorrow.  This is particularly difficult because the paper isn't due for almost a month, which goes completely against my normal method of motivating myself through recognition of a fast-approaching deadline.  However, April will be a killer in terms of grading and exams, so I'm trying to finish as many of my more flexible assignments as possible now.  We'll see how it turns out!

In the interests of being at least a little exciting today, I decided to give you a brief peek into what the topic I'm currently working on is.  For my quantitative research class, we basically have to do the background research for and design a study.  If it turns out to be interesting, we might even conduct it later on.  So far, I've gotten good feedback on mine.

Which, I'm sure, means you're all wondering what this amazing project of mine could be.  Well, I'm afraid I can't write too much about it here for now, especially if I'm actually going to run the study.  Wouldn't want any of my more enterprising students (who make up the research pool we often use for exploratory studies) to discover my hypotheses and end up giving me skewed results.

What I can say is that it deals with (surprise!) video games, and more specifically their influence on public opinion.  Check out some of the material here to see some of what I'm working with.  We'll see how it goes!  If I don't end up taking it to the study stage, I'll probably give another update soon, but if I do, it'll be awhile before I manage to run all the data and can report back with my conclusions.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

SXSW- Part 3, Building a Web Community the 4chan way

The last few things I want to write about from moot's talk at SXSW (you can read my earlier post on it here) involve his attitude toward building a community online and the ways he's approaching his new project, Canvas, with the knowledge gained from 4chan.

Moot mentioned in his talk that 4chan started with a chat room of around twenty people and just grew from there to the 12 million people per month that visit now.  While it seems like  he should be a very wealthy man from getting so much traffic to his website, moot is currently $20,000 or so in debt because of the difficulties of finding advertisers.  Due to the nature of 4chan, he can't guarantee that ads won't run next to something inappropriate.  Not a lot of advertisers are willing to take that risk, and the ones left are often from companies moot feels may ruin the user experience.  Thus, 4chan generates no real revenue but incurs massive server fees.

It seems that these difficulties, as well as the successes, of 4chan have led moot to his new project, Canvas.  From his description of the site, it aims to mix the benefits of anonymity and creativity with greater ease of moderation and perhaps even the chance to make a profit (or at least not lose money).  Canvas, like 4chan, is an image sharing website, but it comes with a few changes.  While the site's still in closed beta and I wasn't able to get in, moot's presentation showed some stills of it.  One interesting feature is that Canvas includes tools to edit images within the web page itself, making it easier for users to work together to create new works (and memes).

It also links to Facebook, which seems at first to go against moot's stance on the benefits of anonymity being beneficial.  However, from what I can tell, he's hoping to hit a good balance between the pros and cons of having anonymous users, making a site with equivalent creativity but less trolling than 4chan.  The method Canvas employs to do this is to allow users to post anonymously but to have their registration information behind the scenes, through the connection to Facebook.  To quote moot's talk, "It's a first pass at weeding out your more casual trolls... Even though we're not surfacing your profile information, your name, your picture anywhere, just the fact that you know that we know is enough to discourage people."  This won't discourage everyone, of course, with moot guessing that only around 20% of people who might try to "muck things up" might be discouraged by this step.  However, it definitely says that he intends Canvas to be very different from 4chan, in terms of moderation and friendliness to wide audiences.  Hopefully it also allows him to get some advertisers!

Moot does, however, intend to keep some of the things he sees as key features of 4chan's success, the first being the organic growth it saw, developing from a small community to a large one without any form of advertising or explicit attempts to get more users.  He argued that this was key to the formation of a community and group identity, and said, "The problem is not scaling, but building a community worth scaling."  I thought that was a really interesting comment.  Any time you look up information about social media and social websites or games, you're generally inundated with advice on how to grow your numbers and attain success in terms of visits.  This kind of view, of allowing things to develop on their own, was refreshing, and I think it really does touch on part of why 4chan has been so successful.

One thing moot expected to change, and ended up reverting back towards the example of 4chan instead, was the format of the website.  Specifically, the way through which users could communicate.  4chan, as I have mentioned before, is a simple image board, where users can post images and comment on them.  For Canvas, moot was planning on adding a chat feature as well, to allow people to communicate more instantly and directly while working on a project.  What he said he found, however, is that chats were less fun for users than commenting was.  With comments, new participants can go back and read the logs, catch up and then contribute.  Apparently with chats, this was much harder, making it fun only for the people who were involved already.  As moot says the point of his sites is always to be fun, this led him to scale back the chat option and increase focus on commenting.  While chat is still a feature, he said he's aiming for a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication on the site, or a "product at the intersection of chat and commenting".

I'll be really interested to see how the new site works when it's finally opened up.  I think it could manage to be pretty successful, and it would be nice to see one of the Internet's major players manage to make a profit for once.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

SXSW- Part 2, Anonymity and Creativity

Well, I've been back from Texas since Wednesday night, but some of the stuff at SXSW was just so cool/interesting that I'll probably be posting about it through this week or even beyond.  At the very least, I'd like to discuss the keynote speeches I was lucky enough to catch.

There were so many people at SXSW that I didn't think I'd be able to see the keynotes from the main room where they were actually taking place, especially since the organizers were expecting a large enough audience that they simulcast the speeches to eight or nine other rooms.  Somehow, I managed to get into the main ballroom for the two I really wanted to see-- Christopher Poole and Felicia Day.  Felicia Day is probably the more recognizable name of the two of these, but Chris Poole is equally successful and well-known on the Internet front-- just not by name.  Rather, he's known as "moot", the founder of, which he jokingly refers to as "the dark heart of the Internet" (before arguing against this perception).

If you haven't been on 4chan, don't go while at work or while with people that you don't want accidentally exposed to adult material.  The website itself is a very simple imageboard, where users can post and comment on pictures, but it allows them to be entirely anonymous.  4chan has become the spawning point for a number of Internet subcultures and memes (fads or trends, such as Rickrolling).  It's darker side has been manifested in Internet attacks, such as flooding the bandwidth of the Motion Picture Association of America's website in retaliation for their cyberattacks against The Pirate Bay, crashing the MPAA's website for a short period of time.  The community's members have also used their computer and hacking skills for positive results, such as tracking down a poster who was threatening to blow up his school and passing the information along to the police.  It's actually a pretty fascinating website to look at from a media studies perspective, just because its users are completely anonymous but still manage to exert a heavy influence on popular culture, other areas of the Internet, and people who irritate 4chan users.

I found Moot's talk really interesting, because while he recognized the more negative side of sites like 4chan, he expressed almost infinite faith in the potential of anonymity to be a positive thing.  Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote a book called "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet", where he argues that the difficulty of deleting information from the Internet means that all the mistakes and errors we commit in life will follow us forever.  With a permanent chronicle of our lives stored online, we no longer have the ability to reinvent ourselves by moving to a new place or by meeting new people.  This stifles experimentation and creativity, as our failures, like our mistakes, will also be linked to us permanently.  Moot's argument was that sites like 4chan, which allow users to be completely anonymous, can help make up for this, by giving people places to fail risk-free.  He saw them as places that can help breed creativity by decreasing the repercussions of trying something and having it not work out, as well as by allowing others to take, change and sometimes even improve upon original works.

This perspective actually correlates with some of the points I made in my undergraduate thesis, about balancing the right to free speech with the negative repercussions of anonymity.  Anonymity really does unlink identity and consequences, allowing people to make posts or put forward ideas that they might otherwise have stifled.  This is a positive thing when it means that, as mentioned above, people get multiple chances to try something without being deemed a failure, or when people who are surrounded by others who are unlike or disagree with them can share their viewpoints without being ostracized.  It's a less positive thing when it means that individuals can attack or libel one another with impunity.  Unfortunately, I don't know the best way to balance this, and I'm not sure anyone else does either.  I would, however, agree with moot that 4chan and similarly anonymous sites serve a purpose.

Moot also had a number of other ideas that I really liked, but including them would make this post way too long, so I think I'll save them for Wednesday.  For now, what do you think about 4chan, if you've experienced it in the past?  Is it useful, or just a spot for people to waste time and be offensive?  And how do you think open speech and civility can be balanced online?

(Also, if interested, moot's talk is actually up on YouTube in its entirety.  And the Austin Chronicle did an interesting article on 4chan during SXSW.  My favorite quote from it-- "Anonymity allows identity to exhale". )