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Zombies

In my time, I’ve seen my share of Zombie films.  Some of them I’ve enjoyed (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland), some I’ve actively disliked (28 Days Later), and many others have fallen somewhere in between.  Until recently, though, there was one aspect of zombie films that confused me greatly:  I couldn’t figure out why zombies displayed a form of social cohesion.

I mean – we’re talking about mindless, shambling, ravenous, flesh-eating monsters here.  Why do they run in packs?  Why do they work together?  Why, I wondered, do they cooperate?

It just seemed inexplicable that zombies would exhibit a tendency to strive toward a common goal.  I expected more anarchy and less teamwork from the shambling masses.  Just the other day, however, I began to understand the complexities of zombie social dynamics.  Unsurprisingly, this onset of comprehension coincided with my latest foray into the seedy underside of the Social Web.

It occurred to me that zombies were not born zombies but were, in fact, once human.  Therefore, their behavior patterns (both within the narrative and without) would logically fall into line with normal human behavior patterns.  And most humans, I think, are less likely to form a community and more likely to form a mob.  You know – a large group of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.

I take a great interest in the Social Web.  On some level, I guess you could say I am a student of it.  Because of this, I am quick to study any new movement/website/idea of the ilk that comes down the road.  This often results in membership and a trial of the newest fad, but not always (see my posts on Facebook.  Sometimes my research shows me that membership is a step I’m unwilling to take).  The Social Web is not terribly different from many other aspects of life – sometimes the best way to get to know it is to just take a deep breath and dive in.

Which is what I did with the latest fad to appear on my radar: Quora.  Quora bills itself as “a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”  On the surface, this sounds like a good idea (unfortunately, the reality is nothing of the sort.  The general consensus over at Quora seems to be that ideas need to be edited in order to have value.  It’s more like the Ministry of Truth than the Social Web).  So I joined, looked around a bit, then posted a question.  I checked back now and again over a week or so, until I found that someone had edited my question.  Curious as to what I had misspelled, I went to have a look, and discovered that an entire paragraph had been removed.  This made me wonder about the person who had done the editing, so I clicked upon his name to check out his profile.  What I saw disturbed me a bit.  The profiles on Quora show users’ activities on the site.  Specifically, the numbers of questions asked, answers given and edits provided by the user.  This particular user had asked 6 questions, given 8 answers, and provided 1,122 edits (you read those numbers correctly).

Naturally, I assumed I was dealing with some sort of Quora troll.  Being the fan of crowdsourcing that I am (see any of my posts discussing OpenStreetMap), I leapt to the erroneous conclusion that the community’s ability to edit each others’ questions was geared toward fixing errors (like spelling and/or grammar).  It never occurred to me that other users would feel free to radically alter the content of a question.  Such behavior would seem to negate the point of posting questions at all.  How could you expect to get answers to a question if anyone could easily change its meaning?

So I posted a couple more questions to Quora.  The first simply asked if the user base was aware of this sort of thing (it turns out that they were.  Worse – they approve of it).  The second (which, of the two, I thought was less likely to offend) asked whether Quora should have more robust filters in place.  Since Quora provides space to further elaborate, I used it to describe the aforementioned troll and my desire to automatically block such users.

Enter the horde of mindless, shambling, ravenous monsters.  I was stunned by the vitriolic response my second question inspired.  While I am quite aware of the speed with which any group of humans will mutate into the Howling Mob (there’s a reason they make us read Lord of the Flies in school), I am often caught off guard by the seeming innocuous things that serve as catalyst.  I forget that the average human is a quivering mass of insecurities, and that their desperate need to belong often causes them to lash out at any perceived threat against the pony to which they’ve hitched their wagon.

As you probably know, this is not the first time I have encountered the Howling Mob online.  In fact, it seems to happen to me with alarming frequency.  Considering my own personality type, this is hardly surprising and it doesn’t actually bother me.

It did get me to wondering, though.  Since human nature is what it is, and since every aspect of the Social Web is necessarily teeming with humans, why is it that I’ve never been assaulted by the Howling Mob at my particular favorite corner of the Social Web:  Twitter?  What is it about Twitter that makes it so different from my other experiences with the Social Web?

Of course, this launched a discussion on Twitter.  After much discussion and even more thought, I think I finally figured out what the difference is:  it’s a question of exposure.  See, Quora does new users the disservice of immediately throwing them into the middle of the mob, there to claw their way to whatever position they can attain (Quora is by no means alone in this behavior.  In fact, most of the Social Web functions this way.  Just look at the stats and/or titles attached to users in any forum/group/site on the internet).  Just like in high school, newcomers are forced to find their way in an environment where all the social lines have been drawn and all the camps have been populated, their leadership positions filled.  Sometimes online communities can be open and accepting of new members.  Usually, though, the Lord of the Flies mentality prevails.

Twitter does it differently.  When you first join Twitter, you enter into their universe all alone, and you remain alone until you do something about it.  Until you start following other users, the mob doesn’t really know you exist.  And because you choose who you do and do not interact with on Twitter, the mob only enters into your life if you invite it (I’m pretty sure Facebook works in a very similar fashion, but I‘m not positive.  For obvious reasons).

Something else that sets Twitter apart is its general lack of score-keeping.  As far as I know, Twitter tracks precisely three things:  how many people you follow, how many people follow you, and how many times you have ‘Tweeted’ (posted a message).  And that’s it (again, I think Facebook is similar in this).  While this information is tracked and is accessible, it doesn’t appear as though Twitter actually does anything with it.  There never comes a time when you are ‘Super-Followed’ or become a ‘Global Tweeter’.

Herein lie the important differences.  The small area of the Social Web that works for me is the one where the group I spend time amongst is a group of my choosing.  More importantly, it’s the area where people aren’t necessarily trying to prove anything.  Where it’s more about connecting and communicating than about score-keeping and imagined popularity.

So thanks but no thanks, Quora.  If it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on your Howling Mob and just stick with my neighborhood pub.

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Updated – see below.

Earlier today, as on most days, I was minding my own business and checking   my email.  The first of today’s messages was from Facebook, asking me if I wanted to check out my friend Pete’s Facebook page. This did not surprise me in any way, for it is far from the first such message I have received from Facebook (nor is it the first that mentioned Pete).  Every so often, Facebook drops me a line to see if I would like to be friends with – well – my friends.  I assume this is just a result of some part of the Facebook process, probably my friends occasionally search Facebookia to see if I’m wandering about the hinterlands or some-such.  Ostensibly, my email address gets batted around as part of this process.

To be honest, this set of circumstances doesn’t bother me.  Up ’til now it has only been an occasional, minor annoyance.  And since it apparently originates from someone who is, in fact, my friend, I don’t mind in the least.

Today, however, my inbox was inundated by Facebook fallout.  And it wasn’t the usual ‘invitation’ type crap.  Today, I received a series of ten additional emails, each informing me that one of my friends (many of them far-flung) has added me as a friend on Facebook (in order:  Chris, Scott, John, Susie, Bob, Patty, Drew, Frank, Barb and Ted).  All of these seemed to be the sort of message Facebook sends when one Facebookite attaches themself to another Facebookite.  The strangeness arises from the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a Facebookite.  And since these emails arrived in a cluster, I started to wonder whether someone had set up a Facebook page in my name.  Following a link, though, just led to a page asking me to sign up for Facebook.

In the end, it seems as though it simply amounts to an odd but (mostly) harmless Facebookian glitch.  For some reason, the latest invitation that came my way in Pete’s name must have raised flags at everyone else’s page, in response to which they ‘friended’ (a curiously bizarre verb) me (not, in fact, the case.  See below).

So this is largely an open letter/response to Pete, Chris, Scott, John, Susie, Bob, Patty, Drew, Frank, Barb and Ted (and Ellyn, Jeff, Lisa, Doug, Peter and David.  And Steve and Dylan and Wendy. See below).  To start with: thanks, folks.  It’s nice to get occasional reminders who your friends are (not that I had any doubts).  Facebook, however, doesn’t figure into my version of the universe.

Not that I have anything against Facebook.  I mean – I know that there are a variety of security concerns (and I seem to hear about a new one every week or so), but they’re not the sort of security concerns that actually – well – concern me.  Read back a few posts and you’ll learn everything you need to know about my views of security on the internet.  In a nutshell, there’s no such thing as security on the internet.  This doesn’t bother me, though, because I know it and I behave accordingly.

In fact, I’m rather partial toward Facebook.  I’ve known more than one person who was reunited with an old, absent friend via Facebook.  From the looks of it, Facebook seems to be a corner of the Social Web that actually has something to offer adults.  I view this as a real, valuable service.  I’ve also heard that Facebook functions well as a form of ‘One-Stop Shopping’ when it comes to keeping up with your friends (this from Drew, who is usually actively and openly hostile toward technology in virtually any form).  So it’s not like I have anything against Facebook – it’s just that I, personally, don’t do it.

Why?  Mainly because I just don’t have the time.  I am an obsessive dork, and the last thing I need is one more web app to suck up my time.  But it’s not just the fact that Facebook is part of the ‘Social Web’ that’s stopping me.  I am not, in fact, afraid of the ‘Social Web’.  If you look in the sidebar (and/or if you read previous posts), you’ll see that I’m a fan of Twitter, another biggie on the ‘Social Web’ hit parade.  I have turned my scrutiny upon the ‘Social Web’, and in the end I chose to frequent only Twitter, because it just plain fits my lifestyle best.  And I’m not just repeating what I’ve mentioned previously.

You see, Twitter is the neighborhood bar of the ‘Social Web’.  It’s a ‘Web 2.0’ Boston-based sitcom.  It’s a warm, comfortable place where you are known and welcome, but not particularly obligated.  Signing on to Twitter is very much like walking into your neighborhood bar – you walk in, sit down, order a beer and look around.  You can talk to anyone else present – if you’re of a mind – but no one will be upset if you just sit in silence and enjoy your beer.  It’s a place remarkably devoid of expectations, except in the case of manners.  And you’re generally forgiven your stupidity, so long as you don’t abuse the privilege.

As I said, Twitter fits my lifestyle (and my attitude) quite well.  So I think that – for now, at least – I’ll stick with Twitter as my app of choice for the ‘Social Web’.  This may change in the future, but in the mean time feel free to stop by at any time.  I’ll be sitting at the bar, and I’ll save a stool for you.

Cheers.

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Update: Today has added six (now 9) more to the list of those who have ‘friended’ me at Facebook (Ellyn, Jeff, Lisa, Doug, Peter and David.  And Steve and Dylan and Wendy.).  I also got an e-mail back from Pete, who informed me that he had simply sent along an invitation, along with a list of people he thought I’d be interested in ‘friending’.  He did not, however, send my e-mail address to any of them.  This means that Facebook did so.  Shall we talk about privacy, anonymity and internet security?  Keep in mind that I am not a member of Facebook, so I never agreed to any of their terms.  I’m willing to bet that this means they most certainly do not have the right to play fast and loose with my e-mail address.  Of course, e-mail addresses are probably – technically – public knowledge (like street addresses), so this sort of thing likely happens all the time.  Still, I’d rather Facebook asked my permission before tossing my e-mail address around like their personal plaything (this also makes me very happy that I don’t have a Facebook page.  I wonder how little respect they have for the personal information of people who have agreed to their TOA?).

The more important implications here are the metaphysical ones (as My Darling Wife was quick to point out).  My non-existent Facebook page now has 16 (19) friends.  Does this lend it a semblance of an existence?  In much the fashion that belief lends existence to small gods, elves and faeries, has life been breathed into my Frankenstein-like Facebook page because 16 (19) people now genuinely believe in its existence?

Not too long ago now, bad things happened to Haiti.  And not just the usual bad things, which are pretty bad – Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere (and the fact that the hemispherical distinction is made should tell you a few things about poverty in other parts of the world).  I am talking, of course, about the earthquake and the resultant aftershocks.

Like most other Americans (I suppose), I heard about it in the news, and I closed my eyes and dropped my head and spent some time mourning for people I had never met.

I then considered what I could do to make things better and, again like most Americans (I suppose), I came to the conclusion that I should just throw some money at the situation.

Shortly thereafter, though, I caught wind of a bit of a movement (for want of a better word).  Map Dorks had taken a good look at the existing maps of Haiti, and had found them wanting.  And so the call went forth to all Map Dorks:  Relief efforts in Haiti need accurate maps.

And let me tell you, boys and girls, the Map Dorks stepped up. With the help of imagery provided by the likes of Yahoo, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye (who acquired satellite imagery the day after the initial quake), armies of mappers converged on Open Street Map and kicked serious ass all over Haiti.  In the space of a day the maps of Port-au-Prince went from looking like a hill town in upstate New York (disclaimer: I LOVE hill towns in upstate New York) to looking like Manhattan.  And they are accurate in ways that maps of Haiti have never been. Within a day a Garmin IMG file was produced and a day after that someone whipped up an iPhone app to leverage the OSM data for use on the ground.  And we (Map Dorks, I mean) haven’t stopped.  My life is crowded these days, but I can still find the time to give an hour or two to Haiti every day.  It really isn’t that hard to do.   And I think it’s rather more significant to the people on the ground in Haiti than the 20 bucks I can afford to send.

But this is all beside the point.  The point is the response to this crisis of Map Dorkia, who – for better or worse – are (on some level, at least) my people.  And my people have behaved admirably in this situation.  There are a couple who have been especially helpful and noteworthy (I’m talking about you, Kate and Dave), but while they are unique they are not unusual amongst Map Dorks.  When the call went out, many answered.

And because of that,  I am very, very, proud of my people.

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Twitter Jedi

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now.  I’m not a die-hard convert, and I’m probably only connected for an hour or so a day.  On most days, I don’t Tweet at all.  Truth be told, I’ve only been dabbling in it for two reasons:  the first is that I’m thrilled by the 140 character limit.  I’m a big fan of any device that forces people to get to the point.  The second reason is that I want to see the purpose Twitter eventually finds for itself.  As a medium, it’s still pretty young, and it hasn’t yet found its purpose.

I know there are many of you out there that will tell me that Twitter is a Great Business Tool.  In response, I’m inclined to say:  Crap.  ‘It’s a great business tool’ is one of the Two Great Technological Justifications.  The other is ‘It has many educational applications’.  Again, crap.  These are things we say when we’re afraid to say that we like something simply because it’s cool.  And make no mistake – technology is cool.  The ‘wow’ factor is probably the second most powerful force behind technological development (the first, of course, being money).

But I must admit that there is some merit to the Twitter-as-business-tool argument.  As a Map Dork, I follow many other Map Dorks on Twitter, and I often learn pertinent, valuable and (above all) timely tidbits of information about the goings-on in the Map Dork world (Mapocron Dorkia IV).  To be honest, though, I read far more about food and booze than I do about maps.  But maybe that applies to all disciplines, on one level or another.

There is one particular area, though, where Twitter can really shine as a business tool.  On two separate occasions, I have tweeted my frustration over my failure to use an application in the manner that suited my fancy.  On both of those occasions, my tweet generated an unsolicited response from one of the people closely associated with the application in question.  Both scenarios happened out of the blue, and both led to a protracted session of tech support, supplied courtesy of Twitter.

Twitter happens in near-realtime, and its API makes it possible to track any subject being tweeted about (yes, folks – I hear about it every time you talk about me).  In both of these situations, the people I talked to took advantage of these aspects of Twitter to provide swift and active (I loathe the so-called word ‘proactive’.  It’s jargon, pure and simple, and it’s almost always used to mean ‘active’) support for a product.  Granted – in one of these cases the support was supplied for love of the applications and out of simple common decency (thanks, Steve), but that just serves to make it more valuable and appreciated.

So this is where I think Twitter really can be a Great Business Tool.  The ability to supply customer support BEFORE IT’S EVEN ASKED FOR is the kind of public relations that can move mountains.  It’s like having Jedi Knights arrive to lend a hand just because they felt a disturbance in the Force.

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