imitation

Umberto Eco on books

From Umberto Eco’s “Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books” (Al-Ahram Weekly: 20—26 November 2003):

Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them. …

First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece of spontaneous memory as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memories in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memories in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotise it. …

YET IT IS EXACTLY AT THIS POINT that our unravelling activity must start because by hypertextual structure we usually mean two very different phenomena. First, there is the textual hypertext. In a traditional book one must read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One can obviously skip through the pages, one—once arrived at page 300—can go back to check or re- read something at page 10—but this implies physical labour. In contrast to this, a hypertextual text is a multidimensional network or a maze in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Second, there is the systemic hypertext. The WWW is the Great Mother of All Hypertexts, a world-wide library where you can, or you will in short time, pick up all the books you wish. The Web is the general system of all existing hypertexts. …

Simply, books have proved to be the most suitable instrument for transmitting information. There are two sorts of book: those to be read and those to be consulted. As far as books-to-be-read are concerned, the normal way of reading them is the one that I would call the ‘detective story way’. You start from page one, where the author tells you that a crime has been committed, you follow every path of the detection process until the end, and finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and end of your reading experience. …

Then they are books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias are conceived in order to be consulted and never read from the first to the last page. …

Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross references and the non-linear retrieval of information. …

Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors. …

TWO NEW INVENTIONS, however, are on the verge of being industrially exploited. One is printing on demand: after scanning the catalogues of many libraries or publishing houses a reader can select the book he needs, and the operator will push a button, and the machine will print and bind a single copy using the font the reader likes. … Simply put: every book will be tailored according to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old manuscripts.

The second invention is the e-book where by inserting a micro- cassette in the book’s spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. … E-books will probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with dictionaries or special documents. …

Indeed, there are a lot of new technological devices that have not made previous ones obsolete. Cars run faster than bicycles, but they have not rendered bicycles obsolete, and no new technological improvements can make a bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous one is frequently too simplistic. Though after the invention of photography painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen reproducing reality, this did not mean that Daguerre’s invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not have existed without photographic models: think, for instance, of hyper-realism. Here, reality is seen by the painter’s eye through the photographic eye. This means that in the history of culture it has never been the case that something has simply killed something else. Rather, a new invention has always profoundly changed an older one. …

The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. …

Today there are new hypertextual poetics according to which even a book-to-read, even a poem, can be transformed to hypertext. At this point we are shifting to question two, since the problem is no longer, or not only, a physical one, but rather one that concerns the very nature of creative activity, of the reading process, and in order to unravel this skein of questions we have first of all to decide what we mean by a hypertextual link. …

In order to understand how texts of this genre can work we should decide whether the textual universe we are discussing is limited and finite, limited but virtually infinite, infinite but limited, or unlimited and infinite.

First of all, we should make a distinction between systems and texts. A system, for instance a linguistic system, is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules allows the speaker to produce an infinite number of sentences, and every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other semiotic items—a word by a definition, an event by an example, an animal or a flower by an image, and so on and so forth. …

Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the sentence, ‘This morning I had for breakfast…’, for example, the dictionary allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if I definitely produce my text and utter, ‘This morning I had for breakfast bread and butter’, then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. …

Take a fairy tale, like Little Red Riding Hood. The text starts from a given set of characters and situations—a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a wolf, a wood—and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella. … This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything you want with a text. This is blatantly false. …

Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an encyclopaedia the word wolf is potentially connected to every other word that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to ‘open’ up a finite and limited text?

The first possibility is to make the text physically unlimited, in the sense that a story can be enriched by the successive contributions of different authors and in a double sense, let us say either two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally. By this I mean that given, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood, the first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters the wood) and different contributors can then develop the story one after the other, for example, by having the girl meet not the wolf but Ali Baba, by having both enter an enchanted castle, having a confrontation with a magic crocodile, and so on, so that the story can continue for years. But the text can also be infinite in the sense that at every narrative disjunction, for instance, when the girl enters the wood, many authors can make many different choices. For one author, the girl may meet Pinocchio, for another she may be transformed into a swan, or enter the Pyramids and discover the treasury of the son of Tutankhamen. …

AT THIS POINT one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. And I want simply to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, in which upon a canovaccio, that is, a summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot identify any single work by a single author called Arlecchino servo di due padroni and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.

Another example would be a jazz jam session. … What I want to say is that we are already accustomed to the idea of the absence of authorship in popular collective art in which every participant adds something, with experiences of jazz-like unending stories. …

A hypertext can give the illusion of opening up even a closed text: a detective story can be structured in such a way that its readers can select their own solution, deciding at the end if the guilty one should be the butler, the bishop, the detective, the narrator, the author or the reader. They can thus build up their own personal story. Such an idea is not a new one. Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems. …

All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. …

At the last borderline of free textuality there can be a text that starts as a closed one, let us say, Little Red Riding Hood or The Arabian Nights, and that I, the reader, can modify according to my inclinations, thus elaborating a second text, which is no longer the same as the original one, whose author is myself, even though the affirmation of my authorship is a weapon against the concept of definite authorship. …

A BOOK OFFERS US A TEXT which, while being open to multiple interpretations, tells us something that cannot be modified. … Alas, with an already written book, whose fate is determined by repressive, authorial decision, we cannot do this. We are obliged to accept fate and to realise that we are unable to change destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the already and definitely written novel War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws governing life and death. …

David Foster Wallace on serious vs. commercial art

From David Wiley’s interview of David Foster Wallace, “Transcript of the David Foster Wallace Interview” (The Minnesota Daily: 27 February 1997):

But Plato and John Stuart Mill both take books to talk about different types of pleasure. In my own personal life, I like really arty stuff a lot of the time. But there’s also times I watch an enormous amount of TV, and I’ve read probably 70 percent of Stephen King’s books. And I’ve read them basically because for a little while I want to forget that my name is David Wallace, you know, and that I have limitations, and that I’m sad that my girlfriend yelled at me. I think serious art is supposed to make us confront things that are difficult in ourselves and in the world. And one of the dangers is if we get conditioned to confront less and less and experience more and more pleasure, the commercial stuff’s gonna win out.

Looking at others’ lives for clues to what might have been

From Tim Kreider’s “The Referendum” (The New York Times: 17 September 2009):

The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home. It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

It’s especially conspicuous among friends from youth. Young adulthood is an anomalous time in people’s lives; they’re as unlike themselves as they’re ever going to be, experimenting with substances and sex, ideology and religion, trying on different identities before their personalities immutably set. Some people flirt briefly with being freethinking bohemians before becoming their parents. Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.

Yes: the Referendum gets unattractively self-righteous and judgmental. Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.

The problem is, we only get one chance at this, with no do-overs. Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control. In his novel about marriage, “Light Years,” James Salter writes: “For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing its opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.” Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.

A colleague of mine once hosted a visiting cartoonist from Scandinavia who was on a promotional tour. My colleague, who has a university job, a wife and children, was clearly a little wistful about the tour, imagining Brussels, Paris, and London, meeting new fans and colleagues and being taken out for beers every night. The cartoonist, meanwhile, looked forlornly around at his host’s pleasant row house and sighed, almost to himself: “I would like to have such a house.”

One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Orpheus and Eurydice — are lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield.

The limitations of Windows 7 on netbooks

From Farhad Manjoo’s “I, for One, Welcome Our New Android Overlords” (Slate: 5 June 2008):

Microsoft promises that Windows 7 will be able to run on netbooks, but it has announced a risky strategy to squeeze profits from these machines. The company plans to cripple the cheapest versions of the new OS in order to encourage PC makers to pay for premium editions. If you buy a netbook that comes with the low-priced Windows 7 Starter Edition, you won’t be able to change your screen’s background or window colors, you won’t be able to play DVDs, you can’t connect it to another monitor, and you won’t see many of the user-interface advances found in other versions. If you’d like more flexibility, you’ll need to upgrade to a more expensive version of Windows—which will, of course, defeat the purpose of your cheap PC. (Microsoft had originally planned to limit Starter Edition even further—you wouldn’t be able to run more than three programs at a time. It removed that limitation after howls of protest.)

The Uncanny Valley, art forgery, & love

Apply new wax to old wood
Creative Commons License photo credit: hans s

From Errol Morris’ “Bamboozling Ourselves (Part 2)” (The New York Times: 28 May 2009):

[Errol Morris:] The Uncanny Valley is a concept developed by the Japanese robot scientist Masahiro Mori. It concerns the design of humanoid robots. Mori’s theory is relatively simple. We tend to reject robots that look too much like people. Slight discrepancies and incongruities between what we look like and what they look like disturb us. The closer a robot resembles a human, the more critical we become, the more sensitive to slight discrepancies, variations, imperfections. However, if we go far enough away from the humanoid, then we much more readily accept the robot as being like us. This accounts for the success of so many movie robots — from R2-D2 to WALL-E. They act like humans but they don’t look like humans. There is a region of acceptability — the peaks around The Uncanny Valley, the zone of acceptability that includes completely human and sort of human but not too human. The existence of The Uncanny Valley also suggests that we are programmed by natural selection to scrutinize the behavior and appearance of others. Survival no doubt depends on such an innate ability.

EDWARD DOLNICK: [The art forger Van Meegeren] wants to avoid it. So his big challenge is he wants to paint a picture that other people are going to take as Vermeer, because Vermeer is a brand name, because Vermeer is going to bring him lots of money, if he can get away with it, but he can’t paint a Vermeer. He doesn’t have that skill. So how is he going to paint a picture that doesn’t look like a Vermeer, but that people are going to say, “Oh! It’s a Vermeer?” How’s he going to pull it off? It’s a tough challenge. Now here’s the point of The Uncanny Valley: as your imitation gets closer and closer to the real thing, people think, “Good, good, good!” — but then when it’s very close, when it’s within 1 percent or something, instead of focusing on the 99 percent that is done well, they focus on the 1 percent that you’re missing, and you’re in trouble. Big trouble.

Van Meegeren is trapped in the valley. If he tries for the close copy, an almost exact copy, he’s going to fall short. He’s going to look silly. So what he does instead is rely on the blanks in Vermeer’s career, because hardly anything is known about him; he’s like Shakespeare in that regard. He’ll take advantage of those blanks by inventing a whole new era in Vermeer’s career. No one knows what he was up to all this time. He’ll throw in some Vermeer touches, including a signature, so that people who look at it will be led to think, “Yes, this is a Vermeer.”

Van Meegeren was sometimes careful, other times astonishingly reckless. He could have passed certain tests. What was peculiar, and what was quite startling to me, is that it turned out that nobody ever did any scientific test on Van Meegeren, even the stuff that was available in his day, until after he confessed. And to this day, people hardly ever test pictures, even multi-million dollar ones. And I was so surprised by that that I kept asking, over and over again: why? Why would that be? Before you buy a house, you have someone go through it for termites and the rest. How could it be that when you’re going to lay out $10 million for a painting, you don’t test it beforehand? And the answer is that you don’t test it because, at the point of being about to buy it, you’re in love! You’ve found something. It’s going to be the high mark of your collection; it’s going to be the making of you as a collector. You finally found this great thing. It’s available, and you want it. You want it to be real. You don’t want to have someone let you down by telling you that the painting isn’t what you think it is. It’s like being newly in love. Everything is candlelight and wine. Nobody hires a private detective at that point. It’s only years down the road when things have gone wrong that you say, “What was I thinking? What’s going on here?” The collector and the forger are in cahoots. The forger wants the collector to snap it up, and the collector wants it to be real. You are on the same side. You think that it would be a game of chess or something, you against him. “Has he got the paint right?” “Has he got the canvas?” You’re going to make this checkmark and that checkmark to see if the painting measures up. But instead, both sides are rooting for this thing to be real. If it is real, then you’ve got a masterpiece. If it’s not real, then today is just like yesterday. You’re back where you started, still on the prowl.

Social networking and “friendship”

From danah boyd’s “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites” (First Monday: December 2006)

John’s reference to “gateway Friends” concerns a specific technological affordance unique to Friendster. Because the company felt it would make the site more intimate, Friendster limits users from surfing to Profiles beyond four degrees (Friends of Friends of Friends of Friends). When people login, they can see how many Profiles are “in their network” where the network is defined by the four degrees. For users seeking to meet new people, growing this number matters. For those who wanted it to be intimate, keeping the number smaller was more important. In either case, the number of people in one’s network was perceived as directly related to the number of friends one had.

“I am happy with the number of friends I have. I can access over 26,000 profiles, which is enough for me!” — Abby

The number of Friends one has definitely affects the size of one’s network but connecting to Collectors plays a much more significant role. Because these “gateway friends” (a.k.a. social network hubs) have lots of Friends who are not connected to each other, they expand the network pretty rapidly. Thus, connecting to Collectors or connecting to people who connect to Collectors opens you up to a large network rather quickly.

While Collectors could be anyone interested in amassing many Friends, fake Profiles were developed to aid in this process. These Fakesters included characters, celebrities, objects, icons, institutions, and ideas. For example, Homer Simpson had a Profile alongside Jesus and Brown University. By connecting people with shared interests or affiliations, Fakesters supported networking between like-minded individuals. Because play and connecting were primary incentives for many Fakesters, they welcomed any and all Friends. Likewise, people who wanted access to more people connected to Fakesters. Fakesters helped centralize the network and two Fakesters — Burning Man and Ali G — reached mass popularity with over 10,000 Friends each before the Web site’s creators put an end to their collecting and deleted both accounts. This began the deletion of all Fakesters in what was eventually termed the Fakester Genocide [8].

While Friendster was irritated by fake Profiles, MySpace embraced this practice. One of MySpace’s early strategies was to provide a place for everyone who was rejected from Friendster or who didn’t want to be on a dating site [9]. Bands who had been kicked off of Friendster were some of the earliest MySpace users. Over time, movie stars, politicians, porn divas, comedians, and other celebrities joined the fray. Often, the person behind these Profiles was not the celebrity but a manager. Corporations began creating Profiles for their products and brands. While Friendster eventually began allowing such fake Profiles for a fee, MySpace never charged people for their commercial uses.

Investigating Friendship in LiveJournal, Kate Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) found that there was tremendous inconsistency in why people Friended others. They primarily found that Friendship stood for: content, offline facilitator, online community, trust, courtesy, declaration, or nothing. When I asked participants about their practices on Friendster and MySpace, I found very similar incentives. The most common reasons for Friendship that I heard from users [11] were:

1. Actual friends
2. Acquaintances, family members, colleagues
3. It would be socially inappropriate to say no because you know them
4. Having lots of Friends makes you look popular
5. It’s a way of indicating that you are a fan (of that person, band, product, etc.)
6. Your list of Friends reveals who you are
7. Their Profile is cool so being Friends makes you look cool
8. Collecting Friends lets you see more people (Friendster)
9. It’s the only way to see a private Profile (MySpace)
10. Being Friends lets you see someone’s bulletins and their Friends-only blog posts (MySpace)
11. You want them to see your bulletins, private Profile, private blog (MySpace)
12. You can use your Friends list to find someone later
13. It’s easier to say yes than no

These incentives account for a variety of different connections. While the first three reasons all concern people that you know, the rest can explain why people connect to a lot of people that they do not know. Most reveal how technical affordances affect people’s incentives to connect.

Raynes-Goldie and Fono (2005) also found that there is a great deal of social anxiety and drama provoked by Friending in LiveJournal (LJ). In LJ, Friendship does not require reciprocity. Anyone can list anyone else as a Friend; this articulation is public but there is no notification. The value of Friendship on LJ is deeply connected to the privacy settings and subscription processes. The norm on LJ is to read others’ entries through a “Friends page.” This page is an aggregation of all of an individual’s Friends’ posts. When someone posts an LJ entry, they have a choice as to whether the post should be public, private, Friends-only, or available to subgroups of Friends. In this way, it is necessary to be someone’s Friend to have access to Friends-only posts. To locate how the multiple and conflicting views of Friendship cause tremendous conflict and misunderstanding on LJ, Raynes-Goldie and Fono speak of “hyperfriending.” This process is quite similar to what takes place on other social network sites, but there are some differences. Because Friends-only posts are commonplace, not being someone’s Friend is a huge limitation to information access. Furthermore, because reciprocity is not structurally required, there’s a much greater social weight to recognizing someone’s Friendship and reciprocating intentionally. On MySpace and Friendster, there is little to lose by being loose with Friendship and more to gain; the perception is that there is much more to lose on LJ.

While users can scroll through their list of Friends, not all Friends are displayed on the participant’s Profile. Most social network sites display Friends in the order in which their account was created or their last login date. By implementing a “Top 8” feature, MySpace changed the social dynamics around the ordering of Friends. Initially, “Top 8” allowed users to select eight Friends to display on their Profile. More recently, that feature was changed to “Top Friends” as users have more options in how many people they could list [12]. Many users will only list people that they know and celebrities that they admire in their Top Friends, often as a way to both demarcate their identity and signal meaningful relationships with others.

There are many advantages to the Top Friends feature. It allows people to show connections that really say something about who they are. It also serves as a bookmark to the people that matter. By choosing to list the people who one visits the most frequently, simply going to one’s Profile provides a set of valuable links.

“As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground. ‘If you let me play I’ll invite you to my birthday party.’ Then, as you grew up and got your own phone, it was all about someone being on your speed dial. Well today it’s the MySpace Top 8. It’s the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your Top 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off.” — Nadine

There are a handful of social norms that pervade Top 8 culture. Often, the person in the upper left (“1st” position) is a significant other, dear friend, or close family member. Reciprocity is another salient component of Top Friends dynamics. If Susan lists Mary on her Top 8, she expects Mary to reciprocate. To acknowledge this, Mary adds a Comment to Susan’s page saying, “Thanx for puttin me on ur Top 8! I put you on mine 2.” By publicly acknowledging this addition, Mary is making certain Susan’s viewers recognize Mary’s status on Susan’s list. Of course, just being in someone’s list is not always enough. As Samantha explains, “Friends get into fights because they’re not 1st on someone’s Top 8, or somebody else is before them.” While some people are ecstatic to be added, there are many more that are frustrated because they are removed or simply not listed.

The Top Friends feature requires participants to actively signal their relationship with others. Such a system makes it difficult to be vague about who matters the most, although some tried by explaining on their bulletins what theme they are using to choose their Top 8 this week: “my Sagittarius friends,” “my basketball team,” and “people whose initials are BR.” Still others relied on fake Profiles for their Top 8.

The networked nature of impressions does not only affect the viewer — this is how newcomers decided what to present in the first place. When people first joined Friendster, they took cues from the people who invited them. Three specific subcultures dominated the early adopters — bloggers, attendees of the Burning Man [14] festival, and gay men mostly living in New York. If the invitee was a Burner, their Profile would probably be filled with references to the event with images full of half-naked, costumed people running around the desert. As such, newcomers would get the impression that it was a site for Burners and they would create a Profile that displayed that facet of their identity. In decided who to invite, newcomers would perpetuate the framing by only inviting people who are part of the Burning Man subculture.

Interestingly, because of this process, Burners believed that the site was for Burners, gay men thought it was a gay dating site, and bloggers were ecstatic to have a geek socializing tool. The reason each group got this impression had to do with the way in which context was created on these systems. Rather than having the context dictated by the environment itself, context emerged through Friends networks. As a result, being socialized into Friendster meant connected to Friends that reinforced the contextual information of early adopters.

The growth of MySpace followed a similar curve. One of the key early adopter groups were hipsters living in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were passionate about indie rock music and many were musicians, promoters, club goers, etc. As MySpace took hold, long before any press was covering the site, MySpace took off amongst 20/30-something urban socializers, musicians, and teenagers. The latter group may not appear obvious, but teenagers are some of the most active music consumers — they follow music culture avidly, even when they are unable to see the bands play live due to age restrictions. As the site grew, the teenagers and 20/30-somethings pretty much left each other alone, although bands bridged these groups. It was not until the site was sold to News Corp. for US$580 million in the summer of 2005 that the press began covering the phenomenon. The massive press helped it grow larger, penetrating those three demographics more deeply but also attracting new populations, namely adults who are interested in teenagers (parents, teachers, pedophiles, marketers).

When context is defined by whom one Friends, and addressing multiple audiences simultaneously complicates all relationships, people must make hard choices. Joshua Meyrowitz (1985) highlights this problem in reference to television. In the early 1960s, Stokely Carmichael regularly addressed segregated black and white audiences about the values of Black Power. Depending on his audience, he used very different rhetorical styles. As his popularity grew, he began to attract media attention and was invited to speak on TV and radio. Unfortunately, this was more of a curse than a blessing because the audiences he would reach through these mediums included both black and white communities. With no way to reconcile the two different rhetorical styles, he had to choose. In choosing to maintain his roots in front of white listeners, Carmichael permanently alienated white society from the messages of Black Power.

Notes

10. Friendster originally limited users to 150 Friends. It is no accident that they chose 150, as this is the “Dunbar number.” In his research on gossip and grooming, Robin Dunbar argues that there is a cognitive limit to the number of relations that one can maintain. People can only keep gossip with 150 people at any given time (Dunbar, 1998). By capping Friends at 150, Friendster either misunderstood Dunbar or did not realize that their users were actually connecting to friends from the past with whom they are not currently engaging.

12. Eight was the maximum number of Friends that the system initially let people have. Some users figured out how to hack the system to display more Friends; there are entire bulletin boards dedicated to teaching others how to hack this. Consistently, upping the limit was the number one request that the company received. In the spring of 2006, MySpace launched an ad campaign for X-Men. In return for Friending X-Men, users were given the option to have 12, 16, 20, or 24 Friends in their Top Friends section. Millions of users did exactly that. In late June, this feature was introduced to everyone, regardless of Friending X-Men. While eight is no longer the limit, people move between calling it Top 8 or Top Friends. I will use both terms interchangeably, even when the number of Friends might be greater than eight.

Bertrand Russell on writing well

From Bertrand Russell’s “How I Write“:

Until I was twenty-one, I wished to write more or less in the style of John Stuart Mill. … I had, however, already a different ideal, derived, I suppose, from mathematics. I wished to say everything in the smallest number of words in which it could be said clearly. … I would spend hours trying to find the shortest way of saying something without ambiguity, and to this aim I was willing to sacrifice all attempts at aesthetic excellence.

At the age of twenty-one, however, I came under a new influence that of my future brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith. He was at that time exclusively interested in style as opposed to matter. His gods were Flaubert and Walter Pater, and I was quite ready to believe that the way to learn how to write was to copy their technique. He gave me various simple rules, of which 1 remember only two: “Put a comma every four words”, and “never use ‘and’ except at the beginning of a sentence”. His most emphatic advice was that one must always re-write. I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time. I do not, of course, apply it to the substance, but only to the form. When I discover an error of an important kind I re-write the whole. What I do not find is that I can improve a sentence when I am satisfied with what it means.

… In fact, all imitation is dangerous. Nothing could be better in style than the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible, but they express a way of thinking and feeling which is different from that of our time. A style is not good unless it is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing. But although direct imitation is always to be deprecated, there is much to be gained by familiarity with good prose, especially in cultivating a sense for prose rhythm.

There are some simple maxims-not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me-which I think might be commanded to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.