July 28, 2010

Is the Abundance of Information a Distraction to Knowledge Development?

Filed under: Culture,Technology — Emily Reeves @ 10:15 pm

Is our increasingly technological media world giving us so much information that we are distracted from pursuing independent and in-depth knowledge? It appears that our country’s president believes that. In May, President Barack Obama gave a commencement speech at Hampton University in which he, the very same president that leveraged online information channels to win his current post, said:

“‘You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter,’ he told the students. ‘And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it’s putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.’”

President Obama seems to be criticizing the media, technology, video games and the internet in one fell swoop, lumping it all into an “information” category. When did having access to more information become a bad thing? Is not good to hear many sides of a story so we can form our own opinions? And if the information comes to us in an entertaining way, doesn’t that just make us engage with it more?

The discussion that sprung on the internet following this speech was surprising: while many were quick to defend the technology, most agreed with President Obama and felt they were constantly attempting to manage information overload, with no time for processing and understanding. This brought to mind the two-year-old The Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (which has developed into a book just released this month entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (see the Ms. Adverthinker review of this book here) Some highlights from the article supporting President Obama’s opinion:

“…media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

“A new e-mail message…may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

“Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.”

And, an excerpt that provides an argument for the other side:

“In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

One commenter had an interesting perspective in favor of the information abundance we are experiencing:

“…it may not be that the internet is making us stupid but making us more demanding. Before the internet we were given a limited number of topics that we could review from a newspaper, television, magazine etc. Since they were limited in scope they needed a greater amount of depth and description. However now that we can delve a wider range of topics there is no need for such depth. In fact if a person was to spend as much time on any given topic today as was 50 years ago or more it would be hard to stay up to date on the numerous happenings that are going on. No longer are people simply expected to know what is going on in their home town on a day to day basis, but all the important events of the modern world….So it is really a question of balance and of need. Is it truly necessary for us to wrap our minds around each topic that we stumble upon on the net, or is it more important to simply grasp the main points of each topic? In today’s world it is no longer necessary to be intimately familiar with each topic, I can say that I have often found it better to skim information so that I am aware of it’s existence, then when I find myself in need of it I can pull it up more quickly.”

The debate is an interesting one that has spawned books, articles and comments galore. The access to information is empowering. The knowledge we gain is the power. The question then becomes, are we turning that information into knowledge? Perhaps we are in the midst of an evolutional shift: those that can learn to navigate the information streams and turn them into applicable knowledge are the ones that survive.

Book Review: The Shallows

Filed under: Book Review,Culture,Technology — Emily Reeves @ 8:44 am

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a book by Nicolas Carr that provides a history of how our brains process and absorb information delivered in evolving channels from oral storytelling, to the written word, from broadcast media to now through the web.  The impetus for the book was a 2008 article in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” So, the premise of the book is the possibility that our continued digital media consumption in bits and bites could be diminishing our capacity to understand and process complex issues the require in-depth information analysis.  The conclusion, however, is not that our intelligence is waning, but instead that our faculties are changing, even evolving.

The Brain Changes as It Needs to Change

Through the first few chapters of the book, we learn that our brains are amazingly adept at adapting to these changes.  The brain actually re-wires itself to deal with the new experiences: “Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind–over and over again.”  Experts quoted in the book support this fact:

“Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created.  ’The brain,’ observes Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’”

“‘If we stop exercising our mental skills,’ writes Doidge, ‘we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.’”

Are We More or Less Creative as a Result?

Our brains become more accustomed to cursory scanning of data for relevant bits of information; in turn, it becomes more difficult for the brain to focus on long-form, single-source reading.  This is not a bad thing, as we are able to gather the same amount of information, but now diversify the sources from which that information comes.  However, a question was posed about the stifling of creativity as a result of reduced focused on reading as a meditative act.  Many of those quoted in the book felt the opposite was true:

“Friedman told me…that he’s ‘never been more creative’ than he has been recently, and he attributes that ‘to my blog and the ability to review/scan “tons” of information on the web.’”

“Karp has come to believe that reading lots of short, linked snippets online is a more efficient way to expand his mind than reading ’250-page books’…”

“Muses Davis, ‘The Internet may have made me a less patient reader, but I think that in many ways, it has made me smarter.  More connections to documents, artifacts, and people means more external influences on my thinking and thus on my writing.’”

Conclusion

History has shown that our brains adapt to the way information is processed: we did it when converting from oral storytelling to the written word and we are doing it as we convert from the written word to the digital word.

Recommendation

Read The Shallows.  It is a quick, interesting and relevant read right now.

July 20, 2010

Talk Business Interview: Mobile Websites vs. Mobile Apps

Filed under: Talk Business,Technology — Emily Reeves @ 7:26 am

Thank you to Roby Brock at Talk Business for inviting me to talk about the importance of having websites optimized for mobile viewing.  See the interview here:

And, here is the link to the article on Talk Business.

Here are my full thoughts on the subject:

With the news that Apple sold over 1.7 million of the new iPhone 4 in just three days (making it the most successful launch in Apple’s history), it is past time to notice that more people have the ability to access websites through their mobile devices than ever before. In fact, “nearly 73 million mobile users accessed their browser in April, an increase of 31 percent from the previous year.” With people on the move and the right technology in their hands, it is safe to assume that the first experience a consumer has with a website may very well be on a mobile device rather than a desktop computer. Many websites that look great on a computer screen fall apart on the screen of a mobile device. Since a website is often a customer’s first introduction to a brand, it should make a great impression no matter how it’s viewed.

When thinking about a website on a mobile device, many businesses are trying to decide whether to invest in a custom mobile application or simply create a mobile version of the website. Research tell us that “although growth in application usage on smartphones continues to grab the spotlight in the mobile market, the audience using their mobile browser remains larger and is growing just as quickly.” And, while “smartphone penetration in the U.S. has grown from 11 percent of mobile subscribers in April 2009 to more than 20 percent in April 2010 — nearly double in just one year,” it is predicted that by 2011, over 85 percent of all new handsets will be able to access the mobile web. Mobile web activity is not just limited to smartphones anymore. But due to the popularity of smartphones and buzz about applications, there is an inclination to create a mobile application for businesses that duplicate website functions, though this is not always necessary.Creating a mobile version of a website can address the needs of mobile consumers across many different devices without as much expense and as many device limitations as custom application development.

The most important things to think about when optimizing a website for mobile consumption are:

  • Appearance
  • Content organization
  • Content functionality
  • Mobile enablement of content

Appearance

Not all devices are created equal and the way a website renders on one phone may not be how it looks elsewhere. While looks aren’t everything, when it comes to first impressions, appearances can make an immediate difference. Given the small size of the screen, consider incorporating more white space and think about load time over the cellular networks and reduce the images necessary for download. Some of the most important systems to test against include BlackBerry devices, Android devices, Palm Pre, iPhones and iPads.

Content Organization

Because visitors will be viewing the content on a smaller screen, content organization and prioritization become even more important. Think about the content that is most crucial to visitors, especially those that would need to access the site when mobile and on-the-go, then place that content in easy to locate and navigate areas of the screen. Even if this is not the content that would be considered most important for general users of the site it, placing it in a more accessible organization can make the mobile user’s experience more efficient and effective, leaving a good impression of the brand.

Content Functionality

Flash – the predominant browser plug-in for creating dynamic web content – does not yet work on most mobile devices, and it may never function on some platforms. Websites that are all-Flash or which include a Flash-based navigation or intro-animation that blocks access to the home page can be completely lost on the majority of mobile users. Most animation and video on the web is currently handled through the Flash Player. That doesn’t mean video is off-limits for mobile – quite the contrary – but it does mean that certain steps must be taken to enable video play on both desktop browsers and on mobile devices.

Mobile Enablement of Content

Mobile users are frequently consumers who are outside their home or office and making an immediate decision about whether to purchase a product, go to a restaurant, use a service, etc. An important step for mobile-enabling your website is ensuring that this most critical information is available to your users in ways they need to use it from a mobile device. This includes active links to contact information, maps to the business location and the ability to buy straight from the mobile device. Consider optimizing this (and all) content for touch-screen navigation.

The bottom line: websites are being viewed on mobile devices now and this mobile consumption will continue to increase as technology becomes more available. The web experience is vastly different on a mobile device as compared to on a computer, it only makes sense to tailor websites for the best experience by device.Developing mobile ready versions of your websites is an efficient and effective way of delivering the right content to consumers on the go, without investing the time and expense of custom application development.

July 15, 2010

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Filed under: Culture,Current Events,Social Media — Emily Reeves @ 12:21 pm

The Social Network. This trailer actually makes the movie look interesting. Looking forward to it.

Thanks to Blake’s Think Tank for passing this along.

July 14, 2010

Old Spice = Brilliant

Filed under: Current Events,Social Media,Technology,That's Just Cool — Emily Reeves @ 12:45 pm

Over the past two days, I have been reacting like one of Pavlov’s dogs to a bell every time @oldspice tweets a new video.  The Old Spice “Smell Like an Old Spice Man” commercials are viral hits online.  As a result, fans have shared, commented, and clicked play many times over the last several months.  For the last two days, Old Spice has capitalized on that popularity by creating (so far) almost 200 response videos, in real time, to its fans.  The videos are often less than 30-seconds, but in each one, the Old Spice Guy personally addresses a commenter (from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Reddit) and provides a clever quip, thereby endearing the brand to that commenter (as well as all their friends).  The videos are coming so frequently and are so funny, it is quite easy to find myself clicking through to each one as it is posted.  (And so are many, many others: YouTube’s servers are having trouble keeping up today.)

This idea is brilliant because it exploits the basic premise of social media: two-way communication and sharing.  And it leverages the benefit of digital media: immediate communication and sharing.

As brilliant as the idea is, I am most impressed with the production coordination that must be going on behind the scenes to keep up the posting pace of these videos.  I wonder how many people are monitoring the web for comments, then mining those comments for potential humorous responses?  And, how many copywriters are standing by to write these hundreds of 30-second scripts on the spot?  And, the clients must be on the set to approve on-site.  Then there is the actual video production crew, shooting and transferring the video straight to the web.  And there must be a person/people posting the videos and tweeting them out.  This must be one large and fun team, but I bet they are getting tired.  The production turnaround is impressive: I would love to see a behind the scenes/”making of” video after this stunt is complete.

This has been a successful scheme for the Old Spice brand: everyone is talking about it.  Quite a brilliant idea, indeed.

Here are some of the responses I have enjoyed most:

July 4, 2010

The Self Portrait Phenomenon

Filed under: Culture,Technology — Emily Reeves @ 3:10 pm

I have never liked having my picture taken.  But a weird thing started happening a little over a year ago: I started taking pictures of myself with my iPhone and posting them to my various sites.  They were, of course, titled: Self portrait, followed by a description of what I was doing when taking the photograph.  I have no idea why I was doing this.  Perhaps it was boredom, maybe it was because I thought it was funny, but most likely I was doing it because I could.  I could take a picture and post it right away.  And I could review it before I posted it.  The whole process was in my control – which is not usually the case when someone else is taking my photo.  Scrolling through the photo library on my iPhone now shows many self portraits, sprinkled with photos of my dogs and then various other activities, usually plates of food or various beverages.  And all of these have been with the previous versions of the iPhone.  The latest iPhone edition has a front facing camera, sure to enable better self-portrait shots.

As it turns out, this self portrait phenomenon and observation is not unique to me.  According to the New York Times:

“With the debut last week of Apple’s newest iPhone, the latest show of vanity has kicked into high gear. With a second camera lens that faces the viewer (instead of the view), the iPhone has simplified something people have been struggling with — some covertly, some flagrantly — ever since they signed up for AOL more than a decade ago: taking a good picture of themselves. Finally, the iGeneration has a good head shot.”

“As a result, the self-snap is fast becoming as vital a facet of how we present ourselves as our clothes, figures or voices. Photographing oneself easily and well is a talent that, like being able to download music via mind control or reduce whole paragraphs to acronyms at warp speed, is now a given for young people.”

“‘This really represents the shift of the photograph serving as a memorial function to a communication device,’said Geoffrey Batchen, formerly of the City University of New York and now a professor of art history at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, who has written extensively on historical and contemporary photography. ‘The camera was used to record something that happened so it could be remembered. Now it’s used immediately. It’s uploaded to Facebook to say, “Here I am in Istanbul” or whatever, so it also goes back and forth between personal and promotional use. It really represents the refashioning of the self for a semipublic view.’”

I am a fan of the self-portrait: there is something intimate, incorruptible, interesting and immediate about the taking and online posting of these photographs.  While, I am relieved to know that I am not alone in this ridiculously narcissistic behavior, I am curious to see how the trend further develops as self portraits become easier to take and people are less inhibited when taking them.  I really like the thought of photography serving as a “communication device.”  After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and with our decreasing attention spans as a result of technologically delivered snippets of information (more on this later), pictures could be how we ultimately receive most of our information.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Self portrait, while writing a blog post.

Self portrait, while writing a blog post.