Desert of My Real Life

{August 30, 2010}   Facebook Places

Here’s the status update of one of my friends on Facebook today (August 29): “IMPORTANT!!!   Facebook launched Facebook Places yesterday. Anyone can find out where you are when you are logged in. It gives the actual address & map location of where you are as you use Facebook. Make sure your kids know.  Go to ‘Account’, ‘Account Settings’, ‘Notifications’, then scroll down to ‘Places’ and uncheck the… 2 boxes. Make sure to SAVE changes and re-post this!”

I had heard something about this particular feature but, to be honest, until I saw this status update, I really hadn’t paid much attention to it.  But this status update felt so dire that I decided I really needed to check out what this feature is all about.  It turns out that this feature was released on August 18, nearly two weeks ago.

I checked the help section of Facebook and found that Places is a “feature that allows you to see where your friends are and share your location in the real world. When you use Places, you’ll be able to see if any of your friends are currently checked in nearby and connect with them easily. You can check into nearby Places to tell your friends where you are, tag your friends in the Places you visit, and view comments your friends have made about the Places you visit.”  So it seems that Facebook is trying to move its network into the real world in a new way.  In fact, they tell us that we can “Use Places to experience connecting with people on Facebook in a completely new way.”  They seem to see Places as a way to connect the real with the online in a way that hasn’t really been possible in the past.

Like many changes to the way Facebook works, this particular feature has raised privacy concerns.  People have worried that this feature can be used to track a Facebook user’s movements.  I think this is a valid concern but it’s one that is easily ameliorated.  The Places feature is currently only available to those users in the United States who access Facebook via their iPhone or via, which is Facebook’s website for touchscreen mobile devices.  Although I haven’t been able to confirm this, I think your mobile device would need to have GPS capabilities so those of us who use the iPod Touch don’t need to worry about this feature (at least, not yet).

Some of the privacy concerns seem to be a bit misplaced, however.  Although I haven’t checked it out, Facebook assures us that no user’s location would be shared unless that user “checks in” with their location.  In other words, the feature requires active participation on the part of the user.  Which is a good thing, it seems to me.  No location sharing happens without the user explicitly allowing it.  So maybe the feature isn’t as dangerous as my friend’s status update would lead us to believe.

In my opinion, privacy is about choice.  Privacy is not necessarily about secrecy.  Instead, it’s about giving the owner of information the choice as to whether and with whom she will share that information.  Although Facebook has made some problematic privacy decisions in the past, from what I can see so far, the Places feature does not jeopardize the privacy of Facebook users.  I don’t quite understand yet the feature where your friends can tag you at a location so perhaps that’s an area of concern.  I’ll be curious about whether anyone else knows more about that.

Regarding the instructions given in my friend’s status update that I reference in the first paragraph of this post–those instructions are about notifications.  They specify whether you will be notified if someone tags you at a place.  If you uncheck the box (as the instructions tell you to do), you will not be notified of such a tagging.  Unchecking the box does not prevent someone from tagging you.  So I think you probably don’t want to follow those instructions–especially if you are concerned about the information that is out there about you.

{August 19, 2010}   Barack Obama X?

I could not believe what I was hearing on NPR this afternoon.  

I had heard about the “Hussein” controversy when Obama was running for President of the United States, where conservative commentators tried to make a big deal of his middle name during the 2008 election.  I even changed my own middle name on Facebook to “Hussein.”  I recognized the fear-mongering in this argument, in trying to make a connection between Obama and Sadaam Hussein.  Since when is having the same name as someone else a crime?  Or a reason to not elect someone president?  

I had heard about the controversy surrounding President Obama’s birth certificate.  Because his father is Kenyan (and his mother is American), conservative commentators raised the issue of whether he is really an American citizen.  Of course, if he isn’t an American citizen, he can’t be president.  But he was born in Hawaii so he is a citizen. 

Some have argued that since he was born in Hawaii, he isn’t an American citizen because Hawaii wasn’t a state when he was born.  Of course, he was born in 1961 and Hawaii became a state in 1959.  Why didn’t these people raise the issue of his citizenship when he ran for US Senate?  Clearly, politics are at play here.

But today, I heard a story that had slipped below my radar.  Actually, I guess it’s two stories that are interrelated.  The first story is about Malcolm X, a well-known African-American activist who was a member of the controversial religious (some say terrorist) organization the Nation of Islam (but who left the organization amid disagreement  and hostility and who was assassinated by members of that organization).  Apparently, Malcolm X secretly fathered Barack Obama.  There is a resemblance between the two men.  But the evidence is non-existent.  And even if it was true, who cares?  Isn’t our country founded on the idea that each of us should be judged for who we are and not who our parents are?

The second part of the story is that Obama is a Muslim.  If his father is Malcolm X, he MUST be a Muslim, right?  What if his father isn’t Malcolm X?  Could he still be a Muslim?  Sure, he could.  But the White House adamently insists that he is a Christian and that he prays daily.  Who cares?  Can’t a Muslim be a good President of the US?  Since when is religion a criterion for whether someone should be President?  But such is our world.  He has to be a Christian AND he must pray every day.  I’m an Obama supporter (because, seriously, what are my alternatives?).  But I would prefer that he NOT pray daily.  I want a President who isn’t mystical, who uses his brain when making decision about global security.  But that isn’t the world we live in today.  Today, even the liberals disagree with a fundamental tenet of the founding of our country–the separation of church and state.  And so, the non-story of our President being the love-child of Malcolm X and therefore, a Muslim, is given enough credibility to be discussed (and dismissed) by a respected news organization like NPR.

{August 8, 2010}   Social Games

I recently traveled to Oxford University in England to present a paper at a conference called Videogame Cultures and the Future of Interactive Entertainment.  The conference brought together aabout 25 people from all over the world and from a wide variety of disciplines.  It was one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended and I got great feedback on my paper, which was called Social Media and the Performance of Self

In my fairly recent move from computer science to digital media studies, I’ve become interested in how adults use online play to gratify a variety of needs, particularly their need to express and play with identity.   The paper that I wrote explores the fact that Farmville is a hugely popular game on Facebook and that the players of Farmville are largely women in their 40’s.  Farmville is a game in which the player owns a virtual farm that she manages.  The player plants crops, cares for those crops and harvests them.  She has neighbors who visit her farm, sometimes watering her crops for her.  She earns money within the game, which she uses to buy more crops or houses or animals.  She has control over how her farm is organized and managed.   The game has been disparaged as a crappy game–in fact, my co-panelist at the Oxford conference argued that it was a crappy game and explained why.  And yet, it is the most popular game on Facebook.  It is hugely popular.  So in my paper, I argue that it is because the demographic that plays this game is gratifying needs that are different than the typical “gamer” needs.  Typical gamers are looking to gratify their need for diversion (escape from reality, satisfaction of curiosity, and so on) when they play games.  The typical Facebook user, on the other hand, is using Facebook for gratifying their need to maintain relationships.  And so I argue in my paper, using the work of Erving Goffman, that the fact that a player can customize her farm, her online space, means that she is performing a “self” for her audience.  She is presenting this “self” to her audience, the neighbors of her farm who are in actuality her friends, and this helps her to maintain and cultivate her relationships with those friends.

As I said, while at the conference, I had a bit of a debate with one of my co-panelists about the nature of Farmville as a game.  She (and her graduate student) argued that it is a terrible game because it doesn’t really allow the player to be “social” but instead is a “viral” game.  I understood her point but disagreed with her conclusion.  I think it is true that the game is a crappy game if you are looking at games with a traditional lens, that is, with the needs of traditional gamers in mind.  But the whole point of my work is to argue that this perspective is too narrow, that people use media (including games) to gratify a variety of needs and to ignore the fact that this game is indeed gratifying the needs of millions of users is to miss an important point.  It was a great debate.

So I was surprised to see the debate is being carried out elsewhere as well.  Jesper Juul organized a debate about social games at NYU recently.  Ian Bogost, one of my favorite game theorists, argued against social games like Farmville, saying that they present no challenge to the player but instead require the player to do nothing more than click on something at regular intervals.  Bogost has gone so far as to create a Facebook game that he calls Cow Clicker.  You own a cow.  You click on your cow and get “mooney” as a reward.  That’s it.  That’s the entire game.  Bogost says that this game is social commentary, that it boils Facebook games down to their essence.

As much as I admire Bogost’s work in games, I think he’s missed the point here.  Who says that THIS is the essence of Facebook games like Farmville?  A big part of Farmville is about creating and organizing your farm.  Why isn’t THAT the essence of the game?  I think the reason is because current game analyses focus on certain aspects of the game (clicks that result in tangible rewards within the game, in this case) and not other aspects of the game (designing and organizing one’s farm, in this case).  Current game analyses focus on the things that interest traditional gamers. 

I think there is room in game studies for valuing a variety of game types.  I’m not arguing that Farmville is a good game for traditional gamers.  Clearly, it is not.  But it is clearly tapping into something for the millions of non-traditional players who play this game every day.  We should try to figure out what that something is instead of insisting that only games that gratify the right type of needs count as good games.

{August 3, 2010}   Translating Between Media

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a short novel about South Africa after the end of apartheid.  The novel is the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace written by J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.  Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a white South African professor of English, who loses his job and goes to the countryside to visit his daughter on a farm there.  I won’t spoil the novel by giving away plot points.  But this book is not brilliant because of its plot (although the plot is very interesting).  It is brilliant because of its portrait of a completely unlikable protagonist, whose attitudes increasingly bring him into conflict with the changes that have taken place in his country.  His attitudes towards other people, especially women and black South Africans, are reprehensible and yet, reading the book is like watching a horrible accident.  You want to look away but you’re fascinated by the horror and can’t believe that it’s unfolding as it is.  Despite Lurie’s arrogance, by the end, I felt sympathy for him as man whose world had changed so drastically in such a short amount of time that he just couldn’t keep up.  Coetzee’s skill is in making us, as readers, understand this character’s point of view without forcing us to condone it.

Ann had recommended Disgrace to me because she loved it and thought it was an interesting post-colonial novel.  We’ve had a number of interesting conversations about it.  So we were quite excited last year when we learned that the novel had been made into a movie.  I heard an interesting conversation about the movie on NPR and Wikipedia told us this: “A motion picture adaptation starring John Malkovich had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, where it won the International Critics’ Award.”  We checked various web sites and discovered that the movie played in New York and Los Angeles and nowhere else.  I wasn’t sure what to make of this–it could be that the movie was really bad or it could be that it tackles subject matter that is not particularly interesting.  We waited and waited and the movie never went into wide release in the United States.

Recently, Ann found that the movie had been released to DVD and that NetFlix had it.  So she rented it and we watched it together.  It was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  The movie is a fairly faithful recreation of the major plot points of the novel.  And so, it was interesting to both of us that the movie was so bad that we checked in with each other every 10 minutes or so to determine whether we really should keep watching.  It all made me very curious about the differences between media and why a story that was so successful in one medium can be such a huge failure in another medium.  Here’s what I came up with (and please remember that I am not a movie critic).

The first problem with the movie is John Malkovich.  He is supposed to be playing an arrogant white South African.  As Ann pointed out, the South African accent is a difficult one to master.  Malkovich completely fails in this task.  He says his lines nasally, but mostly with an American accent (he is American, after all).  When he does slip into some other accent, it is a strange British one, but it never sticks.  The American accent is too persistent.  This problem is just one of many acting issues in the movie.  The acting is all-around horrible.  From major characters to minor characters, it seems that everyone is aware that they are in a big D Drama.  It’s painful to watch.

The second, even bigger, problem is the script.  The script hits the major plot points from the novel.  But so much of the novel is about character development that I think I would have had a difficult time understanding what was going on if I hadn’t read the novel.  I think I can give an example without giving away the plot.  In the novel, Lurie goes to visit the family of one of his female students without her knowledge.  It is a scene of great suspense, as he meets the student’s young sister, worms his way into the house, and ends up having dinner with the family.  This action makes sense to us in the novel because we have access to Lurie’s inner thoughts (or at least as much as he, an unreliable narrator, is willing to allow us).  But the scene makes sense.  In the movie, Lurie goes to visit the family, encounter the student’s young sister, but the scene ends when the student’s father comes home.  There is no suspense in the scene and his motivation for visiting is completely lost on us (unless we’ve read the book).  Lurie doesn’t have dinner with the family.   But that divergence from the novel is not the main problem with the script.  The problem is that we have no sense of the character’s motivation for doing what he’s doing.

I don’t think this lack of understanding of motivation is something that is always a problem with movies.  In other words, there’s nothing inherent in the medium that disallows the understanding of character motivation.  I think the problem is that the novel contains characters who behave in surprising ways, in ways that make sense only if you are inside their world, inside their perspective.  Without that perspective, their actions seem arbitrary and baffling.  The movie doesn’t provide us with that perspective and therefore, the actions of the characters make no sense.

I am very disappointed that this particular adaptation was such a failure.  The focus on the story misses the point of the novel.  This particular story is fascinating but really only makes sense in the novel because we understand what motivates the characters.  Translating between media is more difficult than simply transcribing a story.  Maybe I’ll have to stop watching movie adaptations of the novels that I love.

And, by the way, who are these critics at the Toronto Film Festival, who gave this movie an award?  It was awful!

{August 2, 2010}   Nothing is Real

I got back from a visit to England about two weeks ago.  Throughout the trip, I thought about my friend, Robin, and her recent NEMLA panel on Post-Modern Tourism.  Ann and I visited a number of tourist sites that reminded me of Baudrillard and the hyper-real. 

The Sherlock Holmes Museum was a special treat.  It is housed at 221B Baker St in London, the home of the fictional Sherlock Holmes.  It is a three-story apartment, set up to look like the apartment described in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.  But let me repeat: Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character.  There was no person called Sherlock Holmes.  And yet, here is his apartment.  And his belongings.  And we were greeted by Holmes’ good friend, Dr. Watson, with whom he shared the apartment.  I’m not sure you can get any more hyper-real than a museum housed in an apartment lived in by a fictional character.

Well,  perhaps a living museum on a ship might be more hyper-real.  Sir Francis Drake’s galleon sits on the banks of the Thames River in London.  Sir Francis, of course, was the English hero who was the first person to circumnavigate the world, claiming many territories in the name of the English crown.  While the English claim him as a hero, the Spaniards consider him a pirate, who attacked Spanish colonies such as Puerto Rico.  But in London, he is definitely a hero.  And so people apparently clamor aboard the recreation of his galleon.  Not the original, of course.  But a recreation.  And for those so inclined, the galleon is available for sleepovers and other “living history” experiences.  When Ann and I walked by, the galleon was awash in pirates.  Or at least there were many people dressed as pirates milling about.

There were many, many more examples of the hyper-real on this trip.  While Ann was at her conference in Oxford, I bought a copy of England, England by Julian Barnes.  This amazing work of fiction, written more than 10 years ago, tells the story of an entrepreneur who claims the Isle of Wight off the coast of England so that he can create the ultimate tourist experience, a recreation of England in miniature on the island.  So there is a mini Stonehenge and a mini Buckingham Palace and a mini Lake District.  Along with these “real” places, there are also recreations of “fictional” places, such as Sherwood Forest, complete with its own Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, including Maid Marian, who in this version is a lesbian to explain the fact that she won’t have sex with Robin.  This is a brilliant little book that illustrates and explains Baudrillard’s idea while at the same time being prescient in its portrait of post-modern tourism.

Coincidentally, my immediate family is taking a trip to Niagra Falls in a few weeks.  I was telling my friend, Pat, about this trip and she recommended a non-fiction book called Inventing Niagra: Beauty, Power, and Lies for me to read before I leave.  I haven’t started reading the book yet but the book jacket tells me that the book “shows that the famous natural wonder is in reality a prime example of man’s manipulation of nature, constantly exploited to attract tourists.”  In other words, Niagra Falls is unsurprisingly not “real” but is instead a site created with tourists in mind.

I’m not sure yet what all of this means.  It just seems amazing to me that my entire summer has been hyper-real.  Maybe my whole life, all our lives, are hyper-real but we’re all too busy to notice.

et cetera