Desert of My Real Life

{September 23, 2010}   New Definition of “Friend”

One of the ways that I first knew that Facebook was having a major impact on our society was that I heard my friends in the real world, many of whom are English professors, using the word “friend” as a verb.  Before Facebook, “friend” was a noun.  Before Facebook, the verb form of “friend” was “befriend.”  But now, it is common to use “friend” as a verb, as in “He wants to friend me” or “She friended me.”  Of course, this use of the word refers to the creation of a symmetrical relationship between two Facebook accounts in which each acknowledges the relationship in a way that allows the owner of each account to see the content posted by the owner of the other account.  At least, that has been how we Facebook users have used the word from 2004 (when Facebook was founded) until this week.

And that’s because Facebook is once again changing the definition of the word.  Until this week, when someone made a request to be my friend, that would appear on my Facebook page with two options.  I could either accept this friend request or I could ignore it.  I’m not sure why I wasn’t able to outright REJECT such requests but ignoring them certainly appealed to my ever-shrinking nice side.  In any case, in anticipation of the new Facebook movie (The Social Network) and the “real” Facebook movie (Catfish), Facebook has made a change.  We no longer get the options of accepting or ignoring friend requests.  Instead, we can either accept the friend request or we can say “Not Now.”

So what does “Not Now” mean?  When you click “Not Now,” you are putting that particular friend request into a pending state, indicating that you want to deal with it later.  While this friend request is in the pending state, the person who did the requesting, when looking at your profile, will see the “Awaiting Friend Confirmation” message that they would have previously seen before you dealt with their request at all.  In other words, they will have no idea that you have put them into this pending state. 

Meanwhile, if you look at the right side of your main Facebook page and scroll down, you’ll see a “Requests” section and the friend request will appear there.  If you then click on it, you will be given the option at that point to either confirm the friend request or delete it.  By the way, THIS is how you really say you don’t want to be friends with someone.

But there are some other important points to keep in mind.  First, remember that you have to pay attention to your privacy settings.   For example, I make the majority of my information available to “Friends Only,” which means that only my friends can see my information.  Another of the options is that “Everyone” can see your information.  If that is the choice you have made, you might be interested in this new change made by Facebook concerning Friend requests.  If you have some of your settings set to “Everyone,”  then any Friend requests that you have said “Not Now” to and have not yet deleted from your Requests menu will get your status updates in their Newsfeed.  As though they had been approved as your friend.  Even though you have put them into this “pending” status.

So I think there are a couple of important things to pay attention to here.  The first is that “Everyone” is always a dangerous setting for privacy.  So think carefully about whether you want something to be set to “Everyone.”  The only things I have set to “Everyone” are “Send me Friend Requests” and “Send me messages.”  In other words, everyone can request to be my friend.  And everyone can send me a message.  I set this to “Everyone” because I wanted people who were requesting to be my friends to send me a message about why I should accept their friend request.  But since I don’t have “Search for me on Facebook” set to “Everyone,” I feel pretty safe here.  I have that set to “Friends and Networks.”

Now that the logistics of these settings is out of the way, it might be interesting to consider why Facebook would be making these changes.  Why would Facebook be changing the way friend requests work?  I think Facebook wants to change the way we think about the word “friend” so that we will be prepared for some additional changes in the future.  Currently, I think most people think of a “friend” relationship as a reciprocal relationship, a two-way relationship between two people.  By allowing this “pending” state for friends, Facebook is trying to get us to believe that friendship may not be reciprocal, may not be two-way.  If you put someone in this pending state (and you haven’t set privacy settings correctly), then they will have things put in their newsfeed about you that “non-friends” won’t have.

Why would Facebook want to change the definition of “friend?”  I think it’s all about money.  More specifically, I think it’s all about advertising.  I think Facebook is trying to push the envelope in terms of the definition of “friend” so that we increasingly accept things from our “friends” (even those in a pending status) as somehow more valid than “real” advertising.  Somehow Facebook will make money from our acceptance of non-friends as friends of some type, even if that type is “pending.”  Facebook doesn’t want us to think too much about this.  They just want us to accept.  Or at least say “Not Now.”

The latest salvo in the “games good for you” vs. “games bad for you” debate has been fired.  For now, it seems that games are good for you.

Researchers at the University of Rochester chose 26 subjects who had never played action-packed first person shooter games like “Call of Duty” and “Unreal Tournament.”  Over a period of months, 13 subjects played these action games while the other 13 subjects played calmer, strategy-based games like “The Sims 2” (which is probably not really a game but that’s another post).  The researchers then tested the players’ ability to make quick decisions in a variety of situations involving visual and auditory perception.  Those who had played the action games were able to make good decisions based on the information presented 25% more quickly than those who had played the strategy games.  In addition, the action game players improved their skills at playing the games more quickly than the strategy game players. 

The theory behind this study involves the use of probabilistic inference, which is an intuitive form of the more formal tool called Bayesian inference.  Bayesian inference is used in all kinds of artificial intelligence problems to make good decisions based on evidence.  Our brains are constantly taking in visual and auditory information as we move through the world.  Using this information, we make inference based on the probabilities of certain events occurring.  For example, when we drive, we use our perceptions to make decisions such as when to brake or make evasive movements and so on.   That is, we make inferences based on the probabilities that we are constantly calculating based on information presented to us.  People who can do this more quickly and more accurately will make better decisions than people who are slower or less accurate.

This latest study suggests that playing a certain type of video game can train our brains to evaluate information quickly and make accurate judgments about the appropriate action to take in a particular situation.  So it appears that game playing can be beneficial and not just a waste of time.  At least that’s the logic I used to justify playing an hour of Dr. Mario Rx today.

{September 8, 2010}   Mad Men Mixed Media

Mad Men is one of the most interesting shows on television right now.  The characters continue to reveal layers of complexity into the show’s third season.  The early 1960’s setting is rife with tension–between women and men, blacks and whites, old and young, between the staid 1950’s and the revolutionary 1960’s–that we know is going to explode any minute now.  And the story lines focused on advertising provide hints and clues as to how we became the media- and celebrity-obsessed culture that we are today.  It is fascinating to watch.

I just finished watching Season Three on DVD from Netflix.  There were a couple of episodes in this season that made me think about the ways in which the show crosses boundaries. 

First, it crosses a boundary between different media.  In particular, I think the show combines photography with television in ways that I haven’t seen before.  This is particularly appropriate since the show is about advertising in an age when photography was of paramount importance.  The episode that made me think about this was in Season Two, when Betty’s father, Gene, dies.  The last scene of the episode shows Sally in the foreground lying on the floor watching television (so appropriate), her face illuminated by the light of the TV.   To her left, in the background, the adults sit around the kitchen table, lit by an overhead (presumably flourescent) light, drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes.  They’ve been telling stories and laughing about Gene, celebrating his life without dismissing their grief at his death.  Sally doesn’t like the laughing, doesn’t understand that laughter and celebration is a great way to honor someone who has just died.  The tableau of a grief-stricken Sally in the foreground and the laughing adults in the background is reminiscent of great photography.   No, it IS great photography.  The show is full of these tableaux.  It is beautiful to watch.  That is one of the things that makes this a great show.

The second interesting boundary that the show crosses is between fiction and non-fiction.  In Season Two, there was, for example, an episode in which Bert Cooper bought a painting by Mark Rothko, who, at the time, was a relative unknown.  The characters in the episode have discussions about the nature of painting in the face of the abstraction of this particular painting.  The episode gives us a glimpse into the kinds of discussions that were occurring at the time.  The discussions give the episode a sense of reality and groundedness.  But the last two episodes of Season Three are outstanding in their examination of the ways in which real life events impact the lives of these fictional characters.  And this is a spoiler alert.  If you haven’t watched these episodes of the show, skip the next paragraph.

President Kennedy is assassinated in the next to the last episode of Season Three.  The nation is shaken.  Even the Republicans are upset.  There are many tableaux in this episode.  It is beautiful to watch.  But the impact of the real-life assassination of President Kennedy on the lives of these fictional characters is moving, and, I suspect, realistic in a way that illuminates what this event meant to real people of the time.  The episode features a wedding that occurs a few days after the assassination, before Kennedy’s funeral.  It is a touching nightmare.  But it is the last episode of the season, when people have moved on but the impact of the assassination is still being felt that moved me most.  In this last episode of Season Three, a number of characters have been moved to make major changes in their lives, at least in part because of this major event on the national stage.  Don makes a pitch to Peggy for her to join him in his new ad agency.  She is resisting in uncharacteristic ways, in ways that we, the audience, celebrate.  She wants to know why he wants her.  He tells her that, unlike most people, she sees Kennedy’s assassination in a way that is real.  She sees that in this huge tragedy, people have lost their identities, a sense of themselves.  The tragedy has made them question who they are, who they thought they were.  As someone who has had a terrible thing happen recently (even if it was my “choice”), I understood this.  I recognized this as true.  As “truth”.   Tragic events make you question who you think you are.  This was illuminated for me by this last episode of Season Three of Mad Men.  Isn’t that the definition of great fiction?

When dramatic events occur, people question who they are.  And this episode of Mad Men made me remember this or maybe made me realize this for the first time.  This crossing of the boundary between fiction and non-fiction illuminated for me a truth that helped me understand my actual life.  It helped me understand who I am, why I feel the things I feel.  What more could I ask of a TV show?

et cetera