Friday, September 28, 2007

A thousand flowers

Partly because I’m in a group that’s steering the construction of a CPD subject portal, I’ve started thinking all over again about social networking. This link introduces 7 building blocks – elements or features of social software. They are: Identity - a way of uniquely identifying people in the system; Presence - a way of knowing who is online, available or otherwise nearby; Relationships - a way of describing how two users in the system are related (e.g. in Flickr, people can be contacts, friends of family); Conversations - a way of talking to other people through the system; Groups - a way of forming communities of interest; Reputation - a way of knowing the status of other people in the system (who's a good citizen? who can be trusted?); Sharing - a way of sharing things that are meaningful to participants (like photos or videos). These are quite helpful and describe the kind of features users want. But I also think that it’s important to know how a good site learns about participants and feeds this back to them in useful ways (see here).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sat nav chaos

juice van
This report contains the serious warning that ‘People are becoming too reliant on technology’ – but also points out the problems with the slow updating of sat nav systems. I feel sorry for those in the honeypot villages of Derbyshire who are being disturbed by heavy traffic. But it takes a local councillor to come up with a stirring public announcement like: ‘We urge people to follow diversion signs rather than their satellite navigation facilities.’ A manifesto in the making, I reckon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


In his 2001 book, ‘The Future of Ideas’ Lawrence Lessig envisioned a world of free digital creativity – ‘Digital technology has radically reduced the cost of digital creations.’ (p.4). These creations would be exchanged free of charge in peer-to-peer networks. But, Lessig also saw how corporate capitalists would try to fight this as much as possible and particularly through copyright laws. Remember this report on how ‘the music industry has reacted angrily at a decision to give away the new album by US musician Prince with a tabloid newspaper’? And of course, we have regular stories of new music artists who launch themselves on MySpace. Despite this, anyone who’s ever tried to get a good music soundtrack for a digital video that they intend to distribute will know the difficulties. So let’s hear it for Moby who’s offering a bumper crop for exactly this purpose (you have to sign up to mobygratis, but it’s free). But that’s not what I’m listening to at the moment though, because I’ve developed a taste for breakbeats – here’s DJ Rob Focuz, on MySpace, naturally!

Monday, September 24, 2007

A slight return

When I left the University of Nottingham (see yesterday's post), I also became a statistic - one of those PhD drop-outs. I seem to have done fine since, so it never bothered me too much. Anyway, I finally decided to put together a selection of my published works and do it the other way. So, today I have my PhD by publication! The only problem is that there is no time to celebrate because I've got too much to do. Well, I learnt at least one thing - I really love talking about my own work! (probably just one of those self-identity phenomena)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The vanishing subject

underwater frisbee
Technological change not only offers new sites for research it also provides new ways of conceptualizing research, alternative identities for researchers themselves, and different relationships with participants and audiences. When I worked at the University of Nottingham, the biggest put-down of all was to refer to someone as more of a ‘journalist’ than a researcher. But now in academic blogging the boundaries are beginning to blurr and many of us are creating an academic/researcher/journalist hybrid. I gave a wry smile when reading Gergen and Gergen (2003: 599) on the ‘vanishing subject matter’. They say ‘the condition of vanishing subject matter invites researchers to envision themselves more as journalists than as traditional scientists – commentators on the contemporary as opposed to stonemasons at the edifice of progressive knowledge.’ That was affirming…and this is Ruth new band ‘Brown Eyes Blue.’

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Graffiti wars

Graffiti provides a fascinating example of the intersection of the politics of space and the policing of literacy. It’s often a subject for posts on this blog, on Dr Joolz, and recently on Vic Carrington’s. I’ve had some great comments on my pictures of the Sheffield graffiti jam from the artists themselves, and an appreciative email today which reminded me that showing the faces of graffiti artists is a sensitive issue. Although Banksy has done a lot to attract our attention to graffiti, the law, as usual, is out of step with public opinion as this article argues.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A flower in the Web 2.0 garden

pink rose
Picking the key characteristics of Web 2.0 is a tricky business. It depends who you ask. I’ve been working from the basic principle that Web2.0 describes the shift from giving information (one-to-many) to providing spaces for social participation (many-to-many). That means that providers offer services and not products, and also that the content is largely user-generated. Most of these ideas are explored in Colin and Michele’s second edition of “New Literacies”. However, the ideas of ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ participation discussed here, add another dimension. Participation is blended with aggregation – so the tag clouds on Flickr show cross-site trends, and the 'popularity' and 'interestingness' ratings map the attention that individual contributions receive. So the intelligence/architecture of a social networking site is important, and presumably exerts a subtle influence on the network itself. Web 2.0 provides spaces for interaction, but these are not simply open spaces – they are designed spaces which delineate the possibilities and have specific social affordances. Looking at apps like Blogger, Flickr and Netvibes you can also see some other trends. These spaces are easy to personalize – you can pull in the features you need (widgets often designed by other users) and the basic templates and software are constantly evolving. In a way the apps are learning about you and learning from you all at the same time. Of course there’s a thorny question at the heart of this: who’s controlling who? Users, myself included, celebrate the creativity, interaction and ‘voice’ that Web 2.0 allows, but at the same time we provide the content, fill in their boxes, customize their software, and generate the information that they exploit... and get rich on.

Monday, September 17, 2007


You've only got to mention phone masts in front of some people and they go all NIMBY. There's been a fascinating debate in our neighbourhood newsletter between those who think that masts put the cows off milking and fry children's brains (etc) and those who were caught up in the drama of the Sheffield Flood. When the phone lines went down, emergency services, medical supplies and family contact were co-ordinated through mobile phones. 'If we want the benefits of new technology' writes one resident., 'we must also entertain its physical presence.' I'm waiting for the replies....

Saturday, September 15, 2007

More than books

text decay
Originally uploaded by YanivG.

Shifting patterns in the media consumption of children and young people have serious implications for literacy educators. Although there seems to be little evidence of a decline in book sales, uses of literacy are clearly becoming more diverse. Book reading must find a comfortable place alongside video-gaming, social networking and virtual world play. Research findings on the role of sharing storybooks in promoting reading success are certainly convincing. But does this simply reflect the nature of schooled literacy and how we define and assess reading success? Apart from the work on rhyme and wordplay, there is little empirical study of other literacy practices and their influence on reading development. Research on digital literacy tends to focus on older children, often drawing attention to the gaps between what is valued and taught in schools and the practices of children in out of school contexts. Perhaps it is time to start using this knowledge about the diversity of literacy to close these gaps. In order to do this we need more work that profiles changing patterns of literacy development in early childhood and at the start of compulsory schooling. (Many thanks to Yaniv Golan for his ‘Text Decay’ picture, which you can also see here)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Text decay

I began photographing these corroded gateposts a while back. But it only occurred to me when I heard about Tim Wess’s work - which is looking at ways of dating and preserving ancient parchment - that I realised how fascinating the whole area of text decay can be. Tim uses a technique called ‘synchrotron radiation’…. and that sounds like serious science. Apparently, scrolls suffer a lot of wear and tear at the beginning an end – in other words just where they are most frequently handled. In contrast I think the text decay on my gateposts is just down to the elements. Recently, working on the second edition of an article, I tried to access the original stored on one of those 3 inch floppies. When I finally located the disk drive I found I still couldn’t access anything readable. I suppose technically speaking that’s not text decay – it’s inability to access the information that creates the text, but the net result is the same. Anyway as we move into the area of text repair there’s all sorts of ideas around, including treating CD scratches with bananas.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

And now

My colleague Will Reader has been getting a lot of attention for his work on social networking sites. The headline - that sites like Facebook don’t deepen friendships – isn’t particularly startling. What is more interesting is the way in which online social networking has gained popularity – that and its role in thickening existing social ties (Barry Wellman has been saying this for a while). Thickening, in the sense that I use it, doesn’t equate with ‘depth’ but merely points to the fact that social networking is additive, bridging online and offline worlds. (Thanks to Ed for the photograph).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Happy New Year!

Facebook seems to be sweeping the board in the popularity-stakes on both sides of Atlantic. On Fade to Play, Phillip Jeffrey advertises his UBC seminar (today) in the following way: “Facebook is a social utility originally launched in 2004 by Harvard University undergraduates exclusively for students. Facebook has over 35 million active users ( 3.3 million in Canada) and 68% log-in daily. It has become a primary tool among students for communication, information sharing, and for organising events among their real-world friends. The phrase “I’ll facebook you” is a regular part of student vernacular.” People of all ages seem to be getting active on Facebook, but my sense is that the late teens to late twenties are the most active users in the UK. Oh…and I nearly forgot it’s New Year’s Day in Ethiopia!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lists, ranking, attention etc

The tendency to reduce stuff to lists and top tens is an interesting cultural phenomenon. You get endless TV shows that garner views on things like the best movies of 1986, newspapers with top-selling hardback non-fiction, and radio shows of greatest glam-rock hits. This sort of list fever often mutates through the web as a meme - ‘my 5 favourite things’ and variations on this theme. Sometimes I find these quite challenging – if someone asks me what my favourite movie is, I go…depends what genre, what language or what mood I’m in (although I must say it’s usually ‘Letter from Unknown Woman’ – Max Ophuls never did better). I was discussing this with someone the other day who said “Yes, but what someone chooses is so telling.’ Well, that’s interesting and I’m almost persuaded, but when you aggregate this into the nation’s favourite movie it tends to get less meaningful. Nevertheless who’s consuming what is important information and although it’s embarrassing to confess so openly I have been watching the usage statistics on e-learning and got a rush of pride to see Digikids at number one.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Ledgecrew, who commented on my photostream invited me down to the graffiti jam in Sharrow today - there are more pictures here. The event attracted artists from across the North of England to work on the only legal strip of wall in Sheffield. The air was full of paint mixed with the smell of extra strong lager and roll-ups, but there was plenty of talent. Buzzing with the sound of R'n'B, young men, young women and kids all worked together to produce some stunning wall art. It's great watching it all take shape, even when it's put on top of earlier work - after all it's an ephemeral form. I noticed how some artists have sketch pads, others work from manga and comic books, and some others just work directly to the wall.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Writing otherwise

more toilet humour
Here's Paul Auster with characteristic precision and sparse prose describing one sort of writing: "I am sitting at the table, listening to the pen as it scratches along the surface of the paper. I stop. I dip the pen in the inkwell, then watch the black shapes form as I move my hand slowly from left to right. I come to the edge and then return to the other side, and as the shapes thin out, I stop once more and dip the pen into the inkwell. So it goes as I work my way down the page, and each cluster of marks is a word, and each word is a sound in my head, and each time I write another word, I hear the sound of my own voice, even though my lips are silent." (Travels in the Scriptorium, 2006: 33). Well, that captures a particular kind of writing and particular kind of pleasure, neither of which are likely to be at work for the writer of the sign in the picture! For more humorous signs there's a gallery here, or if you feel like something ridiculous try - maybe this link for instance.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Where are the books?

office space
It’s interesting how much energy has already gone into researching how electronic forms of ‘the book’ may benefit young readers. This work is dominated by experimental approaches that use e-books (sometimes referred to as ‘living books’). Most of this research involves interactive animated multimedia children's books – usually on CD-Rom which, more often than not, are versions of a print-text original. You could almost see this as the safe area of research into digital literacy. After all book-reading has for so long been seen as a cornerstone of early literacy education and later on as a benchmark of the educated, cultured and critical adult reader that new technology really ought to be pressed into service to develop these valued pursuits. An alternative view admits that reading on screen is a very different matter, and that screen-based technologies are allowing people to communicate in new ways, that are unrestricted by the traditional constraints of bookspace. Despite efforts to create a satisfactory way of enabling extended, immersive reading on handheld devices (such as the Sony Reader), it seems from book sales figures that this kind of reading is best done from traditional print. Let’s face it e-books have never really taken off, but other forms of screen reading/writing continue to flourish. Isn’t it time we started thinking more intelligently about the affordances of the page and the screen? And whilst we’re doing this, perhaps we could re-think what’s valued in literacy and what’s important in early literacy.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Degrees of fixity

financial market #2
I love the way these glowing messages chase each other round the buildings of Canary Wharf. I know just about enough about financial markets to get the gist - but there are plenty of holes in my understanding. Although their meanings are ephemeral, they're not simply open to any old interpretation. In fact their meaning is far more anchored than that of authors who need a degree of open, unfixed and flexible interpretation - and keep reminding us that the words and the things they represent are not the same and that meaning must be shaded by personal experience and perspective. For the occasional news-fix I really enjoy The Week, partially because it loosens the certainty of the newspapers it extracts from. "Facts" become less fixed when they are prized away from their context and just about everything you read is cradled in quotation marks. Wasn't it Derrida who said that all writing should be contained in quotes? I read that once and have been looking for the reference on and off for about eight years!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Looking down on people

Canary Wharf
I really cannot go with the idea that video games are responsible for some sort of moral corruption of the young. It’s that Toxic Childhood moral panic all over again. So when the boy Cameron says that “companies which make music videos, films and computer games have a responsibility not to promote violence” I have to yawn and turn my attention to something else. OK then, let’s apply the same rules to writing, theatre and for that matter all art forms and see what a dull world we’d inhabit. I know I perhaps ought to be open-minded but to hear that “today's document sets out our view on popular culture” smacks of an attempt to bundle a number of prejudices about a vibrant set of social practices into a single group and condemn them outright