11/18 – Student-led Discussions I

In this session we will be hearing presentations about, and discussing, 5 books:

  1. Dave Eggers (2013), The Circle [led by kjpoppen]
  2. Andrew Blum (2012), Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet [led by A. To]
  3. Jonah Berger (2013), Contagious: Why Things Catch On [led by vrjbndr]
  4. Adam Alter (2013), Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave  [led by hramesh2013]
  5. William G. Bowen (2013), Higher Education in the Digital Age [led by miguel914]

Presenters, please review the presentation guidelines for tips on preparing and leading your presentation/discussion.

Everyone: Read the distributed excerpts.  Blog responses may be posted about any or all of the readings other than one you are presenting.



Filed under Class sessions

9 responses to “11/18 – Student-led Discussions I

  1. In the excerpt provided from Contagious, Berger highlights a few misconceptions about word of mouth, previews the main themes of his book, and leaves the audience with a few compelling reasons to explore his material. As I expect is the case for most readers, I was most surprised by Berger’s revelation that “only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online” (15, from research by the Keller Fay Group), especially after all of the analysis in Turkle’s and McChesney’s pieces on the growing presence of technology and social media in our lives. Berger’s preview of the rest of the piece is fantastic and I look forward to learning more about the 6 STEPPS of making content contagious. In this post, I’m going to analyze a few of Berger’s conclusions about online social media from the perspective of what we’ve learned so far in this class.

    Berger observes that “…people also spend a lot of time offline. More than eight times as much, in fact” (15). This is probably true for the average person, but it would seem that people in younger generations have been much more exposed to media technology through everything from game systems and viral social apps to ever-available smartphones and laptops. As we saw in Turkle’s piece, these younger generations are more likely to prefer the convenience and control they receive from online social technology to off-line alternatives, and when a young adult spends the majority of her time checking Facebook or Twitter on her phone, even when she’s around other people in person, she’s probably more exposed to word of mouth than the 7% number indicates. Of course, this doesn’t mean that word of mouth doesn’t happen in significant ways off-line. Rather, it signals that word of mouth that reaches younger people through off-line means is probably posted to at least one online social media platform and has a huge potential to spread from there. How and why it spreads, then, is a question likely answered in the rest of Berger’s piece. The takeaway here is that moving forward, Berger’s conclusions might be especially useful when applied to online forms of communication.

    Berger also points out that “people are inundated with online content, so they don’t have the time to read every tweet, message, or update sent their way” (16). From personal experience, I can confirm that this is true for me, and it makes sense that it would be true for other people, especially college students, since postings of events, clubs, and advertisements seem to skyrocket once you’re connected with the many opportunities that come from being part of an environment filled with active and tech-savvy students. I wonder how this revelation ties into McChesney’s analysis of the commercialized face of the Internet. When we’re confronted with an endless stream of ads, viral campaigns, and memes, does it affect how seriously we think about online content? Perhaps receiving this much data makes the average person more weary when he uses an online media platform, and that weariness can lead him to be less critical of the content he sees and less motivated to push for changes to enhance transparency in Internet policy, since it seems like we’re already getting more than enough information on our news feeds.

  2. In the excerpt from Contagious, Berger makes clear that it is possible to engineer infectiousness, and in fact, it is possible to make anything contagious (he uses the Blendtec story as an example). Berger’s main inquiry is, “So how can we design products, ideas, and behaviors so that people will talk about them?” (21). After analyzing many examples of contagious content, Berger and his collaborators came up with the STEPPS acronym to qualify the characteristics that makes such content infectious. They are: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories.

    I wanted to try to analyze the contagiousness of the iPhone (when it first appeared) using these six STEPPS. Even though I haven’t read all of Berger’s book, I wanted to see for myself how these concepts might initially be applied. The first principle, Social Currency, is “how does it make people look to talk about a product or idea?” (25). For the iPhone, its sleek design and even its product category of “smartphone” leads the potential buyer into thinking they will look cooler and smarter by having this product. As an explicit example, consider even the iPhone 5s. On the Apple website, its motto is “Forward Thinking”. I believe also that Apple’s advertising techniques were notorious for making people want a product they did not initially see needing. Next, Triggers “are stimuli that prompt people to think about related things [to the product]” (25). The triggers of the iPhone are naturally the computer and the Internet since the iPhone has software programs just like the computer (called “apps”) and can access the Internet (which is arguably what makes computers interesting for most people). Moreover, Apple is a company that manufactures computers, so the introduction of the iPhone can be seen as the natural next step they would take to further their influence in the technology industry. The third principle of Emotion is essential. As Berger notes, “naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion” (26). With the iPhone, I think the emotion it initially evoked when it was introduced was pleasant surprise. Although it was not the first smartphone, it was the first smartphone that was easy and intuitive to use and navigate apps with. The fourth principle of Public became relevant for the iPhone when more people started using it and the smartphone was greatly popularized. On the Apple website for the iPhone 5s and 5c, it is written, “The reviews are in. People just can’t stop talking about the new iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c. And that includes the leading tech journalists. Read for yourself.” Moreover, the fifth principle of Practical Value for the iPhone is satisfied as it was an easier to use alternative to other smartphones on the market, and allowed users do be able to perform more tasks on their phones than before. Finally, regarding the sixth principle of Story, the iPhone fits a larger narrative of being a necessary part of one’s life. Whether it’s recording a child’s soccer game or having immediate access to your email and social media at your fingertips in order to stay connected, the iPhone is advertised as an integral part of making that happen. When one takes all these principles in unison, it becomes clear why the iPhone is as contagious as it actually is.

  3. In the excerpt from Contagious, Berger presents a startling piece of data regarding “word of mouth.” He states that he has asked the question “what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, e-mail, and chat rooms?” to hundreds of students and executives. In addition to reporting the correct answer to be seven percent, he also estimates the average response to be fifty percent.

    After subduing my initial disbelief at the startlingly small number seven, it does make more sense. In recalling the amount of information that is shown to me by others, I now realize it is extremely one-sided in favor of real-life conversation. What amazed me more is that, prior to reading this article, I believed it to be a high number – around 70 percent.

    Why did I, and hundreds of others, think that this number was so much larger? Berger attempts to explain that people simply remember more of what they can see. He says, “we don’t think as much about all the offline conversations we had over that same time period because we can’t easily see them.” He also adds that people do not read every piece of information on the page of a social media site or blog. While I do agree with both of his observations, I think their respective impacts are less than he figures. If the reason is not purely the functionality of our memory, and it is not the amount of information we don’t read, then what else could it be?

    I have found that, for me, in the recent state of “The Personalized Internet”, everything I read online feels tailored to me. That is, I’m aware that what I am seeing has been sifted and sorted to the point that it is an acceptable match for me. Despite the control I feel that I may have had in finding a news article or funny meme, it has been handed to me in some way. And at some level of my cognition, I feel this. The human consciousness and the learning machine seem to work as one, intertwined by data gathering and page-tailoring. In this realm of subconscious thought, I never truly feel that I am alone within the Internet, free to explore as I choose.

    I believe this feeling of togetherness to be the true reason for discrepancies in understanding the breadth of information flow. The togetherness between users and computers, and between users (human) and other humans who have designed the interface within the user’s computer.

  4. As presented in Drunk Tank Pink, “Color Science” appears to be at the very initial stages of discovery – where there is much marvel over correlation but little is known about causation. The author seems to present this evidence as though since so much correlation currently exists there must be some link between the observed phenomena and the attributed independent variable (color). Though we seem to be obtaining a sense of what is happening (observed phenomena) over time, the why appears to remain relatively opaque. Though we can observe odd powers exerted by changes in color, we have very little science to explain them. The author lists possibilities such as colors being “biologically and evolutionarily associated” (pg. 175) with particular attributes and dispositions. Another possibility is cultural connotations that unknowingly influence our perception. These appear to be the two strongest theories.

    This synopsis brings up two uncertainties for me: first, is this phenomenon primarily biological or anthropological and second, how can we study and empirically identify why this phenomenon occurs. For the majority of recapitulated discoveries, the author proposes that the phenomenon is ‘likely because of’ or ‘possibly due to’ but has little firm evidence other than tuition to support these claims. While some explanations are anthropological (red is the color of love in popular culture and hence slightly helps us attract mates) others are biological (red coloration exists in animals trying to mate, students correlate red ink with negative feedback, and thus pay less attention to it unintentionally).

    My question about the chapter is if we can design studies that distill the anthropological and biological causes into separate understandings of observed phenomena – is it possible to measure one without the other to begin to understand why these phenomena exist? Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, how do these observed phenomena alter our day-to-day interactions, especially as applied to technology. Nearly every social network is a primarily blue website (facebook, Twitter, tumblr, flickr, etc.) while gaming companies like Zynga are red and different news sources are different colors. Do the interfaces of these popular sites influence our perceptions of them?

  5. I found the excerpt from Drunk Tank Pink really interesting. I haven’t heard too much about color psychology, so it was interesting getting a glimpse into the research. The excerpt I think showed some interesting effects that seemingly harmless decisions of color can have. The study of Olympians and academic performance demonstrated a great contrast in the effects a single color can have. However, this leaves me wondering some interesting things that weren’t apparent from the text. How far do these effects go in people’s lives? What can be done to offset any negative aspects?

    I think this research leads to some practical policy concerns. Just as different shades of light bulbs were used to reduce crime, can a school’s color be used to improve academic performance? If a school’s colors affect academic or athletic performance, it would make sense to change the colors to optimize learning. Non-red schools would seem to be preferable for academic achievement. However from the excerpt it would seem like schools with red colors have an advantage in athletic competition. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but my high school’s biggest athletic rivals were 3 “red” schools. Would we have won more if we were red too?

    Most of the studies mention the introduction of a certain color for shorts amount of time. I’m curious what the effect is of continuous stimulation. The one study that sheds light on this is the red light wave study, “While red environments elevate blood flow and nervous system response inside our bodies, they also appear to change how we see the world looking outward“ (164). While there is a distinct effect light can have, do people build tolerance to the effect? This question is important in looking at how color affects someone long term. Also, if subjects are informed of a potential effect is the effect reduced? I’m just curious if this is similar to stereotype threats in academic performance. I think these two questions are important in figuring out the true impact that color can play in one’s life.

  6. A. To

    I was most eager to read Adam Alter’s Drunk Tank Pink and was not let down by some of the astonishing correlations he reports on exposure to color and tangible performance. Particularly, it is astounding that, in one study, students correctly answered 37 percent fewer analogy questions correctly when first exposed to the color red beforehand. I am convinced by Alter’s argument that “colors play a powerful role in human decision making for two reasons… colors affect us physically and that we associate colors with almost every pleasant and unpleasant object” (162). I am much more concerned about how we as a society can respond to this phenomenon.

    While it seems like there are a number of benefits, like the decrease in crime because of the installation of blue lights, it also seems like there is great potential for manipulation in a negative way. If everything from physical competition to mental performance is affected by colors, we can easily conceive of advertisement campaigns that manipulate our built-in responses to make you feel fear or joy. Subliminal Messages (images and sounds that the brain can pick up at the subconscious level, but are not noticed by the average person) have been made illegal. They can be relatively easily contained, as they usually are presented in the form of inserting a single frame into an ad or movie. How could we outlaw the use of certain colors? Would we even want to? As technology and our understanding of our own psychology develop, it seems impossible to keep up with regulation and maintaining a democratic society. The fastest and most equal-opportunity solution to me seems to be getting as much of this kind of information to the public as possible, but the reality is that without scare tactics, I believe very few people would care to educate themselves on such manipulations.

  7. In The Circle, Dave Eggers describes a new product announcement out of his world’s leading technology company: the SeeChange. Easy to hide, shareable, and extremely sensitive audio detection along with high-definition video streaming, the device is promised to the corporation’s core mission: “All that happens must be known.”” (67).

    Eggers really lets the satire flow in this excerpt. I found the mission statement to be the most thought-provoking example thereof. In a hypothetical world where for $60, one could spy on anything, anywhere, and share those streams with many others intentionally, and perhaps multiple security agencies unintentionally, is that mission really as pure and positive as it purports to be? While there is some naïve optimism behind the goal of superficially preventing the loss of “the vast majority of what we do and see and learn,” (68) it seems far more likely that an observed world under intense scrutiny would simply share/do/learn/say less?

    Arguably, there is a potential upside to being able to promote general transparency in the form of crime prevention. As Bailey makes sure to point out, “my friends in the FBI feel this would cut crime rates down by 70, 80 percent in any city where we have real and meaningful saturation” (67). Besides the obvious insinuation from the disclosure of a senior executive’s “friends in the FBI” who are expecting to have access to the cameras, the applause that this statement is met by indicates a level of happiness in concession of privacy that is not so clearly mirrored in today’s society (ie. recent protests in light of NSA scandal).

    I found it interesting that while I’m not necessarily opposed to security cameras in many public places, what made me uneasy in this passage was the idea that any individual could inexpensively and without my knowledge record me privately with such precision and such high-quality video. Upon reflection, my unease doesn’t even stem specifically from the device existing – I’m sure many other similar products are already on the market in today’s world – but rather from the overwhelming approval and awe which the product was met with, without even a hint of trepidation. Especially after Bailey admits to installing them in his mother’s house without her knowledge and the live demonstration even exposes her in a less than fit state to the entire room.

    Having recently played Grand Theft Auto, I identified strong similarities between Bailey’s speech and that given by Zuckerberg counterpart Jay Norris, who – while launching a new phone – calls the product launch “full on, weapons-grade, red-alert world domination” in which they “have put a billion people’s private data in the public domain and we have milked every penny we could in the process,” with the slogan “peek, pry, populate” behind him. He’s met with thunderous applause, just like Bailey.

  8. hramesh2013

    Dave Egger’s fiction book, The Circle, highlights the inherent, egregious threat to privacy in having a free flow of information on the Internet. The Circle, as Kylie mentioned, is like a brainchild of Facebook and Google, and Egger’s book seems to serve as a critique of these web services.
    Before we read about The Circle’s unveiling of its newest product, we are told why The Circle was founded. Ty Gospodinov aimed to put “all of every user’s needs and tools, into one pot and invented TruYou – one account, one identity, one password, one payment system” (21). Since you had to use your real name, “all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable”, and the “trolls who had more or less taken over the internet, were driven back into the darkness” (22).
    This lack of anonymity is exactly the same as Facebook’s approach, executed in the name of making the world more connected. In addition, The Circle’s success in integrating all of a user’s activities on one platform is similar to Facebook’s Facebook Connect for the sake of ease. Have inconspicuousness of the user and pervasiveness as their hallmarks, The Circle, in the fictional world, and Facebook, in the real world, both aggregate user information on one platform and in turn streamline using the Internet in terms of ease and veracity. However, they do so at the risk of giving up critical information to one database, a database that could be hacked or manipulated by the owners of the database.
    Later in the book, one of the main characters, Eamon Bailey, unveils a new, conspicuous surveillance system called SeeChange, advertising it as a way to be more connected through high-resolution, live streaming of a certain location or person. He shows off images gathered through this camera from Stinson Beach and Tiananmen Square to his audience. As the audience gets more and more excited about how pervasive it could be, I became more and more disconcerted, especially when Bailey shows he can keep track of his 81 year old mother without her knowledge that there is a camera in her house. Bailey ultimately dreams of “an era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket.” He drills into the audience the motto: All that happens must be known, and this motto appears to be the very notion that Egger seems to challenge. Knowing everything that happens would not allow people to act freely and make mistakes, some of them creative, without repercussions.
    Egger implies by even writing this story that he disagrees with Facebook’s and other similar companies’ practice of aggregating and using user data in the name of improving interpersonal relationships. His commentary strongly resounds with the message that the Internet, as it is being controlled right now through technology giants, would harm privacy and ultimately what it is to be a free human being.

  9. maggiesko

    I have always one-sidedly looked at online education as a way to benefit those who have limited or no access to educational resources. But what I have not though about is how it will affect and transform the institutions of higher education. In his speech Andrew Delbanco outlines the obstacles that universities will have to overcome in the near future. The winner-take-all economy that is characteristic for our times is quickly making its way to universities by elevating some professors to super star status and leaving the ones in field less interesting to the public behind. Delbanco is concerned that in this system the stars will be spending more time lecturing outside of their home institutions and less time with their own students. In this period of change universities need to reconsider “the structure of academic governance to enable institutions to grapple with these and many other implications of the online revolution” (p.139) Universities will have to be the balancing power that gives its faculty both freedom to pursue experiences in outside institutions and provides incentive to still remain part of their home institution despite higher potential profits from other sources. Imposing too rigorous restrictions on ways and time spent teaching might make the “most sought after-faculty jump ship”, but on the other hand giving too much freedom might be harmful to the students the professor teaches in person.

    On a small scale universities will have to solve the problems presented by the star economy: they have to find a way to keep both the star professors and the not so popular to the general public ones interested in staying in their institution. As many universities have the autonomy to change their own rules, what might result from this situation is a number of different models experimenting with different ways to respond to the current situation.å

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