Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: Web 2.0

Amazing: stealing SIM cards from smart traffic lights

This is going on in Johannesburg:

Hundreds of [traffic] lights have been damaged by thieves targeting the machines' sim cards, which are then used to make mobile phone calls worth millions of South African rand.

More than two-thirds of 600 hi-tech lights have been affected over the past two months, according to the Johannesburg Roads Agency, causing traffic jams, accidents and frustration for motorists.

The traffic lights use sim cards, modem and use GPRS to send and receive information, a system intended to save time and manpower by alerting the road agency's head office when any lights malfunction. According to Thulani Makhubela, a spokesman for the agency, the robberies have been "systematic and co-ordinated", possibly by a syndicate. An internal investigation has now been launched.

"They know which signals to target," Makhubela added. "They clearly have information."

Wow. Real world, meet ubicomp!

More on the Facebook as time machine

John Boudreau reports that “the Internet is reconnecting long-lost sweethearts,” while Scott Harris writes about Facebook as a time machine (gee, that sounds familiar).


Not long ago, such rekindlings were largely relegated to once-a-decade school reunions, those awkward gatherings that tend to be more about sizing up past rivals than reconnecting with former sweethearts. But the Internet is now profoundly altering some people’s links to the past and sometimes upending their lives in unexpected ways. For some, the outcome is a blissful recoupling; for others, the reignited embers burn down the house….

[T]he Internet, and now social-networking sites such as and Facebook, make relinking easier and more common. And people are doing it at a much younger age — instead of an uncomfortable phone call to her parents, all he has to do is do a Google search for her name.


Many people tell of reuniting with cherished, long-lost friends, or reviving meaningful social circles that had frayed over the years. I’ve met a couple who were high school sweethearts but had been out of touch for 23 years. Now they credit Facebook for reconnecting them — and the romance is fully rekindled. …

It’s interesting how Facebook has connected a little social network of my high school friends — some close, some not so close. When I couldn’t find an address for a friend whose father had died, I contacted one of her classmates through Facebook. She had the e-mail address.

Why is that?

Unlike predecessors Friendster and MySpace, Facebook succeeded by creating a culture of authenticity — not a dodgy realm of alter egos, but a place where people feel comfortable showing off photos of their children to their friends.

I would say that it didn’t create that culture of authenticity: it set some initial conditions that allowed users to create it.

[To the tune of Django Reinhardt, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” from the album The Best of DJango Reinhardt (I give it 1 stars).]

On “Growing Up on Facebook”

Catching up with some reading, I came across Peggy Orenstein’s New York Times essay “Growing Up on Facebook,” published earlier this year. One of its themes, about the conflict between leaving behind old social circles and reinventing yourself on one hand, and remaining in ambient contact with your old social life on the other, resonated especially strongly:

As a survivor of the postage-stamp era, college was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self? The cultural icons of my girlhood were Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Ann Marie of “That Girl,” both redoubtably trying to make it on their own. Following their lead, I swaggered off to college (where I knew no one) without looking back; then to New York City (where I knew no one) and San Francisco (ditto), refining my adult self with each jump. Certainly, I kept in touch with a few true old friends, but no one else — thank goodness! — witnessed the many and spectacular metaphoric pratfalls I took on the way to figuring out what and whom I wanted to be. Even now, time bends when I open Facebook: it’s as if I’m simultaneously a journalist/wife/mother in Berkeley and the goofy girl I left behind in Minneapolis. Could I have become the former if I had remained perpetually tethered to the latter?

This also connects with an excellent William Deresiewicz essay about social media’s erosion of solitude– which in our pop psychology moments we tend to equate with loneliness and want to banish, but which serves a tremendous psychic need. Humans are social creatures who seem to grow in equal parts through being with others and learning to be on their own– my children are currently both going through a phase in which they spend a non-trivial amount of time in their rooms– and Deresciewicz argues that solitude offers a chance (as Orenstein puts it) “to establish distance from their former selves, to clear space for introspection and transformation.”

[To the tune of Django Reinhardt, “Swing From Paris,” from the album The Best of DJango Reinhardt (I give it 2 stars).]

New Facebook group on “Digital Middle Age”

For a while now, I’ve been thinking and writing about how Web 2.0 fits in the lives of people my age: how technology affects memory (especially how human and computer memories differ); how the omnipresence of the Web may affect our capacity to forget and grow and mature; and how Facebook serves as a kind of time machines. I’ve now started a Facebook group on “Digital Middle Age” around these subjects.

There’s an assumption that anyone over about 24, pretty much by definition, will find games, new media, and Web 2.0 to be a Strange Foreign Country. Partly this is an extension of the reigning assumption that only the young really “get it” when it comes to new technology. Witness Pamela Satran’s gently humorous pieces in explaining how not to act old on Facebook and Twitter. (Okay, a magazine aimed at women over 40 is likely to play on age anxiety more than most; but easy way the articles take for granted that teenagers know the “right” way to behave (certainly the first time in human history we’ve assumed that!) is still pretty striking.)

But the articles overlook the fact that their readership grew up with PCs, spent thousands of hours in front of computer screens, and is perfectly familiar with the Web. My cohort is one that grew up with computers, but not with social media. I was in high school when the first personal computers appeared. I spent hours with my high school’s Apple II; I crunched the numbers for my senior thesis using Lotus 1-2-3; wrote my dissertation on a Mac; and got my first e-mail address when I was a postdoc. People my age have all the technical facility (I refuse to use the word literacy) necessary to rapidly take up services like Twitter and Facebook. There’s a good reason older users are the fastest-growing user populations in the Web 2.0 world.

But unlike the teenagers and college students are using these services, we have lives that have taken place offline, largely outside the gravity well of the Internet. These services aren’t just continuations of our current lives: they can reconnect us to people we haven’t been in touch with for twenty years. Watching myself and my friends online, I sometimes think I’m watching a collision of two very different kinds of social worlds. And if like me you’re seriously interested in the social impacts of new technologies, studying these kinds of collisions and transitional groups (like people my age) is a particularly valuable way to see how new technologies affect the way people work and play and socialize and think.

And while teenagers are an interesting subject because they’re reckless, extreme, irresponsible, and everyone worries about them– when you’re not certain they’re dead in a ditch, you’re yelling at them to get off your lawn– I think its safe to say that their parents have large amounts of disposable income, access to credit, a majority vote in household technology-related decision-making, etc.– all the things that ought to make them very interesting not just to academic geeks like me, but to advertisers and publishers. (We also have more to lose: drunken blog posts or sexting may be bad when you’re 19, but accidentally Tweeting trade secrets is a lot worse, if only because mortgages and parental responsibilities multiply the potential impact of big mistakes.)

So, as part of my ongoing effort to understand how media have affected this transitional generation, I’ve created the Facebook group. It’s open to everyone who’s in Facebook, and my hope is that it’ll help me better understand how social media function in the lives of people who already have lives. Does reconnecting with people from high school really matter? Does it change your life in some non-trivial way? I think it can, but data is not the plural of anecdote– especially when you just repeat the same anecdotes (your own) over and over.

Maybe there’s an interesting article here. Who knows. We’ll see what happens….

[To the tune of Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Out of Touch,” from the album Big Bam Boom (I give it 3 stars).]

The Internet of Things, sort of

I suppose it was inevitable: coathangr, which describes itself as "social networking for your pants." Less whimsically, it also says it's a "social network for sharing fashion advice," and finding people who share your fashion taste.

It would be interesting to see how the system is used. Does it actually encourages better fashion sense? Is it used maliciously by people giving intentionally bad fashion advice?

On a more serious note, this is a good example of what Jyri Engstrom calls "object-centered sociality:"

the term 'social networking' makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That's why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about 'socio-material networks', or just 'activities' or 'practices' (as I do) instead of social networks.

[To the tune of Alban Berg Quartet, "String Quartet Op.132 No.15 in A minor: I. Allegro sostenuto – Allegro," from the album Beethoven: The Complete String Quartets (Disc 7) (I give it 5 stars).]

Local bloggers as city guides

Another data-point (from the Guardian) on how the decline of cyberspace encourages digital information to migrate from screens to streets, from planning and research phases of activities to decision-making, and from formality and permanence to informality and immediacy.

Spotted by Locals is a network of city bloggers providing up-to-the-minute local information – from a cosy London hideaway to Madrid's best kept museum secret.

Like many great ideas, Spotted by Locals was conceived after a few beers. Dutch couple Sanne and Bart van Poll were on a city break to Brussels in 2007, and abandoned their customary guidebook in favour of tips gleaned from a Belgian blogger whose jib they like the sound of. "We went to the bars and restaurants he frequents, and walked around in the hidden local neighbourhood that was certainly not in our paper guide," says Bart. And in one of said bars, they came up with the idea that would imminently lead to both of them quitting their day jobs.

Spotted by Locals is a network of European city blogs written by over 80 local bloggers who Sanne and Bart have met personally since coming up with the idea. Each city blog is manned by a number of enthusiastic local "spotters", ranging from 18-year old Czech medicine students to 60-year old Belgian retirees. As the bloggers are all writing in second (or third) languages, the prose can occasionally be a little clunky, but therein lies its beauty: authentically local, on-the-ground advice. And, like all good blog content, the focus is on keeping up. "All tips are always up-to-date. Our Spotters only write about places they visit regularly, and update the information in the article frequently."

You could also do this in a more fluid fashion, if you mined Technorati for city names plus certain other terms, like vacation, travel, or a word that a service looks for.

Facebook photos and your past

From Slate:

Once you start reconnecting with people from your distant past, even if fleetingly online, your life goes from feeling like a patchwork of acquaintances and experiences to something more fluid and cohesive. This can be humbling. Or, as Caroline said when I whined to her about posting that photo: "You can never be too cool for your past."

2009: The Year of Unplugging

This is my prediction for 2009: in addition to the global recession continuing to play havoc with all of our lives, we're going to see more people explicitly trying to balance their time online and offline. Zeroing and digital sabbaths will become more popular.

The latest data-point: Lucy Kellaway's Financial Times column:

This is our first experience of recession in the internet age, and so far I don’t like it one little bit. You could say that the internet makes the recession more bearable as there are all those networks to help people get jobs and there is Ebay for buying things second-hand.

Yet such things are trivial compared to what the internet is doing to our confidence. The internet has created a global psyche. The web has mentally joined us at the hip, so we can no longer put our heads in the sand. If that sounds painfully contorted, it is because it is. Just as no country can decouple itself from the ailing global economy, none of us as individuals can decouple ourselves from the ailing global psyche.

Through blogs, websites and e-mails the world’s economic ills are fed to us on a drip all day long. It is not just that we hear about bad things faster, we hear about more of them and in a more immediate way. My worries become yours, and yours become mine. On the internet, a trouble shared online is not a trouble halved. It is a trouble needlessly multiplied all over the world. After reading this article, people in Australia will surely start worrying about my paint colours, too.

This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that confidence is the medicine that cures a recession; and all this sharing of bad news leaves one with no confidence at all.

If I had been alive during the last comparable recession, over 60 years ago, I would have limited my news injection to reading The Times every morning. In those days it had a front page given over not to big scary headlines, but to small classified ads. The news inside would probably have left me a little depressed over breakfast, but I would have had the rest of the day to recover my equanimity.

Instead, I sit over my computer all day and feed my anxiety.


I'm working on a long post about the virtues of withdrawing somewhat from the world of Twitter, Facebook, etc., and this post about Qwitter— a service that "monitors your twitter account and notifies you when someone stops following you"– only reinforces my instinct that real-time-updated-and-read social media might not quite be ready for prime time.

My favorite part:

I’ve had 4 people confront me because I stopped following them and Qwitter told them. All 4 of those people were pissed off at me for it. 3 of them had stopped following me to get even. The one who didn’t, well he didn’t follow me to begin with but was still angry, yet in the e-mail he sent me he noted that he didn’t know who I was. The truth is I didn’t know who he was either, don’t remember following him, don’t recall anything he’d ever tweeted about and can only assume I added him by accident at one point when following a reply thread. Qwitter caused negative drama between two people who don’t know each other, have had no interaction, and really no reason for any bad feelings.

Briefly, I'm starting to think that the current generation of instant-update, small-bite social media tools make us too connected to other people in the wrong ways, that they encourage us to sacrifice volume of contact for depth of contact in ways that ultimately are unsatisfying, and promote a highly social version of ADHD. More on this later.

Moodblurbs and social hardware

One of my colleagues, who knows how much time I spend working in coffeehouses (and probably could see from my Plaze that I’m working at one this morning), pointed this out this morning: Moodblurbs.

Moodblurbs are, on a very basic level, a fun way to communicate. Think of them as three dimensional status messages; or as a silent conversation starter, even as a dating tool.

[The] Moodblurb holder… connects to your laptop (cubicle, bicycle, review mirror, baby stroller – anywhere you want to clip it – but we really had laptops in mind at first), and holds one Moodblurb at a time.

The Moodblurbs are designed to help you express your mood, intentions or humor at the moment. Some of the expansion packs give you the tools to have actual conversations with the blurbs without getting up from that comfy couch seat in the corner of the coffee shop.

They’re designed as a way to counter the cafe zombie effect.

In the summer of 2005, we were sitting at Spyhouse Coffee (a favorite of ours in Minneapolis), reading an online article that talked about how with the increasing availability of WiFi (wireless internet), more people were coming out to places like the Spyhouse with their laptops. Cool, right? Yeah, but the downside was that this was having an adverse affect on the coffee shop community – people were staying online, and no longer getting to know the people sharing their public space. In simple terms, strangers weren’t talking to each other.

We began brainstorming about how to get people with their laptops talking again. At first, we were thinking purely in online terms. Then, it came to us (we will argue till the end of time who came up with the actual idea first), that what we needed to do was come up with a way to get the online community to communicate offline in a manner similar to the one they used online.

Moodblurbs is the answer to the question of how to make online messengers and blogs and such three dimensional. The Moodblurb is similar to a short post or a status message, and encourages others to communicate with you – which is why we come up with clever messages online in the first place – to initiate a response.

Of course, the object itself is likely to become an attractor of social interchange, until they stop being novelties.

One thing Moodblurbs and the cafe zombie phenomenon highlights is how laptops and PCs cut people off from their social surroundings, even as we increasingly use them as a tool for communications. My Powerbook lets me keep up with my brother in New York, my father in Kuala Lampur, and my colleagues spread between Santa Cruz and London; but it acts as a barrier to talking to the person at the table next to me.

Some of this has to do with the fact that I’m generally working when I’ve got my laptop open; but computers do a good job of sucking your attention away from the real world (ironically, even as they can enable a kind of information-charge ADD). They require you to look at them, occupy your hands, and are just complicated enough to require constant monitoring when you’re using them.

This leads to a question: when are we going to see a social hardware movement that’s the equivalent of the social software movement? Obviously anything that’s easier to use is, by definition, going to make you more social just by freeing up some neurons and bandwidth. When will we start seeing devices that make it a little clearer to other people what we’re doing, without necessarily showing them what we’re reading, working on, etc.?

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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