Monday, July 22, 2013

Web 2.0 and The Visually Impaired

As we have been reading about visual discourse and considering the ways in which images and even text layout impact us, I must admit, I wasn't thinking at all about what the internet might be like for someone who can't see it. Yes, you read that right. Blind people can and do use the internet.

I had no idea that even those who are completely blind are able to use the internet with specialized equipment. However, their usage is not without difficulties. According to the article "Blind Community Fights for More Accessible Web" published recently on Mashable, the ways in which programmers code websites can greatly impact the ways in which visually impaired users can interact with a website. However, because most programmers just don't consider the blind using the internet an option, the article quotes one user as saying that the websites available to him are always "two steps behind."

When the first Bush Administration mandated the Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1990s, the fight focused soley on creating accessibility in the physical world. Federal law requires all "brick and mortar" businesses to be accessible to all forms of disabilities, but now federal courts are ruling that the requirement for accessiblity also applies to digital stores. In fact, the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of the Deaf has recently won cases against Target and Netflix, requiring them to update their user interfaces to include options for those who do not use their eyes to see a screen.

The author of the article quotes Jonathan Lazar, a computer science professor specializing in web accessibility as saying, "There is this belief out there that blind people aren't online, and it's just not true." Instead of viewing a page in with their eyes, the visually impaired use machines like the one below to help them interpret meaning out of the images and text on a screen. 

The article addresses that internet jobs are highly desirable for the visually impaired as it removes some of the hazards of a traditional workplace those who have difficulty seeing, but the machines needed to access the internet are expensive. In the article a college student was interviewed and explained that his university provided him his equipment, but that others may also struggle in paying for these hardware items as well.

I wonder what coding and even images would "look" like to a blind person. I wouldn't even know where to start in coding my page to allow a visually impaired person to be able to read my blog or even my Facebook page. However, as I read this article I was glad to know that something does exist to allow the visually impaired to participate on the internet, but was also disappointed to learn that because of the way coding is created, they are often excluded from information that the rest of us can access by simply pulling our phones out of our pockets. I wonder, too, how that affects the discourses in which they are able to be literate--my guess is probably fairly significantly because the internet has become a extension of almost all social and professional circles. I found it very interesting to consider, again as we consider visual discourse, that maybe without meaning to be, internet programmers have the ability to be gate keepers without even realizing it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Down with Lyft?

"LYFT" drivers are sent a pink mustache put on the grill of their cars in order to be more easily identified by users.
It's 2am in LA and you've been drinking a little too much. You walk out of the bar and see a row of eager cab drivers parked out front, just waiting for your business. You almost get in one of the cabs, but you remember that your water bill AND your rent check are due tomorrow and you don't want to come up short. So you back away from the cab and pull out your smart phone and arrange for a "LYFT."

Apparently the above scene is happening more and more in Los Angeles these days and it is causing quite a stir between cab drivers, the city of San Francisco, and the owners of the LYFT smartphone application. In an article recently published by the New York Times, Ian Lovett chronicles the battles between the involved parties.

On the one hand, there's the cab drivers. One cabbie in the article reported losing as much as 20% of his income due to the app and many cab companies are upset because they pay a significant amount of their income to the city for permits and taxes that the grad student moonlighting as a cab driver doesn't have to pay.

Then on the other hand, there is the city who is calling this application/ride sharing program dangerous. The article tells us that before cabs had partitians as many as one cab driver every eighteen months was being murdered and this program is dangerous for drivers and riders alike! . . . However, the city sees how ride sharing programs like this could significantly cut down on traffic. The city has sent cease and desist to users of the app, but they are currently fighting with the app company. 

Then on a magical third hand, there's the application owners and the drivers/users. This group suggests that because there is no set price on the ride, just a suggested donation (and apparently drivers rate how well riders pay) it isn't the same as a cab fare. Furthermore, the cute-pink mustached cars, the company argues, have not only been given the permits to conduct their business, but they're helping the city and the environment at the same time. 

Sounds like someone is always unhappy no matter what happens and, frankly, I don't have an answer! However, this company reminds me a lot of the trend of couch surfing. I've had lots of friends who have successfully couch surfed, connecting with strangers across the world via the internet and arranging to crash for the night on their couch--often leaving only $10-$20 if anything. I, however, refuse. When I went to Europe I busted my butt babysitting before I left so I could stay in hostels--not because I was too good for a couch (beleive me, the hostels I could afford were by no means glamorous), but because the safety concerns were a little too great for me. 

As I thought about this article during this week's reading, I wonder if people enjoy the LYFT app and Couch Surfing because they see these services as a means of controlling their reality. Lemke writes that "Watching a film on a large screen, the divergence between sense data and fictional illusion diminishes; we can experience terror or a sensation of falling while watching a fabric screen and siting in a fixed chair" (89). I wonder if a similar opposite effect takes place in the human mind when a person decides, from the comfort of her own familiar laptop/smart phone, to use one of these services if the familiarity with the device (that has almost become an extension of the human hand in many cases with younger people) creates a sense of security in users when the situation they're going into may or may not be so safe. 

But, of course, we can't ignore the cost factor. I wonder if users feel, for lack of a better term, they are somehow sticking it to the man. If so, in addition to coming out ahead financially I think users like this are looking for something more than just a hotel key or a cab ride--perhaps they're looking to interact with "real life" people, rather than a corporation that they view is taking their hard earned money. 

Either way, I'm not too eager to jump in a stranger's car, but who knows!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Free Speech, Obama, & Twitter

In an article titled "140 Characters Spell Charges and Jail," journalist Robbie Brown shares the story of Jarvis Britton, a 26 year old Alabama resident who was recently sentenced to federal prison for threatening to assassinate President Obama via Twitter. Apparently Britton made threats via Twitter in the past and was apprehended by the feds, but was released when he admitted to being drunk and apologized. However, he posted more threats a second time and was arrested and sentenced.

According the article, Secret Service and other government intelligence agencies are beginning to get more tips for possible threats by watching social media. The Secret Service even has its own Twitter account so that people can tweet to report things to them as well. Apparently the Secret Service investigates about ten threats a day, but they will not share their sources.

However, with the eye of big brother ever growing with the onset of new technologies, Brown writes, "Privacy advocates worry that remarks intended for friends and followers may be misinterpreted in a courtroom or that carelessly typed posts will be seen in the same light as letters mailed to the White House." This harkens back to our classroom conversation (and Fairclough's conversation) about the "facade" of our First Amendment rights. Even Brown writes, "The cases based on such threats should be a reminder that there are limits on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, said Mr. Burgess, the defense lawyer. 'Whether you meant it as a joke or not,' he said, 'a Twitter message takes on a whole new meaning when it’s read in a courtroom.'"

Disclaimer, in case the feds read this because apparently they are looking: let me say that I personally think threatening the POTUS in any situation is unacceptable. Regardless of whether or not I voted, and whether or not I support/agree with the President, I don't want our President hurt or dead. #IheartAmerica

But for the sake of academic discussion, this article stirs up some interesting points. As we have discussed, the First Amendment definitely does have its limits, but who gets to decide what those limits are? I'm okay with not being allowed to threaten the President or yell "fire" in a crowded building, but, frankly, I don't make the rules and what happens when the First Amendment "rules" change? 

This article made me think of the Arab Spring incident that we researched earlier in our class.  Like in many situations where a peoples' voice is silenced by traditional media and government, websites like Twitter serve almost as a great equalizer among voices. In countries like Egypt and Turkey we have recently seen how the country's media blacked out protests, but through social media sites like Twitter, protesters were able to document and share their stories. Even in our own country, award winning journalist Amber Lyon was fired from CNN when she (claims and I believe) was told to censor her coverage of Benghazi as the Obama Administration was either blocking or paying CNN to block certain stories. She is an avid twitter user and without social media, she would not really have a voice as she has been blackballed by traditional media outlets. Furthermore, In a day and age when the President also has the authority to send a drone to kill American citizens without a trial, should we be concerned that a strongly worded political tweet could be potentially misinterpreted and could end up getting us thrown in prison or worse, dead?

I fully realize that this last paragraph makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I think it's a valid discussion worth having. While I don't think threats should necessarily go unpunished and I don't want some jerk yelling "fire" in a crowded mall or "bomb" on an airplane, what happens if the socially agreed upon and "logical" limitations of the First Amendment begin to change in a way that benefits the government and not the people? Who really holds the power in the language of the First Amendment? Furthermore, is the Internet really an equalizing tool? Or is it just another method for the powers that be to watch us all a little more closely?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Avatar and Public Opinion

Social Media: the digital land of lots and lots and lots of talking, but very little listening.

It seems that almost everyone who actively uses social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter likes to complain about the political arguments that happen on these sites, but when the same people feel fired up enough they will either post a political post or at least leave a comment on someone else's post, thus perpetuating the problem of online debates that often dissolve into brutal, personal attacks. Even I, who consider myself very politically passionate, but also value the opinions of others, make a concerted effort not to post political statements after having learned the hard way when I was attacked by a large family (literally two brothers and three sisters) of Facebook "friends." While my intent in posting was not to persuade anyone, rather just to make a statement of personal belief, I was lambasted by said family in a thirty-two comment long assault. I have not posted anything political to this day, but more importantly, despite their attempt to shame me into sharing their opinions, neither the family nor I changed our opinions and, by the end of our interaction, no one was really listening to anyone else.

However, in early March the Human Rights Campaign released an avatar that was used by many users on both Facebook and Twitter (see below).

By using this sign as an avatar, social media users were able to make a statement of their opinion on gay marriage without opening up a discussion for debate like a status update might. That way users could post a status like, "Making cookies with Grandma B" and the picture would appear next to every update.

While this trend did cause this issue:

The avatar functioned as a message that was received loud and clear by anyone using social media--friends, community members, coworkers, and family members supported gay marriage, thus normalizing the concept of gay marriage (or at least the acceptance of gay marriage) among these users. By using this avatar, users aligned themselves as advocates of gay rights, openly and without creating the opportunity to debate their decision.

In an article published to Mashable on June 26, 2013 writer Alex Fitzpatrick asks if the red avatars had any weight in pulling the ruling of DOMA as unconstitutional. In the article, Fitzpatrick quotes several authors and judiciary scholars as saying, "Maybe, but probably not." However, while the favor rating for gay marriage among Americans has been rising in recent years, Fitzpatrick notes that the Supreme Court historically often rules in favor of the majority's opinion.

While I would certainly hope that the Supreme Court wouldn't base any decision on anything other than their best ability to interpret the law (even though I realize it's unfortunately FAR more complicated than that), I do think that the red avatar has done something to begin to sway some of those who still oppose gay marriage. I personally have seen and spoken with many social media users who seem to have revised their opinions, quipping, "If you can't beat them, join them."

As a result of the avatars, many of my LGBT Facebook friends also reported feeling much less isolated and more supported by their fellow friends and followers. What's more, the use of these avatars has spurred the creation of many articles among religious (mostly Christian) websites referencing the sheer number of avatars in voicing the need to end the "fight against" gay marriage and to reframe the dialogue between Christian and non-Christian users when discussing homosexuality. Clearly these avatars have taken social media platforms by storm and have been noticed by users around the globe. I'm very curious to see what the next avatar will be to go viral and how it will be used.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Microsoft Will Play Nice With Gamers

The gaming community has been talking up a storm about how the new XBox One (set to come out at the end of the year), but not all of the buzz has been positive buzz. In fact, when it was first announced, Microsoft shook things up by announcing that the XBox had to be played at least once every twenty-four hours, it would not allow used games, and players could let a friend borrow a game, but only once per purchased disc. Gamers around the world blew up forums and commenting sections claiming these new limitations were not only "stupid and unfair," but they were confusing and unnecessary. Hundreds, if not thousands, vowed online not to buy the XBox One because of the impact these rules would have on their beloved community, especially when it came to the policy on used games. Many video game stores/suppliers like Game Stop and Game Fly (a gaming version of the original Netflix) are profitable because of the used games they sell and rent. To put these companies out of business would forever change players' ability to buy games easily and for a reasonable price as many new games are between $50 and $80.

However, due to widespread backlash from gamers on the internet, Microsoft, in an unprecedented move, is now changing their policy! In the article "Backpedaling on Xbox One DRM Policies Is Precisely the Right Move by Microsoft," featured in TIME Magazine, Matt Peckham explains that this strategic move was necessary to save the Xbox. As Peckham puts it, "Microsoft was up in everyone’s business, in other words, for reasons that seemed more about business than doing right by buyers." It appears, though, that Microsoft could no longer ignore the overwhelmingly negative response on the Internet. So, in an effort to protect those business profits they had hoped to keep by limiting/removing game sharing, they removed the requirement of always-online game play and now will allow used games to be played as well as allow game lending.

In his article, Peckham expresses several remaining and extremely valid concerns: Microsoft will be "watching" and recording, albeit not all of the time now, and we don't know anything about their security or safeguards. He writes to Microsoft among other concerns, "Don’t patronize us in your upcoming Xbox One privacy FAQ, and don’t assume the only thing we care about when it comes to data aggregation and transmission is anonymity (or that that’s a sufficient definition of privacy and security)." Regarding the recent changes, Peckham heeds, "And remember, Microsoft can shift these policies as it likes," but give accolades to Microsoft for listening to its customers.

In the official statement made by Microsoft, there is a lot to be noted in the language used by the Microsoft PR team. Most importantly, I want to note the use of pronouns. The message was supposedly written by "Don Mattrick, President, Interactive Entertainment Business" (and it may have been.) Mr. Mattrick writes,
As is our heritage with Xbox, we designed a system that could take full advantage of advances in technology in order to deliver a breakthrough in game play and entertainment. We imagined a new set of benefits such as easier roaming, family sharing, and new ways to try and buy games. We believe in the benefits of a connected, digital future. . . . Since unveiling our plans for Xbox One, my team and I have heard directly from many of you, read your comments and listened to your feedback. I would like to take the opportunity today to thank you for your assistance in helping us to reshape the future of Xbox One. . . . So, today I am announcing the following changes to Xbox One and how you can play, share, lend, and resell your games exactly as you do today on Xbox 360. . . . Thank you again for your candid feedback. Our team remains committed to listening, taking feedback and delivering a great product for you later this year.

Notice that he takes personal responsibility for both announcing good news and taking the opportunity to "thank" users for their "assistance." By using "I" here, Mattrick makes the changes seem more intimately meaningful, acting as the face of a company that people can relate to in this moment of celebration. However, he reserves "we" and "our" team for referencing Microsoft's commitment to delivering the best product available as well as for listening to and changing the policies because of the negative response. By carefully choosing what parts of this statement are from him, the man in charge, and what are from Microsoft the company, he is clearly trying to make sure that readers know that "the man" on top is both human and listens to customers, and the rest of Microsoft as an entire entity has similiar feelings. By doing this he is trying to remove the idea that Microsoft cares more about their bottom line than their customers, as is also the intended message of not only the statement but of the entire decision to change this policy.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Facebook Adds Hashtags

I joined Facebook in 2006 right before my freshman year of college. I loved it because could post pictures, commentary, and interesting website links on my wall to share with all of my friends. When I moved 1,000 miles from home for college, my new university friends and I joined groups like "We love Miss Tonya" and "Bring Back Boy Meets World," allowing us to create a kind of online community that connected us by common bonds and interests.  At the same time, I felt connected to my friends back home because I could post updates about my collegiate adventures and they would respond and share their own.

But then a few years later, Twitter hit the scene. This new platform was like the Facebook feed page, but limited all posts to 140-character micro-blogs (miniature weblogs). Twitter became a place for breaking news, links and pictures, and up-to-the-moment updates on the daily lives of my friends. However, unlike Facebook, on Twitter conversations were meant to be public (although a user can make their accounts private) and users could use the # sign (spoken "hashtag") in front of any word to have it pulled into a larger feed of "trending" topics. For example, when Osama Bin Laden was killed, the trending topics included #Osama #Obama #terrorism and users could click on any one of them and see all of the Twitter users who had used those hashtags in their tweets.

Just as James Gee points out that discourse is knowing what, how, and when to use specific language effectively, hashtags have never been part of the Facebook's user discourse. In fact, it has been a running joke on Facebook for the past few years that people shouldn't use hashtags on Facebook because on this medium the hashtags didn't link to other users because accounts were private.  (See above memes.) While Facebook was created primarily for private use and Twitter primarily for public use, a shift in Internet language has caused Facebook to make a big change. Facebook is finally embracing the hashtag after making changes in privacy levels allowing some users to have public accounts. This move is welcome among users as hashtags are part of the Internet's discoursive language, but have not been a part of Facebook's until now.

The New York Times article breaking the news explains that other platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and Google Plus already beat Facebook to using the hashtag such that it has become so commonly used among internet/social media users that it almost became necessary for Facebook to jump on the digital bandwagon. The article's author, Vindu Goel, writes, "Starting Wednesday, users can click on a hashtag in Facebook and see a feed of what other people and organizational users are saying about that event or topic." Also according to the article, 20% of users will be able to use hashtags immediately and the remaining 80% will be phased in over the next few weeks.

I, for one, am excited to be able to use my beloved hashtags and participate in more public conversations so that I can talk about things I want to talk about on Facebook rather than just things that I think my Facebook friends will be interested in talking about!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Is Pinterest the Last Big Web-First Internet Company?

In a recent interview with Liz Gannes, Evan Sharp, co founder of Pinterest, theorized that the website, which allows users to save and organize photos/websites on digital idea boards, will be the final web-first Intenet start up company. As mobile devices like smart phones and tablets are becoming increasingly popular, so are the apps these devices use. For Pinterest, it took less than twenty-four hours for its app traffic to surpass its web traffic upon the app's arrival into mobile app stores. After seeing the successes of mobile-first companies like Instragram and WhatsApp, many web-first Internet giants like Facebook, Tumblr, Pandora, and Groupon have also made the leap to having fully functional apps and they, too, experience their highest rates of traffic volume on mobile devices over the use of traditional web browsers.

However, also Gannes offers several opposing views on Sharp's theory. Analyst Andrew Lipsman suggests, "The key distinction may be that companies in the past started on the Web or mobile, and now they don't have a choice. 'I still think there will be emergent companies where desktop will drive the majority of the activity, but its probably the case that companies of tomorrow will have to develop for a multi-platform environment from the outset.'"

Perhaps part of the success that these companies have experienced on the smart mobile devices is due in part to to what Gannes calls "a matter of usage." She quotes Sharp saying, "'The phone is for down moments in the cadence of everyday life'.... whereas Pinterest users have a notable tendency to spend longer periods of time with the tablet app late at night." By tracking these Internet consumer usage patterns, app designers are better able to create a more seamless interface for users, changing the design slightly from tablet to phone.

Although Gannes' article did not dive into the specifics of Sharp's theory, I do find it an interesting one. As the owner of a laptop, (office) desktop, smart phone, and iPad, as well as a semi-devoted Pinterest user, I definitely see myself falling into the categories of users Sharp mentioned. When I'm bored between meetings at work and don't have enough time to accomplish any meaningful tasks, I usually pop open my phone to surf Pinterest.  I also often flip mindlessly through the thousands of pretty pins on a main page (pictured below) at the end of the day when I need time to veg after a rough day.

However, as to whether or not Pinerest will be the last web-first Internet start up, I must say I am as skeptical as Lipsman is. While we are "sandwiched" between desktop Internet and mobile-eras, as Gannes suggests, I don't know that we are so far beyond the desktop era that web-based start ups will cease to exist. Rather, I agree with the theory that in order for businesses of the future, be they banks, stores, or service-related, will need to function well on multiple platforms. Even Instragram, mentioned above, started as a mobile-first app, but now has a website that allows users to view their pictures online where as the company didn't originally support pictures and profile views outside of its own app on a smart phone or tablet. Despite Sharp's predictions, the only way I see web-first companies growing extinct anytime within the near future is when the desktop/laptop itself is taken over permanently by mobile devices.