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CHIPS Articles: The Lazy Person's Guide to Living La Vita Virtual

The Lazy Person's Guide to Living La Vita Virtual
By Dale J. Long - October-December 2009
Welcome to the Virtual Life, where we can tailor reality to suit our tastes. Applications like Second Life can give us the illusion of the dream job or perfect relationship we cannot achieve in the real world. Games like World of Warcraft allow us to channel our inner swashbuckler. Social networking sites like Facebook can manage our relationships, and Twitter lets us conduct mass conversations with many people regardless of distance.

Yes, we can live la vita virtual, accompanied by our favorite musical soundtrack and enhanced by whatever means we choose to employ to craft our online image. In this issue, we will look at some of the ways the virtual world has become an extension of our personal space, and for some, a second home. But, as with any new medium, living virtually affects and is affected by human behavior.

Virtually Zippy

It has been a while since we have visited our old friend Zippy and his family. Time and distance can take a toll on relationships, so this year I made a resolution to do more than just e-mail and signed up with a social networking site to see if I could revive relationships with old friends. Of course, the first person who popped up on my friends list was Zippy and, through the modern miracle of webcams, we sat with our laptops at our respective dining room tables and shared a virtual meal together while 600 miles apart.

We have not seen Zippy's twins, Paul and Cassie, for a few years. They are eight years-old now and totally wired (or wireless, as the case may be). Instead of yelling upstairs to tell them it was time for dinner, Zippette texted them, explaining: "They always answer a text message." Both kids arrived shortly thereafter, smartphones in hand, followed by a reminder from Zippette to shut their phones off during dinner. We ate, we talked, we watched the latest JibJab videos together. After making sure we were all properly "friended" on Facebook, we said goodnight and sat back to consider the brave new world of computer-mediated relationships.

The more things change in the world of technology, the more they seem to stay the same as far as the underlying concepts of communication. Before we discuss how computer mediation is affecting relationships, we should review some basic definitions and history. First, communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior. Communication may be further defined by two other factors: time and interactivity.

In terms of time, communication may be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous communication occurs simultaneously between participants. Asynchronous communication involves a sender recording communications in some form for later retrieval by one or more receivers. Some types of communication may qualify for both categories, for example, a live television broadcast or a recording. Interactivity also has two variables: monologue: one-way with no immediate opportunity for a receiver to respond; or dialogue: equal opportunity for exchange of information between participants. For examples, we will start with some easily categorized forms of communication.

Making a telephone call is a form of synchronous dialogue because all participants are in direct communication with equal opportunity to participate. Leaving voice mail, however, is asynchronous monologue that can become asynchronous dialogue if it becomes a full-fledged game of phone tag.

Radio and television broadcasts have traditionally been asynchronous monologues. However, shows like “American Idol” that allow viewers to vote during the show break that paradigm somewhat. In cyberspace, e-mail, instant messages and bulletin board systems are asynchronous, and chat rooms synchronous.

There are, of course, exceptions to any general classification. Though both participants may meet a technical definition of synchronicity by being in the same place at the same time, any recruit who has been chewed out by a drill instructor would be unlikely to describe the experience as a dialogue with an equal opportunity to participate.

Here is one, last, crucial reference before we move into modern social networking: bulletin board systems. Traditionally, Internet bulletin boards and blogs have a hierarchical, topical structure. Messages are posted within topics and only appear within that topic. Readers must go to each topic to read the messages. As we will discuss shortly, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace represent a radical shift from this model.

With these concepts in mind we can move on to figuring out where modern social networking methods fit into our communications schemes. In the last issue of CHIPS, we briefly looked at two new disruptive social networking applications: Facebook and Twitter. Given their effects and contributions to virtual communities, it is time to take a closer look at each.

Welcome to My Wall
Facebook or MySpace? Both serve essentially the same purpose: manage relationships online. Because I do not have the space to properly discuss both, I flipped a coin, and Facebook won the toss. Facebook is a privately owned, globally available social networking Web site. Members set up home pages called “Walls” and link their accounts with “friends” to share information.

Linked users can see each other’s’ messages, personal profiles, photos and other information. An update to your personal page is posted simultaneously to all your friends’ pages and vice versa. Facebook users can also join networks organized by city, workplace, school, region or common interest.

As of September, Facebook reportedly has more than 300 million members worldwide which means that about 22 percent of the world’s population has a Facebook Wall. Facebook is primarily asynchronous, though there is some opportunity for chat. It generally follows a bulletin board structure, though unlike traditional bulletin board systems, posts to individual Walls are published simultaneously on the Walls of friends, including those made by friends. So, if you have 20 friends, and your friends have 20 friends, you could potentially see messages from 400 other people on your Wall.

Facebook users seem to fall into four behavioral categories: static, casual, serious and obsessive. Static users broadcast but do not universally allow messages from all their friends. Quite a few celebrity users fall into this category, preferring to have fans subscribe to their Walls and limiting the messages they accept to a small circle of friends. Casual users have a manageable number of friends with whom they freely exchange information. They check Facebook periodically, treating it as an asynchronous way of keeping up with friends.

Serious Facebook users post messages daily. Hard-core users have Web-enabled smartphones that alert them to a new post, and they respond at every opportunity. No post is unworthy of notice, and if they cannot maintain constant contact, they will exhibit withdrawal symptoms. I am doing my best to resist the siren song of hard-core obsession, but I have pretty much given up, adding “Recovering Facebook Addict” beneath “Recovering PowerPoint Addict” on my personal resume. Having something that lets me maintain relationships with distant friends is incredibly attractive from a Lazy Person perspective.

However, sites like Facebook are not without issues. Facebook has been banned in many workplaces, and there are privacy issues associated with posting personal information online. The system has also allegedly been compromised by hackers more than once. Too, there are many stories of people who have encountered difficulties from self-inflicted, embarrassing photos or posts. Facebook has also been blocked intermittently in several countries including Syria, China and Iran, where the exchange of free information and the interests of the government are sometimes at odds.

If you want to use Facebook at home to keep up with friends, be aware of the security risks of sharing personal information. With that in mind, here are my personal rules for Web-based social networking. As always, your mileage may vary, but these work for me:

-- Keep your friends close and everyone else at bay. I only accept friend requests from people I know, and I do not send friend requests to everyone who has a Facebook account.
-- Do not post anything you would not want to see on the front page of your local newspaper, The New York Times or the National Enquirer. People who post their spring break pictures really only have themselves to blame. Your online privacy is your responsibility.
-- Be relevant and concise. People will judge you by what you post.
-- Set a schedule and stick to it. If you find yourself on the computer at 2:00 a.m. to check Facebook, you have gone beyond serious on the user scale.
-- Make sure you actually talk to your friends once in a while. Text-based relationships can work, but periodic synchronous interaction, even if it is just over the phone, is a big part of being real friends and not just Facebook friends.

Here’s a case in point about how social networking can influence behavior. In early September, two Australian girls aged 10 and 12 went exploring in Adelaide’s storm drains and got lost. Fortunately, they had a cell phone. However, instead of calling emergency services, they updated their Facebook status and then waited for rescue, according to ABC News.

There may be any number of reasons why they did not call for help. Maybe they did not know the number for emergency services, which in Australia is 000. Maybe they wanted to avoid calling a total stranger and admitting they were lost. Whatever the reason, it shows how ingrained computer-mediated social networking can become in human behavior if we are not careful.

The 800-Pound Canary
Twitter is another popular social networking application that has behavioral implications. It is a “micro-blogging” service that lets users send and read short (140 characters or less) text messages known as “tweets.” Tweets are displayed on the author's profile page and authors can decide whether to limit them to a particular circle of friends or make them available to anyone who subscribes.

Tweets can be sent through the Twitter Web site, Short Message Service (SMS) or external applications. While Twitter is free, accessing it through SMS may incur provider fees.

Last issue I stated that I had trouble taking Twitter seriously. While I still think the vast majority of what passes through Twitter has about the same density of useful information as a cubic light-year of interstellar space has of breathable oxygen, I have revised my opinion of the system overall since its use in the aftermath of certain elections overseas. Twitter became a way for people to bypass strict information controls, exchange information freely and organize resistance under restrictive conditions.

For that, I can forgive any other ether it consumes with fluff messages from various celebrities.

Popular Tweeters are more like gurus with followers waiting for the beep that announces their latest pronouncement. However, because of the information exchange that Twitter helps enable and the types of exchange that both Facebook and Twitter facilitate, both sites came under distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS) shortly after election season was over. No specific source was identified for the attacks, but there is some discussion that the attacks did not follow the pattern usually followed by cyber criminals

who try to extort money from businesses by threatening DDOS to their Web sites, according to Wired magazine.

Regardless of where the attacks came from, it is clear that someone wanted to shut them down. Thus, we see further demonstration of the power and influence of social media sites.

Web-based social networking will continue to shrink time and space and further accelerate changes in society, business and personal relationships. The scope and effect of these changes are still evolving.

Happy Networking!

Dale Long is a retired Air Force communications officer who has written for CHIPS since 1993. He holds a Master of Science degree in information resources management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He currently serves as a telecommunications manager in the Department of Homeland Security.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.

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