Archive for the 'Virtual Cultures' Category

My Blogging Experience

May 29, 2006

This assignment is my first blogging experience. Here’s a summary of why I did not keep a Blog before this assignment:

1) I have a boring lifestyle

2) I am not willing to share personal thoughts

3) I don’t like bitching (though I like listening to others bitch, it’s entertaining!)

4) I am lazy

5) I am not smart or knowledgeable enough to have journalistic insights into social/political happenings (but that is changing : )

I’m more of a “private person”, not very expressive unless I’m within a close circle of friends. To be brutally frank, I don’t think my life is all that exciting that many would want to read about it. Heck, I’ll probably fall asleep reading about my boring life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a happy camper living out my “uni-home-studying-TV-exercising-cooking-movies” routine. No suicidal thoughts…yet.

I'm not the only stud…i mean dud, here. 90 percent of the other online-dairy sites that I randomly visited aren’t any more exciting either. Some are just too self-indulgent. I respect the rights of self expression, and more so, the blind courage of some bloggers – especially those who humiliate themselves with their horrendous command of language and unreserved narration of idiotic escapades (I'm being mean here, sorry!). On the extreme end, it can be so bad, that it’s good – check out this example. One good thing though, readers can seek comfort in knowing that they are not the only “losers” out there with a not-so-exciting life. It’s perfectly normal to have a boring life like mine (haha).

Few years ago, I used to keep a diary. That lasted 10 months before I gave in to work fatigue and laziness (at least I’m honest). It was a good self-reflective tool as I dwelled into my innermost core and expressed my thoughts on paper. I’ve never allowed anyone else to read my diary. It may be short-lived, but it is precious! Between a blog and a journal, I feel that the journal is more personal (maybe I’m just old-school). If I am to keep a personal online-diary, I’ll probably be more cautious and reserve in my entries. On the flipside, I’ll be on the lookout for fun and interesting angle in my mundane lifestyle to write about, a la Seinfeld. I’ll use it more for creative expression rather than daily notification.

Taking into account the technical characteristics, a journal feels more permanent and personal than a blog because the latter can be easily altered. Although I "own" my online diary, the sense of it belonging to me isn't as strong because there's no physical presence like a journal. There's also no control over who reads the blog once it gets published online. Online audiences can also leave comments, which can work for or against you. Constructive criticism is good, but not derogatory remarks.

In general, I think blogging as an online diary is a healthy avenue to let off steam, bitch about the world, let out our exhibitionistic and voyeuristic nature. But I feel that freedom of expression comes with inherent responsibilities. In reality, discriminatory ideologies can be found anywhere in the world, and should be tackled in a constructive rather than destructive manner. Bloggers should exercise restrain and not fan such ideologies against other races, religion and nationality etc. in their postings.

Although the current blogging experience arouse out of necessity – as part of my coursework at QUT – it is still an enjoyable process. I think it’s a creative and refreshing method of assessment, very aptly chosen for the subject of Virtual Cultures. I prefer it to exams or essays because this blog format is more informal and I can be a bit cheeky at times. This blogging assignment is the academic equivalent of “Putting your money where your mouth is”, if I may (be cheeky). We (the students) are not just being taught the subject, but have to "live" it too. I can also incorporate my personal interest in Star Wars into my blogs as a recurring theme for self-gratification. Wookiee!

As for other forms of blogs such as the academic or journalistic blogs, they provide an alternative to mainstream media outlets. True, they may misinform or be driven by personal and political agendas, but I don’t think mainstream media are doing any better these days. These blogs can also provide free and easy access to alternative, insightful and interesting viwepoints.

Blogs could also provide a way to tip the power balance towards the masses. Check out this video clip about blogging where even CNN admitted to sourcing part of a story from the blogosphere. Also in the clip, the mainstream media labeled bloggers as “Lynch mob”, and are people who “basically, for the most part, with no credentials, no sources, no rules, no editors, and no accountability.” Oh touchy! I sense fear and hypocrisy! To be fair, the rising influence of the blogoshpere can be for the better, or for the worst. I say let the bloggers have a crack since I have lost faith in some of the so-called "responsible and credible" mainstream media.

Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke said once that the short-term impact of any new technology tends to be overestimated, while its long-term impact is underestimated. I feel that in the long run, bloggers (and the internet community in general) will be a formidable force that politicians and mainstream media cannot afford to ignore. On the macro-level, the blogoshpere provides insights into various cultural, social and technological trends. As a collective whole, even the boring, self-indulging personal diaries can be an interesting study! Gauging by the current momentum, the blogosphere and its accompanying influence on society will be even more significant in future!

Check out these interesting links:

The World Economic Forum Weblog

How Jedi Are You?

Digital Lynch Mob


Cyber-Squattering was my Dream Job…

May 15, 2006

 

Back in 2002, I heard of the term “cyber-squatting” for the first time. I asked myself, “Why didn’t I think of this brilliant get-rich-quick plan?” By then it was too late. I should have done it much earlier when the internet was just getting popular (early 1990s probably) and many businesses weren’t aware of its commercial potential.

Cyber-squatting refers to the act of reserving a particular internet domain name for the purpose of selling it at a higher price later. Cyber-squatters, also known as cyber-pirates, typically target companies, celebrities and even politicians. Beside financial gains, these “entrepreneurial souls” also divert consumers from the trademark owner's website.

Here’s an example. Say in the early 1990s, I get a dog and name her “Pepsi”, register a site, “pepsi.com”, for my dear pet before the Pepsi-Cola Company does, and presto! I’m not too greedy, just a million or two (US dollar) would be enough to help me deal with the emotional distress of giving up the site of my beloved pet to the big Cola company . Hell, I’ll even throw in the dog…

Actually I don’t even need a real reason to register a domain name, it just look more legitimate this way. It’s essentially a minimal investment, maximum return scheme… I mean “business strategy.” There had been some successful attempts. It is reported that Gateway Computer Co. paid $100,000 for the domain name gateway20000.com, a site where the owner of the domain name had posted pornographic images (also check out this report).

Opportunities for cyber-squatters are rapidly diminishing with internet governance and corporate awareness of such practice. However, examples can still be found – check out www.americanidol.ca, which clearly states “This domain may be for sale by its owner!”

The resolution process for disputes was determined by US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN, a non-profit corporation working on behalf of the US Government, certifies registrars of top-level domain names (i.e., .com, .net, .org), allocates IP address space and manages the root server system. Its Australian equivalent is the Australian Domain Name Authority (auDA).

In November 1999, the U.S. Congress passed the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). This is the second option for trademark owners to seek redress. Under this Act, trademark owners can seek not only transfer of the disputed domain, but also monetary damages against an individual who registers the domain name containing the trademark. However, this option will incur the expense and aggravation of a lawsuit.

These developments thereby ended my potential career as a “low-life, high-tech” con-artist. Spoilers…

 

Where is Luke Skywalker when you need one?

May 13, 2006

 

This week’s lecture raises the question of how power relationships are embedded in technologies, for example, the technical specifications of the internet architecture. Now it seems like Corporate America are planning to take this one step further.

Internet providers like AT&T and Verizon are lobbying the U.S. Congress to put an end to network neutrality, considered the internet's First Amendment and the key to internet freedom. According to Wikipedia, network neutrality means that the “internet transport and service system, having received valuable public right of way should not be allowed to be privately owned without open access so that owners could provide services that they own on favorable terms and thus unfairly compete with third-party services.” In other words, network neutrality prevents service provider favoring carriage of traffic to certain web sites over others. If the new bill passes, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T can dictated sites that pays them more to open more easily on your computer. This would tip the power balance further in favor of the big media conglomerates.

In the article by Galloway A, “Institutionalization”, he quoted Jon Postal on the three factors that contribute to the success of the internet, one of which is “vendor independence”. If the bill is passed, it could mean the end of internet freedom. The access and operations of websites of commercial entities, political and non-profit groups, or any other webpage for that matter, will be at the discretion of the ISPs. The vendor sites will lose their independence and be subscribed to financial or ideological arm-twisting. And ultimately, the increased costs will be passed down to consumers while the big corporations get fatter.

I’ll strip this down to the basics – rich and powerful media giants are pushing their self-serving economic interest through political and legal channels, so that they can grow to be even more rich and powerful! Politicians can then make use of the corporations to push their own political agenda in future. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Doesn’t that sound scary? Not to mention ridiculous! More chow for Corporate America and politicians so that they can bully the smaller and less powerful organizations and individuals? And maybe force the smaller companies out of business or end up buying, chewing, and spitting them out. And justifying all these in the name of free market economy where the fittest survive to provide the best and most cost-efficient service.

In essence, politicians and Corporate America are seeking to alter part of the internet protocol to gain more control over us. Will we reach a stage where “freedom” in this so called “free market economy” and "free and democratic society" loses its meaning? Where does capitalism end and socialism begin? I would say a socialistic, dictatorship-style power relation camouflaged within a “free market economy” could even be worst than unpretentious socialism itself. Because by then, there would be no “wrong” to be “righted”, if I may.

As mentioned in my earlier blog entry Entertainment Supersystem, global media consolidation has provided concentrated power into the hands of a few trans-national corporations. Due to limited choices for consumers, these big companies are exerting more control over our lives. Do we want them to grow even stronger, from a Superstar Destroyer into a Death Star? If the U.S. congress passes the bill to curb network neutrality, I fear that it will perpetuate the vicious cycle that will keep tipping the power balance towards the Dark Side (politicians and corporations) at the expense of consumers. Where is Luke Skywalker when you need one? Well, there are actually various "Skywalkers" out there, grassroots movement to counter this proposed bill, one of which is by moveon.org. For our own sake, let's rise to the occasion and join these movements! Woof! Woof! Woof!

My Virtual Community Report

May 8, 2006

YouTube is a video sharing online community for creative expressions and self-gratifications! It’s for hosting short films, commercials, MTVs, trailers, home videos, even TV programs. Basically, anything goes as long as it meets copyright and ethical obligations. They are usually no more than 10 minutes and 100MB in size for uploading, but occasionally you can find much longer videos.

The public can only view the videos. Membership is free and members can rate and comment on the videos. They can also tag their favorite clips, join a group base on certain themes, genres or events, and upload their own videos. It has a Friendster-like community to encourage networking, where members post their personal profiles and send messages. Overall, it is a user-friendly site, easy to navigate, upload and view videos.

Success can be measure in many ways – the number of members and videos, and the popularity of certain videos. For example, this Final Fantasy MTV has been viewed more than 2 million times!

The videos are classified into broad categories such as Entertainment, Sports, Art & Animation etc. Their visual quality and production value can defer greatly, from unedited mobile phone clips to professionally shot and edited pieces. However, even the best quality video will be dumped down to enable quick online streaming.

Creative Commons

May 7, 2006

Talking about win-win situation, it is welcoming to see a major record label taking the first step towards Creative Commons (CC). Pearl Jam is offering the full length of their new music video “life wasted” for free download at Google Video until 1st June 2006. After that, the video goes on sale. The group is under J Records, owned by media giant Sony BMG. This is supposedly the first time a video produced by a major label to be CC-licensed where the public can legally copy, distribute, and share the clip. This MTV is released under CC’s Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs license, meaning:

1) You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor.

2) You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

3) You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.

A check at Google Video found many other MTV released by Sony BMG, but with only excerpts available, usually around 29 seconds. Sony seems to be using this video-sharing site as a marketing tool, to release many of its “teaser versions” of full-length MTVs. At the end of the short clips, it informs the viewer to “Buy this video to view the full 4min 57sec”. And the right panel on screen displays an option to “Buy High Quality” at $1.99.

The bold step to release Pearl Jam’s full length MTV under CC will be an important test for Sony. It will also have implications for the record industry, general public and the CC movement. It is encouraging that Sony is taking a long term, pragmatic view of the music industry and taking into account the implications of new media technologies. If this move proves to be a win-win situation for both consumers and the recording labels, hopefully it will set the trend for the music industry to be more open and collaborative in future.

Grey is the new Black?

May 5, 2006

This issues raise by this week’s readings, M. Rimmer’s “The Grey Album: Copyright Law and Digital Sampling” are indeed reflective of its title – grey. The example of DJ Danger Mouse mashing Jay-Z’s Black Album and Beatles’ White Album into "Grey Album" is aptly chosen, for there are literal and figurative dimensions to this issue. The literal part is of course our understanding of how colors work. The figurative part has to do with the confusing copyright and ethical issues surrounding the Grey Album.

I’m no legal expert but I think this is how the legal system works: Historically, a court ruling on a new issue sets a precedent and acts as a guideline for future legal cases. But with copyright issues concerning new media technologies, I’m not sure if that’s applicable anymore.

Firstly, the subjective nature of each case poses a big problem. The De Minimis rule allows artists to sample small amounts from earlier work to produce new creations, but the application of this rule is in itself subjective.  For example, if appropriating 3 notes from a 3 minute music composition constitute an infringement, how about 3 notes from a 13 minute piece? There is no agreeable formula to calculate the degree of appropriation. With music, the content is itself intangible, and the visual representation in waveform charts cannot be relied upon for judgment.

Secondly, technological and cultural innovations of new media technologies are fast changing and the online participatory cultures are constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity. For example, from personal websites to Blogs, podcasts, Vlogs and so on. Similarly, MMOG became a tool for the machinima movement. Who knows what is to come next? The market and governmental institutions have yet to set legal and ethical standards with the current trends, and this continuous shifting trend does not make it any easier.

The many other court cases cited in the article gave different verdicts, and doesn’t really clear up the air on the copyright issues involving digital sampling. But perhaps, that’s what it is meant to be – grey. Technology per se is a science, but not its usage. Social dimensions come into the picture, creating art out of science, art out of other art. In the past, artists had appropriated, even blatantly copied other artists’ creations. I think copying itself is an art form, and can sometimes bring the original form to another level. Perhaps the Grey Album has brought the Black and the White albums to the attention of new audiences.

The judiciary system is not the only way to solve this dilemma. Big companies may win lawsuits, but lose goodwill on the grassroots level in the process. A good example is the "Grey Tuesday" protest and the civil disobedience movement. Even though the record label EMI won and Danger Mouse had to cease distribution of Grey Album, many other sites carry it for free download. Ironically, Grey Tuesday and the media attention surrounding it – including coverage by New York Times, MTV News etc – gave instant fame to the Grey Album and Danger Mouse. It was reported that more than a million digital tracks were downloaded on February 24, 2004, Grey Tuesday. Though Danger Mouse lost the legal case, he gained so much more in other aspects.

From Rimmer's article, I agree with Jessica Litman’s stand on “recast copyright as an exclusive right of commercial exploitation.” I think this trend of appropriating will only grow more popular globally, lawsuits or otherwise. Here’s my two cents worth of suggestion to both parties “if you can’t beat them, join them!” Big companies can offer their marketing expertise and collaborate with the “mashers” to be part of the action. Share and grow the pie, instead of fighting for the same slice. I know this “brilliant” suggestion is ideological and there are many more issues entrenched, but the point is to work towards the direction of a win-win situation and hope that we can all live happily ever after…

Viral Ads

May 5, 2006

The thirst for active engagements and creative expressions is not limited to the gaming communities, it also extends throughout the global web communities. However, things might not turn out in the intended manner for the corporations engaging the online audiences. They need to keep track of the online communities in case matters go out of hand.

I’ll use viral marketing campaigns to illustrate this point. Viral campaigns are marketing techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through viral processes similar to the spread of an epidemic. It is word-of-mouth delivered and enhanced online; It harnesses the network effect of the internet and can be very useful in reaching a large number of people rapidly. Viral marketing is a powerful tool as it attempts to harness the strongest of all consumer triggers–the personal recommendation.

A successful viral marketing campaign made The Blair Witch Project (probably) the most profitable movie in the history of cinema in terms of the ratio of production costs to box office proceeds. The estimated production cost of the film was about USD $25,000, and the movie grossed over $248 million worldwide. On Web sites and in chat rooms, the film's promoters hinted that the fictional tale was really a documentary and let the bug run wild. The mystery, hype and anticipation snowballed to attract the attention of worldwide audiences.

Viral campaigns have evolved to include active audience participation. An innovative viral marketing campaign-cum-contest went out of hand for General Motors (GM) in America. People can enter a contest by building a video commercial for the Chevy Tahoe Sports Utility Vehicle. They do so by dragging and dropping a pre-selection of image clips and audio tracks, and adding their own superimposed text.

The online participatory audience transformed this campaign into a nightmare for GM! They use the tools provided on the Chevy Apprentice website and came up with a series of parodies and spoofs, pushing different agendas such as global warming, anti-SUV and even political messages. These quickly became viral videos zipping around the internet. Some was even posted on the contest site before being taken down. However, it was reported that to GM’s credit, they did not pull out every ad that has a negative tone. (Check out more examples here)

This whole episode reflects how user-created content can easily go beyond the control of corporations, and be used for unintended purposes. And here's the irony – the online participatory audiences appropriate the tools provided by the big corporations, only to use it against them. For marketers, the good old days of passive consumerism is gone, radically transformed by new media technologies and cultural trends. In the past, consumers usually have two choices in response to marketers – “take it or leave it”. Now, it's more like “take it, use it, and abuse it!” By “abuse”, I don’t necessary mean it in a negative manner. Personally, as someone who cares about the environment, I am very impressed and supportive of this Chevy backlash, not to mention entertained. Rock on!

Permanent Head Damage

May 1, 2006

More on the online gaming communities and the fan culture. Fans are not satisfied just to be heard, they want an outlet to contribute their creative works as well. According to Banks article, “A further important feature of the emerging online game culture is fan-created content”. The contemporary tech-savvy consumers do not just engage the games on a superficial level, but many like the ability to exercise creative freedom in creating content. Manufacturers provide such access by having open architectural software, and providing game editing tools for download from websites or along with retail release software package. The game thus becomes a virtual Lego set (and more), where the gamers uses the basic building blocks – the editing software – to modify the game and add new features.

In many cases, the product’s open-architecture also allows compatibility with other design software such as 3D Studio Max. Banks gave an example where Auran, developerof the online game Trainz, was “approached by a number of train and rail enthusiasts interested in the possibility of creating third-party content…” In time a fan by the avatar of Marlboro created and released a popular steam locomotive in collaboration with the Auran team. This means giving up certain level of creative control but it can turn out to be as a win-win situation for both. Manufacturers can tap into the vast creative resources from around the world and further enhances the value of the game. The gamers can have an outlet for creative expressions and showcase their talents.

The newly created content are shared and admired among the gaming community. Entrepreneurial gamers can even start a business by selling their creation to other gamers. Banks cited an example where Auran is discussing with fan groups the possibilities of turning their activities into commercial ventures. This trend gives rise to financial, ethical and intellectual propetry/copyright issues. Not all developers agree with Auren’s business practices. There are no industry benchmarks for reference. For every contributor willing to share his/her creations for no financial gain, there will be others who seek payment. Should this be left to the market forces to find a balancing point, or should the governing authorities step in to regulate? And how can standards and regulations function when the boundaries and rules of engagement in new media is constantly shifting and evolving?

Well…that’s food for thought. And my brain is bursting from all that confounding questions. It is literally, a PHD (Permanent Head Damage) issue…Mayday! Mayday!

 

New Audiences, New Chicken Coup, & New Pecking Order!

April 29, 2006

The readings from this week – John Banks' “Gamers as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience, A Report from Net Face” – argues that the contemporary online gaming industry redefines roles played by the audience, products and manufacturers.

Traditionally, media audiences are perceived to be passive and susceptible to influence. The media manufacturers/developers produce the contents which are then delivered to the audiences for consumption. It is a one-way process and there are no active engagements between the two parties.

However, the new media technology such as internet has produced a “very different audience” nowadays and they “resists delivery”. The internet opened a convenient, instantaneous and effective communication channel for audiences to feedback to manufacturers. Virtual fan clubs, discussion forums and websites easily build up into a critical mass of audiences with similar interests/opinions. This critical mass warrants enough attention not to be ignored.

For the manufacturers, “the audience needs to be approached as a dynamic process”. This poses new challenges to companies when marketing to consumers. At the same time, it offers new opportunities for tapping the vast resources of these consumers.

From the late 1990s, support for multi-player online games was an emerging trend and a rich and active online fan culture build up around them. The gaming consumers, being tech-savvy, would build dedicated websites, which are “important and influential intermediaries”. They are actively participating by sharing information, using discussion forums, even building up teams to challenge others.

Game developers like Auran recognize that proper management of the virtual fan community (or fandom) is important, and set up their own interactive websites for collecting feedbacks, criticism and engage in email exchanges with fans. Compared to traditional media outlets like TV/print, this is an effective and relatively cheap marketing and public relations channel. Product information, upcoming events and sales pitches can be sent out to the online fan community, which can then be easily forwarded to others. Soft-selling works better than hard selling!

Every chicken coup has its pecking order, and so does an online community. When such information is passed on from one fan, especially the top dog (or chicken), to the others, it will be more credible than if such information comes directly from the manufacturers. The formal, corporatized advertising campaign is camouflaged and transformed into an informal, effective, even subliminal tool of persuasion. It becomes a form of viral marketing. Cunning, but smart, if I may say so!

However, like viral marketing, there are risks involved too. Companies have to recognize that they are giving up a certain level of control when such online marketing is involved. In the hands of the virtual community, it can take on a life of its own. The opinion leaders can play a crucial role in influencing the campaign either positively or negatively. The outcomes are more unpredictable and the online communities can simply have adverse reactions to the campaigns. Companies should keep a close watch on their campaigns in case it turns into a PR nightmare! More on viral marketing and nightmares in future! Maybe…

 

Woof! Woof!

April 22, 2006

Now, there's even blogs for dogs called dlogs (go figure), where doting owners create online journals for their pets, complete with indulgent photographs and narratives from their puppy’s perspective. This new trend originated from my home country of Singapore. I have to admit that it’s refreshing and entertaining to a certain degree, and that you got to be creative to make this work. On the other hand, some parts may be a tad too candy-mushy-cutesy-pie for my personal taste. But that’s just me…

Here’s an example of a dlog:

Who: Joey the Jack Russell Terrier
Dlog: joeyjrt.blogspot.com
Woofspeak: *scratch* scratch* scratch*. Oh no… I am having rashes again. This time, it is a bit more serious than before. I am always allergic to grass. Especially if it is a bit damp. As you guys know, I love to play fetch or to roll over my ball in the grass. HC tried to protect my skin as much as possible by letting me wear a tee. But there are certain parts that the tee can’t cover such as lower belly, head and legs.

Some of these dogs can talk (or think) in Singlish (Singapore Colloquial English) too! For example, Rafv goes "See! So nice yah!" Now that's sibei interesting man! ("sibei" means "very" in Singlish). I wonder if they have a signature Singlish bark, say… "Woof-lah! Woof-lah!"

Ironically, this silly trend has rather practical origins. The pioneer of the dlog community, Sharon Tan, 29, created a blog for her six-year-old golden retriever, Herbie. She started the dlog to prove to overseas dog breeders that, contrary to popular belief, Asian owners do take meticulous care of their pets. She said private breeders overseas tend to avoid exporting puppies to Asia for fear of them being mistreated or used for haphazard breeding. At the time, she was keen on buying a golden retriever puppy from abroad, but her e-mail inquiries were ignored by breeders. But after creating Herbie’sdlog and sending the breeders a link to it, they finally replied. She is now on the waiting list for a puppy from a breeder in Australia.

It is reported that there are at least 10 dloggers in Singapore, and others have also emerged from Hong Kong and the United States. Well, dlogging isn't exactly paw-pular yet, but it certainly has potentials given the number of dog lovers out there. What Sharon, I mean Herbie, has done will be remembered in history – that's one small step for dogs (woof) but one giant leap for dlogosphere (WOOF! WOOF!). I am almost afraid to ask, what next? Clogs? (for cats) Hlogs? (for hamsters) Slogs (use your imagination…)

On a more serious note, dlogging is another example of online participatory cultural appropriations such as machinima. It also adds weight to the counter-argument of technological determinism. Technological determinism is a reductionist doctrine that a society's technology determines its cultural values, social structure, or history; the idea that technological development determines social change. Dlogging can be considered a mutation or reinvention from the existing blogging culture, and not from the emergence of a new technologic form. Besides technology, social influences also play an important role in shaping cultures and norms.