June 2006

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419 Fun

I read this article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, about “The Perfect Mark” — a man who, in spite of being relatively intelligent, fell for one of the Nigerian “419” scams. (The ones where you get an email saying “I have a million dollars in a blind account and need your help to get it out.”)

I’d always assumed these scams were just quick one-hit stabs at getting a credit card number. I had no idea how deep they actually go, and how sophisticated they are. They strung this guy along for years (and he still wants so much to believe that the characters are real!) and did such an amazing job of reality-twisting. Now when I see these emails, I’m no longer just amused and puzzled but a little creeped out that I just got an email from murderous, organized criminals.

So it feels especially wonderful to run across this site, “Welcome to the 419 Eater” where some clever soul conned the cons. He basically tells them “yeah I wish I could help you, but I’m in the middle of this really big deal that’s making me even more money” and baits them into a similar trap. Only in his case, it’s just an extended practical joke. (He never invites anyone to fly to his country then robs and kills them, for example.)

In this one: http://www.419eater.com/html/john_boko.htm they manage to get a scammer to think they’ll make thousands of dollars by carving strange things out of wood, then claim a hamster has eaten the goods. Hysterical.

I’ve been working for a couple of months now on an article for the ASIS&T Bulletin (American Society for Information Science and Technology). It started out as an article version of my “Clues to the Future” presentation, but I soon realized that 1) I couldn’t really explain the same stuff very well in a 4000 word article, and 2) to do so would be a bit redundant with the presentation itself (which is fairly well explained in the text part of the pdf download). I also realized (I guess this is 3) that there were other things I really wanted to say but hadn’t managed to figure out how to articulate them yet, and this was a good incentive and/or opportunity to do so.

After banging my head against a few walls (both real and virtual) for eight weeks, and the extreme patience of an editor, I think it may manage to at least form the beginnings of what I’ve had rolling around in my brains.

Writing it was hard. Period. It always has been, at least to do it well. This is true when I’ve written fiction or poetry (in mostly a previous life) but I found it especially hard writing a long-form essay for print. I’ve been so used to writing PowerPoint presentations and blog posts, I was quite out of practice with developing my ideas with any rigor. And I’m still not sure how effectively I’ve articulated this stuff, but so it goes. One of my favorite quotations ever is E.M. Forster’s “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say” or some version of that. It’s so very true — the act of putting it into parsable language inevitably changes any idea for good or ill, but hopefully makes it better.

Especially, though, writing about things that don’t really have a solid, agreed-upon vocabulary just yet is quite difficult. I used to curse the philosophy texts I read as a student because they were so full of neologisms — especially from those pesky Germans like Heidegger — but I sort of understand that they were trying to express ideas that hadn’t been expressed yet, and needed rubrics by which to signify them without re-explaining each time.

The piece is called “We Live Here: Games, Third Places, and the Information Architecture of the Future.” Egad, now that I see it here it sounds awfully pompous.

When it’s published I’ll post a link or excerpt or something.

Mao Mao Mao

There’s been a lot of buzz over the last week or so about Jaron Lanier’s “DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”
[http://edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html] in which he warns of a sort of irrational exuberance about “collective intelligence.”

I found myself taking mental notes as I read it, ticking off what I agreed and disagreed with and why. But then I read Douglas Rushkoff’s response:

And I realized he’d already expressed everything in my tick-list, and then some, and better than I would’ve.

Lanier’s essay and all the responses to it at Edge are excellent reading for anyone who thinks deeply about what the Internet means to the social fabric, culture, learning and history.

Just a couple of personal reactions:

I found myself feeling a little mollified reading Lanier’s essay. I already knew what it was about and was ready to find mostly disagreement with his points, but ended up realizing I had been guilty of some of the foolishness he calls us on and agreeing with most of what he says.

But then I thought about what I’ve actually believed on the subject and realized, I don’t think I’ve ever thought or said the collective is superior to the individual. Only that “architectures of participation” allow even more individuals to participate in the marketplace of ideas in ways that they simply couldn’t have before. Lanier runs the risk of equating “collective intelligence” with “collectivism” — which is a bit like equating free-market capitalism with Social Darwinism (itself a misnomer).

His main bugbear is Wikipedia. I agree there’s too much hype and not enough understanding of the realities of Wikipedia’s actual creation, use and relevance. But I think that’ll sort itself out over time. It’s still very new. Wikipedia doesn’t replace (and never will) truly authoritative peer-reviewed-by-experts information sources. Even if people are currently referencing it like it’s the highest authority, over time we’ll all start learning to be more authority-literate and realize what’s ok to reference at Wikipedia and what isn’t (just like War of the Worlds tricked thousands in the earlier days of radio — but you really can’t imagine that happening now, could you?)

One thing Lanier doesn’t seem to realize, though, is that Wikipedia isn’t faceless. Underneath its somewhat anonymous exterior is an underculture of named content creators who discuss, argue, compromise and whatever else in order to make the content that ends up on the site. Within that community, people *do* have recognizable personalities. In the constrained medium of textual threaded forums, some of them manage to be leaders who gain consensus and marshall qualitative improvement. They’re far from anonymous, and the “hive” they’re a part of is much closer to a meritocracy than Lanier seems to think.

Not that Wikipedia’s perfect, and not that it meets the qualifications of conventional “authoritative” information sources. But we’re all figuring out what the new qualifications are for this kind of knowledge-share.

At any rate, his essay is very good and has important stuff we have to consider.

WSJ had a front page (!!!) story on Friday called “To Find a Mate,
Raid a Dungeon Or Speak Like an Elf” that tells of people who have met their significant others in MMOGs. Luckily, it’s not written as a puff piece or a “hey, look at these weirdos” piece but seriously considers the fact that people really can get to know one another pretty well in a MMOG setting. Not that it’s as satisfying or fulfilling as real life, but that it can allow for much more insight into another’s character than their profile on eHarmony.

I think a major factor is that these games (for the most part) aren’t about dating (or job hunting or any other RL relationship/pairing endeavor, for that matter) but some other goal. On a dating site — or a date — both parties are generally on their very best behavior, but you don’t get to see what they’re like in a stressful or non-romantic goal-oriented situation. But in a goal-driven MMOG you do.

One interesting statistic I hadn’t yet seen: “Yankee Group, a Boston technology-research firm, estimates that MMOGs, which can be played simultaneously by thousands of people using the Internet, are played by 25 million to 30 million people world-wide.”

Unfortunately, the article likely won’t be readable without a subscription for more than a few days, but here’s a chunk:


David Knife, 32, fell in love with his wife, Tracy, 30, while playing Anarchy Online, a science-fiction game. Mr. Knife says he was impressed by her leadership skills. Ms. Knife, who in the game led a guild of about 50 players, “was very motherly to many of the players,” he says. “It’s the way she controls everyone by still being very nice.”

He also liked her use of emoticons, the symbols in text messages that denote kisses or hugs, among other things. “She was very forward in the game, especially with me,” he says.

In August 2004, about six months after they met in the game, her character proposed to Mr. Knife’s. That prompted Mr. Knife to inquire about a possible relationship outside the game, even though he is an Australian, who was living in Melbourne, Australia, and she lived in Red Lion, Pa., where she was raising a daughter after a divorce.

They started talking regularly using an online voice-chat service and said “I love you” before they met in person. “We have very similar personalities,” says Ms. Knife. “We’re both kind of computer geeks.” In February last year, Mr. Knife flew to Pennsylvania for a two-week vacation and proposed on Valentine’s Day.

“I have to remember two wedding days and two engagement days,” says Mr. Knife. The couple were married in January and live in Red Lion.

Ava Lowrey is a 15 year old girl in Alabama, which is not exactly a bastion of tolerance and independent thinking, so her website, “Peace Takes Courage,” is all the more remarkable for it.

Whether or not her expression of faith or politics is fully informed or “mature” is beside the point. She’s crafted what amounts to powerful commentary — a sort of quiet polemic — about the insanity of our current political leadership.

Her work illustrates the power of the Internet, as well. That she could express what she does and have it immediately available to the globe.

Evidently, this young lady has received death threats and expressions of vitriolic hate from people who call themselves “Christian.”

These bits of media are, indeed, hard to watch. But truth often is, no?


The Science Of Desire

The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than does traditional research. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer’s mind. But closely observing people where they live and work, say executives, allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires. “It used be that design features were tacked on to the end of a marketing strategy,” says Timothy deWaal Malefyt, an anthropologist who runs “cultural discovery” at ad firm BBDO Worldwide. “Now what differentiates products has to be baked in from the beginning. This makes anthropology far more valuable.”