Debbie Does Spam

Lately, nearly all my spam comes from a deborah-something email address. I don’t know what is behind the recent onslaught (these things seem to go in cycles: get a watch, refinance your mortgage, shrink this, grow that…) I only know that the great tide of unwanted bits never stops. Spam is on the sordid end of the advertising spectrum.

We live in a sea of advertising: on the sides of city buses, in subway cars, on billboards. Every hour on television is overtly 25% advertising and promotion. On the web, banners blink, text ads run down the side of countless pages, and flash ads are even (temporarily, of course) obstructing site content and navigation. The biggest college football games are now things like the AT&T Cotton, Allstate Sugar, and Fedex Orange bowls. You pay $10 for a movie ticket, and have to sit through ads. This is our life on ads.

Do some ads annoy me less? Of course. Trailers for movies are sometimes (but not often enough) something I want to see. Art magazine ads don’t feel as intrusive to me, because they generally consist of art and the details I need to go see it. But I still consider it a plus that The Believer doesn’t run ads. I wouldn’t buy books that sandwiched ads with the narrative. Relevancy isn’t some holy grail — context is less irriting to me, but it isn’t a plus, and it won’t make me buy.

If your content/service/experience is really worth it, I’ll pay for. It won’t be because you sponsored a concert series or a sports star never appears without your logo. If your ad is online, chances are I’ll never even see it. Brand awareness isn’t a good thing if you’re pissing me off. Nobody really wants to live in the pervasive advertising worlds of Everyone in Silico or Minority Report.

I sometimes wonder if I am the only one who isn’t interested in more targeted advertising. Really, is being a target a good thing? Do you want to be one?

What would happen if the advertising stopped?

The web is the real world

I am increasingly uncomfortable with IRL (in real life) versus online distinctions, so Joshua Porter’s The Non-collision of Relationship and Independent George post really resonated with me.

Two ideas in particular stood out, here’s the first:

I think the dichotomy of a “digital life” being somehow different from our “real life” is becoming more false every day. Not only do people understand how web technologies work, but they’re leveraging them to improve all parts of their lives.

In the past year, my Dad got a laptop (a Mac, because he listened to me) and got online on his own for the first time. A few months later, he’s checking out the neighborhood in Florida where my brother moved using Google Earth. He emailed me when I was at the IA Summit in Vancouver to say he saw pictures of me on flickr. He doesn’t have internet access or even a computer at his job — that he could so easily and quickly pick up the digital technology that his kids more or less take for granted is a big deal. I’m pretty sure he considers it part of his “real life” when he looks at my pictures, emails me to find out which weekend is a good one for him to visit, or asks me if my building is two or three down from the hotel in the satellite photo he’s been looking at.

The second idea:

The main difference in the last 15 years of human living isn’t that somehow being online has created an alternate universe for us. It’s not that the Internet has made us into lynch mobs. The main difference is that instead of our hazy memory of what happened we have a digital record.

I know it works this way for me. I can’t, off the top of my head, list every book I’ve read in the last four years. But I can go to to my book review blog and refresh my memory. The story of how, when my grandmother tried to ship me an old polaroid camera, I wound up with a rifle has an accessible and arguably permanent home living as a blog post.

Digital records also bring professional benefits. When I left my job at JWA, one of the suggestions I had for hiring someone new to was to Google applicants — because the right person for the job would show up there, ideally as a blogger, active forum poster, or some other kind of engaged participant. If you want to run an organization’s website and help chart their online strategy, there should be some evidence you in fact know what you are talking about out there… in the real world.

Of course, having digital — public, nearly universally accessible digital records — isn’t entirely positive. But the downside can, for the most part, be chalked up to people being assclowns. Yup, just like in meatspace (sorry, couldn’t help myself), the web has its share of people being annoying, stupid, or thoughtless. The difference is, without photos on facebook, only the other kids at the party would know how drunk the RA on was. Without indiscreet blog posts, HR might never know of a job applicant’s penchant for badmouthing coworkers.

I think the interesting question is, what will having digital records of our messy, real lives mean in five years? In ten? Will an angry blog post from 2001 be held against a person forever, or be considered in the context it was orginally posted in? Will we learn to treat our digital representations as humanly as we treat each other? (For better or worse?) Will we realize compassion can also take digital form?

If we look back on the current MySpace hysteria, what will we see? Will panic about social networks seem us as ridiculous as the first congressional hearings (in 1952!) on “violence in radio and television and its impact on children and youth” seem now?

First Impressions of Second Life

I decided to check out Second Life because I figured the only way to really answer my questions about it (starting with, what is the appeal?) was to explore on my own.

In a very short time, I’ve come up with a whole other set of unexpected questions:

  • If you are entering a virtual world, why is the first thing you have to choose male or female? I mean, this is a world where flying and teleportation are apparently the most common modes of travel — why are things so different and so not different at the same time?
  • Why are the default choices so human? If you are going to have a second life, why not start it as a robot or marine mammal or space alien or some floating noncorporeal entity?
  • Why, no matter how low you set your shirt or how high you set your pants, do these two items of clothing never meet if you are female? (Tip: if you want to avoid a strip of avatar flesh showing around your middle before you venture to the main grid, create yourself a jacket from scratch, make it long enough to reach the waist of your pants, and close the jacket.)
  • If gender is so important, why don’t avatars wear wedding rings?

The flying is cool, like flying dreams when I was a kid, so I’m willing to forgive a lot. My odd-looking virtual self spent the day sleeping (I’m guessing; the away from keyboard pose looks rather slumpled over) in a church in Venice. My next big plan involves going to the library, and actually talking to another SL person. Maybe.

For great bloggy coverage on Second Life and virtual worlds, see:
Clickable Culture
Terra Nova

And for extra-geeky academics:

Second Life Library 2.0
Social Sim