An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

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Want Your Kids to Read and Exercise? Talk to the Hand.

Two of the most common complaints about American kids is that they’re too fat and they don’t read enough.

Well, I think we’ve come up with a simple solution that can solve both problems:

We just need to get more technological devices into their hands.

A pair of entrepreurs were tasked with getting a team of kids more fired-up about baseball practice. So what did they do? They went to work building a virtual world for their players.

What they came up with, FunGoPlay, combines an online sports game world with physical sporting equipment that registers physical play and rewards it with special access codes. The “online sports theme park” will launch this Spring.

And how do we target kids who are more interested in staring a screen than curling up with a good book?

We buy them Kindles.

Ever since the holidays, publishers have noticed that some unusual titles have spiked in e-book sales. The “Chronicles of Narnia” series. “Hush, Hush.” The “Dork Diaries” series.

At HarperCollins, for example, e-books made up 25 percent of all young-adult sales in January, up from about 6 percent a year before — a boom in sales that quickly got the attention of publishers there.

“Adult fiction is hot, hot, hot, in e-books,” said Susan Katz, the president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. “And now it seems that teen fiction is getting to be hot, hot, hot.”

Comedian Sam Kinison had a famous, envelope-pushing joke in which he advised people in starvation-riddled areas to “move to where the food is.”

It might seem a little depressing that we need to use videogames and digital screens to coax our kids into the behaviors that were so core to our own childhood experiences. But the trend towards a more technologically connected society is not going to reverse itself anytime soon. These hand-held screens are where our kids live now. If we want to promote behaviors like reading and sports, maybe we need to move to where the kids are.

Warville: When Facebook Brings Home to the Battlefield

Today’s soldiers face more deployments, more stress, and more suicides than at any time in the recent past. But at least they have modern technologies like Facebook and Skype to help them maintain a connection with their world back home. And that’s got to be a good thing.

Right?

Maybe not. The benefits of adding social media to the battle zone is turning out to be anything but clear cut. First, soldiers are always challenged by the period of reintegration (think of the scene in Hurt Locker where Jeremy Renner’s character stands overwhelmed in the cereal aisle of a supermarket). The internet can make that reintegration a daily process.

And sometimes, what soldiers see back home is a cause of added stress.

And on top of this unremitting combat anxiety, our soldiers have to cope with unremitting domestic anxiety of a sort that previous generations never knew, because these soldiers are Skype-ing with their families several times a week, even from the mountains of Afghanistan. At first, the Army believed this constant contact might help mitigate loneliness. Now, [General Peter] Chiarelli frankly acknowledges, he’s not so sure, “because technology just drags you back home, where your 22-year-old wife is having trouble finding a job and has a couple of kids she’s taking care of on her own.” Many soldiers are also addicted to Facebook, whose tagging function is proving a mixed blessing. “Soldiers are seeing pictures of their loved ones in bars, pictures of their loved ones in outrageous behaviors with sexual overtones,” says Colonel Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist in the Army Reserve who’s been deployed four times. “Everything they’re hanging on to is demolished. What’s sustaining them is torn away.”

I don’t pretend to have the slightest clue about the level of fear and stress that these soldiers experience. And I imagine I’d want as much contact with home as I could get. But even for us civilians, it’s certainly worth noting that what seems obvious about social media is actually not at all obvious.

The technology is simply advancing faster than our ability to understand its ramifications. Figuring out how to most effectively use social media for the greatest positive impact is an urgent challenge for the military. It should also be a key goal for the rest of us back home.

Confession #95: I Can’t Turn Off The News

The other night I was sitting in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater listening to renown physicist Brian Greene lecture about string theory, the possibility of multiple universes, and the exciting search for one unified, invisible force that connects us all — from the farthest galaxy to the smallest speck of matter. Greene was riveting and the sold-out crowd sat forward on the edge of their seats. I was both interested and impressed, but I sat back.

I was thinking about Egypt. And I couldn’t turn it off.

The story is on the opposite side of the world. I can’t smell the tear gas. I can’t hear the sound of Molotov Cocktails expoding in Tahrir Square. I don’t know a single person with any direct involvement with what’s going on in Cairo.

But the story is on my television, in my Twitter stream, on my Facebook page, spilling out of my iPhone, everywhere. My screens are a mass of particles with a gravitational force that’s pulling in minute by minute updates on a story from across the world to the front of my mind.

I’ve often been obsessed with big news stories. When I was a kid, I’d listen to my parents discuss stories from the New York Times as they glanced at the Sunday morning talk shows in the background.

But these days I’m always distracted by some news story. Today it’s Egypt, but usually it’s a comparatively tiny story about problems with the iPhone’s antenna, Vuvuzelas, Mel Gibson’s phone etiquette, or the quality of Kenneth Cole’s tweets. I have a deep knowledge about the current weather conditions in places where I don’t live. On the realtime social internet, there’s always a story and it never turns off. My personal focus depends almost entirely on what fixates the other people in the expanding universe of my online network.

A few months ago, I planned a surprise one-night getaway with my wife. About an hour before I was set to pick her up, several people I follow on Twitter started sharing early news of a potentially massive earthquake on another continent. My first thought was that I hoped there wasn’t a devastating loss of life. But almost immediately, I also thought, “Oh no, this is going to ruin my night.”

The earthquake wasn’t as serious as first feared, but if it had been, I would not have been able to turn the story off. I can no longer compartmentalize the news until the next day’s newspaper lands on my doorstep. The news is mixed in with the rest of my online life and the separation between my online and offline lives is blurred.

A few years ago, I would never have heard about that earthquake. I live in San Francisco. The deliverers of my morning news would have known that a little jiggle on the opposite side of the planet doesn’t belong on my front page.

But today, we’ve got no such editors. We’re all messengers. Every few seconds, we all have hundreds if not thousands of virtual paperboys throwing the latest version of the news into our consciousness. It’s getting more difficult to know where a global news story stops and my actual life begins.

Again, Egypt is certainly worth my attention. It makes sense that this story made its way into Herbst Theater where most of the minds in the room were trying to happily wander off to a distant universe. This week, maybe there should be an invisible ethernet cable that plugs Tahrir Square to my frontal lobe.

But soon this story will be off my screens and those who provide my constant stream of links, updates and opinions will have moved on to more mundane topics.

And I still won’t be able to turn it off.

Is There Room For Compassion in the Age of Linking?

Several years ago, Chris Purtz was an honor student and football player at U.C. Berkeley. One night, he went out with some buddies, things got rowdy, and he was eventually kicked out of a strip club.

Longtime San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein retraces the story as he wonders whether any of it should have been published at all.

Chris, a former U.C. honor student and football star, who was accused of behaving very badly at a San Francisco strip club. No charges were filed, nor police report made…

But the Daily Cal interviewed club employees and a surveillance camera showed some scuffling. The incident got him suspended from the Bears football team.

Chris’ mom met with the Daily Cal staff back then to dissuade them from running a piece about the incident. Her son had a brain disorder, she said, and the press would make things much worse, according to documents in a subsequent suit. The story ran anyway.

Chris Purtz was suspended from the Cal football team. His life spiraled. By last June, he was dead.

At the time of his death, obituaries written about Purtz linked back to the original story about that night in the strip club. Purtz’ parents begged the current editor of the Daily Cal to take the story down. At one point, they even brought a lawsuit against the paper. Their requests were denied, the lawsuit was rejected.

Even an extremely experienced editor like Bronstein wonders if the idea of the freedom of the press should trump compassion in every case.

I should be a hawk on the rules; I’ve lobbied hard in Washington for press rights, and am no stranger to suits against the press. But I’m also a human being who’s learned that compassion is likewise a bulwark against a punishing and repressive society.

“Journalism ethics aren’t black and white,” says Tom Rosenstiel of Washington’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “We’ve removed stories because they were hurtful and no longer relevant. In the Purtz case, which Rosenstiel didn’t know, “different people could come to different conclusions. At least if you take it down there should be a placeholder explaining why.” Ethics in journalism, by nature, are “situational,” he says, because every story is different.

“Compassion is the hardest part of an editor’s job description.”

The question of compassion is all the more relevant in the age of linking. If these events had taken place twenty years ago, there’s a decent chance that Chris Purtz’s obituary would’ve made no mention of the night he got into some trouble. And even if it had, it certainly would not have provided a link to the full story for details.

Anyone can sympathize with the plight of Chris Purtz’ parents. No one wants their child’s legacy to be defined by one article with a high page rank. But the struggle we all face when it comes to defining our own stories is hardly limited to obituaries. As I suggested in an earlier post — I’ve Seen Your Future and It’s Been Edited — it can take a lot of work to make sure the good stuff about you shows up in Google above the bad stuff. There is a whole new ecosystem of companies such as Reputation Defender that promise to help customers achieve that goal.

But sometimes the efforts to bury the negative items on the web don’t work. Or sometimes the timing of those efforts is a little bit off. And as Chris Purtz parents know all to well, the negative stories on the web don’t die, even when their subjects do.

So as Phil Bronstein suggests, we’re looking for a level of compassion that can advance as fast as the technologies we use to distribute the news. When I read comments, tweets and blog posts, it sure seems like our levels of compassion are moving at the right pace, but in the wrong direction.

Read Phil’s complete article here.

The Straw Man Revolution

Megaphones don’t cause revolutions. But they sure make your voice a lot louder.

I just don’t get the seemingly never-ending debate about the role of social media when it comes to revolutionary protests. Here’s the lastest salvo from Wired.

Don’t call it a Twitter Revolution just yet. Sure, protesters in the Middle East are using the short-messaging service — and other social media tools — to organize … But don’t confuse tools with root causes, or means with ends. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are against dictators who’ve held power — and clamped down on their people — for decades. That’s the fuel for the engine of dissent. The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn’t do it for the tweets.

Ok, everyone got that?

Twitter is not the root cause of these uprisings. Twitter was not repressed. Twitter did not get inspired by events in other countries. And when risks are taken, Twitter does not get beaten over the head with batons or blasted in the face with toxic gases.

All those parts are handled by people.

Twitter can help organize. Facebook can help get the word out. Telephones can help. And sometimes, one assumes, yelling across a courtyard plays a role.

How helpful is social media? I don’t think we know the answer to that yet, but it’s worth noting that repressive regimes are pretty anxious to shut off access to it when movements get rolling.

First Malcolm Gladwell framed this debate in a regrettable way – which I touched on in an earlier post called The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted (Unless It Is) – and now there is this often attacked straw man argument that social media is leading revolutions.

No one thinks that’s the case. Twitter doesn’t wear a beret. Facebook doesn’t have a goatee and a cache of arms. And the internet did not write this post.

But it made it a lot easier for me to get it to you.

Confession #94: Now Selling on the Web: You

ABC. Always Be Closing.

That’s the advice that Alec Baldwin’s character gives to a roomful of ragged salesmen in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

Always Be Closing. The same message could easily apply to almost everyone who shares on the web. We’re all trying to close. We want to close our potential employers, our readers, our buyers, our friends, and sometimes, even ourselves.

Maybe you’re sending around a resume on LinkedIn, describing yourself on a dating site, or (ahem) posting a link back to your blog post on Twitter. But these are just the concrete examples. You might be selling an opinion, or a joke, a political ideology, a favorite television show or even a photo of your kids at the top of a ski slope.

When I post a photo of my two year-old daughter on Facebook, I expect likes. I expect comments about how cute she is. And if I don’t get them, I consider the sales-effort to be a failure. Maybe it’s my camera skills. Maybe the timing of my posts is off. Or maybe it’s my two year-old. Sure, everyone in my family likes to think she’s the cutest little button in the whole wide world. But the numbers don’t lie. Come on little girl, either you smile bigger or Daddy’s gonna have to break out the Photoshop.

I need you to know how full my inbox is, how great my marriage is, and what an awesome workout I had this morning.

Friend Me. Follow me. RT me. Like me. @ Me. Poke me. Forward me. Buy. Buy. Buy.

We used to be more subtle in our acts of self-promotion. During a conversation, maybe we’d drop an aside about a recent achievement or put a sticker on our bumpers proclaiming our kid’s status as an honor student.

In part, this subtlety was a reaction to difficulty of the task. It’s not so easy to sell yourself in person. It takes guts to make a pitch and have to watch the realtime response of the person sitting across the table. It’s a lot harder to ask someone out on a date when they’re a few inches away than it is to drop them a text.

It’s also a lot easier to be on the receiving end of a web pitch rather than facing a seller in the terrestrial world where there is no ignore button.

In Glengarry Glen Ross, Baldwin’s character explains what it takes to really sell: Brass Balls.

On the web, no such anatomic abnormalities are required. Self-promotion is as easy as clicking the publish button.

The social web changes the entire selling equation. There’s no more emotional friction associated with a sales job. The age of subtlety is dead. So we all push the product nonstop and the product is us. I know plenty of former Luddites who have been forced onto Twitter and Facebook by their employers or PR people. And they’re all here now, for one reason and one reason only. This is where you sell. Sure, they start by doing the minimum. A tweet about their company. A facebook post about an upcoming appearance. Then they see how easy it is and they get sucked in. And like the rest of us, they start selling everything.

Read my book. Buy my art. Check out my profile. Like my blog. Share my tweet. This is an article you might like. Here’s a nice picture. Check out my company’s new product. Here’s a creative pun I felt like tweeting.

You buying it?

Wait, don’t answer that. I already know because I’ve checked the stats. I share on the web and then I habitually check to see how well what I shared is performing by counting the number of clicks, likes, retweets and comments I get. You want reads? You know how many people are clicking. You want to move products? You have instant access to your sales numbers. You want attendees? Look at your RSVPs on Evite. You want laughs. Just check how many retweets and LOLs you get.

Like millions of others, I have become an expert at analyzing these statistics. I know how well I’m selling. And I know who’s selling better.

I’ve often been surprised by the personal medical details that some people are willing to share on the web. I’d never do that. Is it because I think the data is too personal or is it because I’m just worried that my disease will get fewer retweets than the next guy?

Ever pause before sharing a picture of your kid to ask yourself, “I wonder if this particular shot really does much to build our family brand?”

Critics of the social web complain that they don’t want to hear about what you had for breakfast.

It’s not about what you had for breakfast. It’s about how well what you had for breakfast is selling.

And your hotcakes might be selling like hotcakes. But maybe that’s the problem. We’re all selling so many things, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the buyers to figure out the best products you have to offer. There is no separation of the really good stuff from the rest of the items on the sales rack. Does the French Toast you had for breakfast really deserve a position on the same shelf as your writing, your career or your kids? As a buyer, I can’t answer that question. Everything about you is priced to move.

As we all become increasingly overwhelmed by the constant deluge of our always-on marketplace, it might make sense to pick and choose what we want to sell. Maybe that’s the new advice that should be given to social media’s ragged group of salespeople:

Sometimes be closing.

Confession #93: I’m Only Socially Isolated When We’re Together

The latest Pew Internet study indicates that Internet users are more likely to be socially engaged and active partipants in groups than non-Internet users. The folks over at ReadWriteWeb provided a reaction to the survey that’s representative of much of what I’ve seen on the web.

That old stereotype that Internet users are isolated and anti-social is getting harder and harder to justify … Internet users are actually more active in voluntary groups and organizations than non-Internet users.

This data is hardly groundbreaking. More than a year ago, news sites were reporting on another Pew report that indicated that people who use social networks are more likely to be social in real life too.

Fears that the Internet and other personal technologies are making Americans socially isolated are unfounded…

People who use the Internet … and social networks benefit from being more likely to have a larger, more diverse core of close confidants.

While many tech journalists like to set up a strawman argument suggesting an old stereotype about Internet users being anti-social and isolated, I’ve never actually heard anyone try to make that case.

First, just about everyone you might compare yourself to is an Internet user at this point. The biggest Luddites I know are following me on Twitter and suggesting books that I should download to my Kindle. When is the last time you were at a social event and heard someone say, “The Internet, eh? Never use it. Tell me more.”

Second, it makes perfect sense that people who tend to engage with other people online would have carried that trait over from their offline lives. Social networks are not a great place to be alone. Why would they attract users who tend to be socially or civically isolated?

We’re focused on the wrong question. We should be less worried whether Internet users are socially engaged in the real world and more worried about the quality of those social interactions.

The Internet is an ideal way to connect with others, organize groups and plan terrestrial gatherings. The problem is that when we get together, we bring the Internet with us.

Next time you’re sitting in a theater before a movie starts, see how long it takes before everyone is staring at their phones. When I go to a cafe, I see tables of people who have their heads down, eyeballs locked on a device or laptop screen. I can’t remember the last time I went out to a restaurant and didn’t see at least one or two phones out per table. Parents and kids sit in the same family room, each tapping away in their own worlds.

Internet users’ biggest social challenge is that we’re Internet users. We came. We saw. We checked-in. We Tweeted. We Facebooked. We Podcasted. We Instagrammed. We left. And we went home and got online.

The web is great at closing the geographic gap between people in different regions. But it’s also great at separating people who are standing right next to each other.

And I’m not pointing fingers here. I can last through about four seconds of silence before I check my email and Twitter. I open my phone apps everywhere: in cars, in lines, when I’m with my son waiting for his school bus, at dinner parties, while watching TV with my family, and yes, while I am socially engaged with a civic-minded group. At times when it’s just too inappropriate to get online, I long for that glorious moment when a person in my proximity asks, “Hey, can someone look that up?”

When I hear those words, I pull my phone out of its holster with the pace of a gunfighter whose life is on the line. I’m the Cupertino Kid.

And then I’m there, at my civic-minded social event. But I’m also gone.

When the Boombox Ruled the Streets

Over at Gizmodo, Lyle Owerko has a nice overview of the history of the boombox. Today, most of us listen to music in the privacy of our own heads. In the heyday of the Boombox, listening was a much more social experience.

Today, when you think that the iPhone is the best thing to happen to music and communication ever, remember that twenty-five years ago playing your music was a public phenomenon. We blasted our favorite jams and drowned out the competition, or went to a party and rocked it with a few tapes, a big radio, and maybe even decks plugged into it. That was how we injected the public sphere with music and soul, back in the day.

Times have changed. Now, the public sphere with the loudest volume is made up of websites like Twitter and Facebook. The music has gone almost completey private.

There is some evidence that the mass migration to headphones is doing some serious damage to our ears. But as the music turns inward, we’re losing something in terms of our social interactions as well.

For a more complete take on the rise of portable music players (and how we’re now actually using our musical devices to reconnect), see Walkman to Facebook: How Tuning Out Led to Tuning In.

Internet by the Numbers: It’s Getting Crowded in Here

To me, the most memorable internet stat of 2010 came at the end of the year when we learned that Facebook users had uploaded a whopping 750 million photos over New Year’s weekend. That stat is impressive, but it’s certainly not alone when it comes to big numbers and the web.

The folks over at Pingdom put together an extensive list of some of the internet’s key stats in 2010. Here are a few standouts.

  • Email, Not Dead: 107 trillion emails were sent (an avg of 294 billion a day).
  • Neither is Spam: 89% of that email was spam.
  • Domain Names: Wonder why it’s so hard to find a decent domain name? Over 202 million are already taken.
  • Why am I Posting in English? There are 1.97 billion internet users in the world. That’s 14% more than last year. Asia has 825 million, Europe has 475 million, North America has 266 million.
  • Ex-Post Factoids: There are 152 million blogs (which makes me feel a little less embarrassed to have started about 12 myself). There were 25 billion tweets sent. Lady Gaga had 7.7 million Twitter followers. Facebook had 600 million members. And 20 milion Facebook apps were installed a day (I’m guessing only about 19.9 million of those are owned by Zynga).
  • IE, Therefore I Am: Yes, Internet Explorer is still the leading web browser worldwide with a 47% marketshare. Chrome has burst on to the scene with 14.9%.
  • Photo Snapshot: 3000 photos a minute are uploaded to Flickr. Three billion photos a month are uploaded to Facebook. And even with all that competition, my kids are still the cutest.

In short, there are a lot of us and we really, really like to share.

There are a lot more numbers in Pingdom’s post.

Confession #92: Do You Wanna Go Faster?

As a kid at my local county fair, I used to ride a roller coaster that rumbled around a circular track as songs like Foreigner’s Urgent blasted through a set of giant speakers. Every few times around the track, the guy running the ride would pause the music long enough to bellow out one loud question:

Do you wanna go faster?

It didn’t really matter how you answered. The ride got faster. I could hear that roller coaster guy’s voice echoing in my head in the minutes following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.

I happened to be online as the story broke. I felt an urgent need for data. I opened about six tabs in my browser and started to hit the refresh button. Most news outlets had a breaking news alert about the shooting, but little else. I searched Twitter to increase the pace of the incoming data. Much of the data was repetitive, but it came in fast.

Within minutes, the tweets shifted from what happened to a deeper analysis of what it means. There were links to Sarah Palin’s website and attacks on what some consider to be the increasing volume of politically-motivated hate speech. Seconds later, those tweets were rebutted by others. The crime scene had barely been roped-off and already, much of the news gathering had been eclipsed by the news analysis.

Do you wanna go faster?

I did. I left my Twitter search window open as I returned to refreshing web pages. Give me something new. I need, I need. Boom. NPR reports that Giffords is dead. That news swept through the Twitterverse and on the Facebook page I now had open. I headed over the New York Times homepage. Nothing new. It still featured a stale blurb about conflicting reports on Giffords’ health. Below to the blurb, I saw the phrase: Updated 4 minutes ago.

I refreshed a few more times and wondered to myself, “What have these people been wasting their time on for the last four minutes? Where is the news?”

Do you wanna go faster?

NPR did. But as it turned out, Giffords was not dead. She was in surgery. The false news of her death spread so quickly that it made it all the way to her family members who sat in the hospital waiting room. They had to confirm with doctors that Giffords was still alive.

The story moved so fast that it passed the reality.

So did the analysis and the thousands of Tweets by those who were certain about the larger context of what the events on the ground meant long before they had even a handful of details.

I thought about tweeting a condolence. I could possibly chime in on the debate regarding hate speech and Sarah Palin’s role in all of this. Or maybe I’d offer a contrarian view about the pace at which each of us seems to achieve a level of certainty on any given topic. I’ve got to tweet something, right? This is what we do. Read, react, repeat. Sure, I had only known who Gabrielle Giffords was for about twenty minutes, but why should having no background on a topic and knowing almost none of the details about an event prevent me from serving up a concrete viewpoint?

It took everything I had not to Tweet.

Do you wanna go faster?

You can bet NPR wishes they hadn’t gone that fast.

Already all of us at NPR News have been reminded of the challenges and professional responsibilities of reporting on fast-breaking news at a time and in an environment where information and misinformation move at light speed.

Even though NPR is not a brand I necessarily associate with fast-breaking news, I can understand any editor feeling an increased demand to get new material up right away.

But what about me? When did I turn into a human breaking-news outlet who has to keep up with the second-by-second details of a story and then add my own updates and analysis to the realtime mix? How can thousands of my fellow human news machines have served up 140 character analyses before law enforcement officials on the ground even had a chance to put together a preliminary outline of what exactly happened?

Are you really sure you wanna go faster?

Just like that old county fair roller coaster, it probably doesn’t matter what you answer. The speed is increasing. The pressure to keep up and immediately chime in will only grow more urgent. The challenge to maintain a reasonable level of factual accuracy will grow more daunting. And actually taking the time to gather and reflect on information before adding an opinion to the discussion will require more restraint.

But maybe I’m too late with this message. The whole story is old news by now.


140+What's Happening?
My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.