Author Archives: Rob_Henseler

Trusting Online: Finding Common Ground

To me, it seems a huge coincidence that one of this week’s topics is “trust.” As I wrote last week, my wife, Jody, found her grandpa’s missing Purple Heart, which he earned during World War I, on an internet site honoring soldiers who were wounded or killed in action. Jody wanted that medal back in the family, so she asked Mr. Maier, the man who runs the site To Honor Our Fallen, if she could buy it back.

According to Carina Paine Schofield and Adam N. Joinson’s paper “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” “Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable, based on positive expectations about the actions of others.” My wife and I felt pretty vulnerable this week, but on Saturday, when I was in Michigan, I received a tearful call from my wife that she was holding her grandpa’s medal in her hand. It was back in the family.

Purple Heart, Jody’s grandfather

Last Sunday, when Mr. Maier told us he would send the Purple Heart back to us if we covered his investment in the medal and research surrounding it, we were put in a tough position. Mr. Maier did not operate a store, he had no reputation as a seller, and we knew of no recourse if a transaction went badly. Should we trust him? If we did, were we being foolish?

Schofield and Joinson’s article identifies three dimensions of trust including “ability,” “integrity,” and “benevolence.” We weren’t really worried about his ability; shipping a package with delivery confirmation is easy enough.

Mr. Maier’s “benevolence” was a concern that needed some thought, though a week ago I wouldn’t have considered calling it that. According to Schofield and Joinson, benevolent companies and organizations look out for their customers’ best interests and do not exploit them. Jody researched average prices paid for Purple Hearts and found out Mr. Maier was actually asking less than what a lot of other people make in selling these medals. Considering the emotional attachment we had expressed for this family artifact, he could have asked for more money. But he didn’t, and we were starting to trust him because of his benevolence (and the research Jody did–trust doesn’t need to be blind).

Still, we wondered about Mr. Maier’s integrity–whether he would actually follow through and send us the medal after we paid him. In retrospect, it was his “benevolence” that helped us believe in his integrity. Since he wasn’t asking for as much money as other people were asking for these medals, maybe that indicated he would be fair with us and keep his end of the deal. Also, the nature of the website he ran showed benevolence; he was not collecting Purple Hearts as a for-profit venture. He was using them and the information he researched about the recipients to share online as a memorial to veterans. Didn’t we have to trust him?

Yes, actually, we did. If we didn’t trust Mr. Maier, there was no way the medal would be back in the family.

And the reality is that he trusted us, too. He trusted that my wife’s account of how her grandfather was wounded, her memories of the man, and the significance of the medal were sincere. He trusted that we wanted the Purple Heart, not so we could turn a profit with a different buyer, but because it had meaning to us.

So we all trusted. And even though we never met Mr. Maier or talked to him or saw a picture of him, I don’t think we are complete strangers. Through Jody’s emails to him, he was given a glimpse of some of what we value–history, connections to family, and remembering the sacrifices made by our elders. And through the work of his web site and traveling Purple Heart memorial, he shows us that we have a lot in common.

A Digital Veteran’s Tribute

Purple Heart

My apologies if what follows relates to nothing in particular from this week’s assignments. It does, however, relate to all the best that the web can do for us. It is also all I can think of right now because the story has reached its digital climax today. If people are worried about losing meaningful connections to those around them because of an over-reliance on internet technology, here’s a Veteran’s Day story about reconnecting.

My wife’s grandfather, born in 1894, was 23 years old when he joined the United States Army and served in France during WWI. In October of 1918, at the Argonne Forest, his unit came under attack, killing everyone but him. Though he had been shot in the thigh and through the hand, he was able to kill the enemy sniper that had destroyed his unit. After spending two months in a French hospital, he returned to the United States and was discharged from the service in April of 1919. He returned to his home in Bark River, Michigan, and the quiet life of a farmer.

In 1941 he was awarded the Purple Heart, and for many years after that, the medal sat on top of his dresser, underneath the portrait of him in his military uniform.

After his death in 1980, my wife’s grandmother needed to move to a smaller place, and as is typically the case, Items are given away. The Purple Heart went to my wife’s uncle. Years went by, as they always do. My wife’s uncle died, then his wife died, and eventually their son moved out of their house. When the house was being cleaned out, the Purple Heart could not be found.

That was a number of years ago. Every once in a while my wife and her mom talk about her grandpa, their memories, and his service. They share what little information they have, but are always left with the sadness that his military artifacts have probably been sold, with little thought of how costly they were to earn.

Enter a technological Veteran’s Day miracle. This morning, my wife was at the computer, again trying to find more information about her grandfather. For some reason, she searched images this time, found a picture of a Purple Heart, and followed that link to a site honoring wounded and fallen veterans. There was an entry for her grandfather, and the medal pictured beside his information had his name engraved on it.

The owner of the site collects Purple Hearts, researches the individual who is named on the medal, and posts the information and available pictures as a veterans memorial.

Jody, my wife, contacted the man who ran the site, told him the family’s story, and said that she would like to be able to buy back the medal in order to give it to her mom. He normally does not do such things, but he was touched by Jody’s words, and the Purple Heart is coming home.

Here is a connection to family that was lost–most likely sold. Through the internet, that connection can be re-established, at least to some degree. It is truly amazing to think what individuals can do and who they can touch as a result of digital technology. When my wife’s grandfather left the military, he could not read or write. He left his mark, an “x” on his discharge papers. He also left his mark on his family, and to a degree, the democracy we benefit from today. And sites like the one my wife stumbled across today are sharing that mark with the world.

The Human + Machine Culture and The Metaphor of the Ring

As I read Bernadette Longo’s “Human+Machine Culture” in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I couldn’t help thinking of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less of Each Other. It seems an obvious connection to me–both authors address the issue of whether virtual social connections are meaningful enough to satisfy our need for deep, real relationships.

In Longo’s second sentence she writes that as she works at her computer she senses that “other people lurk behind my screen–and I want a relationship with those other people, even if it is mediated by the machine that is a physical manifestation of the virtual relationship.” Near the end of her chapter, Longo writes, “Turning back to my computer, I ask myself why I simultaneously love it and distrust the community it enables. What is it that I desire in this relationship; what is it I fear?”

“Lurk”? “Love it and distrust…”? “Desire”? “Fear”? An odd choice of words I thought. Something was nagging at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed to have another look at Turkle’s book to see if I could figure out what dark cloud was causing this trouble. That’s where I found it.

Part of Turkle’s book talks about always being connected, always having our mobile devices with us, and always checking them. She mentioned cyborg experiments in 1996 where people walked around campus with computers and transmitters in their backpacks, keypads in their pockets, and digital displays clipped to their glasses. One of the test subjects claimed to feel quite powerful, but there were also “feelings of diffusion.”

Diffusion! That’s it! In The Fellowship of the Ring, book one of The Lord of the Rings, before he leaves the Shire for good, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf that he feels stretched out and worn thin. Diffused, perhaps? The Ring (online technology) can leave a person feeling stretched thin and diffused.

Turkle and Longo are both talking about a fear not unlike what happens in The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Dark Lord Sauron and the Nazgul can see young Frodo when he puts on the ring, Google and Yahoo! and company can see Longo when she’s working at her computer. That explains the lurking feeling.

What of the love and distrust and the desire and fear that Longo wrote of? Isn’t that very much the way Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo feel because of the Ring? None can really part with it completely. Gollum is driven mad by his desire to regain his possession of the ring, Bilbo leaves it for Frodo, but only with great prodding from Gandalf, and Frodo can only let the Ring go when Gollum bites his ring finger right off. They all loved the Ring, couldn’t completely trust anyone else because of the Ring, and took care of the Ring as the Ring made them more dependent on its seductive power. Are we too impressed by the seductive power of the internet?

Turkle explains the love and distrust and the desire and fear through the story of Julia, a 16-year-old girl who loves texting her friends, distrusts her own judgments about her emotions, desires comments from her friends, but fears not getting an appropriate response fast enough. During the interview with Turkle, Julia even mistakenly refers to her phone as her friend. Kind of the way Gollum refers to the Ring as his Precious.

Turkle writes, “Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it.” If we forget our real relationships and communities because of our virtual communities, then Longo and all of us have good reason to fear and distrust.

One Net to rule them all, One Net to find them, One Net to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Are You Content with Content Management? or Finding Your Data Doppelganger

Parts of Geoffrey Moore’s paper “A Sea Change in Enterprise IT” reminded me of Erik Qualman’s work in his book Socialnomics. Among many other ideas, Qualman’s book discusses how our internet searches, purchases, and use of social media can be traced, studied, used to predict behavior and react to trends, market to individuals, and increase profits among other things.

Moore writes, “In a world of digitally facilitated communication and collaboration, where almost all data, voice, and video are transmitted via the Internet, every interaction leaves a trace.” After mentioning the possible security and legal problems associated with mining and storing this data, he continues,

“At the same time, however, chief marketing officers are drooling at the opportunities embedded in these trace logs. Behavioral targeting is the new rage in digital advertising, anchored in the ability to infer a user’s preferences from their prior Web behavior, and to thereby present them with offers that are better tuned to their likes.”

I know this data mining is happening, and I know somebody out there has a whole lot more information about me than I care to imagine. What picture of me is shown by the digital traces I leave behind? What can a person tell about me by the pattern of gas pumps I visit and swipe with my credit card? What do all my computer keystrokes add up to? And really, how many people want to know?

EMC Corporation, one of the groups listed at the end of Moore’s paper as an AIIM Task Force member is interested in such information. They are sponsoring a project that is attempting to “humanize” all the collected data that we leave behind.

Rick Smolan is the creator of the project titled The Human Face of Big Data. According to their website, the project is “a globally crowdsourced media project focusing on humanity’s new ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time. Briefly, here’s how it works. Download the app for Android or iOS. Spend about 10 minutes answering questions, and then give permission for the app to keep track of you, follow you with gps technology, and compare you–anonymously–to other participants. I don’t know exactly, since, as an introvert and lover of the movie Enemy of the State, I have an aversion to sharing too much information.

Besides the data collection part of the project, there’s a photo-journalism arm as well. Photographers have traveled the world to capture images of the human face of technology. Later, there will be a free iPad app to share all the information.

As an added incentive Smolan says users will be matched with their “data doppelganger.” Woohoo! Or is it more appropriate to shout “Yahoo!”?

Smolan claims that by collecting and sharing our data with the world, his project can illustrate “an extraordinary three-dimensional snapshot of humanity.”

Really? A snapshot of humans I could see, but a snapshot of humanity? Can data do that? I’d like to think there’s an element of humanity that can’t be measured and stored through an iPhone.

But I may have to try the app just to find out.

Socialnomics as an ebook: Why not?

Erik Qualman’s book Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business should be an interactive ebook. Just imagine how much easier it would be to completely understand his message–not to mention, an excellent illustration of some of the very technology he is so enthusiastic about.

If Socialnomics were an interactive ebook, there would be links to discussion groups on Twitter and Facebook. This would be a great resource for readers as well as the author. He could get immediate feedback from his readers (customers) and harness the power of his own audience. In this way, Qualman could address their concerns quickly and efficiently, making the ebook even better. We could expect frequent updates, so examples more recent than 2008 would be available. In fact, maybe readers would go back to the book with frequency to see if their suggestions made it into the most recent version.

If Socialnomics were an interactive ebook, rather than simply telling us that the word “panoply” would be linked to a dictionary, the word actually would be linked so readers could easily find the definition.

If Socialnomics were an interactive ebook, perhaps it would have a link to certain pop culture references (zombies) or “vintage” television episodes. When Qualman mentions the Happy Days “Shark Jump” episode (if I remember correctly, it was actually a two-part episode) we could relive the scene. Now that would be cool!

How about films of Qualman introducing each chapter to us by giving us his “Key Points” (currently found at the end of each chapter) before we even begin reading the chapter? Wait for the ebook version.

How about Qualman narrating an interactive view of graphs or charts that illustrate the changing trends he’s always referring to. (Use airplane icons in a graph to illustrate the number of people who “land at” the three competing travel apps he refers to.) Need to wait for the ebook for that one.

Oh, Mr. Qualman, why didn’t you take it the extra step?

Well, I know someone who did take his book that extra step. Al Gore’s (2011) ebook Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis does a great job of incorporating internet and digital technology with nonfiction text. Gore’s ebook begins with a compelling view of our rotating Earth from space. If you allow your computer to communicate its location to the ebook, a pin on the globe will indicate where you are.

Al Gore also appears to introduce the ebook, and he narrates the tutorial (or user’s guide) and interactive graphs, animated illustrations, and diagrams).

Photographs are often linked to their location on the globe. Some “unfold” to show more content, while others become video with a simple click. All pictures can become full-screen by “grabbing” and enlarging them.

Because the pages within each chapter appear as thumbnail size beneath the main art for the chapter itself, it’s pretty easy and engaging to simply browse or skim this ebook.

Image from Our Choice

I absolutely love it. While I also love to read books with real pages, ebooks can be very compelling.

If my 10th graders were reading an ebook version of To Kill a Mockingbird–one that went beyond just flashing words across an electronic screen–I bet more would actually get through it.

Cookbooks as ebooks–there’s idea.

Google Trends: It’s Cool to Stay in (Public) School

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We No Longer Search for “All the News that Isn’t”–It Finds Us (And then we copy it)

In his book Socialnomics, Qualman reminds us of the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin skits on Saturday Night Live.

Do you remember how much fun people had watching and talking about these satires? Qualman finds the skits interesting in terms of how popular they were, and where people watched them. According to NBC estimates, 50 million people watched the skits, but according to Solutions Research Group, more than half the viewers saw these over the internet. People had it pushed directly to their social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

I wonder if that’s how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets his news from The Onion. Does he have The Onion “liked” on his Facebook page? Maybe not anymore. The satirical news source, The Onion fooled Ahmadinejad and Iran’s official news agency with a story titled “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama.” The spoof article states that results of a recent poll show that rural white Americans would rather vote for, go to a ball game with, and have a beer with Ahmadinejad than President Obama.

Well, not only has the internet made it really easy to share the news with others, it has made it really easy to steal the news as well. Iran’s official news agency took the article (you remember it was a satire, right?), passed it off as their own journalism, and then published it in Iran.

I suspect heads may roll over this goof-up.

Qualman’s book says that some people think the SNL skits with Tina Fey may have influenced the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Did some people think that was actually Sarah Palin? Did people mistake SNL’s comedy for serious journalism?

Similar questions can be asked of The Onion incident. Does Ahmadinejad really think I’d rather share a home brew with him than with President Obama? Really? The Iranian news agency can’t recognize the satire in The Onion?

Actually, I’m not surprised. Sad, but not surprised. Satire and verbal irony can be tough to catch. (Every time I go through Stephen Crane’s poem “Do Not Weep, Maiden, For War Is Kind” with my sophomores, I have a frightening number of students who insist that Crane’s message was pro-war, despite me and other students pointing out the gruesome battle imagery and lines such as “… a field where a thousand corpses lie.”)

So what if people get fooled by internet content? A lot of people are being fooled by what’s on the internet. It used to be that the reliable news sources “looked” reliable. They hade professional layout, quality graphics, good photography, and they were the only sources that could afford to be published or televised. Now, digital technology and the internet give everyone the ability to self-publish professional-looking content. If our material is packaged right, it might get passed along to others. The problem is that it takes a more sophisticated audience to recognize credible sources today than it did ten years ago. Maybe satirical internet content should have to carry a warning label or start with the standard opening, “A funny thing happened on the way to Tehran the other day…”

Is Social Networking Right for School?

According to Jack Molisani and his article “Social networking for you” “Our job is not to write user manuals and sales brochures. Our job is to get user-optimized content to people when they need it and where they want it. In other words, follow your audience.”

What if my audience ranges in age from 15 to 18 years old? What if my audience is already physically captive in my room? What if my audience is my Literature of the Land class or my American Studies class? What if I’m my audience’s teacher? Do I still have to follow them? Yes I do.

And that’s a tough task because they come from so many different backgrounds and are going in so many different directions with so many different talents, concerns, questions, and challenges that it’s hard to follow them all.

Ah, but perhaps social networking will actually make it easier—or at least more successful since that’s what so many of them are familiar with anyway.

Sure, Molisani is talking about social networking to advance a career or business, but many of the arguments he uses make sense in education too.

The ease of finding information. Right. So why would students want to listen to a teacher lecture about the difference between alliteration, assonance, and consonance when they’d be able to google the terms and find definitions and examples in about 45 seconds if they ever found a need to? Since students don’t need help finding such information anymore, teachers need to find ways to push students to put the information and technology tools they have to good use.

Ask a friend. Molisani suggests that web sites should allow people to interact since they may have valuable information to share and will find a way to talk about a product anyway. The most engaging classrooms encourage student interaction and input. Wouldn’t it be nice if students could interact in an extension of that classroom (the web) after the bell rings. Teachers might as well help provide the structure for that.

Molisani says, “You are the master of your career.” Students could become the masters (or at least very active advocates) of their education too. Rather than wondering where the teacher’s plan is going, the internet offers students the opportunity to have some say in the direction a lesson takes. If the curriculum states that everyone has to learn how to write persuasively, why do all students have to show that the same way and to the same audience. The answer is they don’t, and social networking on the internet gives students the opportunity to reach an audience that may be more meaningful–outside the walls of the school.

Since students are already so good at social networking in the halls and after school, why not harness their natural talents for class-related purposes too?

Blogging: Rising to the Occasion or Being Swept Away

Not long ago, my wife and I were canoeing Mud Creek between the Collins Marsh and the Manitowoc River. We pulled into an eddy below the dam at the south end of the marsh to watch the carp trying to hurl themselves upstream and over the dam. Who can blame them for trying to move out of a dwelling as ingloriously named as “Mud Creek” to the more middle-class neighborhood of Collins Marsh? It’s kind of like the American Dream–upward mobility in a very literal and metaphorical way.

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But they are carp. Just carp. What are the chances they can actually better themselves? What is the likelihood that a bloated carp can ever lift itself out of the only mud it has ever known and wallowed in, to find a new home in a cleaner community? And even if one did succeed, could it ever be accepted as something other than a carp? It’s a tough name to overcome.

Most of the carp we watched smacked right into the concrete wall of the dam and splatted into the muddy water of the creek. A few made it to the top of the dam, floundered around, not knowing what to do with their unexpected progress, only to be swept back down by the relentless current. Not once did we see a carp make it out of the creek and into the marsh.

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Progress, but not for carp.

That’s kind of how I see myself in this situation. What do I know about blogging? Nothing. And the obstacles in my way look pretty tall and solid. Add to that the fact that once I become somewhat familiar with one web tool, I find 28 new web tools. The new technology forces the old items over the dam, dragging me further and further down stream.

Splat. Yup. Back in Mud Creek.