Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pings Plings And Rings

It’s hard to know whether to thank or curse Wayne Chang. When he was 24, the Facebook engineer went home one night to his downtown Palo Alto, California, apartment, fired up his computer, pursed his lips together and recorded the popping sound he made. His colleagues made a few electronic tweaks, and just like that, the first official Facebook notification “ping” was born. The pings, plings and rings of social media have grown up along with Chang. In 2008, he was simply trying to create a human-like sound that was “not too annoying”. These days, notification sounds have become as ubiquitous as the satisfaction they promise, instant cues to our insatiable need for likes, follows and alerts. To watch the ping’s transformation is to watch our evolving love affair with instant satisfaction, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. While technology has made it effortless to bask in good vibes, it also has fueled an unlimited source of digital indulgence that competes with the rest of our life.

Consider Ajay Bhutoria, a Fremont, California, IT strategist who recently promised his wife that he would shut off his phone at night because she is so weary of being awoken by the pings that beckon her husband at all hours.

“It’s just a habit that has built up,” he said of his constant drive to look at Facebook, and check for text and calls even at 2am. “It’s a new way of showing your love and kindness,” he said of Facebook likes. “It gives you mental gratification, like someone patting you on the back, saying ‘job well done.’ ”

Humans are as vulnerable to classic conditioning as the dogs which Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov taught to expect food at the sound of a metronome. Once you start listening to the ping of the email, you can’t stop; you are actually addicted to the ping. People are staring down at their phones while hiking, even hugging. For former Facebook engineer Mark Slee, the explanation is basic: “People have been drawn to communicate for as long as we’ve been on this planet,” he said. “We don’t communicate because these things exist. Rather, these things have all come to exist because of this strong impulse to communicate.”

Indeed, in 2010, when Slee sat down in his San Francisco apartment to create a whole new round of Facebook tones, the iPhone was three years old, and auditory interruptions once seen as rude were becoming commonplace in meetings, at restaurants, on trains. The iPhone was getting more and more popular, mobile notifications were becoming a more common thing, and lots of the sounds for these actions are very iconic. Slee, who left Facebook in 2012 and now produces house music, said he was no sound expert at the time. The tones he created for Facebook were born of some basic concepts, but they were symphonic compared to Chang’s tone in the key of mouth. “To feel positive, a sound should use notes in a major key,” Slee explained. “And it should end in a rising note, rather than a falling note. The timbre of the sound is quite soft, not robotic.” In the end, Slee, who joined Facebook in early 2006, brought about 20 different variations to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, and one was selected. Both Slee’s and Chang’s notification tones are still used for various Facebook applications, a Facebook spokesman said.Facebook would soon produce tones that tapped even deeper into its users auditory catalog of memories. The sounds that Everett Katigbak, now at Pinterest, created for Facebook in 2011 with Jim McKee, an audio engineer who owns Earwax Productions in San Francisco, hark back to the doorbell, telephone, even Mum calling the kids for dinner.

By some estimates, one-third of all marriages between 2005 and 2012 were couples who met through online matchmaking sites. With crowdsourcing sites such as Kickstarter ready to pitch your wildest ideas, the gratification currency is real: a total of US$612 million invested in 110,000 projects so far. A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 44 per cent of us sleep with our phones nearby, and 67 per cent of us check our phones for messages even when it does not beep. It is not only young people or men who have gone from being smitten by technology to having a full-blown affair with it. In the end, it may be a question of quantity over quality when it comes to the happiness people feel when a ping lets them know that a friend is texting or likes a photo they posted. Research by Ohio State’s Fox, a PhD who did her graduate work at Stanford University, shows that if Facebook users “post something and they do not get feedback, they feel terrible about it, and they do for a long time.”

Natasha Schull studies what happens to people when they play slot machines in Vegas, and a recent story in The Atlantic magazine compared her findings to how Facebook can hypnotize its users. Slots players get into a zone where everything else - the kid’s tuition bills, the dirty laundry piling up, the miserable boss - fades into the background, Schull’s work shows. There is only the game in front of them. Some players get annoyed even when they win because it interrupts that state of mind, according to Schull, author of Addiction by Design. We face a challenge in the coming months and years with an increase in notification based communication and learning processes yet (as the research shows us) climbing trends in attention deficits, multi-tasking crises among other personal, organizational and at times psychological issues should force us to pause for concern.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Social Media is 2,000 years Old

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Today it's easy to assume that social media platforms are a recent development, a phenomenon unique to the Internet age. But the exchange of media along social networks of friends and acquaintances is in fact much older than Facebook, Twitter or MySpace. It could be the mantra of the Twitter/Facebook generation, but this instruction was actually written 2,000 years ago. Long before Mark Zuckerberg, there was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Back in about 51 BC, this philosopher was changing the way people shared information. His writings were passed around Rome from one person to another through a team of messengers. And as the above quote shows, like most Twitter users today, Cicero always wanted to know what was going on in the world. During one foray out of Rome to a villa in the country, he wrote in a letter to his friend Atticus back in the city: ‘I shall write to you nearly every day, for I prefer to send letters to no purpose rather than for you to have no messenger to give one to, if there should be anything you think I ought to know.’

Writing for no purpose? Cicero would have loved Facebook…

This exchange is detailed in Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. Written by The Economist’s digital editor, Tom Standage, it puts forward the theory that Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest et al are just the latest incarnations of a tradition which dates back two millennia.Cicero was a figurehead in the first ever social network, according to Standage, who says rich Romans wrote their thoughts down on papyrus rolls and used messengers to deliver them to their counterparts. But just as social media today is tagged and shared and reshared, these letters would be copied and sent to others in the chain. ‘You say my letter has been widely published: well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it,’ said Cicero on one occasion. For messages sent across short distances which required a quick response, words were inscribed on wax tablets in wooden frames, the precursor to the iPad.

The Romans even dabbled in abbreviations – as Standage details in his book, SPD stood for ‘salutem plurimam dicit’, or ‘sends many greetings’. No room for LOL or YOLO then.,‘Social media environments have existed for centuries and don’t require digital technology to operate,’ Standage told Metro. ‘A social media environment requires a certain amount of literacy and the Roman elite were a fairly literate bunch. Today we have computers and broadband, but the Romans had slaves, both scribes who could copy out documents and messengers to deliver them. ‘Members of the Roman elite wrote to each other constantly, recounting the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others and providing commentary and opinion.’ Those in Rome who were less than elite had their own social media wall. In Pompeii, graffiti let them express feelings which wouldn’t seem out of place on a Facebook timeline today – messages such as, ‘The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian,’ and ‘Atimetus got me pregnant’. Writing on the Wall explains how social media runs throughout history. In the Tudor court of Anne Boleyn, for example, the Devonshire Manuscript was a 16th century Facebook, allowing young courtiers to write and respond to each other through poetry and gossip in the pages of one single document which was passed around.

Whether it’s a Roman scroll or tweet, the effect is the same, he says. ‘All these different technologies push the same buttons in our brains. They all satisfy a timeless urge to connect and share with other people. Social media is as popular as it is because it lets us scratch a prehistoric itch.’ Standage believes the internet has let us go back to social media’s historic roots, as the one-way mass media model epitomised by the 19th century printing press has given way to something more democratic and all-inclusive. ‘The internet makes social distribution as quick and easy as broadcast, but opens it to everyone,’ he said. ‘So the rise of social media today is, in many ways, a return to the way things used to be.’ What hasn’t changed is the negative reaction to social media – the coffee houses frequented by England’s writers and scientists in the 17th century were branded dangerous and a waste of time by their detractors, for instance.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

So the present has become the past, but what about the future?

‘I think wearable technologies like Google Glass will, within a decade or so, allow us to overlay our view of the world with a layer of social information,’ said Standage. ‘Imagine going into a crowded room and being able to see who you know, or who you have friends in common with. We’ll see information from social media interwoven with our experience of the real world, a process that has already begun with smartphones. I expect we’ll end up with smart contact lenses and then implants in our head.’

Examining the impact of social media systems that arose in centuries past can help us answer these questions and put today's worries in perspective. At the same time, our modern experience of social media enables us to see the past with new eyes. The deepest lesson is that when you send a tweet or share a link on Facebook, you are continuing a deep and rich tradition of person-to-person sharing that goes back to Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago. Social media does not simply link us to each other today — it also links us to the past.

Constant updates in our brain without having to do anything? Cicero would have loved it.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Social Media to Curb Suicide Rates

Social Media to Curb Suicide Rates
Curb Suicide Rates

Suicide is a leading cause of death worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, in the year 2020 approximately 1.53 million people will die from suicide. Suicide is not a mere individual phenomenon, but it is influenced by social and environmental factors. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 and every year hundreds of thousands of young people engage in self-harm incidents. Many young people display red-flag behaviors in the digital world before these incidents occur. The faceless nature of online communication often emboldens children to reveal details about their state of mind: leaving tell-tale indicators or “bread crumbs” of their well-being. If parents, educators, and mentors are aware of the risk factors and warning signs, connected technology can help them take an active role in promoting healthy behavior and intervening in dangerous situations.

Since the first documented Internet suicide pact in Japan 12 years ago, researchers have been trying to figure out what role the Web plays in suicidal behavior. On one hand, you have people genuinely concerned and taking action when someone makes an alarming or depressed comment on one of the social networks. On the other hand, you have cyber bullying that is creating a higher level of suicides in teenagers than before the Web. There are pro-suicide chat rooms and private Facebook groups and not-so-private Twitter lists. But there also are huge opportunities to use social media to identify people who are at risk. Heart-breaking accounts of cyber bullying and suicide seem all too common, but a new study offers hope that social media can become an early warning system to help prevent such tragedies. University researchers claim that social media can become an early warning system to help prevent tragedies like suicide. In this new study, researchers at Brigham Young University examined several tweets from 50 different states over a three month period. After navigating through millions of tweets their algorithms picked tweets that had direct discussion of suicide and also those tweets that included keywords and phrases linked with known risk factors such as bullying and depression.

"With social media, kids sometimes say things that they aren't saying out loud to an adult or friend in person," Christopher Giraud-Carrier, a BYU computer scientist and one of the study's seven authors, said in a press statement.

After sifting through millions of tweets they found 37,717 genuinely disturbing tweets from 28,088 unique users for whom some location information was available. They found that the ratio of suicidal tweets for each state strongly correlated with the actual suicide rate. Prior to this, researchers found that nearly 15 percent of the tweets contained at least state level location, this can help in involving state health care departments. Next, the researchers plan to develop an app for school students that will incorporate as well as analyze data that students post. The app's algorithm will notify the counselors the moment a student posts something disturbing that is a cry for help.

Social Media to Curb Suicide Rates
Curb Suicide Rates
 Also in South Korea, Social media data such as weblog contents are used to gauge the public mood. Despite the diversity of content at an individual level, the aggregate of millions of social media data is used to get a pragmatic representation of public mood. Also it is used to measure national happiness by tracking the usage of key words among users of social media services. Moreover, it has been shown that online social media data can be used to predict changes in the stock market, influenza infection rates, and box office receipts. Therefore, social media data could be a promising source for investigating the association between suicide and public mood and for the refinement of suicide prediction models.

The digital world provides a natural medium for acting out and/or expressing emotions, and warning signs often reveal themselves online. For example, plans for reckless and dangerous behavior could be posted on Twitter and Facebook, and feelings of hopelessness might be confessed on a blog. In January 2011, a woman in England posted a suicide note on her Facebook wall. She had 1,048 friends, but while her friends discussed the legitimacy of the post—no one came to her aid. She was found dead the next morning. If any of her friends had reported the message to police, it might have saved her life. Parents, educators, and mentors who are connected both offline and online with young people should carefully watch for warning signs. When witnessed, these warning signs should be taken very seriously to help young people get the support they need.

How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket?

How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket
Tangling up of Earphones

I’m sure the “tangling up of earphones” must have made it to your “the most intolerably irritating things in the world” list very easily. We keep our earphones in our bags, pockets, etc. always to find them all tangled up when checked upon later. And this leaves us with the question: Why does this happen? It seems that the problem of tangled wires is so well-established across the globe, that it has even spawned a competitive sport known as Speedcabling. Each game consists of a race against an opponent to swiftly separate cables from a purpose-made bundle, with the first person to liberate all of the tangled cables being declared the winner.

As much as it may surprise you, there is a whole mathematical discipline, which they call “the knot theory” which deals with the issue of the types of knots that get formed in storage. Studies have identified more than a 100 types of knots that happen in your pocket. In over 3400 different trials (Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string, Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith), it was found that the probability of knot formations in earphones kept in the pocket is sky-high and each time a new type of knot is formed. It’s not very probable that you would come across the same type of knot twice.

Why do wires get tangled up?
However much we'd like to believe that some creature leaps into your pockets to tamper with your wires when you're not looking, sadly, we know that's not really the case. It seems that round-bodied cables all suffer from the tangling problem thanks to their aerodynamics and friction control (or lack thereof) making the cords rotate and tangle. In theory, that means that flat cables should be less susceptible to getting knotted up. This was further researched and experimented upon by physicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith who explained the formation of knots when rotated in a box in their paper “Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string” which won them an Ignobel Prize in 2008. They found knot formations in DNA and umbilical cords, intriguing, and this can be related to our earphone dilemma. The same is what happens to the Christmas lights and other wires and cables.

How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket
How Wires Get Tangled in your pocket
Raymer, in his experiment, identified a number of factors that lead to entanglement, the length of the cord being the first. Cords that are 46cm or more in length are more prone to entanglement, so using earphones with shorter wire lengths might help but obviously, that would be funny. Also, cords made up of flexible materials are more entanglement-prone, reason being, lack of friction control. Flat cables could prove to be a solution. Other than this, the rotation rate, i.e., how tumbled the cords are, and the number of rotations, also increase the probability of knot formations. Instead of just dumping the earphones in bags and pockets, it would be helpful if we get a pouch of their own.
It may have occurred to you that the weight of the ear buds plays the villains in the scene. It is, indeed, true as it can be. The three lengthy strands and the weight of the ear buds do make our earphones more entanglement-prone. So no matter what we do, they are just going to end up tangled.

Scientific research
Unsurprisingly, there are only a handful of scientific researchers that have taken the time to test this one out in a lab. An article on outlines research by two physicists where they dropped pieces of string of varying lengths into a box which they then rotated. They found that knots were more likely to form as the length of the string increased (although the likelihood leveled out once it reached 5 feet) and that knots were more likely to form in larger boxes. So, presumably one way to reduce the tangle factor is to buy headphones with shorter cable and carry them around within smaller sections of our bags or, of course, better still, a small pouch of their own. The best defense, according to the scientists, is that we should take a tip from sailors, cowboys and electricians who all keep cord, string or cable tied in a coil so that it can't move. More common sense, really.

The Verdict
If your wires have room to move, then they will. So, the bottom line is to stop them doing that. Tie them up or if you really can't be bothered, keep them in as small as a compartment in your bag as possible. If you want to impress your friends and save a little cash, the under and over method is where it's at. Otherwise you might want to pick up a cable tie. If none of this sounds viable, then it's probably time to invest in some wireless headphones.