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Social isn’t dead but virtual communities may leave you wanting.

Social media as we know it now,  appears to be fragmenting at an increasing rate. Why? Data protection and privacy have become discussion points over the last two weeks, but disregarding that let’s think about those boggling numbers again; hundreds of millions of users on various social networks – a billion of us using Facebook; these aren’t communities albeit, the subgroups of friends are virtual communities, but those smaller groups themselves are often too big and too diverse, particularly amongst 18-24 year olds. You cannot have that many friends. Social Capital is a limited commodity.

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A couple of weeks ago Katie Boehret of the Wall Street Journal reviewed NextDoor.com, a clever, useful private social network for you and your neighbours. You can connect with the people you live beside, exchange information on the best local dentist or most reliable babysitter,  improve community awareness, enhance neighbourhood security and stay informed about what’s going on next door. Twelve thousand neighbourhoods are using it; I love the idea. Katie had a couple of niggles – well defined boundaries may be an issue – but she gave it quite a positive review.  It got me thinking, about communities – and online communities. If you used NextDoor.com how many ‘friends’ or neighbours would you have? Probably around 150, perhaps as many 200. I’m not guessing – instead it appears science dictates or at least suggests that’s likely to be the size of your community. It has probably been so since neolithic times, through medieval times, and remains so now And not just in humans, but in all primates.  The evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist Professor Robin Dunbar used the size of the neocortex – the thinking, higher function part of the brain – as a basis for formulating his theory on social group (we’ll say community) size.

The group size you would be comfortable with, called Dunbarr’s Number (a title coined by an unknown admirer, not the Professor himself) is based on a simple social situation; what is the number of people you would be comfortable rekindling a friendship with if you met one night on a stop over in the transit lounge at Hong Kong airport. Professor Dunbar has arrived at the number of 150. The most interesting collection of reading material on virtual communities is the Cyberculture Reader and in it Dr Maria Bakardjiieva’s writes in her essay, VIRTUAL TOGETHERNESS: An everyday-life perspective of ‘immobile socialisation’  or in other words, ‘socialisation of private experience’. She looks at Raymond WIlliam’s work on ‘mobile privatisation’, the word community itself and reminds us that it is seldom used with a negative connotation. It’s a warm phrase – one that conjures up thoughts of relationships that bring emotional reward, support and a like-mindedness. Bakardjiieva talks about what motivates participants in her survey to be members of ‘virtual communities’. Motivations that seem more diverse, and I think personal – than the traditional motivations for those in a real-world community. In real-life there is that unavoidable face-to-face contact, you are motivated by proximity – you really do have to talk to your neighbours whether it’s to borrow a lawn-mower or a flint-axe sharpener.

Social media as we know it now,  appears to be fragmenting at an increasing rate. Why? Data protection and privacy have become issues over the last two weeks, but disregarding that lets just look at the numbers again; hundreds of millions of users on various social networks – a billion of us using Facebook; these aren’t communities albeit, the subgroups of friends are virtual communities, but those smaller groups themselves are often too big and too diverse – particularly amongst 18-24 year olds – you simply cannot sustain relationships with that many friends. Indeed, Robin Dunbar puts it succintly when he says that we only have so much social capital; that defined amount of available capital must be divided between a our circle of 150, or 500 friends. Clicking ‘Accept’ to a friend request is so much easier than meeting and learning about someone – even in the days when IRC, AOL or CompuServe chat tools were popular it required frequent and lengthy interactions before people truly felt they knew each other in any social way. And as for existing groups of friends with new entrants – as soon as you click Accept to the Friend of a Friend you change the dynamic of the group – the (virtual) community and sometimes in a negative or debilitating way; my Friend’s Friend may be my new friend, but he knows nothing of Formula One history from the 1980’s – and isn’t that one of the triggers for passionate debate just before closing time on Friday nights?

“If the new friend can’t contribute online, if they just don’t get it – will it inhibit the rest of the group from exchanging in as vocal, sarcastic or witty way as we normally do? Our actions are altered – conversation takes a different route – the dynamic changed, or even gone.”

I’m not advocating social exclusion but people form groups for diverse reasons. Perhaps we will see the emergence of social  {intersection} networks – communities connecting with communities, rather than individuals? I should clarify, I am not counting Google Plus, LinkedIn or Twitter for instance, as Social Networks. ‘Friend’ themed sites like FaceBook and others can slow the decay of friendships with people who have moved overseas or eloped in a hurry, but these friendships will generally decay. As well our core friends group, there may an extended group of 50 more people we would rekindle friendships with, but we need a spark to ignite the rekindling, and that spark is likely to be face-to-face contact. Professor Kevin Robbins argues in an essay entitled Against Virtual Community that new technologies may contribute, through the erosion of significant external reality to the depletion of the real resources of social life and experience. I love social media and use it every day but I do believe we’ve gone a little awry as electronic connections grow pervasive. Have we allowed ourselves an expectation that virtual communities can replace or perhaps short-circuit, one of the most intriguing elements of our sociological nature, the need to belong? Perhaps we’re not deluded at all, and social admiration, one-upmanship and narcissism are the real motivators for growing our virtual communities. Last week Stephen Smith on BBC’s Newsnight program looked closely at the explosion of photography by digital natives – and there were too many quotes that the reason to take and post photos was to simply to make ‘other people jealous’; one remarkably lucid American girl at a Wanted appearance was the only spoiler when she said, ‘you’re more in the moment’ without the wanton snapping. Distance has always been the enemy of friendship – and despite the immersive enthusiasm of the The Thumb Generation, it remains so. In his book Touch, Gabriel Josipovici remarks on what happens if that distance is eliminated,

‘To abolish the actual journey, with all its attendant dangers and attractions, with all its temptation and seductions, was also to abolish the therapy’.

I for one remain up for the therapy, now and always.

External links & references

  1. Robin Dunbar : Why the internet won’t get you any more friends
  2. Dr Maria Bakadjieva: University of Calgary
  3. The Cyberculture Reader: Kennedy & David Bell  
  4. 18-20 yr olds have an average of 500 friends on Facebook
  5. Roland S Burt: Attachment, Decay and Social Network 

Robotics

We Prefer Robots, That Wag Their Tails

Humans like looking at each other’s faces. If we want to figure out if someone’s happy or sad we get our clues from the face. Robot researchers tell us that robots, are different.

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Humans like looking at each other’s faces. If we want to figure out if someone’s happy or sad we get our clues from the face. Robot researchers tell us that robots, are different.

Canadian student Ashish Singh and professor James E. Young have looked at whether humans can accurately figure out the “feelings” of a robot vacuum cleaner. They took a standard iRobot Roomba, the best known brand of home vacuum robot and gave it a fluffy tail that wags – just like a dog.

We’re pretty sure that iRobot vacuums don’t have feelings but Singh’s research shows that once we see the robots wagging their tails, in a happy family-pet way we understand that they’re working as planned.

The Manitoba University student says that a dog-like tail “seemed to be a nice, clear choice—even people without dogs or cats may be able to read some tail motions, so we decided to formally investigate that.”

Professor Young compared the idea of looking at a screen to find out how the robot’s operating versus seeing a familiar visual signal, like the tail wagging, “With a dog tail that projects a robot’s state, you could be preparing dinner and just see the robot going by from the corner of your eye,” he said. “That would let you quickly know how the robot is doing, whereas a screen would probably require training to understand and sound would be intrusive.”

2013-DogTail-LidRemoved

It turns out, according to the team’s research, that whether we own pets or not, we can all identify whether a robot is happy or not, just by how it wags its tail. Professor Young’s team went on to look at how we would feel about the next generation of robots, humanoids if they had tails. It turns out that we may not want our robots to be that human, after all.

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Technology

Revolution Vinyl USB Turntable

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Retro, or vintage is everywhere. From clothes to food, we can’t get enough of the past. And even technology has seen a retro revival. Original Apple I computers sell for a fortune at auction and retro style games are finding audiences with the children of parents who played the original versions. The turntable is one piece of tech that seen a huge resurgence in interest, and audiophiles whooped with delight earlier this year, as Technics re-released the iconic SL-1200 turntable.

If you don’t have the budget for a fancy high-end turntable though, Elyxr Audio are trying to make the vinyl record resurgence fun, but accessible. Their Revolution Turntable attempts to fuse two worlds by combining an entry level vinyl turntable with USB recording, at an affordable price.

I unpacked the box to discover a small, 1950s style suitcase. Opening the suitcase reveals the Revolution Turntable in all its retro-glory. Packaged in the box was as power lead and an RCA to 3.5mm jack cable which lets you connect the turntable to a hi-fi system or media Player.

Once powered up, the turntable has a few modes to choose from. I unearthed a couple of old vinyl records from the attic and put one on the turntable. The standard speeds remember are 45 and 33rpm for albums and singles, but the turntable will also play 78s, should you have inherited some along the way. Switching speeds is easy as the player has a dedicated speed button, as well as controls for switching modes, a nice old fashioned circular volume control dial and an auto-stop switch. There are four easy to see LED bulbs on the top of the device that let you see easily what mode you’re operating in.

Once I’d set the mode to Turntable mode, there was a short re-assuring crackle from my old Police album and, then Sting and Co burst in to action. The turntable has a useful auto-stop function which stops the player from wearing out in case you get distracted as you’re listening, but you need to return the arm to the rest position once the record’s finished playing.

If you have music that you’re already recorded on a USB memory stick you can insert the key, switch to USB mode and use the player to play back your MP3 music through the turntable’s speakers, with the previous and next buttons on the player navigating through the music on the memory stick.

The record mode utilizes both the vinyl and USB elements of the player. Pressing record mode will start recording on a USB stick that’s been inserted. Once inserted and recording, set the record playing and the music from your vinyl will be recorded, directly as a single track on to the attached USB device. There is also an option to record an album as individual, or split-tracks, tracks, which is more useful when you’re playing back later, on a different device.

The Revolution turntable has two other useful modes. The first is a simple line-in mode, allowing you to connect a 3.5mm audio cable to an audio or MP3 player and that music will be played through the turntable’s speakers. The feature I used the most though, was the line-out functionality. Packaged with this gadget is an RCA cable, which connects to the back of the device and the other end goes to a small headphone jack, which I was able to plug in to my digital home-audio system. Using this set-up, I was able to play vinyl records and enjoy the enhanced audio from my digital set-up, for a deeper sounds, but with the traditional characteristics of vinyl.

This is a well made device with exceptional styling. The sound it produces is not audiophile quality but it’s decent given the entry level price. Overall, it’s a clever way of combining new and old tech, and with the living room lights dimmed it’s the perfect way to relive some old musical memories.
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Technology

3 Gadget Breakthroughs Coming To A Surgery Near You

Tara Purcell

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There’s a lot of doom and gloom associated with the future and of technology’s ability to marshall the human spirit and lead us to a better time to come. But, just when you think it’s all apocalyptic robot cults and people being run over by driverless cars as they walk around with VR headsets on, you get a few reminders of how much tech can be used to help mankind. To redress this balance, we’ve found a few mechanical medical marvels that have come to light in the last while.

Stem Cell Cartilage Is Being Grown In Awesome Goo Labs

Using a 3D scaffold, scientists have begun growing cartilage from stem cells for use in human patients, and have done so with a fairly enchanting beige blob of goo that could one day work as a prosthetic replacement for socket joints, such as the human hip. Moreover, they’ve programmed the artificial joint to “release molecules on demand to keep the arthritis at bay” which is so epic we can barely believe it.

CRISPR Gene Editing To Begin Human Trials

Crispr is a form of gene editing technique that is a so sophisticated, people are already saying it may spell the end of certain cancers and genetic disorders within the next generation of scientific application. Memorably covered in a particularly fascinating edition of Radiolab, CRISPR is now due to start human trials, which is good news for us, bad news for pesky diseases.

Scientists Can Cure Blindness (Partially, and in Mice)

Taking a leaf out of the Fairy Tale School of Science & Biology, scientists took an as yet undefined number of blind mice and managed to restore some part of their eyesight by fixing damaged ganglions and activating the affected regions with chemicals so as to restore their rodent peepers to their full glory. No word as of yet on whether they plan to put eggs back together or heal wounds suffered by cows during unprompted jumps over nearby celestial objects.

 

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