Collaborative History

Uptown16From 1973 to 1977, I photographed the people of a neighborhood in Chicago called Uptown. The project was a self-assignment but many of the photos I took there were later published by the Chicago Tribune. Then the images laid in a drawer for almost 40 years.

I recently rediscovered them and posted them on my photo blog, BobRehak.com, not to be confused with this blog at Robert Rehak.com. The response has been overwhelming. BobRehak.com has received 1.5 million hits in the last month. I say that, not to brag, but to introduce the subject of this post, collaborative history.

Many of the people in the images have written to tell me more about their circumstances and growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. I’ve heard from policemen, firemen, teachers, social workers, residents, widows, gang members, writers, historians, shopkeepers and more.

Dozens of people have sent me valuable information that is helping to deepen my understanding of the neighborhood as well as the social and economic forces in play at the time. To put this into perspective, the year I started photographing there, the big news stories were “OPEC Oil Embargo” and “Watergate Tapes.” The embargo quadrupled gasoline prices in a year, threw the country into recession, and caused inflation to skyrocket. The tapes brought down the Nixon presidency within two years.

Lesser stories, including the struggle of working class families to make ends meet among these circumstances, got lost in the fog of time. Now, with the help of the Internet and readers, I am piecing their stories back together again. I hope to have a book ready by the end of the year.

When published, it will be more than a portfolio of my early documentary photographs. It will be a collaborative history of one of Chicago’s most fascinating neighborhoods, made possible through the spread of social media on the Internet. As readers see themselves in photos, they spread the word to their friends who are in other photos. Then they write me with the stories behind the photos.

While the stories I’m discovering do not all have happy endings, they do have important lessons. I learned last week of the fate of a gorgeous young woman. I wrote about her, “If she hadn’t been in Uptown, she could have been in Vogue.” She died young of HIV.

I also photographed a family with three kids. Two of them were in gangs. They always had cigarettes danging from their lips because it made them look tough. According to the widow of one, both moved to Alabama to escape the gang culture in Uptown, but then died from esophageal cancer in their mid-forties.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a Chicago firefighter after I posted a picture of his station house. He informed me that his engine company was the busiest in America during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s. This helped put the slumlord protests that I photographed into perspective.

I’m finding many life lessons in the emails I get. I doubt the inventors of the Internet had collaborative history in mind when they designed the medium. But the social networks that the Internet spawned have created a tool to do just that.

How social media impact stock traders

The Washington Post published a fascinating article last week about the fake Associated Press twitter post by hackers. It provides insights into the incident that triggered a stock market landslide of 1000 points. The article by Dina ElBoghdady and Craig Timberg appeared in the April 24, 2013, issue. According to the Post, a hacker group called the Syrian Electronic Army allegedly hijacked high-profile twitter accounts owned by Western organizations that cover the civil war in Syria. In addition to the AP account, the accounts of NPR and CBS “60 Minutes” have also been hacked.

In the Associated Press case, the hackers posted a false story about explosions at the White House that injured the President. “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured,” read the tweet. The “news” came shortly after the Boston Marathon Bombing. As a result, there was heightened sensitivity; the hoax seemed plausible.

“The episode, while lasting only several minutes, has drawn scrutiny from the FBI and a bevy of regulators while also highlighting the hair-trigger nature of today’s markets, where the demand for greater speed clashes with the occasional reality of misinformation,” say ElBoghdady and Timberg. They continue:

“Automated high-speed trading accounts for about half of daily stock market volume, and while few traders admit to having their algorithms make decisions based on a single tweet, several said the use of social media is growing. This kind of computerized trading tends to exacerbate market fluctuation, especially during sudden drops in prices, critics say.”

However, the article also points out that some dispute whether the stock market plunge involved computerized trading. “It’s not clear whether Tuesday’s market drop was caused by fast-fingered humans or computers seeing the words “explosions” and “White House” in a tweet,” say the authors.

They interviewed people who claim that computerized trading was not the cause of the market drop because of a 23 second delay between the tweet and the plunge. “That’s not compatible with computer trading,” said one. “If it was computer algorithms that were trading, the market would have moved in a fraction of a second.”

Regardless of whether humans or computers acted on the misinformation, the incident underscores how vulnerable we all are to unknown assailants who may be half a world away, sitting in a coffee house somewhere, armed with nothing more than a latte and a laptop.

Steubenville Rape and Social Media: All the Internet’s a Stage

Shakespeare begins Act II, Scene VII of As You Like It with the immortal words, All the world’s a stage.” In this play, he catalogs the seven stages of a man’s life. Among them is the competitive phase of life which Shakespeare calls “the soldier.” At this age, people seek to gain recognition, even though it may be short lived and at the cost of their own lives. As Shakespeare puts it, they are:

Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

These nine words sum up the millions spawned by the Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial of two high school football players. They were found guilty of raping a teenage girl who was reportedly so drunk that she could not consent to sex, although the defense disputed her state of consciousness at the trial.

This is not the first time things got out of control at a party that mixed minors with alcohol. So what made this case so notorious? In my opinion, the case made national headlines because:

  • Teens at the party posted videos and pictures of the event on social media sites [1]
  • Those who witnessed the rape made hundreds of tweets about it, yet did nothing to stop it or report it to authorities [1]
  • Prosecutors used this trail of online evidence to convict the teens [2]
  • An online video showed males joking about the victim callously and remorselessly, exemplifying what some call a “culture of rape” and others call “cultural rot” [3]
  • Two girls reportedly threatened on Twitter to kill the victim and may now be prosecuted separately for their threats [4]
  • These teens claimed that they did not think they were committing crimes
  • Social media, rivals of mainstream media, were at the heart of the affair

It was a Shakespearean tragedy in every sense of the phrase and a perfect media firestorm. The case involved a small town, teenagers, football, rape, alcohol, the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, ruined lives, rival mediums, outrage and more. Even hackers got in on the action when Anonymous posted the video. See Anonymous Leaks Horrifying Video of Steubenville High Schoolers Joking About Raping a Teenager ‘Deader than Trayvon Martin’. (Warning: This is about ten minutes long and emotionally difficult to watch.)

The video above, even though it focuses primarily on one male, clearly shows that several were competing with each other to describe the events of that night in the most degrading terms possible. That the video was later posted online and used as evidence in a felony trial makes Shakespeare’s words seem prophetic.

“Seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth.”

As I’ve been writing these 522 words, the number of search results reported by Google on “Steubenville rape” increased by more than one million (from 219,000,000 to 220,000,000). The Internet truly has become the stage where tragedies like this play out.

_____________________________

[1] http://prinniefied.com/wp/steubenville-high-school-gang-rape-case-firs/

[2] Twitter, YouTube Make Steubenville Case Even More Complicated

[3] Patricia Leavy, PhD: Boys Seeking Celebrity Prom Dates, Steubenville, and How the Media Still Don’t Get it

[4] Two charged with threats in Steubenville rape case – CBS News, Girls Threaten Steubenville Rape Accuser On Facebook, Twitter; 2 Face Charges In Ohio

Communities Now Defined by Interests as Much as Geography

We live in a transitional age. Perhaps for the first time in human history, communities are now defined as much by interests as they are by geography.

Of course, interest groups existed before digital media. Scientists, clergy, physicians, industrialists, government leaders and other elites formed interest groups that transcended local communities. But for the average person, communities were defined by geography, or at least had roots in geography. Cultures, customs, dress, sports, taxes, voting,  language, transportation, markets and more all depended on “where.”

We identified ourselves by city, state and (more recently) country. Survival and civilization depended on binding ourselves together with those physically close to us. Usually, the first questions asked after meeting someone were:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where do you live?
  • Where do you work?

But the advent of the Internet began to change that. Now the first question asked is likely to be: What are you interested in?

The rapid rise of electronic forums, special interest groups, chat-rooms, social networks, dating sites, and more enabled people to reach out to others around the world who shared unique interests – regardless of geography.

Shared interests form a more powerful bond than mere proximity.

BlackManWorldMapI have a reclusive neighbor that I’ve seen twice in twenty years. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure I would recognize him if I met him on the street. However, I correspond daily with people all over the world who share my interests. I have more fun with them than most of my neighbors. I have deeper discussions. I feel for them. I share their pain in the same way that members of a church support each other in times of need.

Rather rapidly, humans are beginning to re-align themselves. Interests can now easily transcend geographic boundaries. We can easily reach out to like minded people on almost any topic, regardless of where they live in the world. The implications for government are profound.

  • Individuals who share narrow or unique interests can quickly find each other, form groups and gain recognition. This could have a splintering effect on political systems.
  • Those dissatisfied with unjust regimes can coordinate large protests and even bring down governments, as we have recently seen in Africa and the Middle East.
  • More people are becoming world citizens with global awareness. Nation states could be replaced by something larger, just as city states were replaced hundreds of years ago by nation states.
  • An electoral process based on geographic representation could become obsolete.

Should we apportion congressional seats on a non-geographic basis to ensure representation for gays, pacifists, and a woman’s right to choose?

This idea seems far-fetched, but 50 years ago, so did the idea of gerrymandering congressional and city council districts to ensure representation for Blacks and Latinos. Thanks to the awareness brought about by mass media, we’re already apportioning representatives according to interests, not just geography, on a limited basis. How much further will this trend go with digital media?

When Smartphones Undermine Essential Business Skills

Adults have been complaining about the decline of arithmetic skills since students began relying on pocket calculators in the 1970s. When personal computers became widely adopted in the 1980s, they complained that keyboards contributed to the loss of handwriting skills. Then in the 1990s, when spell- and grammar-checkers become popular, people complained about the demise of spelling and proofreading skills.

FamilyCell

Smartphones contain all of the tools above plus many others. Since 2000, smartphones have become so ubiquitous, even among young children, that they are affecting the way we conduct business.

The Big Questions

Despite their undeniable benefits, do smartphones sometimes undermine essential business skills? If so, how?

The Dumb Side of Smartphones

I recently asked a group of business owners and academics this question and got an earful. Below is a small sample of their answers.

  • A librarian told me students are so addicted to Internet browsers and search engines that they are not learning how to use libraries. She worries that this blocks them from using knowledge accumulated before the digital age and from using current information that may not be online.
  • A restaurant owner complained that her cooks were having trouble reading orders placed by young waiters and waitresses who had better texting than writing skills.
  • A retailer complained that his clerks were so dependent on the calculators on smartphones that they could not make accurate change unless the cash register told them what to give back.
  • A pharmacist complained that his younger employees could no longer visualize quantities associated with prescriptions because they could no longer do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in their heads.
  • A store manager complained that over-reliance on calculators (which express quantities solely in terms of numbers) blinded young people to other ways of expressing numeric values. He overheard a customer ask one of his employees for a dozen eggs. The employee said, “We don’t have a dozen. We only sell cartons of 6 or 12.”
  • A delivery-service owner told me about an employee who relied on his cell phone’s turn-by-turn navigation. When the phone’s battery went dead, the employee wound up on the wrong side of town even though he had a key map.
  • A physician was late filing urgent pathology reports because her transcriptionist couldn’t access her medical spell-checker during a system changeover.
  • An owner of a service company complained that clients rarely answered phone calls anymore. They replied to questions with texts while they were in meetings. Problem? They rarely read past the first line of an email to get the full gist.
  • Many owners complained about multitasking-induced errors, i.e., that employees were distracted by texts and emails when they should have been attending to business.
  • Many owners worried about the loss of productivity because people were spending too much time on social networks during work hours.
  • An owner of a company that relied on research felt the convenience of search engines caused many people to confuse thorough, valid analysis with quick, easy answers.
  • Another retailer worried that many young cashiers don’t even look at customers anymore. “They simply stare at their screens and push a button that dispenses change.” He worried that the “personal touch” was being replaced with emotionless transactions that left customers cold, inviting them to go somewhere else.

Despite these problems, we need to recognize and applaud the wonderful things that smartphones enable us to do. Imagine how dull life would be if it weren’t for texting while accounting.

How a Mouse Click Can Affect Future Employability

My parents drummed into me the importance of “Buyer beware.” Today’s parents need to teach kids a variation on that phrase, “Browser beware.”

One of my younger employees once told me that he preferred digital media to mass media such as television because he didn’t have to suffer through commercials not targeted to him. However, the technology used to target digital ads can harm people who may not be aware of what’s going on (and he certainly didn’t fall into that group).

In 2011, The Journal of the American Association of Pediatrics published a study called Clinical Report—The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families. The report by Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, Kathleen Clarke-Pearson and the Council on Communications and Media cataloged both the negative and positive influences that social media can have. The report makes a powerful case for media literacy education.

The authors define social media as any Web site that allows social interaction
These include social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter; gaming sites and virtual worlds such as Second Life; video sites such as YouTube; and blogs.

JobInterviewThe authors point out that many social sites gather information on the person using a site and use that information to give advertisers the ability to target “behavioral” ads directly to an individual’s profile. They also discuss how this information can come back to haunt kids later in life:

“When Internet users visit various Web sites, they can leave behind evidence of which sites they have visited. This collective, ongoing record of one’s Web activity is called the “digital footprint.” One of the biggest threats to young people on social media sites is to their digital footprint and future reputations. Preadolescents and adolescents who lack an awareness of privacy issues often post inappropriate messages, pictures, and videos without understanding that “what goes online stays online.” As a result, future jobs and college acceptance may be put into jeopardy by inexperienced and rash clicks of the mouse.”

Browser beware!

Generational Preferences Affecting News Consumption

The decline of printed newspapers during the last decade has been well chronicled. An earlier post called The Future of Digital Media referred readers to a slide deck compiled by Business Intelligence. BI indicates that print-newspaper advertising revenue has declined more than 60 percent in the last decade as people got more and more of their news over the Internet and from mobile devices.

A 2012 survey by the Pew Foundation called Trends in News Consumption confirms this trend. It also indicates that television news may be vulnerable now, too. The reason: a growing tendency among young people to consume news online.

Pew found that “Perhaps the most dramatic change in the news environment has been the rise of social networking sites. The percentage of Americans saying they saw news or news headlines on a social networking site yesterday has doubled – from 9% to 19% – since 2010. Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form.”

As younger people move online, they leave television news with an increasingly older audience.

NastyFall

My take: In a personal essay elsewhere on this site, I discuss generational conflicts in media preferences. Changing demographics of the evening network news shows have changed their advertiser base. Long gone are the BMW commercials. Viagra, Cialis and other drug commercials aimed at seniors have replaced them.

Prescription drug advertising has become so prevalent, one wonders whether it is a reflection or a cause of the shows’ aging demographics. Personally speaking, I feel a little self-conscious when – with my family – Cialis commercials come on. It makes me wonder whether the younger people in the room are thinking, “Does he or doesn’t he?”  Hey, when they start advertising adult diapers on the evening news, I’m out of there. You’ll find me getting all my news online, too!

Ramifications of Internet Anonymity

One of the signature characteristics of the Internet is anonymity. The widespread use of screen names and the difficulty of verifying the identities behind them makes the Internet a playground for frauds, cheats, and predators.