Learn to Be Alone

I run into this TEDx talk by Sherry Turkle this morning while flipping through my Flipboard on the iPad for some interesting exciting things to start my Sunday. Then I found a longer Authors@Google talk about her book:  Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

I get interested in this talk because I am doing a pilot project exploring first-year engineering students’ use of social media for seeking social support, and I always have an interest  in the deep psychological issues and solutions for human, emotion, interaction, communication, loneliness and technology.



For some time, I thought technology, if properly used, might be the solution for loneliness, stress etc., because it makes us so much more connected. Now that I realize that we modern people are so vulnerable, fragile, stressed and disappointed to each other that we turn to technology for solution. We fantasize the connections enabled by technology as companionship. Sherry’s opinion is that “If we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely. Having gotten into the habit of constant connection, we risk losing our capacity for the kind of solitude, that refreshes and restores. We need more conversations rather than just connections”. I agree that we have to learn to enjoy the solitude, learn to be strong by ourselves, because vulnerability causes addictions sometimes.

“We are addicted to modern technologies just like we are addicted to food”, though I personally think I am still more addicted to food than technologies, but I cannot get rid of food, and I have to learn the healthy ways to live with it. We cannot give up saying “whatever, just eat”, we have to fight (of course there are deeper psychological issues in this fight), we just don’t give up.

The part of Sherry’s talk on social robotics reminds me one episode (S05E14) of The Big Bang Theory I watched a couple days ago, where the Indian guy Raj fell in love with Siri on iPhone 4S, because he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he is so lonely in this country, and he is not able to talk with women without the assistance of alcohol. The question intriguing is how we can live with modern technologies and everything else in a healthy way? How can we learn to be not addicted to something because we felt vulnerable and socially inept?


Best Readings Recently

(1) Eli Pariser is wrong by Greg Linden 

This is a reply to Eli Pariser’s idea of filter bubble.

I feel this blog post is talking about the future of recommendation and personalization, that is, where recommendation and personalization should lead to. However, Eli Pariser is talking about the existing recommendation and personalization (how it is being done now). There are maybe a couple of recommender systems now are doing the right thing, such as Findory’s news recommendations mentioned in the blog. Yet many of them are doing what Eli Pariser is saying as filter bubble. Actually, both of Eli Pariser and Greg Linden in this blog post are hopping the future of recommendation would support discovery and serendipity–they are talking about the same thing. This post mentioned that the Findory’s news received a lot of complaints for recommending diverse news, so they may very well go to the filtering path because of these complaints which Eli Pariser is against.

Also personalization and recommendation is a bit different. Personalization is more of personal control and filtering, while recommendation is about new knowledge discovery.

(2) The insightful Google+ post accidentally shared with the public by Steve Yegge.

(3) An thoughtful post by one of our ENE colleagues about opening up academia.

Credibility Issue for Online Education and Outsource Education

Blog Post: Online University, from “Embedded in Academia” by John Regehr

I read this thought-provoking blog post mentioned one student from that university requested credit for taking the Stanford AI class. This semester, Stanford put three courses online free to register for the general public, including Artificial Intelligence, Database and Machine Learning. They provide video, and quiz, discussion forum. Students need to submit homework, and will get a completion certificate and ranking among classmates at the end. I actually registered for the database class, and thought it would be nice if I can get credit. There is student requesting! From the author’s update in the comments section of the blog post, the student’s request is not granted up to that day. Usually, if we need credit, we have to pay. We are paying for the credit, not the real education experiences. We can get the education experiences from Stanford for free, but not the credit! Although we cannot get the credit from our home institution, but maybe if we put that on resume, companies will consider that when we go to find a job?

This blog post also brought up an interesting idea that in the future, universities can simply contract out classes like Calculus to big organizations and universities. In this case, all other universities can contract out Artificial Intelligence, Database and Machine Learning to Stanford and pay part of tuition to Stanford. This will totally change the structure of higher education! I believe something revolutionary has to happen, if not this one!

There are lots of discussion about online learning. For example,

Connecting Informal and Formal Learning Experiences in the Age of Participatory Media

Make it a Two-Way connection: A Response to “Connecting Informal and Formal Learning Experiences in the Age of Participatory Media”

Connecting Informal and Formal Learning Experiences in the Age of Participatory Media: Commentary on Bull et al. (2008)

These articles are talking about how to connect informal learning on social media with formal classroom learning. I think the above blog post has a more revolutionary thought about where the Internet will lead the education to, and how the structure will change. It also brought up the credibility issues of taking free online courses.

Beautiful Songs Shared via Human Generosity

This is a review about Emotional Bag Check, a site where you can off-load your emotional bag and get a nice song suggested by a stranger to cheer you up. It “turns music into mental medicine”.

I’ve tried this site twice this weekend, and really like it. The first time I posted that “My badminton partners don’t really want to play with me, because I am worse than them. I am ruining their fun. They just ignore me implicitly.” I got a song back in about 20 hours. It’s called Onemosphere by Atmosphere from the album God Loves Ugly. I never heard this song before, and it’s not really my style, but the lyrics is somehow encouraging. The second time, I posted “I got a very bad team partner from one class. He just talks big and doesn’t really do real work. I have to do twice the work.” I got a song back in just about one hour and with some comfort words. The song is Lean On Me, which I really like. The fact that these strangers are putting thought and effort looking for the song that could comfort me is really touching.

I tend to blog or post something online when I am unhappy. I think Internet can be used for healing emotional discomfort if used wisely. Life is tough. We constantly need someone to share, or need a shoulder to lean on. However, out of various reasons, oftentimes we cannot find the appropriate person to share, or a shoulder to borrow around us. Strangers can be a good choice under such circumstances, since we don’t need to worry about anything else. Internet is a good place to seek strangers since the identity can be totally hidden. People become more understanding and empathetic when being a rationale stranger. Not only I can seek comfort from Facebook among people I know, also I can seek comfort from totally strangers. Now I think for healing emotional discomfort very close people (strong ties) and totally strangers can both be helpful, while weak ties are mostly for purposes like job seeking, information sharing, etc. The weak ties for me is a gray zone, and haven’t figured out how to maintain yet.

If what Clay Shirky meant by cognitive surplus can be regarded as a intellectual contribution to the whole society, what Emotional Bag Check and other similar sites such as PostSecret brought is psychological or emotional contribution to humanity. Both of them are out of human generosity.

While I like the idea behind the Emotional Bag Check very much, I also appreciate the simply and easy user interface. Not need to sign up and be buzzed by the various functionality, just write things out of your chest and get a song via email with a URL linked to Grooveshark.

screenshots from http://www.emotionalbagcheck.com

This is almost the simplest user interface design I’ve ever seen. It’s this simple and achieved a lot. The user also have another choice to offer to help others out by taking the bag and finding an appropriate song. I haven’t tried this, assume that it should also be easy to use. There is one interview with the creator of Emotional Bag Check Robyn Overstreet, and he mentioned that he wants to keep things simple. Simple is good!

Marc Smith NodeXL Talk Sep 22 @ Purdue

I have an interest in Social Media Analytics, so I went to a talk by co-founder of Social Media Research Foundation Marc Smith titled: Charting Collections of Connections in Social Media: Creating Maps and Measures with NodeXL. Some takeaways and thoughts I get:
1. Marc mentioned that Usenet is still growing at a pace of 11% per year. I was wondering why, because it seems nobody around me here use it anymore. Maybe it’s growing more outside of US, I know in mainland China and Taiwan, BBS is still very popular, especially in higher education institutions. In a later Social Media class, Dr. V also mentioned that Usenet is still widely used in certain groups of people who started with it. So I think maybe the body of a new generation who is born with Google+ will grow larger in the future, but then the old generation will still maintain on Facebook (at least before this generation die away), so Facebook don’t need to worry and panic now, maybe it should take some strategies to prepare for the new grown-ups 10 or 20 years later. Some of the thought here is inspired by this blog post by Dr.V.
2. Marc talks about one of the reasons for developing social media monitoring tools. When we see a large group of crowd on the street physically, we can actually see some patterns of the crowd. For example, they have formed various sub-groups, talking in different languages, and wearing different clothes. However, the shape of the crowd on the web is totally hidden. “The interface of social media is remarkably anti-social”. The nicely and neatly organized lists make everybody’s tweets and profiles the same format, thus break the shape of the crowd. So we want to take closer look at the content to see the patterns and shape of the crowd. To deal with large amount of data created by the crowd, we need social media monitoring tools with great computational ability. Here comes NodeXL–and MS Excel add-in that could help social scientists investigate the shape of the crowd with 0 line of programming.
3. Another interesting topic he talked is about strong and weak ties. Internet has increased the number of relationships we maintain in a great deal, however, most of them are weak ties. Strong ties need dedication of time and effort to maintain, and we only have limited time and attention. So are these weak ties useless? No. They matter a great deal! We usually share almost the same information with our strong ties,because we are very close to each other. Our weak ties are people who can bring new information, new possibilities, and job opportunities. Think about your own situation, if everybody you know knows everybody else you know, your job is not secure, because you are a redundancy, you can not bring new information to these people.
4. Marc showed a graph made with NodeXL about the connections among users who recented twitted “Purdue” when queried on Sep 16 2011.
20110916-NodeXL-Twitter-Purdue Composite
A larger version of the image is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marc_smith/6155750905/sizes/o/in/photostream/
Based on my understanding of Marc’s opinion, some of the in-between users in the middle green and light green areas are more important than the ones who are in the largest networks (the two big “hairballs”), because these in-between users connect the scattered people with the two big networks. Without them, these scattered people will lose the connections. Also sometimes, the big balls probably are created by famous patrons who don’t really belong to the group. I cannot remember the term Marc use to call them.
5. Another interesting graph Marc showed is:
2010 - September - 5 - NodeXL - Twitter - GOP
This is about people’s political opinions about GOP. Red represents GOP supporters, and blue represents critics. The in-between dot is political.com. This pattern has only been found in the US, not in other countries. So America is by far the most polarized country in terms of political opinions. This is an interesting finding that proves America is exceptional somehow.
Reflection about Tweeting the talk live:
I got a mission via Twitter from Dr. V at the beginning of the talk to tweet the talk live. I saw other people do so before but never done it myself. It’s quite interesting and intense and overall beatifically to me and maybe to whom read my tweets and this blog.

I felt super busy because I have to listen, tweet, and write my own notes at the same time. Later I abandoned my own notes because I couldn’t write notes and tweet at the same time. Today when I write this blog, I have to go back to my tweets rather than my notes to help memorize what was going on there yesterday.

One good thing about tweeting compared with taking notes myself is that I am responsible to make comprehensible sentences for my twitter audience, while taking notes I can use misspelling words, symbols and incomplete sentences. Some of the misspelling, symbols, and incomplete sentences never got corrected after I took them.

One drawback of making responsible sentences is that I have to think while couldn’t pay attention to listen. There are some words I don’t know how to spell exactly and I have to go to look it up. For example, Marc talked about the number of relationships chimpanzee could maintain vs. human could do. I couldn’t remember how to spell “Chimpanzee“, and couldn’t find it in a short time, I only find gorilla in my dictionary. I know gorilla and chimpanzee are different but I couldn’t remember what is the difference in the Chinese words, so I didn’t input the right Chinese word for chimpanzee, so I cannot find how to spell chimpanzee. I gave up to tweet this finally, and wrote a misspelling word in my own notes, but it took me a while.

Although this kind of things took some attention, but overall tweeting makes me pay more attention to the talk, because I am responsible to tweet as accurate as I could to my twitter audience. If I were not tweeting I probably would think about what I should have for dinner and daydreaming some other stuff that could take even more attention than looking for how to spell Chimpanzee. Overall, I think tweeting while listening and write a blog post about it is the most beneficial method to get the most out of a talk that you are interested in.