Author: vpunyani

Digital Transparency, from Google’s Perspective


Brian Fitzpatrick, leader of Google’s Transparency Engineering team in Chicago, Illinois

As a self-proclaimed tech enthusiast, I was excited by the prospect of hearing an engineer from Google speak about his role in leading Google’s Transparency Engineering team which uses data to help protect free expression and free speech on the web. Brian Fitzpatrick, an alum of Loyola University Chicago, started Google’s Chicago engineering office in 2005. He currently leads the engineering teams for Google’s Transparency Report and Data Liberation initiatives.

It was insightful to learn about Fitzpatrick’s work on gathering usage data, and further producing the data into usable information. Fitzpatrick also mentioned Google’s ability to track traffic globally, and how researchers can use the data to identify anomalies. After listening to his work, I researched Fitzpatrick more deeply. Two years ago, his Chicago team of engineers began tallying and helping publish the number and types of government requests Google receives to remove content from its products or turn over information about users. His work in combating online censorship and bringing to light the amount of governmental requests Google received to censor content was astonishing. In fact, even Fitzpatrick was astonished at the extent a country would go to censor content. He never expected Egypt to completely turn off the Internet, but it did and Libya followed. According to Fitzpatrick, Google reports on “blunt instruments,” or the cutting off of access to an entire site. This is what reporters and researches follow closely. Fitzpatrick and his team of engineers reveal within minutes when Egypt brings down the Internet or when Syria inexplicably restores access to YouTube. What could be specific benefits of this?

Google’s work through Fitzpatrick’s team has revealed to me the importance of keeping such data public. His team’s work has converted would-be-historic-records to breaking news, and reveals the extent to which countries might go to censor private, and possibly incriminating or inciting, data. Google’s transparency reports seem to be for us then? In fact, other companies should follow suit, including social networks. Which companies do you think should release data transparency reports? While Fitzpatrick spoke about his team’s work at gathering traffic data, further research reveals the impact of this type of work. The following is an in-depth article about Fitzpatrick and his team’s efforts in policing free speech on the Internet To learn more about Brian Fitzpatrick, visit

Lastly, and perhaps interestingly, who knew how much of Google – one of the most-visited websites in the entire world – relied on copper wire! Fitzpatrick and Google found at when infrastructure was stolen and Google dramatically lost traffic…sometimes the intangible results from the tangible.


I Did Not Like LambdaMoo

LambdaMoo's opening screen defines its antique character.

LambdaMoo’s opening screen defines its antique character.

The way you access the interactive online community of LambdaMoo instantly defines its antique character. Mac users must enter LambdaMoo through Terminal, which is an application that provides text-based access to the operating system. PC users must download extra software to access LambdaMoo. Until LambdaMoo, my only previous interaction with the “prehistoric” ages of the Internet was through the Internet Archives. Therefore, as I accessed the community, I had few expectations.

All users are greeted by the same message when they enter LambdaMoo’s 4×6 virtual space:

“LambdaMOO is a new kind of society, where thousands of people voluntarily come together from all over the world.  What these people say or do may not always be to your liking; as when visiting any international city, it is wise to be careful who you associate with and what you say.”

I began my – what turned out to be 45 minutes long – journey like most users in the Coat Closet, where I attempted to find the right combination of words to exit the closet (open door – by the way). In fact, this was definitive of my whole experience with LambdaMoo. My interactions were overwhelmed with, “I don’t understand that.” It became frustratingly difficult to identify the purpose of the space, which I walked through by identifying directions. The entire concept relied on text and responses, a very limited experience compared to today’s online virtual communities. In fact, due to single spacing and small font, in addition to large amounts of character and room descriptions, the experience became dull. Most importantly, I could not identify how LambdaMoo can be described as a community. I perused Lynn Cherny’s, “The Modal Complexity of Speech Events in a Social Mud,” to learn more about the various types of actions and emotions I can portray in the digital space. Despite my greater understanding of interactivity within LambdaMoo, my experience was still limited to entering rooms and reading descriptions, rather than interacting with other users. My attempts to page other users were all futile. How have your community interactions been different?

Perhaps my experience with LambdaMoo was limited in time. Perhaps I would have garnered a greater picture of text-based interactivity if I had spent more time attempting to find actions that would do more, and allow me to contact more people. But I did not want to. The text-based descriptions and requests for responses, as well as failed attempts to leave certain rooms and the frustrations that ensued made me grateful for the media ecology that I am accustomed to today. What types of frustrations did you develop, if any, when playing with LambdaMoo? Despite the difficulties and frustrations I experienced, I take into consideration the context of LambdaMoo’s history. The internet and its applications were extremely limited in look, feel, content, and community compared to the graphic powerhouses we access on the web on today. But LambdaMoo’s unattractiveness is deceiving I realized, as its underlying power lies in its ability to tell a diverse, ever-changing story among connected users. This is the community it developed and attempted to push. There may be a niche group interested in interacting this way today, but I am not in it.

The following articles present an interesting look at the MUD universe:

Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities by Pavel Curtis comments on MUD’s – like LambdaMoo – effects on social phenomena, leading to new mechanisms and modes of behavior not usually seen in real life.

Virtual Reality: Reflections of Life, Dreams, and Technology. An Ethnography of a Computer Society by Michael S. Rosenberg is a reflection on the culture that has developed within the “virtual world” of a MUD, the people behind the culture, and its relationship to real life. It is a 22 year old article, and is interesting as it presents a perspective from the early ages of the internet.

Week 7 Discussion

Week 7 Reading Summaries:

Digital Dualism and Lived Experience: Everyday Ontology Produces Everyday Ethics by Stéphane Vial.

A Life Lived In Media  by Deuze, Blank, and Spears.

Google Glass represents the next-generation of wearable technology that aims to integrate our media experience more deeply in our lives. Photo courtesy of GlassAppSource

Google Glass represents the next-generation of wearable technology that aims to integrate our media experience more deeply in our lives. Photo courtesy of GlassAppSource

The two readings discussing new media in everyday life had conflicting views on what it means to live with technology. The first reading “A Life Lived in Media” focuses on how media has been so far integrated into our daily lives that it is impossible to distinguish our real lives from our digital lives. The second reading “Digital Dualism and Lived Experience: Everyday Ontology Produces Everyday Ethics”, disagrees with this point saying that humans are still very much aware of the digital world versus the real world.

“A Life Lived in Media” states that “we no longer live with media, we live in media”, essentially that humans have become completely integrated into their media. This is referred to as media invisibility. Media has become such an embedded part of every persons day to day life that it is invisible because we are often not conscious about how much media we are absorbing and using every single day. Everyday humans experience multiple types of media on their phones, the TV, social media and advertisements. Because of this invisibility it is, “dissolving the distinctions drawn all too easy between humans and machines […] between culture and computers”. “A Life Lived in Media” also mentions media creativity, there is now media literacy and a whole new form of communication. This creates a society of networked individualism. “A life in media is at once connected and isolated, requiring each and every individual to rely on their own creativity to make something out of life: not just to give it meaning, but to symbolically produce it”. This ties into their definition of media sociability. It is now necessary to brand yourself online or someone else will brand you through good and recording your information, which brings in a strong issue with privacy. This creates the perception that our youth is a very narcissistic generation because of their obsession with socializing and creating themselves online. In summary, this article believes that, There are extensive societal and cultural repercussions occurring primarily due to the way media become invisible because media are so pervasive and ubiquitous that we do not even register the presence of media in our lives. The networked individualist and personalized information space in media that constitutes people’s everyday reality influences work, play, learning and interacting”.

In the second reading, “Digital Dualism”, the author strongly disagrees that media has become invisible, instead he believes there is still a strong and recognizable divide between the virtual and the real. “People really do feel a difference and even a conflict between their online experience and their offline experience. […] They’re not faking it. They’re expressing something important about themselves and their lives- something real”. The author argues that this divide between people’s real lives and interacting through media will always be distinguishable. For example, the telephone, it has been one century since it was invented and people still understand the difference between a phone call and a face-to-face conversation, we are just no longer conflicted about it and understand it peacefully. The author disagrees with the idea that some human experiences are being lost, but rather that the accumulation of technology only enhances them. In the end it is pointless to fear technology and what it is doing to our human lives because it is inevitable and it is just a matter of time before we learn to live with it and clarify it.

Discussion Questions:

Which reading do you agree with, has technology become invisible or are we still very conscious of its presence?

Do you believe that our generation is more narcissistic because of the “brand” we make of ourselves and invest time in on social media?

Do you think human experiences are enhanced or taken away because of technology? Or is it both?

Main Ideas to Come up in Lecture / Discussion

“Digital Dualism and Lived Experience”

– the difference between virtual and real as fantasy or fact

– the existence of “digital monism”

– how we experience the difference between online and offline experiences

– has nature ever existed with the presence of humanity?

“A Life Lived in Media”

– living with media vs. living in media

– the concept of a mediapolis

– the potential results of digital media proliferating faster than our cultural, legal, or educational institutions

– media’s invisibility increasing its power

– networked individualism

– media sociability and privacy

– media as a sole frame of reference

balance between free and mediated in media

Possible Additional Readings:

How tech is changing the way we think and what we think about” – Conner Forrest

Hong Kong protests highlight peer-to-peer mobile – could it be a really good thing?” – Ian Scales

Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology in class” – Valerie Strauss

Main Ideas from Lecture/Discussion

-how new media affects us in everyday life

-how we think of ourselves and our interaction with new media

-how can we be creative producers within media space?

-Strauss’ article: there is a tremendous skill in training yourself to ignore notifications, texts, messages, etc.

-our generation feels an inclination to be connected

-we’re trying to learn what the social limitations are, experiment with them, but we’re also being confronted by people who also don’t know the limits (there are no rules or laws of new media use)

-we only have so much control over our media consumption and use –> we have to respond to the network we’re in, or else there’s consequences (i.e., getting fired for not responding to an email in 24 hours)

-the “…” that shows up in iPhone’s iMessage feature, how do we turn those off?  Those types of features are designed to get your attention

-notifications are built in, built as “for your convenience,” but really it’s to make you come back more and more often (Facebook notifications lead you to check your FB more often, which allows FB advertisers to see your cookies and past browsing data more often, etc.)

-we all suck at multitasking

-we have shifted our values to meet the media landscape, but instead of doing one thing REALLY well at a time, we do a bunch of things at once mediocrely

-we watched a video about people being tested on their multitasking skills. take away?  people seem to like to be flooded with information, but we are worse at doing multiple things at one time.  “Multitaskers are lousy at multitasking”

Final Questions

-Who gets to judge how you’re actually paying attention? Some people study better with music, some people type better notes than handwriting them.  Depending on who you are and how you learn, it’s very individual.

-Do students feel like they need to be jarred from their new media use by their teachers and professors?

“Compose new Tweet”: Literacy in the Digital Era

Twitter's iconic "blue bird" logo.

Twitter’s iconic “blue bird” logo.

Twitter is a multinational, powerful social networking platform with hundreds of millions of dedicated users. Everyone from firefighters to celebrities, and corporations to your grandmother uses Twitter for news, venting, and even promotions. But in order to join this community of tweeters, a certain amount of literacy is required – and this is no where stated on Twitter’s website. Reading and writing tweets is a digital literacy skill, or the ability to compose thoughts in 140 characters or less in an attempt to communicate information, and absorb the information present to achieve one’s goals in society. 

Reading and writing requires skills such as, but not limited to:

  1. Searching, comprehending and using non-continuous texts or images.
  2. Composing thoughts in 140 characters or less
  3. Basic knowledge of web browsing and site mapping
  4. Shortening links to include in tweets
  5. Adding images from a location on your computer
  6. Understanding the vernacular of Twitter

These are some of the basic necessities Twitter – and basically any social networking platform – (unofficially) requires in order to read and write Tweets.

In order to test your ability to compose a meaningful tweet in 140 characters or less, you should be able to comment on this post, comprehend this post, and shorten the following paragraph to 140 characters or less using your reactions or thoughts.

“California is the most wonderful place to visit because of its variety of weather and its beautiful nature. (subject development) Visitors to California can find any weather they like. They can find cool temperatures in the summer; also they can find warm weather in the winter. They can find places that are difficult for humans to live in the summer because they are so hot. Or they can find places closed in the winter because of the snow. On the other hand, visitors can find the nature they like. They can find high mountains and low valleys. Visitors can find a huge forest, a dead desert, and a beautiful coast.(summary sentence) So California is the most wonderful place to visit because of its weather and nature.

Test out reading tweets and composing them on, and explore the world of a truly networked social platform.

I Found You: The (U/Dys)topia of Geofencing

Geofencing refers to a virtual barrier, which, when entered, presents viewers with location-based push notifications

Geofencing refers to a virtual barrier, which, when entered, presents viewers with location-based push notifications

Imagine the following scenario. You’ve arrived at your local grocery store with one hand on the cart and the other on your phone, which holds your shopping list. You enter the store, and immediately, without prior notice, your phone begins actively buzzing. A flood of notifications pop up on your lock screen, advertising “buy one can of soup get one for $0.99,” and “SALE! OLIVE OIL for $3.99!” Such is a world with geofencing, and its coming quickly.

A geofence is a virtual barrier. It uses your phone’s GPS or radio frequency identification (RFID) to recognize that you have entered a certain area, and can push notification to your device, should you allow it. Geofencing is important and cool! As mentioned in the example above, phones can behave differently depending on which area they approach. A restaurant, for example, can trigger a text message with the day’s specials to customers who enter a defined geographical area. It can be easy to consider this feature as the next-generation of location-based, digital awareness. It allows our devices to connect with the world around us, and enrich our lives by merging digital content with live content.

But such features are controversial. In an age where privacy issues hold precedence over innovation, geofencing can be a risky move by retailers. How would you react to retailers gaining access to your location as you walk about a mall or a shopping district? Would you prefer to be bombarded with offers and specials? Not many people, I presume, would answer positively.

Fred Turner from Stanford University’s Department of Communication points out a dominant approach to explaining the rise of digital libertarianism in America in his piece, “How Digital Technology Found Utopian Ideology: Lessons From the First Hackers’ Conference.” This approach affirms: “[N]ew technology will bring universal wealth, enhanced freedom, revitalized politics, satisfying community, and personal fulfillment.” Can geofencing bring all of these values to a not-so-easily accepting public? Furthermore, how can we consider geofencing as a conduit to enhanced freedom when marketers decide what content gets pushed to our devices? These are all questions that challenge the utopian view of location-based push notifications, which – despite being present on most modern smartphones – has yet to take off with the mainstream market.

Geofencing has tremendous, clear benefits. It is a matter of protecting privacy and maintaing marketing integrity in the implementation of geofencing. In the meantime, still expect to be clipping coupons for your local grocery store for a few more years.

For more information on geofencing and its implications in the retail industry, check out this Wall Street Journal article titled, “Geofencing: Can Texting Save Stores.” It provides insight into retail attempts to combat “showrooming,” where a shopper comes into a store to see an item but then makes the purchase online after finding a better price via smartphone.

The “Social Network” of 140 Characters

I joined Twitter early last year for the sole reason of procuring what the hype was about. That’s it. The only social network I devotedly followed was Facebook. The reason? I wanted to check out what my friends were up to on a daily basis, and if anything interesting from the web was posted or shared. Before I even tap on the CNN for my daily dose of news, major stories are shared by my friends online. Twitter was a whole different ball game. Its vernacular was a difficult adjustment. I found pleasure in adding “friends,” aka celebrities who I found interesting, talented, or historical, maybe even a combination. Now, my twitter account contains less than a handful of people I have actually met, and hundreds of people whose posts I deem as “entertainment news.” A symbol of Twitter’s rise to the top of my social networking priorities lies in its position on my iPhone’s home screen: adjacent to the instantly recognizable blue “f.”

Thick Tweets 

Using this twitter account, I tweeted the following tweets in hopes of visualizing and practicing the act of producing thick tweets.

Thick tweets, according to author David Silver’s appropriately-titled blog post, “The Difference Between Thin and Thick Tweets“, are tweets that convey two or more layers of information (often with help from a hyperlink) as opposed to one layer like that of a thin tweet.

My first thick tweet, discussing Apple's release of the iPhone 6.

My first thick tweet, discussing Apple’s release of the iPhone 6.

First Thick Tweet

My first thick tweet refers to the recent launch of the widely-popular, next-generation versions of Apple’s acclaimed smartphone brand, the iPhone. After a typically popular release, Apple released information stating that they had acquired more than 4 million preorders of the two versions of the phone in less than 24 hours. Apple’s new iPhone 6 is coupled with the next version of its highly-regarded iOS software, which has infamously opened its latches for consumers to begin to customize their phone more than ever before. Per Silver’s description of the purpose of a thick tweet, I attempted to post a tweet that packed multiple layers of information within 140 characters in an attempt to “craft creative, meaty, and to-the-point messages that attract other people’s attention” (Silver). Now, due to the lack of close friends associated with me on Twitter, and due to my lack of active followers, my tweet will garner little-to-no attention, and that is perfectly okay.

That is perfectly okay for me for two reasons:

1) I had not only acquired the knowledge, but also practiced producing thick tweets.

2) My Twitter is used so that I can follow celebrities, entertainers, politicians, and popular media outlets. I know that I can receive responses on Facebook, where I have hundreds in my friends list, many of which are active users.

Can my tweet be considered a thick tweet, even though it lacks a hyperlink (the limit of 140 characters has never been easy to accept)? I think so. I included multiple layers of information within Twitter’s 140 character limit, namely: the release of Apple’s next-gen smartphones, its software iOS 8 enriching the platform, and iOS 8’s open customization options.

My second thick tweet, introducing Chicago's Macaroni and Cheese festival in the fall!

My second thick tweet, introducing Chicago’s Macaroni and Cheese festival in the fall

Second Thick Tweet

My second thick tweet is in reference to a macaroni and cheese-based festival in Chicago this fall. As a macaroni and cheese lover, I used the 140 characters of the tweet to call out Mac and Cheese lovers (1), tell them about an exciting event in Chicago this fall (2), and refer them to a link that, according to Silver, not only gives more information about the event in my tweet, but “is so compelling that no reader in his or her right mind can avoid clicking the link” (Silver).


Why does thick tweeting matter? Isn’t social networking all about producing short bits of information? Well, not exactly. It’s about producing short bits of effective, impactful information (No, your cat memes and mirror selfies are not impactful). Thick tweets bring substance to an otherwise widely criticized digital lifestyle that authors like Nicholas Carr deride for reducing literacy rates and standardized test scores. In his piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine, Carr warns that the Web was changing the way he — and others — think. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote, confessing that he now found it difficult to read long books.

What Carr, and other critics, fail to recognize at times is that the world, and its culture, are ever-evolving, and while the importance of reading cannot be understated, digital lifestyles are becoming ever-more prevalent and appealing. Rather than critiquing digital lifestyles like social networking, its imperative to adapt and evolve them to best serve as both a knowledge base and a communications tool.

Motoko Rich, in “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” discusses the Internet as being more about a conversation, whereas books are more of a one-way ordeal. Our interaction and involvement through social networking in this “conversation” format may be even more cognitively demanding in the digital age than analyzing literary texts themselves. Internet reading, social networking, and essentially researching involve locating information quickly and accurately, and eventually corroborating findings on multiple sites and from multiple sources. As Rich states, “some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem” (Rich). As the landscape of acquiring and sharing knowledge – the premise of books and the internet – drastically changes in the digital age, reading should not be the only thing redefined. Our existing culture and traditions should not define us. Rather, they should conform to our ever-changing nature. Imagine reading a tweet this long. You can’t, right? That’s because, in this age, people prefer to get these ideas – and much more – in 140 characters of less. Is that great? Maybe, and maybe not. But for the time being, let’s make some thick tweets. Anyone want to join me for the Macaroni and Cheese festival?

Discussion Questions

Let’s discuss two ideas I think are important in understanding the evolution of media

1) How would you redefine reading and writing in terms of literacy in the digital age?

2) What would be the best way to encourage online literacy while maintaining standardized test scores and strong reading habits?

The following article by Liz Lightfoot in The Independent describes a government adviser’s attempt to make English primary schoolchildren the most hi-tech in the world. However, he is combated by critics who worry that skills such as tweeting and blogging might affect their ability to understand the basics. Read the article here, and sound off in the comments below about your reaction to the article!