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Review of Echofon, a Twitter Application for the iPhone

December 8th, 2009 No comments

Introduction– Why Think Critically About Twitter?

Our class, Writing For Electronic Communities, has been investigating questions regarding literacy in the hyper-mediated time in which we live. According to Jenkins et al. in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture,” some of the core competencies for people who are literate in the new media include performance, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, and networking (p. 6). Twitter touches on most of these concepts. Therefore, it is worth investigating how Twitter typifies the development, or retardation of these competencies. Next, I will touch on how Twitter relates to these topics more or less in order.

I think it is safe to argue that Twitter certainly touches on performance. After all, we are constructing identities of ourselves which are certainly only reflections of our “true selves.” This is especially true because we are using Twitter as first, an academic tool, and second, as a social/leisure tool. We are following other academics, and  some of them are following us. It’s safe to assume that this company will certainly constrain the image of ourselves that we are projecting in Twitter.

Many of us multitask with Twitter, another competency that Jenkins et al. discuss. I often Tweet while reading, listening to music, surfing the web, or watching television. Sometimes I am having an issue with an assignment, and ask the class for help. This multitasking is going to become increasingly important with the development of interconnected media devices.

Along the same lines, we tapping into a distributed cognition of sorts when we consult the wisdom of the crowds or even the wisdom of our classmates and colleagues. We are tapping into an interconnected network of people who may be exceptionally well-informed about any number of topics. Twitter encouraging us to tap into this potentially limitless resource.

Because we don’t always know the people with whom we communicate on Twitter, and we may not always be familiar with the sources of information presented to us on the service, it is becoming increasingly important exercise sound judgment when faced with this information. The old rules of media savvy still apply; with the huge pipeline of information available to us, these rules take on even greater importance.

Because Twitter is a multimodal, image-based medium, it certainly encourages transmedia savvy. Tweets often contain links to written articles or videos. We need to be able to follow information across representation systems, as Jenkins et al. suggest in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.”

When I think of Twitter in this light, I believe that Echofon more or less serves preserves the medial qualities that make Twitter unique; with Echofon, however, these features are simply more accessible. Twitter is largely the same on Echofon, and supports the same sort of new media literacies that I discussed earlier. Next, I’ll discuss Echofon’s features and compare it to Twitter’s primary web interface, where appropriate.

Echofon’s Features Detailed

The new skills include:
Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation
and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
processes
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient
details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand
mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information
sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information
across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting
multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

Echofon is a relatively feature-filled, highly functional Twtitter application that can be used for the iPhone. I suppose that makes Echofon an iPhone app too. You get the point.

Echofon provides near-full Twitter functionality. I’ve been using it since July, when I bought my iPhone. The various profile settings, however, are not accessible through Echofon. This includes a homepage, bio line, and location.

echofonfriends

Echofon was built to work on a screen like the iPhone’s. The Bottom of the screen shows some of the application’s main functions. Tweets are displayed in reverse-chronological order, just like Twitter’s original interface. The Friend icon allows users to view their friends list. Friends are listed alphabetically, with their profile pictures shown on the left of the screen. There is a bar on the right of the page that allows users to quickly scroll down. For instance, if the user wish to scroll quickly down to his/her friends whose names begin with “T,” he/she simply clicks on the T on the right of the screen. This is very similar to iTunes on the iPhone. When the application is opened after being closed for any length of time, the number of Tweets that have been made from the user’s friendlist will be displayed. Users can refresh the page by hitting the refresh icon on the top. At the top of the page on Echofon, ads are displayed. I think it’s a small price to pay for such a solid application.

The “@mention” button will display every time a Tweet has been directed toward a particular user. When the application has been closed for any length of time, and is re-opened, a number is displayed above the @mention icon displaying how many @replies have been sent to the user.

The “Message” icon displays the private messages that have been sent to or from the user. Individual conversations are kept together as “conversations,” in much the same the iPhone’s text messaging interface works. I would put up a screen shot displaying this, but those are private.

The “Favorites” icon displays any Tweets that the user has marked as his/her favorite. I apparently have three favorites though I don’t remember “favoriting” them.

The “Search” function is extremely useful. It works just like “search.twitter.com,” but is conveniently located on Echofon’s main interface.

echofonsearch

Echofon’s Search function. Here, I searched for our class, #wecf09. The zig-zagging arrow indicates trends. This is how Trending Topics can be followed on Echofon.

echofonprofile

When the user clicks on a friend’s profile, this interface is displayed. Users can easily reply to the Tweet, reTweet, or Direct Message. This is especially useful for re-Tweeting. (I used N’Gai’s profile because he’s the man– he linked to two of my blogs when he used to write for Newsweek. He’s worth following on Twitter if you’re interested in videogames, writing, movies, music, or basketball.)

echfonfriendsearch

This is the friend search function, very similar to iTunes’ equally excellent and intuitive interface.

echofonpic

If the user wishes to Tweet a picture, that can be done easily. Simply click on the camera icon. Then the options to “Shoot Video/Photo,” “Choose Existing Media,” or “Cancel” appear. It is very simple and highly intuitive.

echfonmap

Users can Tweet their geographic location as Echofon is compatible with Google Maps. Users can “Update Profile Location” or “Insert a Google Maps Link.”

echofonsettings

Users can adjust various settings for Echofon through the iPhone’s settings screen. Auto scroll can be turned off, or can be adjusted to display either the last Tweet the user posted or post all unread Tweets. This feature is useful as it allows users to see exactly where the last Tweet is that he/she saw.

Also, users can adjust how often Echofon refreshes. There are options to turn the function off entirely, or to refresh every minute, two minutes, three minutes, or every five minutes. Font size can be adjusted from small, medium or large. The default search screen can be switched to search, history, trends, or location.  Users can also set Tweets to be read at a later time.

Conclusion

This review is more of a justification of a critical evaluation of Twitter and a review of a particular application that facilitates the use of Twitter. I am not sure if there is anything about Echofon that adds or detracts to the theoretical discussion of Twitter, save the former’s relative convenience. I think it is worth noting that Echofon is designed so elegantly that it doesn’t obfuscate the great things Twitter already does, with adding some highly useful features to the service, making the creating of multimodal micro-texts possible.

Procedural Literacy– “Reading” Games

December 7th, 2009 No comments

Since I was introduced to the concept in the Summer of 2007, I have been smitten with the idea that games can make arguments.  After all, this was a seeming justification for a medium which I always believed was superior to film for entertainment purposes, but lacked the depth that writing enjoyed for more intellectual pursuits. Since then, I have learned to not think of which medium is better or worse, and instead have learned to think of what medium’s affordances can be leveraged best for a particular purpose. Our class has focused on how new media, broadly conceived, sheds new light on literacy or otherwise makes obsolete previous notions of literacy. Previous notions of literacy, based on an understanding of alphabetic text alone, do not account for visual mediums, such as videogames, which can certainly convey information.

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, presents a coherent approach to “reading” and interpreting games, based on his notion of procedural rhetoric. Ian Bogost argues, first, that games can be and are expressive human artifacts. He states that previous notions of rhetorical traditions, such as visual rhetoric, can only shed so much light on games’ rhetorical value; the notion of procedural rhetoric must be employed to explain rhetoric in games more fully. Procedural rhetoric, to the author, describes the computer’s (and in turn, the game’s) ability to simulate a rule system, which can be imbued with an ideology. When taken this way, the “games as container” metaphor can take on a new shape. Games are not simply a site for education, but a medium with real cultural currency, an abstraction of a real-life system that can be filled with any message the designer intends.
One book that discusses the rhetorical capacity for games is Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. The book presents a coherent approach to “reading” and interpreting games, based on his notion of procedural rhetoric. The author argues, first, that games can be and are expressive human artifacts. He states that previous notions of rhetorical traditions, such as visual rhetoric, can only shed so much light on games’ rhetorical value; the notion of procedural rhetoric must be employed to explain rhetoric in games more fully. Procedural rhetoric, to the author, describes the computer’s (and in turn, the game’s) ability to simulate a rule system, which can be imbued with an ideology. When taken this way, the “games as container” metaphor can take on a new shape. Games are not simply a site for education, but a medium with real cultural currency, an abstraction of a real-life system that can be filled with any message the designer intends.
This sounds really abstract, so I played one of the games produced by Bogost’s company, Persuasive Games. His games have appeared on the New York Times website and various government agencies. The game I played, Windfall, discusses some of the challenges energy companies face.

This screenshot shows the game’s interface, which is present all the time. The icons on the left represent the various actions the player can perform. The information on the right shows the player’s funds, popularity, and the amount of energy being generated.
Because games are different from prior media forms, a new means of interpreting and critiquing them must be devised. Ian Bogost performed such a work in Persuasive Games. He argues that, “videogames open a new domain for persuasion, thanks to their core mode of representational mode, procedurality” (p. ix). This new rhetorical approach, procedural rhetoric, is defined as, “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (p.ix). Bogost explains that “procedural rhetoric is a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computational arguments that others have created” (p. 3). It is this trait of computers, procedurality, that “fundamentally separates computers from other media” (p.4). Thus, if we take this assertion seriously, we cannot ignore this element of videogames that make them unlike other media. It is a “form of symbolic expression that uses process instead of language” (p. 9). This lengthy summary is in place to flesh out this novel idea that may at first sound foreign to those with humanities backgrounds. It may be helpful here to discuss a particular game that represents these ideas, Windfall, a  “A strategy game about building wind farms to create clean energy profitably,” according to Bogost’s company’s website, Persuasive Games.

In this game, the player is charged with building windmills for particular geographic location. The view is top-down, like other strategy games such as Civilization. The player uses the mouse to pick and action, on the right of the sceen, to “Research”, build a windmill, build a power line, or “recycle.” The game’s recycle feature allows a player to buy back a windmill or power line that he or she bought for half of the original price. On the right of the screen are icons, which indicate the various actions the player can perform. There is an optional tutorial in which the game teaches the mechanics of the game. Normally, there is clock that runs for “three years” in the game’s time. During this time, the goal of the game is to reach a certain energy output. But, there are a few rules to keep in mind. First, that a windmill must be connected to a powerline, which must be connected to the transformer. Also, there are some places where windmills cannot be placed, such as on hills, sidewalks, touching bodies of water, or on other buildings. And there are suggested rules, such as, “Be careful. Nobody likes large windmills in their neighborhoods.” The player can, in fact build large windmills in neighbords, even next to houses. But, when that happens, people will protest, which will affect your company’s popularity. If your popularity decreases because the people are unhappy with your actions, namely, where you are putting windmills and power lines, they will protest, which will actually cost you money in the game. Popularity is tracked with an icon the right side of the screen. Under the icon, the player’s popularity (or lack thereof) will be translated into a loss in dollars if the when the player’s popularity dips below 100%.

Players can choose to make small, medium, or large windmills. The larger the windmill, the more it costs, but it will generate more energy. People, however, resent the larger windmills more, forcing your company to incur political costs, calculated in real dollars.

This shot shows how the “research” function works. Players can pay a small fee to conduct research on a certain piece of the grid. The “windier” the location, the more efficient a windmill placed in the location will be.

The player can perform “research” on a particular block, as the game is laid out in a grid-like structure. For a price, this research will reveal information about the earth, such as how much wind the area garners. Making this small investment is worthwile to player, which ranges between $100 and $200 dollars. By putting the windmills in the most advantageous places, the player will acrue the most revenue. The player essentially has to balance multiple interests. He or she wants to first, make money by building windmills. But there are times when the player must decide whether he or she will opt to build near neighborhoods if the land is particularly desireable or it he or she is better off keeping the people happy. When the people are unhappy to the extent where it is no longer politically expedient to keep a windmill and its adjecent power line in the same location, the player can recycle the item. This will provide the player with half the value of the item, and will raise his or her popularity in the game. The game makes a claim about the complexities of the energy business. Businesses have a job to do, and sometimes this upsets people. Those who run businesses must decide where his or her priorities are. However, when businesses realize that they are upseting people, they can compromise, to make the make the people happy, and improve the bottom line, even if this entails taking a momentary hit to the bottom line. Instead of being an overtly political game, this game, through the abstraction of a simulation, evokes the spirit of the real-world system, while keeping it simple enough that one can learn how to play the game very quickly.

Good Info About How Games Can Be Educational Tools

November 5th, 2009 No comments

I suppose a lengthy discussion of new media literacy, such as the one in which we’re engaged in our class would be incomplete without a fuller discussion of the use of videogames as educational tools. Henry Jenkins, who was the primary author of Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, is a central figure in the field. James Paul Gee, whose video I’ve posted below, also has some excellent ideas on how games are good learning tools, as does Ian Bogost, whose article “Videogames and the Future of Education,” serves as a rousing call to action, urging concerned citizens to think more critically about K-12 education in the United States.

Here’s a link to a very good video with James Paul Gee: http://vimeo.com/4513412. I was unable to embed it.

One of the reasons that commercial games, which are not designed with any pedagogical goal in mind, are so effective at teaching its player how to play them is because of the profit motivation at work for the game developers. Gee explains, in his article, “Good Video Games and Good Learning,” that, ” If no one could learn these games, no one would buy them—and players will not accept easy, dumbed down, or short games. At a deeper level, however, challenge and learning are a large part of what makes good video games motivating and entertaining.” Ahh. I think Dr. Gee is on to something here. Because games are “long, hard, and complex” as Gee asserts, why would young people give a damn about learning to play them? Because game designers have become experts at keeping people engaged in their products. One of the reasons they can do this is by doing a fantastic job of teaching players how to play the game. Unfortunately, the public education system is not competing with anyone else, so they don’t have the incentive to be effective the way videogame designers do.

At the start of the video that I posted earlier, Gee is quick to point out that he isn’t discussing educational games per se- games designed with the purpose of teaching players something academic in nature. Rather, Gee is interested in analyzing the way games teach players the rules of the game, such as in tutorials. For Gee, “educational games” are another thing entirely. Simulations, such as Madden NFL Football, which most of you have already had the misfortune of hearing about from me, fits this mold nicely. As do role-playing games (RPGS, or in the case of massively multiplayer rpg, MMPRPGs), which need to teach the player scores of different functions to successfully navigate the terrain, engage in the battle system, and work through the story. At the heart of both types of games is the question of problem solving: how do I use the affordances of the game mechanics to find a solution to this problem. In the case of Madden, the player must determine whether a run or pass play is most appropriate in a given situation. For a RPG, a player must use the right piece of equipment, the right weapon, or the right spell to defeat an enemy. While some games are more complex than others, Gee points to the problem-solving nature all well designed games as a place we can look to where applied knowledge trumps rote memorization.

Kress, Literacy, and Language

October 18th, 2009 3 comments

There has always been a discussion of whether the language of the people controls the standards of the dictionary or the standards of the dictionary control the language of the people.  This can be argued either way, up and down, and ad infinitum.  Our dictionary gives us a set of words with their agreed-upon meanings (or I should say, strongly suggested meanings), and we go about our lives happily using those words.  I can only guess that most of the time, we use them appropriately and correctly, like we have been in this blog.  It’s foolish to think that the dictionary holds all we have to use.  Our language is changing everyday, thanks largely to new things to name and new ways of naming things.  For instance, crunk is now in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Issue, as well as ginormous.  They both were two of 100 accepted entries.

Word meanings change when we want them to.

I still have trouble (and still don’t like) considering image to be text.  I simply don’t expand my definition of text to include images.  I also still consider Pluto to be a planet and I don’t consider indigo to be a rainbow color that I have to memorize.  So just because an assumed authority defines a word as such doesn’t mean the public will listen.  Still, our words have definitions.

Kress appeared to be struggling to define that ugly word of today, literacy.  What felt odd about that chapter (What is Literacy?) was that for a learned man, a professor at the University of London, he approached a definition of literacy from a surprisingly simple angle, broke down the terms, and played with them for a while.  Only images and text were discussed while many other forms of literacy were left untouched.

When I was in middle school, I thought of literacy as pertaining only to images and text.  Now I’ve entered a world in which text doesn’t just mean actual text, where the screen dominates, where everyone needs a cellphone, where watches are becoming useless, where Pluto is now just a dwarf planet, and where literacy is rocking on a fence that runs between obsolesce and useless generality.  The world has changed so much in my measly twenty five years, so why are we still clinging to this clearly abstracted term?

But can’t the same situation be said of the word animal?  It’s also an umbrella term, underneath which lies six other classifications (phylum, class, order, family, genus, species).  Through this classification, we can identify and name every living thing we encounter.  It seems to me that this scientific approach would help us with this struggle.

Linda Dubin, a reading specialist at West Bridgewater University, has on her website the most reasonable definition of literacy that I’ve been able to find:

In broad terms, literacy is the ability to make and communicate meaning from and by the use of a variety of socially contextual symbols.

I hope we can embrace the largeness of this term as something of importance while creating under it a classification system for the various literacies.

We need to gain a little control over how we name things in our world.

Video regarding information literacy

October 17th, 2009 No comments

This is a very interesting YouTube video regarding information literacy called e-literate produced by the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies hosted on YouTube by Howard University for their freshman seminar. The video inclues some historical perspective and works its way all the way to present with information overload through the information we can access. It’s a very long one (almost 9 minutes) so be sure you have the time to view it. It is definitely worth a look

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Support for Kress and early literacy

October 17th, 2009 No comments

According to the National Institute for Literacy, “The building blocks of literacy develop beginning in infancy. Day-to-day activities expose babies and toddlers to sounds, words, speech, and print. Researchers have found strong evidence that children can learn reading and writing in their earliest years, long before they go to school. ” This provides strong support for Kress theory on sign-making in early childhood.

National Institute for Literacy

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this is a video that shows things that are not pipes

October 14th, 2009 No comments

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this is a digital image of a painting that is not a pipe

October 14th, 2009 No comments

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What Google found:

October 11th, 2009 1 comment

So I went to Google and plugged the term “literacy” into Google Images. It found a huge number of images that ranged from serious to comedy.

Of course with my fondness for animals I especially liked this image from the blog Mighty Red Pen (a very funny blog site to explore)

literacy-cat

There are also more serious issues noted at my Google Images search for literacy

This was on a site for a Canadian university – University of British Columbia – this graph is a particularly good illustration of some of our discussions in class:

bloom1

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