May 2006 Archives

scathing critique of wikipedia by jaron lanier


Today, posted an essay by Jaron Lanier entitled "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism." Here's the abstract:

The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?

The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

This is a must-read piece for anyone interested in social computing generally, or wikipedia in particular. Whether or not you agree with Lanier, his criticisms are worth considering.

graduations aren't always goodbyes


I was too tired last night to write everything I was thinking about graduation--and I knew I was going to have to get up at 4:30am to catch my 6:45am flight home. But the airport is nearly deserted this morning, and I flew through security, leaving me with free time (and free airport wifi, one of the many nice things about Rochester) to follow up on my last post.

During my first few years at RIT, I thought of graduations as goodbyes. I'd had students for a class or two, taught them what I could, and then they were gone. But over the years, I've realized that with the best students that's not the case. There are many students whose graduation has marked the passage from student to colleague, and whose friendships I treasure. They're the ones who don't think twice about calling me Liz instead of Professor Lawley, who still send me email updates about their newest job, who show up in my IM buddy list, who add me as a friend in Facebook, who post comments to my blog, and who even have my cell phone number.

Students like Jared Campbell and Jon Dunn, Eric Willis and Brendyn Alexander, Chris Blessing and Jay Bibby. (And yes, I know those are all men's names. That's the result of teaching in a department that averages fewer than 5% women in its freshman class. There have been women who made a difference in my life as teacher as well, though. Pooja Kapoor, Beth Levine, Katie Giebel, Sayali Sakhardande, Sara Berg, Tara Parekh, just to name a few.) Not all of them were straight-A students (though many were). But every one of them is someone I'd recommend without hesitation for a job, because of their creativity and initiative, their integrity and intelligence.

It was Jared who taught me that my students can be as aware of my personal ups and downs as I can be of theirs--I'll always remember the evening that he stopped by my office to see if I was okay. I was surprised by his question, and wondered aloud why he was asking. "I read your blog," he replied, "and just wanted to make sure you were okay."

It was Erhardt who made me aware of just how much an astute observer can learn about a person from their bookmarks, when he stopped by my office nearly two years ago to ask with concern whether I was leaving RIT. I couldn't imagine what had made him ask that--until he mentioned that he'd seen the bookmarks I'd listed for "homeschooling" and "Seattle" on (I've been a bit more careful about what I do and don't put on social bookmarking sites since then!)

Brendyn helped remind me of just how much raw talent and enthusiasm can accomplish, and how much of an impact we as professors can have on shaping that. He bounded into my life (and Elouise's) at an advisory board dinner his freshmen year, as full of energy and curiosity and affection as an overgrown labrador puppy. It's been a gift to watch him grow over the past four years, from 'sycophant' (not really, but that's a long-standing joke) to self-assured young man with a Microsoft job offer in his pocket. I learned a lot about courage from both Brendyn and Jon, both of whom had to face some challenging situations during the time that I knew them.

Eric showed me how gracefully someone can make the transition from student to employee to colleague. In what felt like the blink of an eye he went from being a cocky student in my web design class to being the best student grader I ever had to teaching as an adjunct in our department while running (and growing) the software development team for a local business. I spent an hour over dinner on Thursday evening trying to recruit him onto my team to develop a new social application, and I'll consider myself lucky if he can find a few hours of free time in his schedule to work with me.

Chris Blessing was a lesson to me, early in my teaching career, that some of those students with a hefty dose of attitude have it for good reason. At a time when the web was still relatively new, and most of my students wouldn't have known an HTML entity if it bit them in the ass, Chris coded (and designed) circles around not just the others in the class but me as well. I didn't admit it at the time, of course (those Jedi mind tricks are important for surviving as a teacher), but he taught me some humility. (Yes, Eric, you did too. But Chris did it first.)

Jay reminded me that my students could take the seeds of an idea I'd given them and grow it well beyond anything I could have done. He started his first blog in my class, but then went on to create one of the most widely-read blog sites on casual games, Jay Is Games, which probably gets more hits in a day than any my sites gets in a week.

A few weeks ago, I got an email out of the blue from a student who'd taken a class from me years ago. We hadn't stayed in touch, but he was writing to let me know how much of what he'd learned he still used every day--and to ask if I had any talented students I wanted to send his way to hire. And few weeks before that, an article on web design popped up in my links with a title that looked turned out to be written by one of my former students, and it was clear evidence that what he learned in that class had stuck with him. A good reminder that influence in the classroom can extend well beyond it.

There are others, of course. Far more than I've listed here. Each fall when I walk into the lab for my freshman multimedia class, the new students lined up behind the computers, full of promise and potential. But the friendly ghosts of their predecessors live in those labs, as well, reminding me that when I see these freshmen file past me years later, they're not necessarily walking past me and out of my life. Graduation doesn't have to mean goodbye.

choosing to give


A lot of people have asked me recently if I'm planning on going back to RIT at the end of my sabbatical--or if, having tasted the sweet nectar of well-funded industry research, I might be tempted to stay in Seattle. I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to return to Rochester, but I had some lingering doubts and fears in my mind about whether I was making the right choice.

This weekend I flew back to Rochester for a few days, primarily to attend RIT's commencement ceremonies. For the first day or two, I did have some second thoughts about my decision. Departmental politics were running rampant, colleagues were stressed with last-minute grading, and the overcast skies were more oppressive than I remembered.

Last night, though, I heard two wonderful addresses at the university-wide convocation ceremony. The first was by Dean Kamen, which I really hope will be posted in its entirety on the RIT web site (as they've done with past speakers). Elouise covered some high points, but you had to be there to appreciate the warmth, wit, and charm of Kamen's delivery. It was lovely. (And yes, he did in fact ride a Segway up to and back from the platform, wearing his academic robes.) The second was by Erhardt Graeff, a student whom I first had in freshman seminar, and whose progress I've watched closely over the past four years. Erhardt's a wonderful young man--intellectually curious, adventurous, articulate, creative, and genuinely goodhearted. He was selected as our college's delegate for the university-wide ceremony, and then chosen as the one delegate to give the student address for all of RIT--and he did a spectacular job. Both of the speakers (without knowing the other's theme) chose to speak about graduation as a passage not from learning to doing, but rather as one from taking to giving...something that hit a resonant note for me.

This morning I woke up at 6:15am so that I could be at RIT by 7:15, and in my robes ready to line up for our college's commencement ceremonies at 7:30. Even after nearly ten years of doing this, I still love marching into the field house with pomp and circumstance playing, watching the parents and grandparents and spouses and partners and children craning their necks for a view of the processional, snapping photographs and clapping. And my favorite part of the school year is when our undergraduate students walk across the stage as their name is called. As they come down the steps, there are always a group of faculty waiting to shake their hands, and I'm always part of that group. I love watching the faces of these young men and women, many of whom I taught during their first quarter of freshman year, as they grapple with the realization that they're really, truly, graduating. More than one of them gets a hug from me rather than a handshake.

After the ceremony, our department hosts a brunch for the students and their families. It's hard to explain how much it means to me when a student pulls his or her parents over to meet me, telling them "This is Professor Lawley! Remember me telling you about her?" When I met Erhardt's mother today, however, I got something new...she told me she reads my blog. (Hi, Mrs. Graeff!)

I nearly cried a couple of times today. One of those times was meeting the family of Katie Giebel, a delightful young woman who took my introductory web/multimedia class the fall of her first year at RIT. She came close to leaving IT, but stayed after I (and others) convinced her that it was only a short term rough spot she'd run into. When she was invited into the RIT honors program, she told me she was worried she couldn't handle that and her ROTC responsibilities, and wanted to decline. I helped convince her to give it a shot, and she didn't just survive--she thrived. Katie graduated with honors today, and the Navy is sending her to Monterey to pursue a master's degree. (I'm wiping away a little tear right now, just typing all that.)

This year at MSR I've gotten an enormous amount from the amazing people around me, and I'm beyond grateful for that. But I don't have the opportunity to change lives that being a professor provides to me, to give what I can of myself to my students. I left the reception today 100% sure that coming back to RIT was the right choice. And as I pulled into the driveway of my mother's house, the sun finally came if to welcome me home.

cell phone panic

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I left Seattle at lunchtime today, headed for a very short trip to Rochester. Gerald and the boys dropped me off at the airport, and after they'd given me hugs and kisses and driven off, I realized I'd left my cell phone in the car. Ack. There aren't many things I travel with that I can't replace on the road, but my phone is one of them. I found a pay phone in the airport that took a credit card (who carries a callng card or change when they've got a cell phone, right?), and tried calling Gerald's cell. No answer. Called mine, hoping they'd hear it ring and answer it. Nope. Repeated that cycle three times, then realized I had to get into the security line from hell if I was going to make my flight.

I arrived in Detroit a few minutes ago, and beelined for a restaurant where I could grab some food, sit near a plug, and fire up Skype. (Between Skype and WoW/TeamSpeak, I really need to get a new bluetooth headset; my old one won't hold a charge anymore, and even if I don't use it with my phone, I'll use it with my computer plenty.) Talked to Lane, who said Gerald was out taking Alex to yoga. So I asked Lane to ask Gerald to send me the phone...and Lane said he already had! They'd gone to the post office this afternoon and shipped it out express mail.

I've said this before, but it bears husband rocks!

Thanks, Gerald. I love you! (And I know you'll probably read this before I get a chance to call and thank you by phone...)

So now I can head off to my connecting flight, secure in the knowledge that my phone is en route to me.

macbook pro delayed :(


I ordered a 17" MacBook Pro through RIT three weeks ago, and they gave us a ship date of 5/23. I hated that the wait was so long, but it coincided with my trip back to Rochester, so I figured it would work out. Today I got email from the RIT person who placed the order, telling me they'd pushed the ship date to June 5!!! Ugh! Ack! Oh, the humanity! :P

I'm not pleased. Not at all.


Update: A few days after I posted this, they pushed it out until June 13. So I cancelled the order. I'll still be getting one, but not until after I get back to RIT in August. In the meantime, I'm getting a Sony Vaio SZ240, which looks like a much better option for traveling. (I wish Apple would come out with a fast, light notebook option...)

(on sabbatical)^2


My visiting position at Microsoft ends June 30 (hard to believe it's been nearly a year!), but we can't return back to our house until our tenants move out at the end of July. Since I've agreed to speak at this year's MSR Faculty Summit, we decided that we'd do some vacationing in the Seattle area during the first two weeks of July. However, we procrastinated on making our plans, and I realized earlier this month what a big mistake that was. When I started looking around, all the prime rental spots in the places we were considering seemed to be booked.

Our home for july!Then late last week, I stumbed across this online listing. A boat named Sabbatical! How perfect was that? I was sure it wouldn't be available, but sent an email inquiry anyways. And to my great delight, the answer came back that it was available for rental from July 1-12.

Today we took a trip out to the Pleasant Valley Marina to check her out, and we were all totally enchanted. There's a lot of space, and the boys would each have little "cabins" to themselves in the lower deck. Gerald and I will have the "master" bedroom on the main deck, which is next to the living/dining area. And we'll all get to enjoy the open space on the fore and aft decks, and the hot tub on the top deck.

The marina has a swimming pool, as well, which should be fun for the boys, and may provide opportunities to meet other kids staying at the marina while we're there. And I suspect we'll be able to coax their friends to come stay with them for a night or two, as well (the downstairs bunks actually will accommodate up to five small people).

Now all we've got to do is find someplace to stay for the 12-15. We're hoping we might find something reasonably priced in the San Juan Islands, but I'm not holding my's a little late for that now. If that doesn't work out, we may see if one of the waterfront cabins near my uncle's house in Marysville is available. Worst case scenario we'll find a hotel to camp out in for a few days before the summit begins.

But for now, we're reveling in our wonderful good luck, and thinking about how much fun it will be to tell our friends that we'll be staying on a yacht for half of July--and spending the end of our sabbatical literally on Sabbatical.

t.l. taylor at msr


I had invited T. L. Taylor to participate in the social computing symposium, but she had a prior E3 commitment. Much to my delight, Tamara Pesik snagged her to speak in the MSR speaker series this week, so I get a chance to hear a presentation from her today about her research! Yay!

There's a good turnout, which is nice to see.

She starts by painting a basic picture of MMOG environments, including the software and service model associated with them, noting "breakthrough" titles such as Ultima Online (1997), EverQuest (1999), and World of Warcraft (2004).

Shows an excellent chart from showing subscription data (how does he get this?). The WoW curve is pretty astounding (and it's six months out of date, showing 5 million rather than 6.5 millions WoW subscribers).

She's interested generally in the relationship between social and technological artifacts, and sees games as an excellent context in which to "unpack" that relationship.

Becoming a player involves a great deal of socialization--norms, practices, social regulation. There's a lot of 'indeterminacy' -- things that aren't specified in the manual, that users have to make sense of and create through social practice. She uses "trains" in EverQuest as an example of how practice and lore develop around technical phenomenon. (She mentions use of trains for grief play, and this spurs an interesting side discussion, one that I refrain from responding to because this is a particularly sore spot for me in WoW right now.) Excellent point here -- "you can't look at a train and figure out what it means; you need to look at the context to understand it."

Next she talks about guilds, and points out how different they are. Family guilds, professional guilds, raiding guilds, casual guilds, age-based guilds, and many others. Most involve trust, responsibility, accountability, and reputation. At the highest levels of most games, it's almost impossible to play without having been socialized into a guild structure.

Shows a social network graph showing relationships among members of a family guild, differentiating between RL and RP (role playing) relationships. (Nice line: "Friends are the ultimate exploit.") Notes the extent to which people share characters, which is technically a bannable offense--but an example of how users co-opt aspects of a system in ways devs may not expect or want.

Some discussion of the external databases of player-created information about the game. The examples she shows require explicit input by users, but many of the WoW sites now use add-ons to automatically update (like, or auctioneer).

Interesting question from the audience--how much of the reward for playing comes from system-based rewards (levels, xp, honor) and how much comes from social interaction (reputation, etc).

Shows a raid-leader's screen, with mods everywhere. Wow. I've not seen this before. It does change the experience. She notes the social impact, as well, since these mods often show explicitly the micro-level contributions of each player.

Talks about some "persistent critical issues." She mentions a variety of RMT issues--selling accounts, buying gold, etc. Public vs private sources of control. She shows the warrior protest in IronForge, and the "bullhorn-like" response by Blizzard. (Found the story and the screenshots; scroll down to bottom for system message.) Talks about the GLBT-friendly guild issue, as well, and the whole "should real life come into gaming environments" issue.

Discussion (as is typical at MSR talks) is intelligent and wide-ranging, so I'm not going to try to distill it. The most interesting surrounds the issue of "addiction." This is clearly a divisive issue, and TL handles it quite well. She reminds people of the moral panic over the introduction of childrens' literature, and talks about the increasing number of people playing with their kids.

Interesting question--"is there a takeaway from your book for designers of social spaces?" Makes me think there's a hunger for this right now, for lessons we can bring from these increasingly important and influential spaces of play into other contexts.

symposium reflections


The symposium wrapped up on Tuesday night, and I took yesterday off--went to Pike Place with my family, played some WoW, and made every effort not to do a post-mortem until I'd had a little rest. But this morning, it's time for me to think about what went right and what went wrong and what I'd do differently if I were to do it again.

For those of you not interested in this kind of navel-gazing, I've placed the rest of this post "below the fold." And for those of you who would prefer to read about the content of the event rather than the process, I strongly recommend Tim Burke's excellent series of "liveblogged" entries.

symposium online access

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The folks at MSR don't seem to have put the necessary information on the event web page (that will hopefully be fixed soon), but we do in fact have the live video feed running at (with about a 27-second delay due to routing and restreaming issues), and the IRC channel will be irc://

Join us!

to tell the truth

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A few days ago, Gerald asked Alex if a character in a show they were watching was lying. "No, he's just not telling the truth," Alex replied. When pressed on the difference, he explained that "There are three kinds of not telling the truth--sarcasm, fiction, and lying."

They amaze me sometimes.

my not-book group

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A few months ago, the wonderful Maryam Scoble invited me to be part of a new women's book group she was forming. It seemed like a great opportunity to meet other interesting women here in the area, and I love spending time with Maryam, so of course I said yes. But I forgot how bad I've always been at doing "assigned" reading. It's not that I don't love to read. But I can never seem to anticipate when the book reading bug will bite (and it usually coincides with travelling, since that's enforced time sans electronic devices). I made it halfway through the first book we read, and after that it became clear that I wasn't going to be able to do it. I wasn't the only one, though, so Maryam came up with the excellent idea of alternating book club meetings with a movie night. My kids were pretty amused by that--a book club for people too lazy to read the book was how they saw it.

Last night the movie group met chez Scoble, where we were all looking forward to watching Brokeback Mountain on the Scobles' brand new HDTV. There were five of us, and we started the evening with some red wine and a delicious potluck dinner--lemon-rosemary chicken, slow-cooked pulled pork in a Tuscan sauce, enchiladas, garlic bread, a delicious strawberry shortcake dessert, and more. (Yes, for five of us. We overcooked a bit...)

But then the conversation at the table got so good that we never actually watched the movie. We laughed and talked and gossiped and shared and encouraged each other...and the next thing we knew it was 10:30pm and those of us with kids had to hightail it back home.

When I walked back in the door, my boys (whom I'd said could wait up for me) asked how the movie was. I told them we had ended up talking instead, and Lane thought that was really entertaining. "Geez, not only can you not read the books, you can't even watch the movies you're supposed to watch instead of the books!" Yeah, I guess we're failures...

But failure never felt so good, I'd have to say.

symposium countdown


This year's social computing symposium is the first event I've ever had primary responsiblity for running, and it's been quite a learning experience. I have to say, doing something like this at Microsoft, where the quality of administrative and technical support is so high, makes it a whole lot easier. Even so, it's more work than I initially anticipated, and I'll be very glad when all the prep work is done. (I don't want to say "when it's over" because I'm so looking forward to the event!)

We are planning on webcasting the event outside of Microsoft, so you're welcome to sit in on the talks remotely, and to participate on the backchannel (which I'm tentatively planning to have at irc://

I do want to make a point of thanking MSR for its willingness to support this event. It's not cheap to put on a conference, particularly when you offer travel support to all the speakers and students attending, and don't skimp on food and drink. When you're the person in charge of the budget, it becomes much clearer just how much it costs to put on an event of this sort. Could it be done less expensively? Sure. But MSR was committed to attractomg and bringing in a wide range of participants, and providing an environment conducive to discussion and interaction, and provided the funds to make that work as smoothy as possible. That includes the funding to webcast the event, which is a non-trivial exercise, and allows it to be open to far more participants than we could squeeze into one room.

It's not just MSR that's been supportive. Several product groups stepped up to help support this event, including Windows Live (aka MSN), which is sponsoring the dinner on Monday night, and Channel 9 (and 10), which is sponsoring the reception on Tuesday evening. Many thanks to both of those groups for their recognition of the value of this event and the conversations it enables.

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