From 2003-2005, I earned my Masters at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, led by its inspiring co-founders, Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio. Jenkins recently announced his departure from MIT at the end of this academic year. Henry sincerely struggled with the decision, but I — and my classmates — think he made the right one. MIT never gave CMS the resources it needed, and Henry and William could only compensate for so long. Ten years, in fact. 

Henry’s departure had a silver lining: It brought my classmates together to reflect on the importance of the kind of media education we experienced. The coming together was virtual: We wielded new media tools to collaboratively craft an open letter to the Institute. It took us weeks of writing and re-writing, emails, and phone calls. The group’s balance of effort, and sense of respect, common purpose, and fun makes me proud.

So does the result:

Why We Need Comparative Media Studies
— an open, collaboratively written letter to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

December 5, 2008

Dr. Susan Hockfield, President
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

Dr. Hockfield:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is known globally for bringing the best and the brightest together in a hotbed of intellectual energy, innovation, and applied study. Increasingly, its reputation for academic leadership is reaching beyond science, engineering, and economics and into the humanities. As graduates of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) Masters program, we have seen firsthand the role this visionary program plays in the wider world. Recently, CMS co-director Henry Jenkins III announced his plans to leave the Institute for a post at the University of Southern California, leaving only one dedicated faculty member — co-director William Uricchio — and an uncertain future for both the graduate and undergraduate programs. This decision has inspired us, the CMS Class of 2005, to reflect on our program’s unique and important approach to the study of media and technology. We urge you, Dr. Hockfield, and others in the Institute’s leadership, to give the support Comparative Media Studies needs to truly succeed at MIT.

Every fall, Professors Jenkins and Uricchio welcome a small cohort of students and professionals to a two-year graduate experience that will transform them into the media experts that industry and academia increasingly seek. The co-directors, whose complementary experience and leadership styles have been key to the program’s success, practice a philosophy they call “applied humanities”. With so much of our time spent interacting through and with media, applied humanities calls for a greater understanding of its historical, cultural, economic, and global context. Everyone — business and government leaders, journalists, educators, and citizens — benefits from humanities learning, including the ability to read, write, and circulate information to diverse audiences, across distribution channels that vary in their form and content demands. Applied humanities blends traditional academic research with hands-on engagement in the public and private sectors. Comparative Media Studies creates the environment for such principles to flourish by bringing together students from a wide range of fields, including education, film and video preservation, journalism, advertising, software development, and venture capital. The program’s deeply collaborative environment turns out thinking-practitioners who can translate for a broader public and ask forward-looking questions. How is social networking changing politics? What are the ethics of video games? What happens when popular cultures move across national borders? What is the future of digital reading?

Our rapidly changing times also call for the remembrance of technological and media history, lest we remain caught up in our societal fascination with newness. CMS reminds us that early radio in the 1920s and comics in the 1950s triggered moral panics over our “impressionable” youth — fears which we look back on as reactionary and simple-minded, even as the same turns of phrase are employed over certain video games and social networking sites today. Meanwhile, the asynchronous debates of Current TV and Twitter are pulling the political town hall meetings of the past into the 21st century, and Obama’s weekly online video address is bringing F.D.R.’s fireside chats to YouTube. From Herodotus, to the printing press, opera, and silent film, the CMS program’s deep grounding in history has taught us to apply an active historical frame in our professional roles shaping media business and policy.

We have had three years since graduation to test what Jenkins, Uricchio, and a supporting team of non-CMS faculty have imparted: in industry, academia, non-profits, and beyond. We’ve brought our talents for reflective communication to books, blogs, video games, and top Ph.D. programs. Many of us have created our own job descriptions. As Jenkins explains, the CMS program prepares students for jobs that may not have existed just a few years ago, yet are becoming vital to public and private sectors in flux.

Comparative Media Studies is not the only top-notch media program out there, but it is one of very few in the United States. As a field, media studies is often ensconced within humanities and social sciences departments, with limited exposure beyond pre-existing disciplines such as sociology, film studies, art history, or education. Forging a new paradigm for intellectual accomplishment means breaking down barriers between academic disciplines in non-tokenistic, durable ways. In the seemingly unlikely setting of MIT, applied humanities has flourished, with students drawing from urban studies, architecture, history, anthropology, and computer science to formulate and express their ideas. The program’s weekly public colloquia have brought leading media scholars and professionals to MIT, creating a rare opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue. Over the past decade, the program has also hosted several international scholars-in-residence, who have shared their expertise on topics as diverse as mobile phone culture in Japan and the history of military games in Germany. The program has also led to the formation of several major research initiatives, including the Convergence Culture Consortium (media convergence and its business ramifications), Center for Future Civic Media (social bonds in local communities), Project New Media Literacies (participatory culture) and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab (problem solving through video games).

With CMS, Jenkins and Uricchio created a new paradigm, yet they were never fully supported financially, physically, or emotionally by the Institute. Unfortunately, this is part of a more widespread reluctance of policymakers and academic institutions from K-12 onward to fully integrate media studies as an essential discipline of study in the 21st century. We applaud the work of programs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Michigan, and USC, where students and faculty are innovating the field. As these and other universities begin to recognize the value of applied humanities, we urge MIT to continue its leadership role in this field. Jenkins’ departure will be a huge loss for the MIT community. Let’s not compound his loss with the greater one of the entire program. Comparative Media Studies can continue into its second decade, but only with the full support — both moral and financial — of the Institute behind it. We hope that you and other decision-makers will see this time of change as an opportunity to demonstrate that the principles established by the founders are big enough to endure. We appeal to MIT to continue the Comparative Media Studies program, and we encourage other such programs to take form at colleges, universities, and K-12 schools around the world.

Yours sincerely,

The Comparative Media Studies Class of 2005
-Brett Camper
-Joellen Easton
-Brian R. Jacobson
-Andrea McCarty
-Rekha Murthy
-Karen Schrier
-Parmesh Shahani

cmsalum05 [at] gmail

Not too long ago, most people I knew continued to harbor a certain social prejudice well after the major social prejudices had fallen out of favor among the thinking set. This prejudice was not against a person, or a stereotype. It was against the computer.

No one ever spoke openly of this prejudice. It was transmitted subtly: a gentle roll of the eyes when someone cautiously suggested that a quick Google search might resolve the conversational impasse; a derisive snort when the token geek in the room offered to show the group what he or she was working on. When a friend said in mixed company that her local movie theater used to project video game play on the big screen for public viewing, there was an unmistakable ‘only in Maine’ undercurrent to the response.

Those of us who were less prejudiced almost unconsciously learned to suppress our impulses to introduce a computer into good old human interaction. With labels like “video game addict”, “internet addict”, and “geek” with a “dork” intonation floating around, it was best to keep demonstrations of the non-physical world to oneself.

(This unspoken rule had one exception: The showing of one’s digital photos on one’s computer with everyone gathered around. A descendant of slide carousels and photo albums. Here, eyerolls meant that the photographer took twice what they would have taken on film and edited nothing.)

I didn’t feel the oppression, as I had internalized the prejudice. There’s one keyboard, one screen, and one pointing device. Computer use is individual by design. Look inside a cafe or office and you get the idea.* It followed that introducing such a private physical relationship into mixed company would be considered unseemly.

About three years ago, however, my unconscious attitudes surfaced and changed. Martin Wattenberg came to MIT to talk about “The Social Life of Visualizations.” He focused on how people socialize around visualizations of data, the most fun example being his NameVoyager, which lets people enter a name and see a graph of its popularity over time:

When we launched the NameVoyager, we expected that it would be of interest to expectant parents… What we did not expect was that it became popular even among people with no interest in children. The site has received millions of visits since launch, and has been the subject of thousands of blog posts and online conversations. The activity around this visualization was one of the inspirations for my current research focus on the social aspects of data visualization and analysis.

Martin showed several other examples of how data visualizations inspire (mostly online) sociality, and how well-designed data visualizations inspired people to interact more deeply with the data in the process of interacting with each other.

I was totally with him on this. Soon after, I was with a pregnant friend, and she let me pull up the NameVoyager on her computer. We had a ball looking up names of everyone we knew and every name she had considered for the baby. With Martin’s emphasis on digital sociality fresh in my mind, I became acutely aware of my own different but related assumption that computers and people shouldn’t mix in physically social space. Yet here we were having so much fun. I began to feel a sort of defiant validation… why NOT bring computers into conversation?

Me in my element

My new liberation was not confined to displays of data; it was about Web surfing in general. In my self-proclaimed role as an avid media curator, I find all sorts of cool stuff online. And since my personal breakthrough, I unapologetically pull this stuff up on the nearest web-enabled computer when the conversation leads me there. I call this social surfing, not to be confused with the Web 2.0 version that assumes people are alone in their physical space and socializing only online.

As you can see from the photo, I am serious about this. I even like to think I’m particularly good at it. Usually I show the coolest new thing I’ve found. But there are some classics as well, which I especially enjoy showing to people who are easily amazed by the Web. These include:

My enduring takeaway from Martin’s talk became much broader than he intended. But I do have him to thank for it.

*Now, of course, people are often very social online. Yet even online socializing has experienced prejudice, that of being viewed as less authentic — or simply less social — than in-person interaction.

When people talk about microblogging they usually mention twitter. That has a distancing effect on me, because I don’t take twitter all that seriously. (Quick explanation: microblogging is blogging, but with more frequent updates of very little text – less than 200 characters.)

So, I hear “microblogging”, and I think, “that thing I can’t relate to.” Or, when I’m feeling darker, I think, “that thing that serves as yet another indicator of the degeneration of our society’s communications and eventually, society itself.” (Kind of like this comment and the one below it on flickr’s Atrocious Apostrophe’s [sic] group.)

Delicious Firefox add-onBut I can be slow sometimes, it’s true. No, really. Yesterday, while perusing my many RSS feeds, I saw the word “microblogging”, had one of my above thoughts, and then resumed surfing. Saw a link I liked, and clicked the delicious add-on button in my Firefox browser. (Quick explanation: delicious lets you save Web sites and share them with other people who use delicious.)

And as I began to enter text in the notes field of the “add bookmark” popup, I finally realized:

I’m a microblogger, too.


**Update: Russell Buckley of MobHappy writes an interesting roundup of the Web 2.0 Expo that I attended last week. He muses on twitter’s version of microblogging, and, incidentally, includes a spot-on critique of conferencing techniques that I, too, find to be not useful at all.

The day after I posted this essay on Yelp’s four-star leanings, I was reminded that Yelp, like all online communities, has its darker side.

While researching that previous essay, I came upon the listing of one of my all-time favorite stores. Filled with home decor, jewelry, and clothing, it’s the kind of gift shop where the gifts often end up being to myself. I’ve been there many times, and the owner has become a friendly acquaintance. I would have expected five stars — or four stars at least ;-) — but it had 3.5. Something was off: some reviews were simply untrue, even if one accounts for subjectivity. So I wrote my own review.

Soon after, I was wandering Boston’s North End, and inevitably made my way to this store. When I entered, the owner walked over to thank me for the nice review. I asked her about the bad ones, and a cloud descended. You know when you’ve been singled out for negativity and you don’t know why? You know that feeling of being misunderstood but not wanting to sound defensive or petty? That cloud.

For said reasons, the owner didn’t go into details. Basically, someone created multiple Yelp profiles and used them to bring down the store’s ratings. This reviewer also sent harassing messages to other reviewers and the owner herself. The owner said she contacted Yelp repeatedly, but the negative reviews remain. Knowing that it’s one person, and that this person has targeted other businesses as well, is little comfort to this store’s owner. Not only is it devastating to encounter unwarranted hostility, she worries about her store’s online reputation and, she said, her own personal safety.

We all know the Web is full of bad apples. Nothing new. But early on, we wrote this off as the downside of online anonymity. Now, Web pundits talk about how we are leaving anonymity behind, that our online and offline personas are merging into one, “authentic” identity (think Facebook).

But online identity is rarely verified. There are still fakers, and there are freaks. Young people are particularly vulnerable, as we know. But so are seasoned pros, like this blogger and these law students. Add some Google grease and the effects can be rough. Reputation management is a buzzphrase because real reputations are affected by online activities.

No one has figured out how to completely shield against the bad apples and the gamers, not even eBay. So while Yelp is not alone in hosting a community of good and bad, it could set itself apart by innovating ways to care for it. It’s not an impossible problem. It is irresponsible to invite people into a forum and then not moderate it well. And Yelp knows its power. The Business FAQ has some interesting moments, such as a warning not to “lash out” at negative reviewers or risk “vigilante justice” and a link to a First Amendment protection site for business owners considering a libel suit.

The conclusion from the previous post still holds: Online ratings systems can be useful and fun, but take them with a grain of salt. And, as in real life, trust the people you know more than those you don’t.

The other day, a friend asked if I knew anything about Aqua, a restaurant in San Francisco.

My response: “Don’t know it, but I’ll bet it gets 4 stars on Yelp.”

Sure enough, it does. How did I guess that? Because nearly everything I’ve searched for gets four stars on Yelp.

Of course, individual reviews vary. But I’ve always been curious about why listings in many star systems end up with nearly the same average rating over time. With Yelp, I became curious as to why these averages are so high. Looking first at the individual reviews, I saw some psychosocial reasons for this. The site encourages positivity by allowing you to tag other reviews as only Useful, Funny, or Cool. A typical search result on than once I’ve been tempted to write a review just to call someone else’s Really Dumb.) Reviewers sometimes compensate for a lackluster review with a higher number of stars. Some examples:

– “I’d easily give this place a 3 star [sic], but it gains one star for being the only place to get Sushi in Lincoln Square.” Four stars.

-“Not sure how the hostess sleeps at night with that gigantic stick lodged up her ass.” Four stars.

-“[T]he “scone” was so dry you could sand paint off the walls.” Four stars.

-“I have to say that the drinks I ordered were BAD. My Margarita was so sour and bitter that I had to return it. The vodka tonics must have been made with grade Z tonic water as it tasted like dirty soda water. I won’t even get into the dirty martini.” Four stars.

(Forgive me for taking these clips out of context, but it’s more fun that way.)

The prevalence of positive reviews might also be due to the site’s social networking element, which displays your (ostensibly) real name next to your reviews. Some of these people also get together in person. Do you really want to be the jerk who got all negative over an overcooked burger at the struggling mom-and-pop?

I initially surmised that many in the Yelp community had had those empowered childhoods where criticism was considered demoralizing.* But as I dug further into the reviews, I became impressed by their thoughtfulness. Which suggests another bias: People on Yelp — and elsewhere — tend to review places they like. Farhad Manjoo provides some supporting evidence so I don’t have to.

And yet, individual reviews are not the only cause of high average ratings: Yelp has built the bias into its search engine. At the category search level (e.g. sushi, bars, or salons), “best match” is a weak concept. Lots of results will be highly relevant to a search for sushi. So, what’s the secondary sorting logic? A combination of most reviewed, highest rated, and other special sauce criteria alluded to by a Yelp exec I once spoke with.

When you privilege the most reviewed, highest rated businesses, what happens? Logic indicates that the more reviews there are, the more likely things will average out… and in a community that evaluates matters of high subjectivity with a skew towards positivity, four stars is where the average will land. (Interestingly, All Songs Considered’s now-defunct Open Mic area had anonymous ratings. The song ratings all migrated to a similar average, but they landed more in the middle of the scale.)

In addition, the most reviewed will become more reviewed because they appear more often in the top search results, while the less reviewed will continue to lag. Weirdly, the result of this power law distribution is that Yelp falls behind the coolhunters. If Acme Grill had a moment in the spotlight 6 months ago and got tons of reviews, even when its popularity dies down, it will appear higher in Yelp search results than a newer, hipper thing. People will be more inclined to review it, and the situation is perpetuated.

I’ve long relied on word of mouth and online reviews to make purchase and entertainment decisions. When review communities first reached critical mass on Amazon, they paralyzed me. I treated any bad review, even when among other good ones, as a veto. By now, however, many of us have learned how to extract what’s useful. I’ve also come to understand that reviews are not just useful for consumers, but fun (and cathartic) for the reviewers to write. That said, Yelp does have a lot of influence, for better and worse. So it’s important to remember that a Yelp star is no Michelin (that’s not entirely a bad thing). And that all stars should be taken with a grain of salt.


*There are likely other variances as well. Geographic, for example: People in the Washington, DC, area seem to me more faux polite than those in New England.

Like anyone interested in food and cooking, I have cookbooks, I have a few issues of cooking magazines… and I have recipes. Recipes clipped and torn from magazines and newspapers, scribbled on scraps of paper, and printed from an email or a Web site.

These recipes comprise a tattered pile perched atop the cookbooks in my kitchen. The pile comprises a tiny but constant space in the room of my memory palace that is furnished with other personal organizational directives — photos, pantry, clothing, computer files. That room is, naturally, painted a light shade of guilt.

A recent blog post by a foodie friend brought this room to the front of my mind:

…I bought a sturdy-looking accordion file and began going through all the mags to clip out my favorite recipes. It was a herculean task that had to be done over a number of sittings, spread out over several months to allow sufficient recovery time after each brave plunge…

Organizing recipes is what people do, right? I bought an accordion file at Staples, and considered the taxonomy I would use.

  • Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts?
  • Vegetables, Grains, Meats?
  • Sweets and Savories?
  • Large Meals and Small Meals?
  • Quickies and Time-Takers?

I couldn’t commit to an organizing logic. The problem nagged at me, and I began to resent that so much thought was going into a common and ostensibly minor problem. I blamed my difficulty on the years of immersive computer use that had eroded my ability to place items into silos. Online, I search by keyword or browse by tags. On my computer, I keep folders that are loosely structured and highly imperfect because it’s easy enough to copy the same file to several places or (gasp) use the Windows Search when desperate.

But I remained convinced that the physical realm still needs categories, and that the mental exercise of creating them would somehow make me stronger. Until recently, when I had dinner with a few friends and submitted my organizational problem for a collaborative solution.

One (John) has a few tried-and-true recipes that he makes from memory. One is a food blogger, who knows where her recipes are because she turns to them all the time. Both were sympathetic to my organizing drive, but neither seemed compelled to do the same. Their empathetic distance from the issue was rather surprising, as I had not expected the discussion to call the problem itself into question.

Two other friends had no sympathy at all for my recipe problem. One is a core mover in the development of the semantic Web; the other would greatly benefit from its widespread use, judging from his current endeavor. Now, the semantic Web is a complex concept. (Overly) simply put, it’s a way to connect similar types of data across dissimilar digital contexts. One result of this, true believers claim, is that organizing things into categories is a waste of time and shuts information retrievers off from results that might actually be relevant but are in a different category. For example, if a recipe Web site relied on categories alone, an item in the Entree section might make a perfectly nice Appetizer, but the person looking for appetizers would never know.

Fine. I get this, and over the past few years my digital information management methods have shifted significantly from categorizing and browsing to search.

But what about my clippings, my tangible, physical, natty clippings? The semweb’s got nothing for me here.

Their response: ‘You don’t have that many recipes. If you bother to categorize them, you’re going to end up going through the entire accordion file to get ideas or find the recipe you were looking for, anyway. So why bother filing them in the first place?’

At this point, the brief and powerful manner in which a fundamental assumption of mine — recipes must be organized — was dismissed had an interesting effect: utter acceptance on my part. I also felt a little lighter. That’s one less piece of clutter in the room of personal organizational directives.

The conversation then took a telling turn towards other examples of mild obsessive-compulsive disorder in our lives. I did resent that a little bit. But, I could see their point. What if the desire to organize by category is not a cleaner kitchen, but rather a prison with guilt-colored walls?

I mulled over this for a few days after that fateful dinner. I came to a couple of other realizations:

-If we took a little survey of the semantic Web developer community, we’d probably find they don’t organize their recipes, they don’t put their photos in albums, I’d hate to see their closets, and they ripped all their CDs and got rid of them as soon as it was technologically possible. They likely have a general aversion to categorizing and culling, but the digital realm is more conducive than the physical realm to a workaround. (If only this crossover fantasy could be a reality without RFID tags everywhere!)

-My obligatory need to organize my recipes emerged, at least in part, from a fear of forgetting. I am not a chef or a food blogger, just a reasonably good occasional cook. I will never have enough recipes to lose track of the ones I have. And they’re kept in two places – in that pile in my kitchen, and in my head: There is a recipe clippings room in my memory palace that I hadn’t realized existed. What brings me there is sometimes rational (I need an appetizer) — but more often it’s emotional and sensual. When I think of my beloved grandmother, and I think of her matzo ball soup, I think of the page I wrote it on in a little book given to me by friends on my 22nd birthday. When I remember one of the best dinners I’ve ever hosted, I remember the lamb kofta recipe on its glossy magazine stock in that tattered pile. My pumpkin bread, made hundreds of times, still seems like the perfect thing for every occasion.

In any case, if a recipe does disappear from my memory palace, is that really such a tragedy? It might turn up the next time I rifle through the clippings, or it might not. I’ve always thought of food as experience and memory. So I’ll let it behave like those, fading in and out, establishing, or going away to make room for something new. Here, I finally understand, I do not need a closed system that scales.

I just overheard a visitor to my office saying into his phone:

“Right, I saw that on your Dopplr.”

(Translation for the uninitiated: “Yes, I already knew where you are, because you and I are friends on a new Web site called Dopplr that lets you share your past, present, and future locations.”)

This was a Media Theory Moment, and naturally I turned to this blog for an outlet.

So if we all broadcast our locations and our statuses to our friends and our “friends”, what will we talk about? Will we talk less? Or just repeat ourselves less?

The phrases “Was it you I was talking to about…” and “I already told you about ____, right?” take on new meaning as “tell” takes on new meanings. My Facebook status and my Buddy Beacon update and my Dopplr log are telling you something, but it’s not the same as when I tell you in direct conversation.

Because in the latter, I first have to remember that you exist. In one of many scenarios, you and I are talking, and I mention I’ll be going somewhere, and you tell me, “Gee, so will I! Let’s meet up!”

In the former, I remembered once, a while ago, when I made you my “friend” or you made me yours. From then on, I’m reminded about you by the site we’re friends on. In one of many scenarios, the guy in my office later told me that sometimes he sees in Dopplr that several of his “friends” will be somewhere he’s going to be. Only then does he contact them to meet up.

So we might all see each other more, but we think about each other less. Hmmmm.

I’m sure there’s more theory to consider, but it’s time to go home.