What If? (From the Creator of xkcd)

I’ve recently stumbled upon Randall Munroe’s latest site, What If? [link]

It attempts to scientifically answer some of the craziest questions out there. The very first, for instance, is,

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

Randall Munroe

The results are pretty explosive. The near-light-speed baseball pitch is only the first example. The questions answered so far include:

  • What would be the chance of guessing every question on the SAT correctly?
  • How much power can Yoda generate?
  • What would a mole of moles be like?
  • How long would humanity last in a robot apocalypse?

There are some great answers so far. I will definitely be keeping this on my bookmarks.

Trolling In Cyberwarfare?

Check out this Wired article about trolling online extremist forums in the counterrorism battle. Thanks to Yingnan for sending me this.

While this isn’t cyberwarfare in the traditional sense—they are not trying to shut down or crash the target sites—it is a creative new ploy using the Internet. It verbally attacks the people who use the software, instead of attacking the software itself. In my opinion this is brilliant.

It’s brilliant because it’s facing people on their own grounds, fighting fire with fire, so to speak. Only the fire in question is not physical fire but Internet fire. Heck, the term for a fierce argument on forums is called a flame war.

It has the potential to work because trolling targets emotion rather than reason. People who are highly indoctrinated and who are of devout fundamentalism cannot be reasoned with, but they can be made fun of, belittled, slandered, etc.

However I will give a warning to those attempting it. Just from a sociological standpoint, you aren’t going to be able to effectively troll unless you are on a large enough forum with a large enough troll base. For example, you can’t troll a 50-member board because the administrators or moderators will catch it right away. If you want to effectively troll, you must do it on a massive scale, such as on the current Diablo 3 forums, where 9 in 10 arguments are supported by zero facts or evidence, and things like name-calling, insulting, and baseless accusations are standard. Other than that, this seems like a brilliant plan.

SOPA

This is yet another anti-SOPA/PIPA statement, one of thousands or possibly millions on the web today. Don’t take my lack of blogging in the last few months to be any sign of ideological change, for I firmly believe that the freedom of speech is the biggest power that we can have. If virtually every page on the Internet is subject to arbitrary takedown, that is a blatant violation of our rights.

Sure, you won’t mind it most of the time. In fact, you might feel a bit good that online piracy is reduced, to a small degree. But when your most-used websites start disappearing,  and you have nowhere to turn, what will you do then?

Google on SOPA: https://www.google.com/landing/takeaction/

List of Banned Words Constitutes a “Fail”

Apparently, the Lake Superior State University takes pride in its 2011 List of Banished Words, which “refudiates” the top 2010 Shakespearean gems like “viral,” “epic,” and “fail.” Here at Cornell, and doubtless many other places, we share a different opinion on the addition of new words to the English language. Such words are the backbone of current Internet culture. Perhaps the pure linguists at LSSU who condemn such modern innovations should “man up” and face the real world as it is; of course, that suggestion “I’m just sayin’.” My own take is that we, “the American people,” should ignore these superficial laws, and adhere instead to our founding fathers’ vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of “living life to the fullest.”

Not only these, but other core American values such as freedom are contradicted by foolishly restricting the way we use words. Why should we be not allowed to use words in new ways? English, after all, is well known to be a language that grows over time. Why is Shakespeare allowed to add dozens of words to the dictionary, but the entire constituency of the Internet, consisting of millions of highly literate users, not even allowed to add a few definitions to words that are pre-existing? Below are the words in the banlist, and the reasons why each one is perfectly valid in its modern definition:

1. VIRAL

Meaning in modern culture: adj., the state of having reached a massive Internet audience.

Example: The “2011 List of Banished Words” went viral as it was facebooked 13K times.

Why pure linguists hate it: The new usage corrupts the original definition of the word, which is of or relating to a virus. Something that is viral, according to them, should have to do with biological viruses.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: An analogy is often the best way to explain an idea. When a virus spreads, the number of people affected goes up. The same happens when certain stories are shared on the Internet. Viral seems to be the most accurate word to describe such a phenomenon.

2. EPIC

Meaning in modern culture: adj., very awesome; very amazing

Example: At first I didn’t understand anything about language; then I had that aha moment, and it was like, epic!

Why pure linguists hate it: Epic has become so overused that the standards for something considered epic have been degraded to virtually nothing.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: What do they want instead? A hierarchy of epicness? Besides, from the way the Internet has used it, “epic” now has a broadened definition. Today, it refers not only to things that are majestic in scope, but also things that are funny, clever, flawless, and generally anything that is well thought-out and well made. There seems to be nothing epic at all about banning words. Well, except…

3. FAIL

Meaning in modern culture: adj. or noun, pretty much anything that doesn’t work as planned, or a plan that is extremely flawed.

Example: A: “Did you hear about that politician who said ‘refudiate’ instead of ‘repudiate’?” B: “Yeah, that was an epic fail!”

Why pure linguists hate it: Fail is supposed to be a verb: not a noun, not an adjective.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: To refuse to use a word is to fail oneself; to force others to refuse it is a fail for mankind. It has become so common a word that it is difficult to see what would happen if it were banned.

4. WOW FACTOR

Meaning in modern culture: noun, the component of a product that makes it shine.

Example: His latest novel once again has well-developed characters and a meaningful plot, but the wow factor that made it go viral was that the book invented 17 new words, all of which had become commonplace just one year after its publication.

Why pure linguists hate it: Overused; cliché.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Again, if it’s used by so many people, there’s gotta be something appealing about it. It’s because wow factor is the most precise and forcible way to describe what it describes. If you substitute it with other phrases such as “what stands out” or “the distinguishing aspect,” you run into other clichés or end up with a wordier phrase.

5. AHA MOMENT

Meaning in modern culture: noun, the moment when you understand some fact that was previously unclear.

Example: For some reason I had thought for the longest time that Shakespeare was a French epic author; when I finally realized he was English, I had an aha moment in which my linguistics homework made a lot more sense.

Why pure linguists hate it: There’s no real reason people hate it, other than that it isn’t defined in the dictionary.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: On the original site, someone said: “All this means is a point at which you understand something or something becomes clearer. Why can’t you just say that?” We can, why can’t we just say aha moment?

6. BACK STORY

I have actually never heard this term used before, so I can’t really comment on it. From my research, it seems to just be a portmanteau of background and history. It is still two words though.

7. BFF

Meaning in modern culture: nounBest Friend Forever.

Example: Would you like to meet my new BFF? She has an epic back story.

Why pure linguists hate it: The “forever” part is never true. You can have a BFF for 10 minutes, and then have a different BFF. Which means that person never was a BFF in the first place.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Just kidding, I actually agree with the linguists on this one.

8. MAN UP

Meaning in modern culture: verb, to show stereotypically masculine traits.

Example: After Jim retreated from fighting the grizzly bear with his bare hands, his pals made fun of him, saying “fail,” and told him to man up.

Why pure linguists hate it: It is “bullying and sexist.” (quote from the link)

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Again, I agree with the linguists. I assure you that the term was used in the introduction only for attention-grabbing.

9. REFUDIATE

Meaning in modern culture: verb, to repudiate.

Example: One soldier refudiated the order to man up during a hopeless assault, choosing instead to strategically retreat. She was the only survivor, the only one to live life to the fullest.

Why pure linguists hate it: The word is repudiate, not refudiate. Refudiate is just a slip of the tongue made by Sarah Palin.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: When you say refudiate, everyone will understand it. The difference is so small that it’s almost like a regional accent. Plus, /p/ and /f/ aren’t TOO different as far as consonants go.

10. MAMA GRIZZLIES

I’ve never even remotely heard of this term, but apparently it has a political back story, so I’ll skip it.

11. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Meaning in modern culture: noun, the American people.

Example: In November 2008, the American people wanted change, not fail.

Why pure linguists hate it: Again, because it’s so overused by politicians.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: There’s nothing wrong with the phrase. I seriously don’t understand why any person, especially an American, would be against this. The only valid complaint I could find is that the phrase “the American people” lumps all Americans into the same group, implying we all want and do the same thing. This however is a purely semantic issue. Anyone with any intelligence in any field should know that “the American people” is a generalization and not an absolute.

12. I’M JUST SAYIN’

Meaning in modern culture: interjection, what I just said is my honest opinion, but I wish that it not be associated with me in any way. OR, what I just said had nothing to do with what we were saying before, but just pretend that it was related somehow.

Example: A: “I like things viral.” B: “What?” A: “I’m just sayin’.”

Why pure linguists hate it: When formally used, it is a redundancy: of course you just said it!

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: A lot of the time, we engage in casual conversation instead of formal conversation. (And according to sociologists, casual conversation is often more important than formal conversation. I’m just sayin’.) In informal conversation, some phrases are there just for the sake of conversation. If pure linguists want people to stop saying “I’m just sayin’,” they’ll have to get people to stop saying a lot of other things too.

13. FACEBOOK/GOOGLE AS VERBS

Meaning in modern culture: verbs, to use Facebook/to use Google for something.

Example: I didn’t understand the article she facebooked, so I googled it. Then I had an aha moment.

Why pure linguistics hate it: They hate it in general when people use nouns as verbs. It impacts them so greatly.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Actually, according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), google is a perfectly valid verb meaning to search for information on Google. As for facebook, I’m not quite sure. I still use Facebook only as a noun, but that might soon change. There’s nothing wrong with its being used as a verb.

14. LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST

Meaning in modern culture: verb, to have what you consider an enjoyable and meaningful life.

Example: I first thought of becoming a lawyer, but then I decided that stealing from the American people would be immoral, and that rather, I would live life to the fullest.

Why pure linguists hate it: The phrase is overused, redundant, and senseless.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: It’s an idiom—it doesn’t need to make literal or logical sense. And of course, “live life” is a redundancy, but it’s eloquent. The verb “live” is more powerful than the noun “life,” but if you just said “live to the fullest,” it would be utterly forgettable. To live life to the fullest is also to live the most memorable one.

So the next time you hear someone complaining against the growth of the English language, you should tell them to live life to the fullest, enjoy a few fails, and have some epic experiences. Maybe you’ll give that person an aha moment. At worst, if the person starts arguing vehemently with you, you could simply reply, “I’m just sayin’.”

The Map of Facebook Connections

[giant map]

This map was created recently by Paul Butler, an intern at Facebook [via]. Roughly, the lines on the map represent Facebook connections between different cities.

I think we would best learn from this map if we compare it to two others. The first is the famous Earth at night picture:

Wow, they look pretty similar, you might say, after focusing first on the bright hubs of North America and Europe. But there are three major exceptions: China, Russia, and the Middle East. (There are other noticeable holes like Bangladesh and Vietnam.) Asia looks pretty dim on the Facebook map. Sure, it has India, South Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia lit up, but you can see a giant hole, devoid of light, a pit where, in many of the places, Facebook is banned.

In my previous post I mentioned it was no surprise that Mark Zuckerberg was named TIME’s Person of the Year 2010. But looking at the map above, we easily see that Facebook has not reached out to as big a userbase as it can. Speaking of users, where do they reside? Here is a map of population density around the world:

Again there is quite a close overall match with the Facebook map. And yet again, there is a disparity in China, Russia, and the Middle East, and in Africa.

We can also derive graphically that the percentage of people who use Facebook in North America. is much higher compared to the rest of the world. Compare, for example, the eastern half of the United States and the entirety of India. Though India has over three times the population of the United States, the Facebook connections in the eastern United States alone outshine India’s vastly.

As seen from the map, Australia’s eastern coast plus New Zealand also have a disproportionately high percent of Facebook users.

Before I finish, I’d like to show just one more image: the Facebook map zoomed into the United States:

Damn, that’s home, for me, and for most likely the vast majority of my readers. YOU are on that diagram. You probably have a Facebook, and you are connected to this virtual map. It is not a physical map. That was in an old, ancient age. With Zuckerberg officially recognized, named above other world leaders, it is an appropriate time to say that this moment, this year of 2010, is the year that we can officially turn back and say that we’ve exited an old phase of society. A new one, THAT one, in the picture above you, has replaced it.

Going Viral: Planning vs. the Internet

Almost a month ago, on November 18, I was stumbling on the Internet, taking a break from novel-writing for NaNoWriMo. I was in the Olin Library, at Cornell University. Suddenly I had the idea to make a diagram of how I waste a lot of time on the Internet. That became the now viral “Planning vs. the Internet” image (here’s the original post):

The only software I used were Microsoft Publisher (I just created a very long, blank sheet), Paint, and GIMP. The most painful part was actually getting all the icons and aligning things together.

I was first notified of its viral factor when the viewcount on my blog spiked. It wasn’t very much. The daily views went from an average of 150 suddenly to 600. I have experienced a really big spike (80,000 in one day) in the past, but I knew there was something weird here, because I tracked a relatively large number of hits on the home page, not on any post in particular. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this.

Then two real-life friends from two different places messaged me on Facebook, saying that they had stumbled upon this image. I immediately did a google search for *planning vs the internet* but found only a few websites that had uploaded the image, and so were gaining viewcount for themselves. This made sense. The only identification on this image is the blurb I put on the bottom right corner, which  goes to my homepage, so it would make sense that I received a homepage spike. But of all the websites I found put together, plus this site itself, I counted at most 2000 views. It was too coincidental that two of these 2000 would be people I knew in real life. There must be views coming from something else, something that wasn’t stat tracked. This was all a few days prior to this post.

Then just an hour ago, I found it. THIS.

That was it. A huge spike from StumbleUpon. 269K views at the time of this post. But the url stumbled is the image file itself, not the post in which I put up the image. So WordPress is actually not keeping track of any of these 269K hits. That’s why, on the right-hand bar, it says 230,367 views (at the time of the current post), which is lower than the amount on the image alone. Too bad it doesn’t count. Had it counted, it would have over doubled the total number of hits on this blog.

Some trivia about the image:

  • that Wikipedia featured article was the Nov. 18 one, “City of Blinding Lights
  • the Cracked article is from Nov. 17, “5 Minor Screw-ups that Created the Modern World
  • in the WordPress screenshot, the graph is actually the graph of this blog’s stats. Gray bars are weekends. Note that Sunday consistently got more views than Saturday.
  • in the Tumblr screenshot, the text says, “I have said this many times in my head and even a couple of times out loud, but I will say it only once here:” The next line, which is partially cut off, says, “Fuck Internet Explorer.” It looks different in the link because the screenshot on the image is from the Tumblr dashboard. The author behind the quote is Karan, the same one who instigated this post.
  • in the gmail screenshot, the two people are Stephanie Richmond and Lauren Mangano, and both emails were band-related. The top one says, “Rehearsal Tomorrow & Senior Concert reminder” and the other, “Penn Band Arrival Time.” If you read very carefully, you’ll see that both start with “Hey Band.” Stephanie is the drum major and Lauren is the head manager. Cornell Big Red Marching Band for the win!
  • for English, I am in English 1170, or Short Stories. We normally write two discussion questions over texts that we read. Blackboard is a site used by many schools to organize academic stuff.
  • on that Sociology exam that I referred to, I got an A+. 😛
  • the 3 webcomics which have some iconic character on the picture are Cyanide and Happinessxkcd, and Abstruse Goose.
  • StumbleUpon is an awesome but addicting site.

*You can click the image to enlarge it if you wish to follow along with the trivia.

A Sociological Perspective on Internet Trolling

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Wikipedia

Today’s topic, trolling, was chosen by Vishal J, who attends UT Austin.

For those of you who, after reading wiki’s short explanation, are still wondering what trolling is, just go to any popular youtube video (say, with at least a million views) and check out the comment section. No further explanation needed.

As a former global moderator of a forum and a co-admin of another, I can say that I very much dislike trolling. It is a simply immature behavior. On small blogs such as this one, it is not too bad because I get so few comments, but I can see how it could become unmanageable if the viewcount is much higher.

For example, if each post I made was like the US Census 2010 Win post, I would run into trolling problems immediately. That post has just over 180,000 views at the moment, which accounts for the majority of my total blog hits. Just its sheer number of comments, currently at 195, makes it impractical to read through and look for trolls. Plus, they are normally best dealt with by ignoring them (hence the famous slogan “do not feed the trolls”). An administrator may find it even better to delete trolling posts.

The Sociological Perspective

There is some amount of academic literature about trolling, but as far as I have researched, the study of trolling is (1) not comprehensive, (2) fairly uninteresting, and (3) incoherent. Does trolling deserve to be studied? It is a relatively new phenomenon as it has no good precursor in history. I suggest that we look at trolling from a sociological perspective.

Trolling seems to belong to the field of sociology. If we tie it to other sociological phenomena, then issue (3) suddenly disappears because of its connections to other topics. (1) is an issue but will be resolved as more studies are done. And (2) is because the impact of trolling is still small, usually on a personal level. But as online communities become more important, trolling can potentially have greater consequences, some of which we would more easily be able to control if we tried to understand them as soon as possible.

For example, how do we explain the origins of trolling? Below is a very simplified sociological model. If it looks like common sense, then we have succeeded.

A few things might require additional explanation. The top two rows should be self-explanatory, but there are a couple of things noteworthy. First, some would consider the Internet as part of the macrosociological process of globalization; however, in this article, because I am referring to Internet trolls in particular, it is enough to create a distinction. In addition, it is possible to have globalization without the Internet, and vice versa.

In the second row, the only word causing any confusion should be “space,” which I define to be some abstract area in which people can socially interact. Going from row 1 to row 2 should be straightforward; it is almost the definition of the Internet.*

*Perhaps not on social networking sites, where you DO know people in real life. I am referring to things like forums, on which people rarely know one another.

In the third row I use three sociology terms: impression management, backstage behavior, and social control. The first, impression management, is what it sounds like—how one controls his or her own appearance in a social interaction.

Backstage behavior is a term by sociologist Erving Goffman (wiki), who compared human presentation of self to a stage drama. Essentially, what we do when we know other people are watching is called frontstage behavior, whereas what we do in private is backstage behavior. Backstage behavior is the behavior which you do not wish everyone to see.

But from the second row, we have a space in which people are detached and anonymous. So they have no reason to manage their impressions or put to put up a frontstage show. Therefore, there is very little self control.

What about things like peer pressure? The Internet (especially forums) is generally not a good place for social control. Social control does not have to exist formally as a set of rules and laws. It could simply be that when you are about to make a bad decision your friend says, “Uh, I don’t think that’s a brilliant idea,” an example of informal social control. Social control on the Internet is somewhat less sophisticated. Sure, a forum may have formal control factors such as reputation or a banlist, but they lack informal ones, which, as many sociologists have seen, are usually more effective.

Now we get to the conclusion, that if one’s behavior is neither self-regulated nor regulated by others, it could transform into just about anything, including misbehavior. Thus row 3 flows into row 4, and this simplified explanation of the origins of trolling is complete.

Further Applications of Sociology

Above, we looked at only the origins of trolling. But what about its characteristics and consequences? For these we need more than pure theorycrafting. Observations and experiments need to be performed. Can we find which groups of people who are most likely to troll? Determine which aspects of spaces are most prone to trolling? The long term effects of trolling on a given space? Come on, sociologists, we need to know!