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The Melting Pot

A digital, cultural conversation

Airports are one of my favorite places in the world. I love the whispered interactions between people going different places, but essentially the same places: home, school, work, vacation, family. I just flew home and back for the holidays, spent a good amount of time in airports and realized the power behind a device in the Ronald Reagan Airport.

I walked by this interactive wall in the US Airways hallway that served as an advertisement for an energy-efficient company called Siemens and did a double-take.

right corner: houses that you must tap to reduce CO2 levels; left: the “start” page on the wall with a full-sized map; left top: directions for the game

             You press one of two scenarios and then the wall comes to life with houses consuming too much bad energy, so you have to tap them for the energy content to reduce down to a normal level. If you don’t get them down as quickly as you can, you get a memo telling you that you’ve failed. It’s like an iPhone game of Angry Birds, but on a jumbo screen, for the whole world to see.

It captured what I believe to be the future of technology – mobile inventions that are literally on-the-go and wholly surround the world around you. I think it’s the definition of being technological: living in a world where everything – from ceilings to windows to walls – is completely technologized. That’s what it means to be fully wired, and completely aware and in-check of your wiredness at all times.

What if our entire world was like this? I asked myself. Each step of the way is a large, interactive mobile wall. You can network on the wall, advertise, jot notes, make art, entertain, inform – the possibilities of the concept of being fully wired are limitless, and probably the way that the world is trending in the next few years. I can see it now – we’ve accomplished the mobile initiative of our devices, and it’s now time to achieve it one step further: become one with our environments and our devices.

Unfortunately, this stroke of advertising and conceptual genius went remarkably unnoticed by the passers-by of Ronald Reagan. Every now and then a toddler would touch it, only to be pulled away by their mothers immediately afterward. Or the curious businessman would look up from his mobile device to check out the wall, decide it to be lame and pass it by.

I wonder how many similar innovations go unnoticed on a day-to-day basis.

Think about it: we just passed the seven billion mark of people living on Earth. Let’s say that at least three billion people are capable innovators of those, in that they can function with devices and thrive in the world’s middle class. We should then have a plethora of new technological advents every single day to marvel and bask in.

But here we are, looking at just the mainstream devices that are perhaps overemphasized, leaving no room for the new developments to occur. Perhaps that interactive wall would be a hit in any other scenario, but in a world already wired to its mainstream device of choice, it goes simply unnoticed and rejected.

If we hope to make progress in our fields of technological advances, we need to embrace some of the more unconventional methods, or at least give them a chance. Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of Facemash and then Facebook certainly didn’t get popular by just going with the mainstream. People tried it and realized they enjoyed it, and it gave them what they needed.

The world is simply going to stagnate if we only revel in the glories of the efficiencies of Apple products. The beauty of technology is that it’s always changing, and it’s always unexpected. It’s funny that being mainstream is the opposite of being tech-savvy – the real tech gurus are the ones that are two steps ahead of everyone else.

It’s time for us all to be hipsters and go against the grain. Who knows – the next Facebook or Twitter could be waiting for us on an airport wall. It’ll be the next big thing – if people can put down their iPhones and give it a chance.

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The art of the meme is a curious one.

My friends started a Facebook meme war a few weeks ago, posting meme after meme of their favorite meme-able person in our friend group – we probably spent hours laughing at the clarity and poignancy of some of the images. Identities were captured and held in time with the meme, thus kick-starting my intrigue with them.

Ooh. Awkward.

Culturally, the idea of a meme stems from the generator that spreads from person to person in a wave of popularity. Some claim they evolve by the process of natural selection and evolution, and retain popularity biologically.

Enter dot-com boom and Internet era.

Memes now litter Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, as well as just-for-meme sites like quickmeme – you name the site, a meme has probably had some semblance of a stint on it. Memes have taken the Internet world by a storm.

They’re annoying, definitely. Memes circle around and get liked and favorited more times than anyone would ever like to count. Everyone gets bored of them – really, how many Chuck Testa memes can you pretend are still funny three months later? The stupidity of our culture is exaggerated in crude images that become insanely popular, seemingly deprecating the human race and its values. They almost always involve reinforcing stereotypes and furthering everything that’s wrong about society today.

“Meme” in French means “same.” And in a way, the meme’s definition captures it in a repetitive light – the same ideas and concepts are in each frame, repeated and circulated around the Internet. College Freshman, High Expectations Asian Father and Socially Awkward Penguin and others have series of memes, all tying back to the same themes: being a lost/alone freshman, always striving for success and being different, in these memes’ cases. They’re repetitions of sex, drugs and college life – the same photographs over and over, the same rhythm of phrase and then funnier phrase. Thanks, Facebook news feed, for being cluttered every day with the same remnants of a superficial, repetitive meme circle of life.

 

But as much as there is wrong with the meme, there’s also something innately very human about it. It takes complicated ideas, like moving to college for the first time, being a blue-collar worker or living a

Poor guy. He's all alone in a completely different world.

day-to-day life, and breaks them down to simpler versions, summing up everything in just a sentence. Though these stereotypes are harsh, they are somewhat based in a shred of truth. Memes strip down truths to their cores, and helps us understand the world around us better.

I’m sure analysts and researchers are marveling at the impact of memes; what they try to explain in pages and pages is told just as expressively in a meme, and often in a more engaging and memorable way. Yes, it seems that we become increasingly superficial through the meme-age – we marvel at the accuracy of a simple one-liner in a complex world. But by reading the poignancies of others, we find ourselves better; because of the human aspect prevalent in memes, we discover our own nuances by reading pieces of ourselves and realizing our connections to both meme-able characters and our flaws among them – as funny or sad as they may be. We realize pieces of our identity and put them together to reveal the big puzzle of who we are – both as individuals and as a human race.

I now look at a meme and beyond the stupidity – I see the poignance. I feel something for the character – a connectedness, perhaps, or an ability to relate – that humanizes across different Internet cultures and cities and reminds me that we aren’t so different, after all.

Thanks, Veterans. Image from colonialmotel.us

This blog has been brewing in my head for the past few days – ever since Veterans Day. Why, you ask? Well, I have an ongoing dilemma with the prospect of saying “thanks” to veterans.

My problem is this: I want to, more than almost any other social interaction I could ever wish for, be able to walk up to people who served our country, and tell them that I really appreciate what they did for the US, and without people like them, I wouldn’t be here.

But I just can’t. Every time I tell myself that today is going to be the day that I’m going to do it, I chicken out and cower behind a bush until the moment passes and I can go feel bad for not just saying thank you for the next month. The thing is, it’s difficult. I don’t want to upset a veteran, and I don’t want to bring up the delicate subject of war to someone who really doesn’t want to talk about it. But at the same time, I know I want to say it, for him or her to know that she is appreciated. After all, that’s the core of humanity: gratitude.

Friday, on Veterans Day, I experienced a bubble of excitement. Facebook could solve all my problems! I thought to myself. I could update my status with “Thank you, veterans” and an accompanying YouTube clip and all the guilt would float off my chest! (Note to readers: if you ever think Facebook can solve all your problems, you need to turn around and re-evaluate your life.)

False. I’d be exactly where I started, feeling exactly the same way. How can a superficial Facebook status, where importance is ranked based on likes, ever compare to what these men and women have given to us? It would almost be an insult for me to even try to reply with that form of communication.

The kind of thanks I think a veteran deserves is not something that can be mailed – it’s an in-person expression of gratitude, accompanied by a handshake. After all, what veterans did for our country was so personal – they gave up years of their lives and risked their safety. I think that though it can never measure up to what they have given us, directly saying “thank you” is the only equivalent to their efforts.

From generation to generation - thanks. Image from powip.com

So, it seems the art of the thank you is ever-changing.

It evolved from religion and philosophy as the ultimate expression of gratitude, and one of the most basic and thoughtful forms of human communication. Society drilled thank yous into our minds, and American culture especially uses it as retorts for most tasks done by other people in our favor.

Now, thank yous are used in quick email signatures, haphazard mass texts, Facebook comments and Twitter mentions. The expression of gratitude gets thrown around like someone’s old football – not at all the personalized, almost sacred form of appreciation it was meant to be.

It seems that two simple words can’t possibly cover all the new forms of evolving gratitude now. The ones requiring more effort should naturally warrant a better form of gratitude, not the same two words that a co-worker gets after sending you an attachment of something due an hour ago.

Any task higher than a Level 4 should warrant a face-to-face thank you.

Because of its overuse, the thank you has become slowly devalued and really not synonymous with appreciation anymore. People will use a thank you when they don’t actually mean it – just because it’s a social staple to reply with a thanks and a smiley face emoticon. So the actual form of gratitude disappears under the cloak of what was once a great way to let someone know you appreciate what he or she did.

And with that, we become a thankless culture. We’re too involved in our own worlds with arbitrary gratitude to stop and see that as we push away true, meaningful gratitude in lieu of superficial words, we become more alone than ever before in our changing world. But mostly, with the death of real, face-to-face gratitude, we are losing the most treasured form of interaction, and the appreciation for everything that is good about humankind.

Look out, world – the Ancient Dating Law is in for a change.

Gone are the days of waiting at least 36 hours before calling a prospective date back, or the protocol of instigating a first meeting after seeing him or her at least two times at a party, or the necessity of the long chain of text messages before the “we should hang out sometime” reply.

Dating has been flipped completely topsy-turvy and roller-coastered into the new era. What we know is that the old social norms and dating’s tendencies to define male-female dynamics (along with protocols of how long a guy should call a girl to go out) have been thrown out the window. With mobile apps, people are forced to live in the moment and chase after opportunity. Now more than ever, that profile on a mobile app or Internet page could be the one.

There are really incredible apps like Blendr and its LGBTQ counterpart Grindr that seek out those connected to the application in your near vicinity. Scroll through profiles of people around you and message him or her if that so tickles your fancy, and it’s literally a love connection.

An instant Grindr message, spurring instant meetings.

Another Blendr view. Link up profiles immediately.

Past the ancient days of eharmony.com and Match.com is a revolutionary new site, OkCupid.com. OkCupid’s method is all based in numbers. It collects users’ three values: their answer, how they’d like their potential significant other to answer, and how important the question is in their value set. Through this, the site comes up with a Venn diagram of the person’s compatibility with another. As long as their users are honest, OkCupid says, the math is foolproof.

And in an era based on the “now” factor, a new site called HowAboutWe.com is all about the date. In a Facebook-esque way, people post their ideal date – “how about we watch the sunset together?” Then, they send and receive dates based on similarities, and boom, perfect date, ready to go!

HowAboutWe.com gets people together by dates they'd like to go on - with or without spelling errors!

You think, okay, these apps help me find a date, and rather efficiently. Everything’s going online, but at least the actual date is still a face-to-face thing. Right?

Wrong. The popularity of “Skype dates” and other video chatting programs like Google+ has skyrocketed. Long-distance relationships can be fostered by a time each day that a couple Skypes, which can almost make up for not actually being together.

As seen in superficial Facebook profiles, it’s very possible that an appealing profile could actually make for a very unappealing date. People aren’t their real selves online – they’re the people they want to be. So a relationship formed out of the kind of fakeness that is an unfortunate by-product of some online services can’t lead to anything good.

Perhaps though, the instant nature of dates by using mobile devices to track prospective people around you will surmount this fear. Scanning a profile before making a date fills your head with less judgment than does Googling and Facebook-creeping a date before going out, like this very appropriate example from the essence of dating, as seen in a show that documents the essence of dating, How I Met Your Mother.

Everything’s in the moment now. With digital technology, maybe people will learn to live in the moment better and find people with whom they’re more compatible. People will be more of themselves when put on the spot more often in a face-to-face encounter, because they, too, want to desperately find the right person. Relationships, though void of the usual codes of getting together, could be more fun for a longer time. Because the more technology, the more chances of finding that coveted soul mate and living happily ever after.

the American culture shift with the decline of the cinema

Yeah, I'd be scared too, kid. Image from ramascreen.com

Reshaping American culture in an age of declining theater cinema.

There’s nothing like a day at the movies.

You walk into the ticket booth, shell out the appalling ten bucks and change, head to the concessions and inhale all the aromas of everything fattening and artery-clogging. Exhale. Pay up another five, six, seven – who really knows, anymore? – dollars for the necessities. Two minutes later, you’ve ambled down the processional to the main event: your film.

It’s shaped American culture from the early days of the black-and-whites and back-to-back features starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart to CGI effects of today. There’s something thrilling about the cinema. The aesthetic is unlike any other I’ve ever experienced, and the focus is deeper and more special. Something about seeing the stars on the big-screen has made celebrities seem larger than life, and made our Hollywood entertainment what it is today.

The culture-defining phenomenon.

But recently, the classic Hollywood business has taken some heavy blows.

  1. We’re in a recession. It’s hard to shell out those extra couple of bucks. Movie theaters are struggling to make a profit while audiences give up and wait for the RedBox alternative.
  2. Big-budget companies are starting to get it. Upcoming Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy film Tower Heist was slated to be released on DVD just three weeks after its opening, but scrapped that plan after outrage from movie theater companies.
  3. UltraViolet is a new viewing library that can filter its options for each member of the family, unlike Netflix. Films like Green Lantern are choosing to release here, as well. This has caused the slow decline of DVD sales; people would rather stream it.
  4. For a beyond-personal viewing experience is the new Sony headset that will incorporate 3-D viewing just inches from your eyelids, making it all the more realistic without the ridiculous theater prices for a film in the third dimension.

The bottom line: people are becoming streamers rather than moviegoers. They’ll opt out of the gas+ticket+concessions prices of the theater to get the same experience in a more personal, individualized setting at home.

Maybe the decline of the theater was always imminent – after all, with all the changes of other media to become more personal (music to iPods, computers to laptops and TVs to tablets), the theater just can’t adapt. Does it sell one ticket per theater now, to compete with the sentiment of the iPod? The beauty of it is the appeal it has to larger audiences, so it flounders in an era where people want the trendy personalization and isolation.

It’s depressing that something so close to my heart and the hearts of almost everyone I know is disappearing. My dad would always take me to the movies as a kid – it was a treat to go once every few months. I remember being astounded by the size of the screens and my favorite characters came to life within that large setting, but a setting that was personal, nonetheless. I grew up in the Harry Potter era – seeing each movie with my friends at the theater was the best part. The large sounds, the thrills, the fact that we talked through every single movie trailer – those were the best times of my childhood.

But the culture that defined an entertainment genre of larger-than-life celebrities and the glamorous Hollywood in sparkling lights is dwindling. And that kills me inside – gone forever are the cinematic gems of my childhood. Soon, the movie theater and its all-American vibe will be just a memory among the personalized headsets and gadgets.

It’s the undermining of gauging popularity online

The name: just another piece of identity snatched away from us

Muammar (or is it Moammar?) Gaddafi – uh, Qaddafi – nope, Kadafi (Gadhafi?) is dead.

And, clearly, no one knows how to spell his name.

I can only imagine the tribulations of newspaper editors, scrolling through lists to see just how the Associated Press suggests they do it (Gadhafi) and what The New York Times is doing (Qaddafi), to finally settle on some combination of letters thereof to result in yet another spelling option for the deceased leader of Libya. The leader’s name’s spelling is blurred by the unclear Arabic translation to English when inserting it with vowels and consonants of our language. We’ve seen it for years with his name, and we’ve come to accept it. But think about it in the most basic terms – your name. Let’s say a girl – whose name is more commonly spelled “Rebecca” – decides to opt for the spelling with a ‘k’ (“Rebekah”). And on her first day of kindergarten, her teacher spells it incorrectly. The five-year-old, knowing nothing about the world of AP Style or consistency or Internet conundrums, will have her teacher correct her spelling.

In our world today, with identities sometimes blurred on the Internet, a name is the only thing we have that is 100% ours; it’s the one thing we associate with ourselves. The simple innocence of the name is what makes it so uniquely ours, and a factor that determines a core piece of our identity.

Yes, news organizations want to have a credible way to spell the leader’s name to both set a standard and give respect to the identification of the name. The audience needs the truth, and the news has prided itself on keeping consistent with ideas throughout time.

Up until now, when looking at deaths of prominent people in our society, we could see the top Tweets about a subject – and gauge its relative popularity in our society – by searching for its Twitter hashtag. Steve Jobs’ related Tweets exploded, as did those of Osama bin Laden in May.

No longer will that tactic work.

The hashtag system is getting undermined by the influx of varied tweets on the subject of the deceased dictator; is it Gaddafi or Qaddafi or Gadhafi? No one knows, and the hits are suffering from the lack of consistency. The whole idea of the mentioning system – one of the most powerful on the Internet today – fails when a community cannot unite on a simple spelling of the name.

Even searches become skewed. Larger websites have enough of an algorithm programmed in that even if you spell the name with the wrong letter, the correct spelling of the respective organization fills the top hits. But try searching outside the mainstream media for an article on the leader. If you don’t guess the right name spelling, you could be in the dark.

Did we ever think they could fail? Surely, the Internet is invincible! But the honest simplicity of its perpetrators have the potential to take down the popularity chart of the Internet – an altogether frightening concept.

Maybe the Internet isn’t as strong as we all thought it was; its power is based in precision and specificity. A few letters’ deviation from the subject could cause chaos and a failure to find what we’re looking for, which results in the failure of the Internet itself. It’s a sign that human error could massively skew the outcome. And it’s a sign that no matter how strong the Internet seems, mistakes within it can be deadly.

But the fact that however-you-spell-his-name’s name was so inconsistent over time makes me fear, above all, for the future of our identity online. If such a large figure’s name spelling went unnoticed, what does that mean for the not-famous, for the everyday Joes (or should I say “Johs” or “Jos”)?

The name is one of the only pieces that’s uniquely us that we have left, but little hiccups on the Internet are starting to threaten that.

Feeling like part of a town is something many strive for. It’s probably the largest sense of identity – feeling like you truly belong – when you know the hotspots of your town and the cool hangouts.

It wouldn’t be long before this piece of identity-shaping fundamentality would get manufactured into an Internet product – namely, MapQuest’s new online service, mqVibe. It claims, using an algorithm, that it will revolutionize your neighborhood and make you feel like part of the town when you travel away with a central database of maps, plus reviews about the place, plus ratings. It’s like a cartographer’s Facebook.

I wanted to see whether this mapping site could really capture the sense of locality that you feel after belonging in a town. After having been a resident of College Park, MD for a month, I am by no means an expert on the town (not even close). But I want to compare the site’s “local hotspots” and places destined to make you feel like one on the town with my own realities. So The Melting Pot is a quasi-travel blog this edition – geared to, as always, evaluating the impact of the Internet on our identities, both individually and as a whole.

2:00 p.m.

Starting out on my trek to evaluate mqVibe's claim to identity!

As I set out on my journey, I remembered all the times that my friends and I wanted to grab something on College Park’s Route 1 (Baltimore Avenue), but had no idea where to start. A few weeks ago, for example, my friends and I were starving and the diner was closed, so we headed to Route 1. No one could agree on what to eat, so we went from door to door at just about every restaurant near the Baltimore Avenue/Knox Road intersection to find dinner, ultimately settling on the Noodles and Co., which, though satisfying, wasn’t really the CP Mom and Pop restaurant we wanted to find in the first place.

The view down the right-hand side of Baltimore Avenue in CP.

In evaluating mqVibe’s effectiveness at making me feel like a local, I wanted to compare its accuracy to the local hotspots I know well – favorites like DP Dough and Panda, as well as Ledo’s Restaurant, Mamma Lucia’s, Jason’s Deli and Krazi Kebob. I checked leading local services site Yelp and was pleasantly surprised. Yelp succeeds in what mqVibe can only attempt – it makes newcomers feel like masters of their respective areas. Yelp compiles user comments to form a ranking of many of the main city categories, and is very popular among travelers and foodies alike. mqVibe claims it will overtake Yelp.

2:10 p.m. – Yelp and mqVibe search

The results couldn’t have been more different. I searched for restaurants in the College Park area – you’d think there would be a substantial overlap. But check out the lists:

Yelp:

1)    Sardi’s Pollo A La Brasa

2)    Marathon Deli

3)    Krazi Kebob

4)    Ledo Restaurant

5)    Shen Yang Chinese Restaurant

mqVibe:

1)    Moose Creek Steakhouse

2)    Harvest Café

3)    Bennigan’s

4)    Harvestime Cafe

5)    Buffalo Wild Wings

What?! There’s absolutely nothing in common with the two databases! In fact, mqVibe doesn’t even back up its rankings – okay, Moose Creek is number 1. But why? If you scroll over the ranking, it will just give you the address. So, I wonder, how did the algorithm even find these hotspots as the top 5 in the first place? Clearly, there’s some kind of mistake. There is no way the BW3’s makes it in the top five, but College Park staples like DP Dough and Krazi Kebob don’t even place!

mqVibe can't even back up its rankings - it seems very sketchy and not credible.

Yelp, on the other hand, has detailed reviews from, at times, hundreds of people for a restaurant. This makes the site both more accurate and lets every person feel like a local, after reading and understanding each hotspot.

Thank goodness for Yelp.

2:15 p.m. – on Route 1

Location seems to be a main factor in figuring out what kind of restaurant will exist – as it is in any town. College Park’s locations seem to determine its successful locations very well. There are two concentric circles: downtown and the outer circle of downtown.

The outer concentric circle. Can you say, "mainstream restaurants"?

Details like these are, in addition, the elements mqVibe needs in order to make newcomers feel like locals. We need real information about real places, not a generalized swooping of details. In the end, mqVibe – though still in a beta stage – seems to be just a site with mainstream locations that don’t unite a town, but end up acting as the conforming parts of the town – not the parts that really showcase a town’s heart.

Will it be able to stand among the plethora of local service sites and really thrive? mqVibe uses the ranking system of Yelp and the “rewards” system of foursquare (you earn points if you check in from places and can trade with friends, a la Facebook’s Farmville), but uses neither well. Just because it has the name of the largest mapping website on the Internet doesn’t mean it will revolutionize society and local identities, by any means. Unlike Yelp, which has mastered the art of locality online, mqVibe will probably just end up being another local services site that leads us in the wrong direction.

(Not going to lie - after walking up and down Route 1, my feet are sort of sore.)