Friday, April 29, 2005 You'd Think They'd Sell Pyranhas - They Don't

This is a reflection upon Amazon has become a hotspot for the cheap purchase of many thousands of products, and is famed for its immense selection of books and more recently, DVDs, CDs, software, and electronic goods. The site can be seen as a portal to not just the products itself, but to a logistically excellent and rapid service with worldwide outlets. Amazon was one of the first eCommerce businesses, and for many years it ran at break-even. Its strategy was to pass down its reduced buying costs to the customer as its economies of scale grew with sales. The fact that Amazon exists in the physical world purely as a series of distribution centres linked by computer orders serves to keep costs low. This gave it a great advantage over other online businesses, which were more of an extension of a pre-existing chain of shops that had high overhead costs before they branched out into eCommerce. They are now the world’s best known eCommerce business.

Amazon is all about finding the most efficient way to do things, from using its buying power to sell the latest
Harry Potter book cheaper than anywhere else, to packaging its products in recycled cardboard. The internal structure of the site is designed to store information on each registered user and suggest items that you might enjoy based on past purchases or your reviews of products you already have. This is a great feature, especially when one’s taste in music or Japanese DVD’s requires a little extra help to find titles you might be interested in. Useful at Christmas time or birthdays is the ‘Wish-List’ feature, which allows users to make a big ‘I Want This’ list to email out to your friends and family (appreciate my BrainFarm? Buy me something I want here).

Another reason to visit Amazon is it’s ‘not-so-unique-anymore’ user reviews of each product, with the classic ‘5 star’ rating scale. Any registered user can create a review. See my review on
Lemon Jelly’s DVD album (when it gets posted, that is). This feature gives customers the extra information they might need to make a decision based upon what previous buyers think. Now, this suggests the question “What if all user reviews are bad? Won’t the product fail to make Amazon any money? Why would Amazon allow that?” Good questions, all! These can be condensed into one question: Why would a business put its trust in its users to advertise the products for them? The answer is not simple, but like most of Amazon’s techniques to generate revenue, it involves a focus on the customer’s best interests rather than the merchants’ drive for sales.

Gatekeeping is a process by which the operator of a public establishment can withhold certain information, either for commercial gain or through sheer lack of space. A pub which sold every beer in existence would soon be out of business through high running costs, so just serves the beers that are most recognised by the punters. In the same way, Amazon might choose to provide only positive information on the products they list, but because they have limitless space to fill up on their servers, they impart all possible information on a product and allow the user to make a measured decision. This gives the sense that Amazon is ‘working for you’, and it gives good reason for customers to keep coming back. It is, then, in Amazon’s best interests to be a gatekeeper to a very, very wide gate. Proving We Can All Get Along-o-Pedia

The Wikipedia is the world’s largest free encyclopedia, available to all with an Internet connection and a browser. The Wikipedia has become something of a media phenomenon because of its unique slant on data collecting – rather than employing data processors, like all the other encyclopedia sites, the site enlists its visitors to do the dirty work. The vast database of articles can be edited by any passer-by, and anyone can add an article of their own by means of software known as ‘Wiki’. Anybody can become a Wikipedian by helping to improve the infobase. It is this all-inclusive, non-profit and collaborative philosophy that makes the Wikipedia a staple in many thousands of Internet users’ favourites list.

As part of my Media and Communications coursework, what follows is a record of my encounter with the Wikipedia, details of the work I did to somehow enhance its infobase, its connections to some of
Marshall McLuhan’s concept of a ‘Global Village’ and finally my reflections on the Wikipedia as an online presence.

Firstly, I have used the Wikipedia several times as a means of gathering information on a subject. It currently lists 543,426 articles and grows day by day, so is irrefutably a most excellent resource for data collection. Businesses, students, and bored web-surfers alike can all gain from time spent scouring its pages. The site can be seen as thousands of single-page articles linked together by a front-end search engine and through each other by means of hyper linking. This gives the user the sense that if the information they need is present, it can be found with relative ease. Subjects ranging from the different types of
Kryptonite to the somehow more significant topic of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI are available for your delectation or for your direct study. It is alleged that the Wikipedia was first to announce the new papacy on the Internet, by means of a Wikipedian with computer access from inside the Vatican Square.

You can read an article to which I contributed about my favourite stereo system designers,
Bang & Olufsen. The Wiki software is very easy to use, though some degree of skill is required to add polish to the articles; pictures, sound clips and the like. External links can also be added to give a broader perspective on a subject should the Wikipedia fail to meet the user’s needs.
One can imagine the Wikipedia as a massive library, with hundreds of visitors at a time rushing around reading its books, and crossing words out and writing their own pages, before putting them back on the shelves for all to see. The Wikipedia is in constant flux, and evolves day by day. In this way the Wikipedia is a truly collaborative enterprise, and one which I believe is the first to properly nail the idea of a ‘Global Village’. Nobody owns it, everybody does. It is a self-sustaining harmony of ideas where every user has equal rights and every user can do their bit by adding their piece of specialist information. It’s all very post-modern, and is a credit to all of its contributors.

Online Identity: Spoiler Warning!! Illusion Shattering Content Within!

If you’ve been to the BrainFarm before now, you’ll have some idea of what goes on here. You may even have had an inkling that the BrainFarm is not a real place, and none of the BrainFarm’s events documented thus far have ever really occurred. Well, fifty bonus points to you, you were right.

This website is intended to be read as the homepage of an imaginary farm, where the fields are actually large bio-electric brains growing not crops but ideas. Instead of your usual herd of bovines, the BrainFarm has bred NetCows. They have highly evolved minds, and their central nervous systems can be wirelessly connected to the Internet for all sorts of purposes. We have all sorts going on here, insect invasions, mental breakdowns, scientific breakthroughs, but none of it is real. This rather elaborate scam is all the product of a media student just testing his idea’s potential.

I am only blowing my cover with this post for the purposes of addressing the concept of online identity, however, and as soon as I receive feedback from my tutor I will remove this post. This information being here undermines the BrainFarm’s identity, invented or not. I want to protect this fabrication because in many ways I am proud of what I have made.

So why did I choose to represent my ideas behind this mask? If I wanted to post thoughts and ideas anonymously, why not just invent a character? Why create an entire organisation complete with a marketing team and a laboratory team? I think it is because this way it is more fun for me to write, and more fun for BrainFarm visitors to read. What I have made here is known as a ficton: a fictional world which expands in size and believability as more and more information is added. Each chapter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings adds to the concept of Middle Earth. Tolkien even created a language for added realism. I have created an identity for the BrainFarm by adding one or two new ideas with each post. The reader constructs the intended identity by themselves. This makes the BrainFarm’s identity cool, in the McLuhan sense. This ficton is by no means complete; I see a lot more scope here and will keep the BrainFarm running long after this module ends.

I have also represented myself on this module’s forum. Here on the forum I have just been myself, not representative of the BrainFarm, bar my username’s avatar (a drawing of a field of brains). Our true identities had to be kept under wraps for the purposes of online discussion. This is good because it gave a certain freedom of speech not always available in class. Also, some of the bigger egos were suddenly on equal footing with those who spoke less in class discussion. Anonymity is the ultimate leveler. Although remaining anonymous does provide me with a sense of power, I do like to know who I am talking to. Perhaps if I was using an unrelated forum I would feel more connected to the conversations, but I spent a lot of time trying to work out who people were so that I might integrate their thoughts with my previous ideas about them. Always the overanalyst.

Another chance to feel discarnate was the Active Worlds exercise. This gave me the chance to represent myself not just through my ideas towards issues within the media, but within a virtual world and inside a 3D avatar of my own design. I engaged with people from the US, Italy and Singapore. Thankfully, they all spoke English. I told everyone I met that I was conducting an experiment on how it feels to become discarnate as part of an assignment, and responses were enthusiastic. I dressed my character in clothing not unlike a lab coat, which I think helped people take my questions seriously (though I did have to pay for the privilege of my make-over). Interesting how the same rules apply when visual space goes virtual. There were two identifiable types of Active World user, as evidenced by answers to my question “Do you feel you can really be yourself here?” 40% said something along the lines of “I am here as an escape, to be someone else, I am here just for fun”, 60% said something like “It feels so natural to talk to people here, I spend lots of time here for that reason”. The latter group were all American, I might add, and all male.

I feel that to become discarnate, to extend oneself across whatever medium, is a freeing and often beneficial process. If you need room to expand your thoughts in a way that doesn’t harm anyone, you can go and find a friendly chat room. If you want to put your thoughts up on the Internet, start your own blog. If you want to role-play being a vampire or were-wolf, ‘discarnation’ lets you do that too. The Internet can offer us so much, and it is becoming a place to expand not only ones knowledge, but also ones thinking and social skills. I have learned so much from running my own website, and I love the thought that the BrainFarm is getting bigger just by me reflecting on it. The boundaries are infinite in a world of your own making.