In the 1990s, I played an online, text-based, role-playing game called Infinity.
The fantasy element intrigued me, and I liked pretending to be someone else.
Infinity is a MUD, or multi-user domain, although other MUDders (MUD players) often refer to the “D” as dimension or dungeon.
Just for kicks, I logged on to Infinity last week. The character I created in 1994 is gone, but I was happy to see that, after more than two decades, my favorite online fantasy world still exists.
The opening dialogue is the same and sets the stage for adventure:
You are standing in, well, nothing. You see nothing below your feet, yet somehow you are being supported. You perceive no walls and no ceiling. The only noticeable attribute is a fine mist that swirls around you despite there being no wind. A shimmering, blue portal stands before you and a sign floats above it.
Cool, right? Okay, maybe not. But if this is indeed a “stage,” then Infinity is a theatrical production just as much as it is a text-based game. It’s like reading a never-ending, loosely-scripted book in which you’re the main character.
Opening this portal is quickly followed by a series of choices – where to go, what to do, and how to describe your character, including name, gender and other descriptors.
This last part – character development – is a very important feature in MUD play.
Pseudonymity, or the process of creating fake identities for the purpose of living as someone else, is the hallmark of MUD play.
“I like being somebody else, or in my case, something else, online,” a player (who asked not to be identified) told me in an online chat. “I know it’s not totally anonymous. If the NSA wants to find me, they probably could.”
She went on to say that being this creature online gives her a break from “normal” life. “It’s either this or drugs,” she said with a smiley face.
Infinity limits play to about 70 MUDders at a time, but it boasts a diverse group of players from all over the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States.
After several months of play, my “real life” friend received an invitation to an Infinity “gathering” in Boston. It seemed odd that a group of people who lived online would want to meet face-to-face. But “Okay,” I thought. “I like a good party.”
Our gathering showed me what I expected. The personalities I saw on display in real life were a vast departure from the personas I interacted with online.
Still, I believe this kind of “play” is a good thing at any age. Escape from our everyday lives for a few moments in a safe environment is something we all need, and maybe even more so today than we did 20 years ago.
Shelby Kelly lives in Texas and she’s an integral part of the Dallas Cowboys organization.
She has influence over player performance, team success, and fan engagement.
But don’t look for her name on the official roster of Cowboy coaches or team administrators. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has yet to cut her a check for her contributions to the franchise.
In fact, the only way you’d know of Shelby’s influence over one of the most storied football teams would be through a closer examination of her years of loyalty to “America’s Team.”
She was voted the Most Electrifying Cowboys Fan, inducted into the Pro Football Ultimate Fan Association (or PFUFA), and featured in the 2009 documentary “Ultimate Fan of the Fans” about the opening of the new Cowboys Stadium, now AT&T Stadium.
Evidence of her dedication can also be found in the five-hour round trip she drives to and from home games in Dallas, and her impressive collection of player autographs, cards and memorabilia.
I spent the day with Shelby and her husband, Chuck, at their home. I dare anyone to spend the day with them at their home and not leave feeling at least a little love (or at least respect) for the Cowboys.
That’s saying a lot coming from a lifelong Steelers fan.
Shelby is energized, in part, through her active presence on social media, where she regularly interacts with other fans.
“I call it fan-powered,” Shelby said. “I’m fan-powered, and social media helps that. I’m able to connect with other fans because of social media, and I wouldn’t be able to do any of the things I do as a fan without them.”
Shelby notes that even in the early days of social media, fans were using Twitter and Facebook as a way to connect.
“I look back at that very first game we had at the new stadium, and I wanted it to be something really special for other fans,” Shelby said. “So I bombarded social media with plans for the weekend.”
She talked about how she was able to organize groups for dinners, carpools and other events, like meeting players.
“We met 28 players that weekend,” Shelby said. “We organized so much of that through social media. I would tell fans to ‘meet us here at this time,’ and I’d post maps and directions, and fans would just show up.”
Like fans who met Shelby for the first time thanks to social media, Twitter served as our mode of introduction. We shared tweets about my interest in fans, and how she uses social media to cultivate Cowboys fan communities.
Now she’s planning to introduce me to other Ultimate fans from other teams on social media and in person – further evidence of the power of social media to connect people who might otherwise never meet.
My wife and I are good at relationship maintenance.
While navigating work and home schedules, managing four kids with active social lives, and unpacking the occasional argument, we have persevered with competent communication skills – one of the hallmarks of a successful marriage.
However, when it comes to the use of text messaging for communicating, we often veer off course. Like most couples, when there’s a communication breakdown, I blame her and she blames me.
Ironically, the blame game is usually played when we’re talking face-to-face.
Last week I sent her (what I deemed) several “very important” texts over the course of a few hours, all random and all focused on different topics.
She didn’t respond to any of them. Was it information overload? Was she ignoring me? Or was it something worse?
Three hours later, she responded. “Wow, that’s a lot of texts.”
She was right. “Yeah, sorry ’bout that,” I responded.
Our texting habits are getting better and, more importantly, our relationship is intact. But other couples struggle with marriage maintenance via text messaging, to the point of break-ups and divorce, signaling deeper relational communication flaws.
A friend once asked me (when referring to her boyfriend), “What happened to picking up the phone and talking?”
Of course, there’s almost always an easier solution to these communication breakdowns, and it almost never involves texting.
It feels like we’ve always known that talking about expectations leads to healthier relationships, but we sometimes avoid it, hoping things will get better on their own. We know that when we talk, problems often get resolved. The same is true for having a conversation with your partner about texting habits.
If you’re a couple who argues about the lack of communication or miscommunication via text messaging, there’s evidence to suggest you’ll be happier if you talk about it now. A new study suggests that we actually get more satisfaction out of our relationship if we think our romantic partner has texting behaviors similar to ours.
Jonathan Ohadi and fellow researchers at Pace University explored the use of text messaging for ongoing maintenance in romantic relationships. In the January issue of Computers In Human Behavior, Ohadi’s group explained that something as simple as perceiving similarity in how we text may lead to greater levels of satisfaction.
Using a sample of 205 adults in romantic relationships, they also found that we tend to feel more satisfied if we think our partner is initiating contact with us more frequently (“I miss you”). Sending a quick, unexpected text to a partner has the potential to set off similar kinds of endorphins we feel when someone likes something we’ve posted online.
Of course, initiating this contact is only a start. When all else fails, talk about how you text each other and set communication expectations for building a fulfilling relationship.
Fake news is bad.
Thankfully, snopes.com and similar sites identify fake news for us, but only when we use their services.
Most of us are lazy when it comes to reading news. We don’t fact-check.
Understandably, we leave the fact-checking to the people who wrote the news.
Couple the challenge of fake news with our own political leanings, and the ability to get people to listen to other sides becomes a daunting, if not impossible, task.
Here’s why: ask liberals or conservatives which newspapers, websites, radio or TV channels they use and, depending on political bent, you’ll see little overlap in the names of their preferred news outlets.
Think of it as Fox News versus CNN. The probability of hearing different points-of-view is low.
To improve this probability, a team of college students invented a new Google browser plug-in (i.e., extension) called Open Mind, as means for blocking fake news, and for introducing readers to alternative opinions.
The application was created during a 36-hour, student-run hack-a-thon at Yale University. Think of a hack-a-thon as teams of super smart students competing to solve big problems.
In this case, the big problem was fake news.
“[Open Mind] does two things,” said Michael Lopez-Brau, Yale doctoral student and co-designer of Open Mind. “It warns users of potential fake news sites and suggests news articles from the other side of the aisle.”
When users visit a news site, Open Mind checks to see if it’s in one of the plug-ins rigorously-tested, community-curated fake news databases.
“If so, we warn users with a pop-up and tell them why the site was marked as fake news.” Lopez-Brau said.
To be clear, Open Mind is not professing to be the arbiter of truth. And they’re not censoring sites. They invite users to suggest sites that should be reviewed, and they give users the option to click past the warning.
To build their fake news database, the team used credible sources including Open Sources and B.S. Detector. Their database now includes some 1,400 sites. Many of these sites play on misspellings and nearly identical logos for trusted news sites, such as “MSNBC.co,” a fake news site meant to resemble MSNBC.com.
Open Mind also analyzes the news articles that users read. “If we detect that a user is frequently reading articles with a certain bias, our extension will suggest related articles,” Lopez-Brau said. However, the suggested articles offer different points of view.
“This works for people all over the political spectrum,” Lopez-Brau added.
The extension aims to provide users with a sort of political immune system that can assist them in achieving a more balanced news diet.
The team is planning to release a beta version of Open Mind by the middle of next month. You can sign up for Open Mind at openmind.press, and be sure to give them some feedback.
One skill most of us will say we don’t have, or that we struggle with, is the ability to talk about ourselves.
Whether it’s our accomplishments, dreams and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, we often clam up.
It’s one reason why we struggle with first dates and job interviews. We sometimes fumble through conversations, not knowing how much information to share, what to promote and what to hold back.
You’d think that we’d be better at this by now. After all, communication research shows that even the most introverted people have found their voices on social media.
And at a time when Facebook and other social media platforms are being blamed for the disintegration of civil discourse, some platforms are finding new ways to enhance our desire to connect with others in meaningful ways.
I’m betting Facebook would rather us to talk about something other than politics.
So, in December, Facebook introduced “Did You Know,” a feature that prompts users to answer questions about themselves.
The new feature is based on the social networking app “tbh” (which stands for “to be honest”). The original version of tbh gave users the ability to anonymously answer questions about other users.
Facebook acquired the tbh app in October.
Teenagers were the heaviest adopters of tbh. Before moving over to Facebook, tbh boasted more than 5 million downloads and 2.5 million daily active users.
The polling-like questions on tbh allowed teens to answer about other users – questions that were mostly friendly, and often mundane.
Facebook likely saw the acquisition as a way to attract new teenage users – a demographic they have been struggling to reach and retain, at least in terms of daily active usage.
But the version of tbh now available on Facebook is different from the original app. Now the focus is on you – prompting you to talk about yourself, albeit through answers to randomly generated questions.
Like most Facebook features, this one is easy to use
Finding the “Did You Know” feature depends on the way you access Facebook (e.g., app, browser).
In my browser, “Did You Know” appears on the left side of the profile screen, under the “Intro” and “Photos” sidebars.
Click on “Did You Know,” and you’ll be prompted to answer a question. If you don’t like the question, simply click “Next Question” for a new prompt.
As you answer questions, you’ll slowly populate a forum with new details about your likes, dislikes and more.
One prompt was “The video game I’ve played the most is...” I answered, “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (thanks for keeping track of my hours, Nintendo Switch).”
That answer quickly generated responses from friends.
Remember that answers appear as posts on your profile and, if needed, you should adjust the privacy settings for that post (e.g., public, friends, etc.).
I took a break from social media for seven days over the holidays.
Yes. I know others have taken my longer breaks from social media, so I realize my fast won't seem all that novel. But for a guy who regularly writes about connecting with others via Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, and regularly preaches the virtues of online relationships, this was kind of a big deal.
I originally planned to stop using social media for four days, but instead started late Christmas Day and rejoined the online social world after New Year’s Day.
Following recent columns in which we explored the notion of “quitting” social media, I heard from readers and friends who were contemplating life without social media – “like giving up smoking,” one friend wrote.
Like them, I craved a brief respite from daily posting.
So, in order to give advice about “what to expect” during a social media fast, I started my own break, not knowing for sure what would happen.
It’s important to know what I did (and did not do):
1. I did not give up technology. I still used email, surfed the web, but avoided references to social media platforms as best I could. It wasn’t easy.
2. I deleted social apps from my phone to remove any temptation. This included deleting Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social apps.
3. I started in the early evening on Dec. 25 and rejoined Jan. 2. I chose these dates because I thought for sure the lure of sharing holiday pictures would be overwhelming.
Alas, I survived.
Here are a few excerpts from my journal:
Day 1, 6 p.m.: I deleted Twitter 30 seconds ago. It was the last app to go.
What have I done? I’m not sure I can do this.
It was pretty easy to dump Snapchat and Instagram because, well, I’m not a daily user. I look at other people’s posts, but I only post my own images a few times a month.
LinkedIn didn’t hurt because I don’t plan to work much over break, and LinkedIn feels like my social media “work” app. Facebook and Messenger kind of hurt.
Already thinking this was a bad idea and feeling withdrawal symptoms.
Day 2, 7 a.m.: I took a few pictures on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Surprisingly, I didn’t take as many as I usually do, probably because I knew I was doing this fast and wouldn’t be posting images.
Also, I’ve had a few random thoughts about the football games I’m watching and sports in general that I would usually post. Does this mean my thoughts are inconsequential, or that I’ll forget I had those thoughts?
This is so weird.
Day 3, 8:30 p.m.: I’ve been distracted by my wife and kids all day. I use the word “distracted” because I wonder if they’re helping me to forget about social media. As expected, I feel more connected to the people around me when I’m not lured away by my smartphone.
Maybe it's the holiday break. Maybe it was the ease with which I deleted my social media apps. The first days have felt fairly painless.
Day 4, 6:30 a.m.: Checking email is a challenge. I get daily updates from Facebook and other platforms about new activity. If I’m tagged in new posts, getting friend requests or new followers, Facebook and Twitter tell me, albeit via email.
I’ve avoided social media, but it feels like they’ve come looking for me.
In a strange game of social media hide-and-seek, I’m hiding while Facebook and Twitter are searching.
Not sure who is winning.
Day 5, 4:15 p.m.: A friend has been in the hospital for a few days. She was providing updates on Facebook, but now I can’t look for updates. I don’t know if she’s out of the hospital yet, and I don’t have her cellphone number.
I could ask my wife to check Facebook, but that feels like cheating.
Am I a bad friend?
Day 6, 10 a.m.: Hanging with my family for New Year’s, and my brother-in-law says (in a very accusatory tone), “I thought you were off social media. But then you posted a picture the day after Christmas. You didn’t last very long.”
I’m freaking out. Did someone hack my account?
He digs a little and finds that the picture was actually posted a few days before my fast. As is common on Facebook, when someone comments, the post is suddenly reignited, moving it to the top of some news feeds.
Day 7, noon: I’m back on social media today and, to be honest, I really feel like I could go another week or two. The lack of drama has been good for me, both psychologically and socially.
As I wade back into social media waters (dipping my toe into Facebook first), what did I learn?
Are you thinking about taking a break from social media? Share your experience with me at email@example.com.
From Donald Trump to #MeToo, 2017 was a momentous, albeit tumultuous, year in social media.
Highlights featured increases in active users and improved tools for sharing content.
Lowlights included continued problems with harassment, threats, and the ease with which major platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could be co-opted to influence an election.
Here are a few of the important social media issues and moments from 2017:
Twitter’s Resurgence. For a period of about two years, Twitter experienced a lull in growth of daily active users. Then something inexplicable happened: the 2016 presidential election.
Specifically, Donald Trump happened.
Twitter’s rebound can be attributed, in part, to Trump’s tweets.
In late October, Twitter reported third quarter results that exceeded Wall Street expectations.
The growth in Twitter’s active users was likely a reaction to those who joined or reactivated dormant accounts, just to read the president’s tweets, react to his tweets, and interact with others about Trump.
Another reason for the uptick may be attributed to the increase from 140 characters to 280 characters for a tweet. The move was both panned and praised by users, and it’s too early to tell if additional characters definitively improved activity.
While Twitter was rolling out new rules and character limits, the #MeToo campaign emerged as a forum for pulling back the curtain on the sexual assault and harassment in entertainment, media and other industries.
Facebook Follies. Two billion monthly active users gave Facebook reason to celebrate in 2017. In comparison, YouTube entertains 1.5 billion monthly users, and WattsApp boasts 1.2 billion active users.
Unfortunately, Facebook was mired in political turmoil when the social media giant disclosed it found more than 3,000 ads bought by 470 accounts through a Russian agency.
The accounts were shuttered, the ads shared with Congress and special investigators, and a new Facebook “action plan” was put in place to (hopefully) stave off interference in future elections.
With all the negative attention, Facebook is pressing forward in 2018 with new tools to prevent harassment, to fight engagement bait or “click bait” posts, and to improve options for advertisers and sharing content.
Looking Forward to 2018. There’s a lot to be hopeful for in 2018, including new community building tools. These new apps promise to improve our online dialogue, apps that bring us together rather than tear us apart.
I’ll be featuring a few of these in the next few months.
For example, an up-and-coming app with great potential to build community is OpenMind (openmindplatform.org).
It was created to prepare users — emotionally and psychologically — to engage others online in ways that foster intellectual discussion and debate, a way to introduce us to new points-of-view without sacrificing our personal values and convictions.
It might surprise you to learn that I read news the “old fashion” way.
Yes, I occasionally read news online, but it’s the print edition that I find most satisfying.
Each morning, I walk to our box at the end of the driveway, collect The Vindicator, walk back to the house and perform the same ritual I’ve performed for the last ten years since moving to Youngstown.
With a cup of coffee nearby, I methodically scrutinize the print version until my cup is empty.
Okay. Sometimes two cups.
And okay. I don’t read every story. But when the coffee is gone (and usually cold), I move on.
We continue to pay for home delivery of The Vindicator for two reasons.
First, as strange as this might sound, we view our $17-a-month home delivery bill like we do our other public utility payments.
Second, I like the subtle hint of ink stains on my fingers after a particularly long cup of coffee.
A new reason that I didn’t really consider until this week: I also like the reliability of getting my news the same way, in the same format, at the same time every morning I have for the last ten years.
So, I was saddened to learn that, at the end of this week, our long-time Vindicator delivery person, Faye Davis, is retiring. Coincidentally, I also learned that Vindicator social media manager, Sean Ferguson, is moving on to a new job.
In many ways, both Vindicator employees have very different jobs.
But in one very important way, they have the same job: reliable, consistent delivery of the news.
Davis drives all over God’s creation (i.e., the Valley) in the wee hours of the morning, delivering newspapers from the window of her small car, illuminated by her interior lights. I know this because I had the good fortune to chat with Davis several mornings over the years while my kids waited for the bus.
In contrast, Ferguson reliably “delivered” the news by way of Vindicator social media feeds, attracting a worldwide audience to the stories impacting our region.
Ferguson was my former student and mentee, but made an impression on his Vindicator co-workers in a very short time.
As for Davis, I don’t know her well, but I know her well enough to say thanks by way of this column, something a little more than the small holiday tip we send each year in the form of a restaurant gift card.
So, I raise my cup to Davis for bringing the news every morning — without a missed paper in ten years. And to Ferguson, onward and upward.
Thanks for being a part of a team that brings us real news every day in print and online, and the confidence that The Vindicator will be there when I walk to the end of the driveway.
Editor’s note: This is part two of an interview. See December 13 post for part one.
Facebook, Twitter and other platforms know they have a retention problem.
People are taking breaks from social media. Others have abandoned it all together.
On Monday, Twitter began enforcing new rules that would eliminate some forms of speech as well as violent and abusive tweets, logos and images.
This announcement comes on heels of criticism from a former Facebook executive who claimed the social media giant was harming society, and that users should take a break from the platform.
Before I start a five-day social media fast over the holiday break, I had questions about what to expect. I turned to writer and reporter James Swift, who left social media permanently, and wrote about his experiences:
Q. What did your friends say when you left social media?
A. I received a few emails asking if everything was OK, but the majority of my social media acquaintances probably didn’t even realize or care I disappeared. And that sort of proves the inherent irony of the term “social media.”
Virtually “de-personing” myself didn’t mean anything to my closest friends, because the bulk of our interaction was one-to-one anyway. As it turns out, the people I lost contact with were people I didn’t really enjoy being around to begin with – individuals I’m fairly certain were using the platform as a means of social surveillance, not social interaction.
I have gotten a lot of emails from people who have read some of my articles about the ills of social media, and two intriguing themes emerged.
Younger generations seem to view social media as passe. Having been raised in the web as opposed to with it, they have a deep desire to disconnect from the internet hive-mind. They want anonymity, as apparent by their preference for platforms such as 4Chan, Reddit and YouTube.
But older generations seem to view it as a necessary evil, this thing they hate but can’t escape. They’re aware of the deleterious effects of social media, but it’s almost like they are addicted to it.
I’ve even had a few people ask me for tips on “breaking the habit,” so to speak.
Q. Do you ever foresee a time when you might return to social media?
A. I’ll never use social media as a personal user. That includes Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The frank reality is that I don’t want to be assailed by a parade of opinions I never solicited. If I’ve learned one thing from my social media detox, it’s that privacy feels fantastic.
Instead of having to worry about your personal brand and fighting the latest moral crusade for whatever sociopolitical issue you think will get you the most retweets, you can actually kick back and enjoy your own personal experiences.
Read Swift’s works at uncommonjournalism.blogspot.com and thoughtcatalog.com, including his new book coming in 2018.
Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. The conclusion will run next week.
Former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya recently spoke about the damage social media is doing around the world.
He named Facebook public enemy No. 1.
Speaking at Stanford University, Palihapitiya, who ultimately became Facebook’s vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” over his role in the social network’s massive success.
He recommended people take a “hard break” from social media.
This led me to consider what life would be like without social media, even if just for a few days. It’s something I’ve contemplated since last year’s presidential election.
The hatred and divisiveness drove many of my friends away from social media, not permanently, but certainly for a few days or months.
So, I’m thinking about taking a social media fast, per se. I don’t plan to abandon social media on a permanent basis. I still find great value in it, and I think there are ways to save it.
But I do plan to take a break, as Palihapitiya suggests. Sort of.
Do you sense my fear?
When I’m scared to do something new, I read about it. Usually online.
A few months ago, I found my social-media-cessation sensei, James Swift. Swift, an Atlanta-based writer and reporter, wrote “Why Now Is The Time To Abandon Social Media” for ThoughtCatalog.com.
He made me rethink the importance of social media, and at the very least, consider some of the therapeutic values in taking a social media break.
I caught up with Swift via email last week. Next week, we will dive into reactions from friends, and explore a time he could foresee rejoining the social media mob.
Q. What was the tipping point for you (e.g., I’m done with social media!)?
A. I suppose you could call it a perfect storm of annoyances. Generally speaking, after college, Facebook and Twitter lost their core utility – that being a place for people in a centralized area to relay information back and forth.
As an adult professional, however, social media turned into this weird goulash of vanity posts and shameless advertising masquerading as “updates.”
Instead of bandying about pertinent info about things that actually mattered, my alleged “friends” and “followers” seemed to subconsciously engage in a virtual game of “my life is better than yours,” with everyone jockeying for likes and shares as if they were actual commodities.
The death knell, however, had to be the politicization of the platforms. Every single day I was bombarded by propaganda from the right and the left about the hot button du jour, as if any of them had half a clue what they were talking about.
Factor in some grievances with the censorship policies and trending algorithms used by Facebook and Twitter, and that was all it took to virtually “de-person myself.”
Come back next week (December 20) for part two of my interview wit James Swift.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.