Night modes and the new hue of our screens

Information & Culture just published (paywall; or free pre-print) an article I wrote about “night modes,” in which I try to untangle the history of light, screens, sleep loss, and circadian research. If we navigate our lives enmeshed with technologies and their attendant harms, I wanted to know how we make sense of our orientation to the things that prevent harm. To think, in other words, of the constellation of people and things that are meant to ward off, prevent, stave off, or otherwise mitigate the endemic effects of using technology.

If you’re not familiar with “night modes”: in recent years, hardware manufacturers and software companies have introduced new device modes that shift the color temperature of screens during evening hours. To put it another way: your phone turns orange at night now. Perhaps you already use f.lux, or Apple’s “Night Shift,” or “Twilight” for Android.

All of these software interventions come as responses to the belief that untimely light exposure closer to bedtime will result in less sleep or a less restful sleep. Research into human circadian rhythms has had a powerful influence on how we think and talk about healthy technology use. And recent discoveries in the human response to light, as you’ll learn in the article, are based on a tiny subset of blind persons who lack rods and cones. As such, it’s part of a longer history of using research on persons with disabilities to shape and optimize communication technologies – a historical pattern that the media and disability studies scholar, Mara Mills, has documented throughout her career.

 apple night shift

Continue reading “Night modes and the new hue of our screens”

Why Isn’t the Internet a Required Course?

[Note: this is cross-posted from my blog multicast. –CS]

I study the Internet. That’s what I do.

We’re coming up on the Internet’s 42nd birthday.  We just passed the Web’s 20th birthday.  Why is it so hard to teach freshmen about them?

That is, why are so many of our courses about the Internet and digital media non-required electives? Why do we offer certificates and minors in “new media” and “digital media”?  Don’t those mean that a plain-old bachelor’s degree about media means “analog media” and new technologies are optional?

Media-related disciplines were originally founded to encompass, interrogate, and/or support particular technological forms and industries. Increasing professionalization in the press led to my university’s Journalism program in 1902, the rise of television led to the study of “mass” communication and the founding of the first communication research program here at Illinois in 1947, and so on.  The communication department here used to be dedicated to the medium of the human voice (it was the Department of Oration).

Although the media world has never been static, in the last 10 years computing, the Internet, and digital convergence have irrevocably transformed the technological forms and media industries that our system of undergraduate education has taken for granted. Yes, now we have new Internet Institutes, but what about all that older stuff still hanging around?

It’s a Great Career Move to Love Media

This link to real, material objects and systems is exciting. It presents a remarkable opportunity: media themselves, by most definitions of the word, are more popular than ever.

Declines in the use of traditional media forms are being matched and even exceeded by gains in attention made by new media (as video is replaced by gaming, or reading in print is replaced by reading online). It is commonly said that attention is shifting away from television, but the average American still spends around 5 hours per day watching video in some form, they simply use different devices (computers) and formats (YouTube, Facebook).

Indeed, newly vibrant media technologies have emerged and attracted very large and even unprecedented populations of devoted users and new libraries of content (e.g., gaming, smartphones, …). And undergraduate interest in media and communication related majors is increasing.

What is a “Media Job”?

But it’s common knowledge that this opportunity has been accompanied by turmoil in the media industries. As some of our media- and communications-related programs are committed to professional training and relationships with particular industries (Journalism, Cinema Studies, …), the disruption is obviously unprecedented.

This isn’t because the industry has gone away — rather we are still looking toward The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when we think about a “media company.” We should be looking at Microsoft, Zynga, Twitter, and more.

Even in media-related programs that employ a broadly-based liberal arts approach, substantial topical revision has been important to retain student interest.  And still the pace of change in the world has outstripped the University’s ability to adapt by a large margin (or a larger margin than usual).

So far, we at the university sort of suck at this digital media stuff.

Why are we so Out of Date?

Curriculum reform is — to put it bluntly — a monster.

It is a democratic process grounded in faculty governance and program autonomy. While a new course can be proposed by a faculty member or a doctoral student seeking to pursue their own teaching interests (or, ideally, student interests as well), curriculum reform can be an attempt to motivate changes among faculty who would not otherwise change. Or at least it can be an attempt to get those faculty to agree to new changes.

Some entrenched interests are likely to support any given status quo configuration of curricula, providing a great deal of inertia. Indeed, while curriculum changes may benefit student recruitment, satisfaction, and even learning, the faculty reward structure for curriculum reform is not clear at all, and it can be (in the worst case) a contentious, time-consuming process consisting mostly of meetings and negotiations.

In the best case, curriculum reform is organically motivated as a normal part of faculty professional responsibility and produces a renewed, shared vision that is in accord with educational mission of the discipline. Yet this is rare enough that programs in media and communications at other universities remain the “Department of Radio” when this does not describe them and give degrees in “Film” that do not involve cellulose acetate (film).

So we’re in this situation now:  Media careers are now increasingly information technology-related careers as the Internet and convergence has transformed these industries. Although it is crucial to continue to teach about media in a historically-grounded comparative way, beyond the valuable examples in comparative media history there isn’t much in the curriculum that refers to the present day and is “analog media.”  

Let’s go, “Digital 101.”

Goodbye, “New Media 599.”

This is overdue.

The Oversharer (and Other Social Media Experiments)

What new norms are we evolving via the use of social media?

Way back in 1967 sociologist Harold Garfinkel proposed that the social world was filled with hidden rules for behavior that were so taken for granted it could be very difficult to notice them even if you tried to.  To make this point he famously sent his college students home for spring break with an assignment: He asked them to “spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption” (p. 38). In short, they were to be polite to their families and note what happened.

It turns out that people aren’t polite to family.

As family norms were broken the result was often pandemonium.  Unsuspecting family members quickly diagnosed their children as ill… or even insane. Speaking politely to your parents is so unusual that most families took it as cruel mockery, or as a kind of elaborate, unsuccessful joke.  Students found the experience unaccountably stressful, given the apparently innocuous instructions. Garfinkel’s experiment is now widely known as “the lodger” or “the boarder.”  He advocated this technique of de-familiarizing everyday life by challenging some unstated assumption as a way to discover the existence of hidden norms.  He called it “breaching.”

What would Garfinkel’s breaching experiment look like if we designed it to investigate emerging norms in social media?  In the class that I teach at the University of Illinois called Communication Technology and Society we set out to figure this out.  Here is a sampling of some of the breaching experiments we designed and conducted.  (Siddhartha Raja, Matthew Yapchaian, Dawn Nafus, and Ken Anderson contributed to this list.)

I’ll list the experiments here but not the results.  Note that a few of them produced results we did not expect.  Dear Internet: Can you think of any other social media norms to investigate with norm breaching experiments? This is like making your own failbook for the sake of science. All new Garfinkels welcomed.

Social Media Norm Breaching Experiments

  • CHATTY FLICKR MARKUP: Sign up for an account and find users on Flickr ( that you do not know. Try to start a conversation with them using the “add note” tool and the “add your comment” box to mark an image that they have uploaded. Try varying the kind of image you comment on from those that are very personal (wedding, kids birthdays, etc.) to those that are very impersonal (buildings, landscapes) and see how the reactions vary. Note that you may have to post a lot of notes and comments to get any reaction. You may have to try different and creative strategies to get people to respond to you. Describe the reactions.
  • GCHAT STRANGER. If you have a gmail account already, use gchat to begin chat conversations with people that you don’t know (or don’t know very well). Vary the kinds of things you say to see if you can get them to start a chat conversation with you. Describe what kind of chat message will successfully get a stranger to chat with you on gchat. Remember to be polite and respectful at all times. Note: You may have to try to gchat A LOT before you get someone to respond to you. Do not keep trying the same people if they do not respond.
  • WAY OFF TOPIC. On Facebook or a similar site that has threaded conversation (e.g., status updates with replies), over a period of three days leave a large number of comments that are all completely and obviously off-topic and not relevant to the thread. For this to work, there can be no relation between the reply and the topic at all; just start talking about something else. If you like, address some of them to the wrong person as well. Describe the results.
  • FACEBOOK WALL INQUISITOR. On Facebook, friend five strangers — people you don’t know (maybe friends of friends). Once they accept your friend request, post a public comment to their wall introducing yourself and asking them about themselves. In your posts, do not refer to any friends that you have in common; just talk about yourself and ask them about themselves. Try to get information from them about themselves. (You must start this assignment before Monday for it to work!). Describe the responses.
  • ONLY ONE MEDIUM. Choose one popular communication technology. Only use that technology for 3 days. (e.g. Use Facebook direct messages for ALL communication even when it is obviously inappropriate or impractical.) Describe the reactions.
  • ALWAYS MIX MEDIA. For 3 days, always “mix” media–always respond to a communication using a different medium of communication than the one that was used to contact you. (example: if you get a phone call, let it go to voicemail then SMS them. If you get an email, send a picture to their phone, etc. Respond to your twitter @’s in person.) Describe the reactions.
  • THE OVERSHARER. Pick either an acquaintance you don’t know that well or a parent. In a 24 hour period dramatically increase the amount of information you send this person using a text-based mobile communication technology that you know they can receive (likeIM on your phone, text/SMS, or e-mail on your phone/PDA). For example, you could communicate with them every time you do anything (“hi I am getting on the bus”, “arrived in class,” “class is boring,” “having lunch,” “talking with friend.”) Describe the reactions.
  • LAPTOP ALTRUISM. In a public place, ask to borrow a stranger’s laptop “for a second” to check something and then spend an excessive amount of time using it to do things on Facebook. If you get no reaction or the overall experiment is very short, repeat the experiment with another person.