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Does mass communication shape society, or society shapes mass communication? That's the question

Review Essay

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Technology, Entertainment, and Public Discourse

 

Amusing ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By

Neil Postman

New York: Penguin Books (2005).

 

Throughout the book, Postman discusses the power of technology as a social force capable of transforming public discourse and conversation. The author specifically refers to how television, by putting form over content and emphasizing on entertainment, took the place of print as the leading medium of American culture. Television, therefore, changed the way people look at the realms of politics, education and religion, which thanks to the impact of televisual images became simple sources of entertainment. The whole discussion rests on a Huxlian prophesy of the contemporary world, according to which people would come to voluntarily accept their oppression and love the technologies behind it.

 

In the first part of the book, Postman widely discusses the transition from an age of exposition to an age of show business, which took place in American society since the end of the 19th century.

During the age of exposition, the print media were considered as the center of culture, and the  content of public discourse was characterized by a logical order and serious discussions about political, legal, and social issues . In addition to encourage the development of an analytic thought, print media provided people with knowledge of the world. Thus, for those well-educated, “…reading was both their connection to and their model of the world.” (p. 62).

 

The age of show business, on the other hand, is dominated by television, and therefore an image-centered culture based on entertainment came to replace the word-centered one, which was based on logical reasoning. Postman states that television has become “the command center of new epistemology.” (p. 78). In other words, television is viewed as a “meta-medium” that shapes people’s public understanding, directs their knowledge of the world, and even determines the ways they use other media. Moreover, by continuing the legacy of telegraphy and photograph, television presents irrelevant, fragmented, decontextualized information, as opposed to the relevant and contextualized information presented on the print media.

 

Regarding the clear differences between the age of exposition and the age of show business mentioned above, print media readers are seen by Postman as more knowledgeable than television viewers. This argument is further supported by Putnam (2000). In comparing news watching and news reading, Putnam concludes that “… those who read the news are more engaged and knowledgeable about the world than those who only watch the news.” (p. 218). Putnam also refers to the decline of newspapers’ readership in the second half of the 20th century, as opposed to the rapid increase of television viewing. He argues that for those born in the television age, it became a “natural constant companion.” (p. 227). This is precisely what Postman refers to when he states: “We are by now well into a second generation of children for whom  television has been their first and most accessible teacher and,  for many, their most reliable companion and friend.” (p. 78).

 

Postman repeatedly argues that television, due to the presence of trivial images, has gradually blurred the line between information and entertainment, and therefore the information presented on television, in most of the cases, cannot be taken seriously. Nevertheless, television viewers are so adjusted to this blurring that even the most irrelevant information is taken seriously and becomes part of public conversation. The irrelevant character of the information presented on the screen leads me to think about the notion of television as “a vast wasteland”, discussed by Minow more than 20 years before Postman’s book was published. Minow argued that the need for attracting viewers had led television networks to produce bad-quality programing, and that just a few programs were enjoyable. When Postman refers to the lack of debate and serious discussion on television, I think he is, at least indirectly, supporting Minow’s notion. Moreover, by linking Postman’s and Minow’s claims, one might ask up to which extend television does, or does not, serve “the public interest.”

 

In the second part of the book, Postman addresses questions about the meaning of television, the conversations it permits, the intellectual tendencies it favors and the sort of culture it produces. He states that each technology comes with its own biases and agenda, and more specifically, he widely discusses television bias toward entertainment, whose most harmful consequence is that “… all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” (p. 95). In order to illustrate this point, Postman refers to news shows as merely entertaining programs in which the good looks of the cast, the attractive commercials and the exciting music at the beginning and at the end of the show are more important than the news being broadcasted. Therefore, the audience is given the idea that not even the  most tragic news is to be taken seriously. “A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection and catharsis.” (p. 88).

 

Another aspect repeatedly mentioned by Postman is the discontinues and fragmented character of television programs, including the news. Because the so-called “good television” is based on images and has a fragmented language, verbal communication and exposition are excluded, and therefore a serious discussion or debate cannot take place on television. Rather, what people get when watching a “serious debate” is merely entertainment, and they remember images much more easily than words.

 

The fragmented and incoherent character of the news can be further explained by looking at Croteau et al. discussion on the newsgathering practices carried out in media outlets. In chapter 4 of the book Media/Society, the authors argue that due to the lack of available resources such as time, money and expertise, journalists do not have the possibility to follow the long-term development of an event. Also, given that they have to fulfill a deadline, they are forced to quickly move from one event to another completely new and unrelated. “This focus on events at the expense of processes likely has an impact on whether and how people understand complicated issues, such as wars, financial crises, crime trends, and budget decisions.” (p. 127). The discontinuous character of the news, according to Postman, reaffirms the idea that the news has neither consequences nor value, and this is especially damaging for young people, since they may get the idea that no news deserves serious attention.

 

The entertaining character of the news changed the meaning of being informed in American society, and the consequence of this was the arise of “disinformation.” “It means misleading information-misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information-information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.” (p. 107). In this age of “disinformation,” Postman argues, people do not form opinions, but rather emotions regarding the issues being presented in the news.

 

In the next chapters of the book, Postman specifically discusses how the entertaining and incoherent character of television has permeated the realms of religion, politics, and education. As for religion, the author refers to religious television shows as mere sources of amusement. These shows are driven by the sake for profitability, and the so-called “electronic preachers” acquire a celebrity status. Regarding this, neither dogmatic religious rituals nor serious theological discussions can be expected to occur, which prevents people from living a truly religious experiences in front of the screen. The author also points out that the amusing atmosphere of television shows could have affected religious traditions.” … the danger is not  that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion.” (p. 124).

 

Like preachers, politicians also began to acquire a celebrity status by appearing on commercials and television programs. It reaffirms that on television, politicians’ image is more important than any serious political discussion, and that the celebrity status is particularly favorable for presidential candidates during elections time. . This issue is also addressed by Croteau et al. (2012) in the 7th chapter of their book. In looking at previous presidential campaigns in the United States, the authors concluded that a camera’s friendly style enhances the opportunities for a candidate to be preferred by voters, and that those candidates considered as charismatic have been much more successful on television debates. In addition to the candidate’s appearance, the masterful handling of visuals contributes to determine a candidate’s failure or succeed.

 

Postman also discusses the harmful effects of television commercials on the political discourse. Instead of being based on exposition, commercials are based on vivid visual symbols difficult to forget. Thus, commercials do not provide people with appropriate information leading them to make right political decisions. Given that politicians have complete control over campaign commercials, Croteau et al. (2012) define them as “the most artificial of all political media.” (p. 226). Moreover, as shown in previous research, more people get political information from commercials rather than from the news.

 

The last social institution to be discussed by Postman is education. He argues that, given the differences between the entertaining television environment and the classroom, television programs cannot be expected to contribute to improve children’s education. One of those differences, and perhaps the most important, is that in the classroom, fun can be used as a means to an end, whereas on television, entertainment is the end itself. Postman also argues that no previous research has demonstrated the effectiveness of the so-called educational programs in enhancing children’s learning skills. In the end, these programs leave children the idea that “… anything worth learning can take the form of entertainment.” (p. 154).

 

According to Postman, every new technology has provoked an educational crisis on Western society, beginning with the transition from an oral to a written tradition and ending with the electronic revolution brought by the invention of television. Postman repeatedly mentions the absence of exposition on television and how it has affected the development of the analytic thought. By comparing Postman’s argument with Croteau et al. discussion on the so—called culture of distraction brought by the use of hyperlinks, new media and mobile phones, we might say that the internet has the potential to promote a new educational crisis. Carr (2008) seems to confirm this when referring to how the use of the Internet in general, and of Google in particular, has reprogramed people’s brains with a kind of “staccato” quality that affects their ability to read and concentrate on long passages.

 

Postman concludes by saying that in order to gain some control over television, people need to understand what it is and how it works. Regarding this, he noted: “…the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.” (p. 161). He also suggests that education can play a significant role in attempting to control the media, given that school teachers are not unaware of media effects.

 

Since Postman focuses on what technology makes to people rather than on how people used technology, he can be considered as a determinist. I agree with him that television certainly presents fragmented information, and that most of television programing is merely based on entertainment. In watching televised religious shows or political debates, for instance, one can think of them as simple sources of amusement, in which the image of politicians and preachers is more important than their words. Thus, although this book was written more than 20 years ago, this argument may still be valid.

 

Nevertheless, regarding the influence of television on people’s minds, I see that Postman completely ignored people’s agency whether as television producers or as viewers. In chapter 8th of their book, Croteau et al. (2012) present the concept of an active audience. This notion, according to the authors, appeals to a belief in people’s intelligence to make meaning of the media messages they receive. They examine three areas of audiences’ activity: interpretation, in which people make meaning of the message by engaging with the media text, and this new meaning is not necessarily the one intended by the media producers; the social context of interpretation, which enables people to socially construct meaning; and collective action, which aims to produce changes on media texts and media policies, and can take the form of protests, boycotts, and media monitoring. I’m aware, of course, that today’s audience cannot be compared to that of 1985, but I do think that people in 1985 also had the agency to decide which types of television programs they wanted to watch. Moreover, the three forms of audience activities described by Croteau et al. show that people have certainly gained control over the media.

 

Another important factor to be considered is that by the time Postman wrote his book, satellite and television channels had just begun to expand, and as a consequence of this expansion, people were given more options to choose from. Furthermore, the arrival of the Internet brought even more options by individualizing content, breaking geographical boundaries, and changing the traditional notions of time and place (Croteau et al. 2012). Again, I think that the great amount of media options people have nowadays make them less susceptible to be dominated by a single medium.

 

Finally, regarding the viable solution Postman proposes for improving television, I don’t think it would be possible for the educational system to control this or any other medium. School teachers could, for instance, ban their students to watch certain television programs, but how they are going to make sure that students fulfill. Also, television producers and workers’ agency would make it more difficult for schools, or any other external agent, to gain complete control over this medium.

 

References

 

Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. The Atlantic, 301 (6), 56-63. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., and Milan, S. (2012). Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences (4th ed). CA: Pine Forge, Thousand Oaks.

Minow, N. (1961, May 9). Television and the Public Interest. Retrieved from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm

Postman, N. (2005). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: U.A., Penguin Books.

Putnam, R. (2000). Technology and mass media. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (pp. 216-246). New York: Simon & Schuster

Written by adrianapmasscom

November 25, 2012 at 16:42

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Blog Essay Week 13

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In his article, Shirky highlights the importance of social media in promoting activism. He acknowledges that not all protests coordinated through social media have been successful, but he certainly perceives social media as powerful tools that can contribute to strengthen the public sphere and enhance democracy, since political and social movements around the world are increasingly using them. Gladwell, on the other hand, contends that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are not really effective in promoting high-risk activism, since they neither operate according to a hierarchical structure, nor promote the establishment of strong ties as it is the case in real activism. The author also states, and this is the core of his argument, that successful massive protests were possible without those platforms.

 

In looking at both arguments, I definitely support Shirky. He is not saying that it was impossible to mobilize people without social media. In fact, he refers to how the groups promoting the 1989 revolutions in countries such as Czechoslovakia and East Germany disseminated political documents and information by using simple photocopiers. By contrast, Gladwell provides examples of the civil-right movement protests in the 60s, which were successfully coordinated simply by word of mouth. These examples, I would say, are too old to be used as valid arguments against the importance of the media as mobilizing agents.

 

Perhaps one of the best examples of the power of social media in coordinating protest can be seen in the use of ICTs by social activists in Egypt. Merlyna Lim (2012) offers a historical overview of Egyptian social movements and how they began to use ICTs to mobilize people. For instance, the street protests in 2005 and 2006 in Cairo and Alexandria, respectively, were largely coordinated online by Kefaya, considered as the genesis of the anti-Mubarak movement. This group also promoted the emergence of youth online activism in Facebook and Twitter in 2008.  Furthermore, the iconic Facebook group ‘We are all Kahle Said’ mobilized large numbers of people to protest against police violence and brutality. The greatest success of Egyptian social activists came on January 25th, 2011, when the Tahrir revolt took place. The protest, led by the April 6 Youth movement, had been coordinated largely through Twitter and mobile phones, and in its first day, it mobilized about 80000 people.

 

The examples above confirm what Shirky says about how social media can enhance democracy and promote a real activism. I would like to ask Gladwell if it would have been possible to mobilize such an amount of people simply through word of mouth. Well, I don’t think so. Also, regarding what he says about the weak ties characterizing Facebook and Twitter, the group ‘we are all Kahle Said demonstrates that SNS are able to generate strong ties by promoting a sense of shared victimization and awareness among their users. Finally, if Facebook and Twitter are not necessary to mobilize people, why did the Egyptian government shut down the Internet for a while? What would you say, Mr. Gladwell? Don’t media matter yet?

Written by adrianapmasscom

November 18, 2012 at 19:40

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Analyze this Week 11

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Undoubtedly, new media have dramatically changed the way we communicate, handle our relationships, search for information and find jobs. Also, new media, and particularly the Internet, has given us the possibility to access a great amount of information we were not able to access before. In addition, just like television was found to break some familiar and cultural traditions and change our way of thinking, the Internet and its great amount of instantaneous information has deeply influenced our way of thinking and seeing others. As to social networking sites, though apparently they contribute to build up global communities, they could actually isolate us more and more from one another.

Written by adrianapmasscom

November 5, 2012 at 13:35

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Blog Essay Week 11

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These are the main points made by Shirky in his article: first, new media, including mobile phones and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, have become essential tools to mobilize people and coordinate protests against the state. In addition of the cases mentioned by the author, I would say that the Egypt uprising, particularly the Tahrir revolt in January 2011, was a good example of how Facebook and Twitter were used to mobilize the Egyptian youth and workers to protest against Mubarak’s intentions of handing power to his son. Shirky also refers to cases in which the use of new media was not effective to coordinate massive protests, which demonstrates new media’s mixed record of failure and success. Anyhow, it is undeniable that internet access in general, and new media in particular, have become essential for opposing political movements, and that both democratic and authoritarian governments are trying to limit internet access in order to maintain their monopolies.

 

Another important point discussed by Shirky deals with the relationship between political freedom and internet free access. Regarding the United States’ role as promoter of internet freedom abroad by providing funding and technological tools, the author compares two clearly different approaches to internet freedom: on the one hand, the “instrumental” approach is characterized by a direct intervention of the United States to reopen access to outside websites in countries where it has been censored or restricted. I do not agree with the US policy to circumvent digital censorship by other countries. Of course, I’m not in favor of internet restriction and censorship since it denies people the legitimate right to share knowledge and information and communicate with others. Rather, what I’m saying is that in applying those circumventing policies, the U.S. is perhaps violating other countries sovereignty. Moreover, rather than seeking to favor free expression and internet access in other countries, ,the U.S. is only interested in reopening access to its websites.

 

Let us now explore the second approach to internet freedom, namely, the “environmental” view. According to this approach, it is not enough to promote internet freedom, but it is even more important to promote a political freedom. In that sense, digital technologies in general, and social media in particular, are seen as tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. Previous research had already demonstrated that political opinions are not shaped by the mainstream media, but rather by word of mouth. Thus, text messaging and social networking sites can be seen as contemporary forms of word of mouth, since they enable people to quickly and easily share and disseminate their political opinions. Regarding this, one might argue that the use of social networking sites to inform and discuss politics could contribute to preserve democracy. Nevertheless, in order for these platforms to be effective, it is required that people be well prepared to discuss serious political issues.

 

Finally, let us refer to the two arguments against the effectiveness of social media as a tool for promoting political change. The first argument has to do with the increasing presence of the so-called “slacktivists”, defined as casual participants who find it easy to join political groups in SNS, but who do not have a real political commitment. Shirky contends, however, that the presence of “slacktivists” does not necessarily imply that politically committed actors are not going to be able to effectively use social media in order to document real-world actions and coordinate protests against the state. The second argument, on the other hand, states that the use of social media can do as much harm as good to democracy, since the state has gained increasingly sophisticated tools to monitor and co-opt the use of such media. In doing so, governments are able to hinder the synchronization of political information, while denying political movements to coordinate in real time. A good example of this is the Chinese government, which has spent a lot of resources in perfecting systems to detect and control political threats coming from social media. In spite of this, political movements are increasingly using digital tools to coordinate actions, an even in those cases in which internet access is restricted or censored, mobile phones can still be used as an effective coordinating tool.

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November 2, 2012 at 20:37

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Analyze this Week 10

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In my opinion, the internet represents a new form of the public sphere because people can use it to publicly express their opinions about social and political issues. For instance, when somebody uses boards and forums to begin or coment on a political discussion, the person is contributing to create a digital public sphere where other people can publicly response to his expressed opinions.

Even a better example of a contemporary form of public sphere is the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. People use those sites to actively discuss social and political issues, and in doing so, they are able to reach larger audiences than the ones they could reach by an email or word of mouth. Furthermore, social networking sites enable people to create groups either to support social and political causes, or to act as watchdogs of politicians’ wrongdoings. Also, people can create groups on Facebook to support presidential candidates during electoral campaigns.

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October 29, 2012 at 13:13

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Blog Essay Week 10

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According to Habermas, the public sphere opens up a space in order for people to publicly express their opinions about political and social matters. In order to effectively mediate between society and the state, the public sphere requires a reasoning public body. In other words, people must be well informed about the topics they are discussing in order to make valid arguments and suggestions attempting to confront policy makers. Moreover, the author refers to the important role of mass media in transmitting information, as well as in influencing those who receive it.

 

I think that one of the earliest examples of a public sphere in our lives is the educative process, particularly higher education. Children and young adults have not shaped definite particular opinions, however, as they grow up and their exposure to political information increases, they come to understand how to effectively confront the state in order to ensure a more equitable and fair society. Education also lets us to fulfill our role as government’s watchdogs, so that everybody’s rights are guaranteed and respected.

 

Another example of a public sphere involves minority groups, including women, ethnic minorities, LGBT groups, and people with disabilities. In this case, a reasoning public body with a good knowledge of national and international legislation will be able to promote the development of policies attempting to ensure that their rights are respected. A similar example can be seen in labor unions. Workers’ good knowledge of legislation lets them unite to confront the state with clear arguments, in order to generate policies that favor their interests. Of course, if the number of workers who know the legislation is very little, it is difficult for the public sphere to come into existence.

 

Finally, the most contemporary example of a public sphere can be seen in people’s use of social networking sites. In traditional mainstream media, the public sphere has been manifested through the use of mechanisms such as phone calls in the case of broadcast media, or letters to the editor in the case of newspapers. Nowadays, however, people are increasingly using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to publicly express their social and political views. In doing so, they have the possibility to reach larger audiences than the ones they could reach either by word of mouth or traditional mainstream media. Moreover, SNS allow users to directly interact with parties and presidential candidates, which contributes to give people a prominent, though virtual role, in policy making.

Written by adrianapmasscom

October 27, 2012 at 14:47

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Annotated Bibliography

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Topic: Accessibility for Blind and Visually Impaired People in Social Networking Sites

 

In the 21st century, people are increasingly using social networking sites to share knowledge and information, express opinions, contact family and friends, meet people, and build up communities. As a segment of society, individuals with disabilities have exactly the same communication and sharing necessities, which implies that they are using social networking sites to fulfill the same goals and expectations of those without disabilities. When it goes to blind and visually impaired people, however, the presence of internet accessibility and usability issues do not allow them to fully explore the potential of social networking sites, which in turn may lead them to partially use the sites, avoid them completely, or even look for other alternative platforms constituted only by people with disabilities.

 

In order to better understand how blind and visually impaired individuals use social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, it is critical to explore the perceptions, motivations and gratifications leading people with and without disabilities to use these sites. Regarding accessibility and usability issues, it is essential to determine the major difficulties blind and visually impaired people have encountered when attempting to use the web in general, and social networking sites in particular. Thus, previous research focusing on blind and visually impaired users’ direct experience should be considered. Moreover, previously developed accessibility and usability guidelines should be tested, in order to determine their suitability for the three SNS to be analyzed, or if more specific guidelines are required in order for blind and visually impaired individuals to take full advantage of Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

 

Annotated Bibliography

 

Agichtein, E., Castillo, C., Donato, D., Gionis, A., and Mishne, G. (2008). Finding high-quality content in social media. In Proc. WSDM.

 

In this study, the authors used automated methods to assess the quality of the content posted in community/driven question/answer portals, particularly Yahoo! Answers. By using features such as intrinsic content quality (text-related analysis), user relationships, usage statistics, and over all classification network, the authors evaluated the quality of 6665 questions and 8366 question-answer pairs. Their findings indicate that good, grammatically well-constructed questions are more likely to receive better answers than those considered to be badly constructed, and that users’ feedback is one of the most valuable tools in assessing quality content. Although this analysis does not involve platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, this article is relevant for the present study because it provides tools on how to assess question-answer relationships among users of social networking sites.

 

Asakawa, C. (2005). What’s the web like if you can’t see it?” International Cross Disciplinary Workshop on Web Accessibility (W4A), (May 23-26, 2006). Edinburgh, UK.

 

The author first presented a historical overview of voice browsers (self-talking browsers and screen readers) since the 1990s. He then referred to his own experiences as a blind user, and provided a historical overview of how web accessibility has progressed. In this section, he referred to the use of techniques such as the insertion of alternative text, and the insertion of tags for intra-page navigation. Finally, he highlighted the importance of accessibility issues in terms of web design. This article is relevant for the present study because it provides a valuable historical overview of web accessibility, while showing the direct experiences of a blind user on the web.

 

Boyd, D.M., & Ellison, N.B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230.

 

The authors first provide a clear definition of social network sites. They then present a historical overview of how social network sites have been created, going from 1997 to 2004 when Facebook was launched. Finally, they refer to how scholars from different disciplines have analyzed the culture and meanings surrounding social networking sites, as well as the way people engage with them. Two reasons support the validity of this article for the present study. First, the general definition and the main features attributed to social network sites help understand the motivations leading people to use them. Second, the article provides a great deal of scholarship regarding the use and meaning of social network sites, including LinkedIn and MySpace.

 

Brewer, J.  (2004), Web accessibility highlights and trends. (ACM 1581139039/04/0005). New York, NY, USA: W4A ’04 Proceedings of the 2004 international cross-disciplinary workshop on Web accessibility. 51-55.

 

The author describes how the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created and tested the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, considered to be the first attempt to harmonize international accessibility standards. The article also provides an explanation about how the WCAG 1.0 work, as well as about the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) 1.0, and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 1.0. Finally, the author refers to some possible ways to test the guidelines, as well as to the challenges and trends faced by the w3c in creating the WCAG 2.0. I find this article relevant because it helps me better understand the process followed by the W3C in developing and testing its accessibility guidelines.

 

Carter, J., & Merkel, M. (2001, December). Web accessibility for people with disabilities: An introduction for Web developers. (IEEE PII S 0361-1434(01)10135-9).  IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATION, 44 (4).

 

The authors first refer to four distinctive types of disabilities, including blindness. They then provide three reasons justifying the importance of creating accessible websites for people with disabilities. These are: empowerment, the possibility for individuals with disabilities to enter the market and fully develop their economic potential, and even most important, making the web accessible for people with disabilities is beneficial for everyone. After providing some information about the reasons given by some organizations regarding the lack of accessibility on their websites, the authors refer to some accessibility efforts made by companies such as Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple, and how these efforts are collected by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Finally, the authors provide useful information about the three sets of guidelines created under the WAI: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, and User Agent Accessibility Guidelines. This information about the different sets of guidelines is relevant for the present study, especially in the case that specific guidelines need to be created for the SNS I will be studying.

 

Chen, A.Q., and Harper, S. (2009). Exploring widget identification techniques for web accessibility: A review of the literature. School of Computer Science, HCW- WIMWAT Technical Report 3. Manchester, July (2009).

 

The authors review the literature dealing with accessibility issues, as well as with the identification and modification of widgets for Web 2.0. In the second part of the report, the authors highlight the importance of the guidelines created by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) as the international standard to be followed when designing accessibility guidelines. In addition to a detailed description of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the authors provide useful information of the tools to be used by web developers when evaluating how well a webpage conforms to these guidelines. The description of the web 2.0 WAI guidelines, as well as the information about the tools for assessing web a accessibility are relevant for the present study, since it may involve the creation of specific guidelines for Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

 

Correa, T., Willard, A., Hinsley, H., and de Zuniga, G. (2010). Who interacts on the Web? The intersections of users’ personality and social media use. Computers in Human Behavior, 26, 247-253.

 

The authors analyzed how adults’ personal traits influence their use of social media and instant messaging services. By conducting a survey among U.S. adults, they found that personal traits such as extraversion and openness to new experiences are positively correlated with the use of social networking sites and instant messaging, whereas emotional stability is negatively correlated. In other words, people who are emotionally stable are more likely to use instant messaging and social networking sites than those who are not. This research is relevant for the present study because it takes into account both young and older adults, and how they use the services mentioned. In addition, it gives me some ideas of how personal traits could influence blind and visually impaired adults’ usage of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

Deveau, D. (2010, April 1st). Website accessibility for the blind gaining ground. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2010/03/31/f-visually-impaired-website-accessibility.html

 

This news article involves interviews with both blind and visually impaired Internet users, as well as accessibility consultants. It is relevant for the present study because it shows, on the one hand, that blind and visually impaired users continue to find accessibility problems on the Web, regardless of their technological skills and despite the existence of screen readers. On the other hand, responses given by accessibility consultants and assistive technology developers highlight the importance of creating user-friendly websites, electronic documents, and software products. The article showed, therefore, that online accessibility issues were still present two years ago, and this situation may not have changed much.

 

Ellis, K., and Kent, m. (2010). Tweeters take responsibility for an accessible web 2.0. Fast Capitalism, 7(1).

 

By using the case of Twitter, the authors seek to explore the intersectional relationship between critical disability studies, political mobilization, and online social networking. In doing so, they specifically refer to a tool called “Accessible Twitter”, whose goal is to make this platform more accessible for people with disabilities, particularly blind and visually impaired. The authors first highlight the importance of Twitter in helping connect people, as well as in promoting a wide discussion of political and social issues. They then refer to some inaccessible features found by Dennis Lembree, the creator of “accessible Twitter”. Finally, the authors provide an explanation about how this tool works, and show examples of users with disabilities’ positive response. I find this article very relevant for two reasons: first, it deals with one of the three platforms I will be analyzing. Second, they present valuable information about “Accessible Twitter”. This information will enable me to test the efficacy of such tool, and see how blind and visually impaired users have responded to it.

 

Gangadharbatla, H. (2008). Facebook Me: Collective self-esteem, need to belong, and internet self-efficacy as predictors of the I Generation’s Attitudes toward Social Networking Sites. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 8(2). Retrieved from http://www.jiad.org/article100

 

The author analyzed how factors such as level of internet self-efficacy, need to belong, need for cognition, and collective self-esteem influence college students’ attitudes and willingness to join social networking sites. By conducting a survey among undergraduate students, she found that self-efficacy, need to belong, and collective self-esteem positively influence their attitudes and willingness to use SNS such as Facebook and Friendster. This article is relevant for the present study because it provides evidence of the main reasons leading young students to use Facebook, and a segment of the sample I will probably use is precisely constituted by blind and visually impaired college students.

 

Hackett, S., Parmanto, B., and Zeng, X. (2004). Accessibility of Internet websites through time. In Proceedings of the 6th international ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility, pp. 32–39.

 

By using Internet Archive Wayback Machine, the authors analyzed a random sample of websites from 1997 to 2002, in order to see how accessible they were for people with disabilities and how it changed from one year to another. The chosen websites were also compared to governmental websites. In their examination, the authors took into account the accessibility barriers found in the websites, as well as their degree of complexity. According to the authors’ findings, both the number of accessibility barriers and the level of complexity increased from one year to another in the randomly chosen sites. As to governmental websites, although there was an increase in complexity, the number of accessibility barriers did not increase. This article helps me better understand how changes through time affect web accessibility for people with disabilities. Moreover, the explanation of those changes provided by the authors makes the article relevant for the present study.

 

Hailpern, J., Reid, L. G., & Boardman, R. (2009). DTorial: An Interactive Tutorial Framework for Blind Users in a Web 2.0 World. In T. Gross et al. (Eds.) INTERACT 2009, Part I, LNCS 5726, pp. 5–18. Laxenburg, Austria: IFIP International Federation for Information Processing.

 

In this paper, the authors presented a new interaction model that describes how to embed an audio-based tutorial within a web application, so that screen reader users can easily navigate the help section of a webpage. The model was demonstrated through the use of a fully functional system called DTorial (Dynamic Tutorial). based on the examination of sighted users practices, the analysis of screen reader technologies, and five interviews with screen reader users, the authors suggested a set of four key requirements to be regarded in order to make a help system really accessible. They then provided a definition of the DTorial, and clearly explained how they tested and how it operates. Since the tool was tested with real users, the authors used their findings to make suggestions in terms of accessibility to help systems. Based on their recommendations, I will be able to test the accessibility of the help section in the three SNS I will be studying.

 

Harper, S., and Yesilada, Y. (2008). Web accessibility and Guidelines. In S. Harper, and Y. Yesilada (eds), Web Accessibility: A Foundation for Research, (pp. 61-78). Springer, 2008.

 

The authors revise the published literature about web accessibility and web accessibility guidelines. In their evaluation, they found the guidelines designed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to be more complete than others. They provided a detailed description of these guidelines, as well as the list of some of the items included. Although this book chapter was written before the 2.0 version of the WAI guidelines was released, it is still relevant for this study because it provides a good definition of web accessibility, as well as a description of previous accessibility guidelines.

 

Jeager, P.T., and Xie, B. (2009). Developing online community accessibility guidelines for persons with disabilities and older adults. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 20(1), 55-63.

 

The authors first present general definitions of ICTs accessibility and virtual communities. They then provide a description of the three most widely used sets of accessibility guidelines, namely: the Section 508 guidelines (contained in the Rehabilitation Act), the guidelines created by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines. Although the authors recognize the validity of such guidelines, they also highlight the importance of other elements in building user-friendly communities for people with disabilities and older adults. These elements are: sufficient time for processing information, asynchronicity, multimedia formats, build-in accessibility, and participatory design. This article is relevant for the present study, not only because of the information provided in terms of accessibility guidelines, but also because it will enable me to assess accessibility on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ in terms of the other elements to be considered when creating virtual communities for people with disabilities.

 

Jaeger, P. T. (2008). User-centered policy evaluations of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: Evaluating e-government Web sites for accessibility for persons with disabilities. Journal of Disability Studies, 19. 24-33.

 

The author examines e-government websites’ compliance with the accessibility requirements contained in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Based on a previous study, he uses a multi-method, user-centered evaluation of accessibility in e-government websites. Four components, namely, policy analysis, expert testing, user testing, and webmasters questionnaires are regarded in this evaluation. The author’s findings indicate that all factors play a crucial role in evaluating the accessibility of e-government websites in compliance with the law. Among those components, the author found user testing to provide deep detailed information from the point of view of people with disabilities. This particular finding makes the article relevant for the present study.

 

Jaeger, P. T. (2006b). Telecommunications policy and individuals with disabilities: Issues of accessibility and social inclusion in the policy and research agenda. Telecommunications Policy, 30, 112-124.

 

This paper deals with the relationship between the formulation of accessibility telecommunication policies and the social inclusion of people with disabilities. The author first provides a historical overview of the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. society. He then refers to the relationship between social inclusion and accessibility to ICTs. The third aspect discussed deals with accessibility and ICTs issues found on telecommunications policy. Finally, the author discusses conceptualization and research issues, as well as policy implications for telecommunications policies. Although the author recognizes the progress made by the U.S. and other countries in terms of telecommunication policies and accessibility issues, he suggests that traditional approaches to telecommunication policy must be reconsidered. This article provides a valuable background in terms of how the social inclusion of people with disabilities have progressed, how important accessibility to ICTS  has been for inclusion, and how accessibility issues have been gradually incorporated to telecommunications policies.

 

Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons 53, 59-68.

 

The authors provide clear definitions of the terms social media, web 2.0, and user generated content. The Term social media is used as an umbrella term covering various types of applications, including Collaborative projects, blogs, content communities, social networking sites, virtual game worlds, and virtual social worlds. The authors provide ten pieces of advice for companies that wish to use social media. These recommendations include choosing the application carefully, developing media plan integration, being honest and active, and providing access for all. Finally, the trend of mobile web 2.0 in relation to SNS is discussed. The definitions of social media and its associated terms are relevant for the present study, as well as the discussion about mobile 2.0, given that blind and visually impaired users are increasingly accessing the internet through mobile devices.

 

Kelly, B., Sloan, D., Brown, S., Seale, J., Petrie, H., Lauke, P., & Ball, S., (2007, May). Accessibility 2.0: People, policies and processes. Technical Paper (W4A2007). Banff, Canada: 16th International World Wide Web Conference.

 

In this article, the authors challenge the approach taken by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in creating standardized accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities. These challenges include the use of a very complicated language, as well as web authors’ lack of control over the different ways users access content. Moreover, the authors refer to some challenges regarding how to measure the effectiveness of the WAI’s guidelines. In order to face these challenges, the authors propose a tangram model that involves a multi-component solution to accessibility issues, depending on users’ needs and particular circumstances. This article provides me with useful information about what I should take into account in case I need to propose the creation of specific accessibility guidelines for Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

 

Kuirk, K. (2012, February 10). Building a ‘Friendly-blind’ internet. UWM News, (. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news/2012-02-blind-friendly-internet.html

 

This is a news article based on an interview with Rakesh Babu, an assistant professor in UWM’s School of Information Studies (SOIS). He is a blind person, and his dissertation involved the accessibility and usability problems blind people commonly face on the Web. I think that contacting this person, as well as having a look at his dissertation (if possible) will be useful for my study, since it will give me an idea of what blind researchers are doing to improve accessibility on the Web.

 

Lazar, J., Dudley-Sponaugle, A., & Greenidge, K.D. (2004). Improving Web accessibility: A study of webmaster perceptions. Computers in Human Behavior, 20, 269-288.

 

In order to test the accessibility levels of different websites, the authors created the Web Accessibility Integration Model. Such model is constituted by three categories influencing accessibility: societal foundations, stakeholder perceptions, and web development. By using the model, the authors conducted a survey with 175 webmasters, in order to explore their perceptions of, and knowledge about accessibility. The survey was constituted by both close and open-ended questions. The authors’ findings indicate that while some webmasters are really aware of the need for creating accessible websites, some others acknowledge that they would create them only if the government forces them to do so. Given that I will be analyzing three SNS, this article raises an important question in relation to how accessibility-aware the designers of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ really are.

 

Leporini, B. & Paternò, F. (2008).  Applying Web usability criteria for Vision-impaired users: Does it really improve task performance? International Journal of Human- Computer Interaction, 24(1), 17-47.

 

By integrating accessibility and usability, the authors identified 15 criteria aiming to make websites easier to navigate, either by using a screen reader (in the case of blind people) or magnifying software (in the case of visually impaired people). These criteria are organized into four categories: structure and arrangement, content appropriateness, multimodal output, and consistency issues. In order to evaluate the effectiveness of their criteria, the authors conducted two separate tests with visually impaired users. The tests involved to different websites: one supporting the designed criteria, and another created through more traditional techniques. After asking users to perform various tasks and sending them a final questionnaire, the authors concluded that their designed criteria helped to improve users’ navigation, since they spent less time in developing the assigned tasks. Also, the criteria made websites easier to navigate by both blind and visually impaired users. I find these criteria useful for assessing web accessibility and usability. Moreover, the authors provide relevant information about how screen readers, particularly  Jaws, enables people to navigate website’s.

 

Lin, K.Y., & Lu, H.P. (2011). Why people use social networking sites: An empirical study integrating network externalities and motivation theory. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(3), 1152-1161.

 

By integrating motivation theory and network externalities theory, the authors sought to explore why people continue to use social networking sites. They sent a questionnaire to random Facebook users, both male and female. Their findings indicate that enjoyment and usefulness, as well as network externalities such as the number of members and the number of peers using SNS play an important role in leading people to use them. It was also found that there are significant differences between men and women in terms of how the number of peers and perceived benefit influence their use of SNS. This article is relevant for the present study because it highlights the importance of considering gender differences when analyzing how people use SNS. Through My own analysis and the focus groups, I will be able to determine if gender differences have an influence on the accessibility issues found by blind and visually impaired men and women on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

Meiselwitz, G. & Lazar, J. (2009).  Accessibility of registration mechanisms in social networking sites. A.A. Ozok and P. Zaphiris (Eds.): Online Communities, LNCS 5621, 82–90.

 

By focusing on U.S. federal rules mandated in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the authors evaluated Twenty-two social networking sites in terms of the accessibility to their registration processes for people with disabilities. During the analysis, the SNS were classified into three categories: strictly social (Facebook or MySpace), Social with a special focus (YouTube or Flickr), and social with a professional focus (LinkedIn or Xing). After testing SNS compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the authors found that no site was completely accessible for individuals using assistive technology (such as screen readers), since all of them presented violation instances of the rules contained in 508 Section. It was also found that the use of CAPTCHA further complicates the registration process, particularly for visually impaired users. Through the present study, I will be able to determine if registration mechanisms on Facebook and Twitter are now more accessible, and to measure the degree of accessibility of Google+ registration process.

 

Raacke, J. and Bonds-Raacke, J. (2008). MySpace and Facebook: Applying the uses and gratifications theory to exploring friend-networking sites. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(2), 169-174.

 

The authors sought to find the uses and gratifications college students attempt to satisfy when using friend networking sites, particularly Facebook and MySpace. After conducting a study with 116 participants, the authors found that students spend a good portion of the day on SNS, and that their main motivations include keeping in touch with old and current friends, posting/looking at pictures, feeling connected, and getting information about events. This article is relevant for the present study for two reasons: first, it deals with one of the platforms I will be analyzing, and second, it helps me better understand the motivations behind the use of Facebook by young adults.

 

Romen, D., and Svanæs, D. (2011). Validating WCAG versions 1.0 and 2.0 through usability testing with disabled people. Universal Access in the Information Society, Springer (2011).

 

The authors attempted to empirically validate the use of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). They provided a background of WCAG 1.0 and 2.0, as well as about the International Standard ISO 9241-171: 2008. They then gave a general definition of universal design and its principals. Based on the guidelines mentioned and the definition of universal designed provided, the authors conducted an empirical study with seven participants with disabilities (three of them blind or visually impaired), and six controls. After evaluating two websites through individual usability tests, and conducting interviews with the participants with disabilities, the authors found that individuals with disabilities experienced web accessibility problems as twice as the controls, and that just a little percentage of such problems could have been solved through the use of WCAG 1.0 or 2.0. This article is relevant for the present study because it highlights the importance of testing web accessibility guidelines with real users, and gives me a general idea of common accessibility problems found by people with disabilities on the web.

 

Shneiderman, B. (2000). Universal usability: Pushing human-computer interaction research to empower every citizen. Communications of the ACM. 43 (5).

 

The author provides a general definition of universal usability, and explains how it can be applied to the field of information and communication. He presents a research agenda based on three main challenges to be faced in attaining universal usability, namely: technology variety (supporting different software, hardware, and network access); user diversity (involves accommodating users with different skills, ages, disabilities, and so on); and gap in users’ knowledge (taking into account what users know and what they need to know). I find the challenges described by the author to be valuable for the present study, since they can be used to highlight the importance of making SNS readily accessible and usable for people with disabilities.

 

Snow-Weaver, A. (2008). WCAG 2.0: A web accessibility standard for the evolving web. In W4A 08: New York: ACM, 109-115.

 

The article deals with the transition from WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 1.0 to the 2.0 version. The author describes the challenges that creators of WCAG 2.0 had to face, as well as the strategies they developed in order to face the rapidly changing web landscape. Both the challenges and the strategies have to do with changes in web content, the use of appropriate technological devices, and the use of accessibility supported technology, as well as with other trends such as security and multimedia. This article is very relevant for the present study because it clearly explains the transition from 1.0 to 2.0 WCAG, and provides the set of principles the 2.0 guidelines are based on. Knowing these principals will be really useful in case specific guidelines are required for the social networking sites I will be analyzing.

 

Takagi, H., Asakawa, C., Fukuda, K., & Maeda, J. (2004, October 18-20). Accessibility designer: Visualizing usability for the blind. Atlanta, Georgia, USA: ASSETS’04.

 

Since the authors found that many websites were accessible but not necessarily usable for both blind and visually impaired individuals, they created a visualization feature called Accessibility Designer (A Designer), which enables web developers to visualize a simulated experience of blind users navigating a website. The A Designer is based on different color gradations, and is constituted by three components, namely: a presentation of the time spent to go from the top of the page to different sections, an indication of accessible or inaccessible areas, and a presentation of the textual information extracted or generated by standard screen readers, while the fundamental visual layouts are displayed. In order to test the effectiveness of the visualization tool, the authors carried out three trials that involved the examination of different websites. From these trials, the authors concluded that the time spent in reaching different sections of a page varies from one website to another, and that the use of the visualizing tool by web developers can contribute to make websites more usable. Despite my study will be based on real users’ experiences, it is still relevant to know visualizing tools like this, in order to see how they could be incorporated to the analyses of SNS.

 

Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, & ReadyPeople. (2009, January 15-16). W3C Workshop on the Future of Social Networking Final Report. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/2008/09/msnws/report.

 

The goal of this workshop, organized by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), was to bring together important actors of the social networking industry, in order to address challenges and opportunities of the industry and define future plans. Participants in this workshop represented various organizations, including telecom operators, social network operators, handset manufacturers, service providers, researchers, and so on. One of the main points discussed in the workshop had to do with the need for social networking sites to take into account users’ adaptive experiences, which involves groups such as users of mobile devices, aging groups, and people with disabilities. Participants concluded that more features need to be integrated to the mobile social networking sites, and that social platforms should be readily accessible for people with disabilities. Accessibility issues found in the social networking sites have to do with the heavy use of CAPTCHA, the lack of annotations brought with user-generated content, and the use of JavaScript in an inaccessible Fashion. Participants in the workshop concluded that the use of W3C works such as the Mobile Web Application best Practices, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2), and the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), may contribute to improve user experiences in SNS for both mobile devices users and people with disabilities. Since an increasing number of visually impaired people are using mobile devices to access SNS, a careful revision of the guidelines mentioned will help me determine how much they have contributed to make SNS more accessible.

 

Wentz, B. (2011, February 8-11). Are separate interfaces inherently unequal? An evaluation with blind users of the usability of two interfaces for a social networking platform. Seattle, Washington, USA: iConference 2011.

 

The author sought to compare Facebook’s standard, desktop interface and the mobile interface, in order to determine which of them is more accessible for blind people. In doing so, he recruited 30 blind participants belonging to both the Maryland and the Pennsylvania chapters of the National Federation of the Blind and the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind. The usability test was conducted in two phases: in the first one, 15 participants were required to perform various tasks by using Facebook’s standard interface, whereas in the second stage the mobile interface was evaluated. From these analyses, the author concluded that the mobile interface, in spite of being more accessible and easier to navigate by screen reader users, is missing some features found in the standard interface. Finally, the author provided some suggestions that could be applied to other social networking sites and web dynamic applications, in order to make them fully accessible. This article is very relevant for the present study because it involves the first attempt to evaluate Facebook in terms of accessibility, by taking into account blind users’ direct experience with the platform.

 

Wentz, B. and Lazar, J., 2011, in press. Usability Evaluation of Email Applications by Blind Users. Journal of Usability Studies, 6(2).

 

The authors discuss the results of the usability tests of three desktop email applications (Microsoft Outlook 2007, Outlook Express, and Mozilla Thunderbird-Sunbird), and four web-based email applications  (Outlook Web Access 2007 Light, Gmail, Yahoo Mail Classic, and Hotmail). In order to conduct the testing, the authors recruited fifteen participants (all of them blind and screen reader users) belonging to both the Pennsylvania and the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. Each participant was asked to perform various tasks by using a desktop and a web-based email application. From their analyses, the authors concluded that although both the desktop and web-based email applications present some usability problems for screen reader users, web-based applications show a poorer performance than the desktop ones. This article is relevant for the present study because it takes into account screen reader users’ direct experience in testing browsers and websites usability.

 

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October 22, 2012 at 10:49

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