Monday, March 30, 2009

Virtual Life and Art on the Web

Here are some stunning highlights from the New York Times Magazine article, "Portrait of an Artist as an Avatar" by Sara Corbett:

His use of voluptuous colors, unbalanced composition and busy, layered images suggests both the bursting, overcapitalized nature of information technology today as well as the artist's deeper faith in the authenticity of the human relationships behind it.

People who spend a lot of time in virtual worlds will tell you that, despite the veneer of escape and anonymity provided by an avatar, virtual experiences nonetheless provoke emotions that are deeply felt, which may explain my mortification at losing my virtual hair . . .

Filthy operates as a kind of marketing magnet, a cult personality with a product behind it, and in this case, the product--Jeffery Lipsky's art--acts as a real-world bridge between a humdrum everyday existence and a more fantastical virtual life.

As the Internet continues to speed up and become more personalized, as our screen experiences become more immersive, some experts predict that the whole idea of having an avatar may soon seem less weird and more in keeping with all the other ways we already represent ourselves digitally, through our email addresses and blogs, our Facebook, Flickr and Twitter accounts.

"Art is moving toward the participatory," the sculpture's creator, a San Francisco artist named DC Spensley (who in Second Life goes by Dan-Coyote) told me when I called him later, saying that he creates only virtual art, despite the fact it is impossible to make a living at it.

Is it possible that by simulating an edgy, superconfident art star that you, too, could become one?

Scientists at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab have found that avatars, with their artificial beauty and fantastical lifestyles, may represent more than wishful thinking on the part of the real people who create them; they may actually help bring those wishes to bear. People trying to lose weight are more apt to accomplish their goals when they spend time using a thin avatar. Someone looking to become more self-confident improves more quickly in real life after adopting an avatar that is good looking. Whatever their shortcomings, virtual worlds are insistently, even defiantly, aspirational places.

My Thoughts: Thank you Sara Corbett. I love that last line. This is a fantastic, beautifully written article and I invite everyone to visit the link that I will include at the bottom of this page.

But first I would like to share some of my thoughts on the emergence of avatars and virtual worlds on the Internet.

As a writer, I've always felt at home with the notion of an alter ego. And what is an avatar but an alter-ego taken to the level of virtual reality?

My life in many ways reflects the blurring of lines between fantasy, illusion and the real world. As a former drug addict, I deliberately played out some dangerous and hallucinogenic experiments with my reality. (See my blog novel that takes place in Vegas or the graphic novel rendition of it.)

But now that I am sober, I still cannot escape the lust I have for imaginary worlds. I read compulsively and often find that the solace of books and reading in general allows one to exist in the half-light of dreams. Also, for about three years, I have been cultivating an avatar of sorts named Lethe Bashar. I mention Lethe frequently in my posts because he is the main character of my novel and my Facebook page says "Lethe Bashar" instead of my real name.

And what is the purpose of all this?

Perhaps the blurring of lines between our conventional identities and our fictional (or virtual ones) is not so foreign to our experience of being human after all. Why not? Our identities are not fixed although we sometimes pretend they are. We have this desire as humans to experiment with our identities. The very notion of possibility, of becoming something more than what you are now, is the basis for this drive.

Sara Corbett, with her precise and creative language, probes the latest manifestations of virtual life and art on the Web. Perhaps the new social technologies are allowing us to exhibit our true selves, which, I might suggest, is the adoption of a "false self".



Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Love and Friendship in the Age of Facebook

I’ve been on Facebook for a little over five years. I joined when you had to be part of a college network, although at the time I was out of college. I joined the nearest college network to my town, Illinois State University, using a friend’s email address. My friend happened to be a professor and graduate student at ISU.

For a couple days, I seemed to enjoy the privilege of having access to thousands of coed profiles. I was single, living in a college town, and the technology of Facebook lured me into the fantasy that if I could chat with these college girls then maybe they would want to go out with me. After all, I wasn’t that old—just four years out of college.

But this misuse of social technology was bound to catch up with me. In less than two weeks, some of the students in my friend’s class were asking him why he was “poking” them, a feature on Facebook that invites the multiple connotations of flirting, getting someone’s attention, and an overt sexual act.

More than once, my friend blushed in front of his freshman classes. “You’re on Facebook,” his students announced. “What? No, I’m not,” he replied.

Suffice it to say I’d been conducting my nefarious social mingling under his real name. That night he gave me direct instructions to take his name off the profile. He said he could lose his job if the English faculty thought he was flirting with undergraduates.

After a couple pointless dates with college coeds, I gave up the pathetic and futile quest to find love (or something like it) over Facebook’s channels. I went on a Facebook hiatus and lived in the real world, oblivious to the improvements and expansions in social technology. Meanwhile Facebook was opening up its doors to companies, organizations, the United States as a whole, and finally, most of Europe and Asia.

I’m still part of the Illinois State University network, even though I’ve never gone to school there. My connection to ISU is thus purely coincidental. I’ve changed the email address and put my name on the account. I’ve chosen a pseudonym for my profile (because I’m a writer and I like pen names), but people can search for me under my real name. I’ve also dutifully filled in the blanks about myself, adding my favorite bands, movies and television shows.

On the surface, Facebook is a narcissistic distraction from daily life. It provides a cross between the mindless absorption of the TV set and the obsessive self-involvement of the bathroom mirror. It also provides a voyeur with enough material to last a lifetime. The minutia of status updates, pictures, videos, top ten lists, interest groups, invitations, and games, this is the white noise of Facebook constantly buzzing; a social hive for restless young (and mid-life) Americans to retreat to; a place where, at least momentarily, we feel less alone and more connected.

Over the years, the lost figures of my past, lovers, classmates, fraternity brothers, even downright enemies, have slowly accumulated onto my friend list. From kindergarten on, these lost figures were coming out of the cyber woodwork to greet me. My typical Facebook reunion is one of unanticipated glee or terror, depending on the memories and the length of the conversation.

High school acquaintances, girls I befriended at summer camps, old teachers, some of my parents’ friends and a couple odd relatives have found their way to my profile; the friend list grows over time, forming an interesting social mosaic.

Of course, these people are my friends only according to the loose Facebook taxonomy. Some of them I haven’t even met before. Some are in fact strangers. Others I’ve met and known for vast chunks of time, but honestly, I never really cared for them. And finally, a large group of my Facebook friends seem to fit the term, but only partially. Yes, we were once friends. But for last ten or fifteen years we haven’t said a word to each other much less knew the other person still existed.

What about my real-life friends? Ironically, most of them are not on Facebook! They refuse the technology like children refusing treatment in a dentist’s office.

So I’m keeping up with a handful of people whom I call my “friends” and who fit the bill better than anyone else on the list. We’re communicating to each other every five or six months on the weakest possible thread—doing a sort of call and response to the most general of questions, “How’s life?” or “What are you up to?”

I ask myself:
Could I live without these exchanges? Could I live without the photo updates? Do I really need to know what my ex-girlfriend’s husband looks like?

This is not the past. Nor is it the present. It is the past interpenetrating the present. The people I once knew in high school or college have only a faint resemblance to their former selves. They may look the same, but there is something different about them. Marked by the passage of time, they are different people.

I could never really know these people, could I? A sporadic conversation through a private message board can only yield so much information. Nonetheless, I’m drawn to this virtual carnival of friendship as I indolently peruse the photo albums of old classmates and acquaintances. Their personal pages tell me so very little and yet that seems to be part of the fascination, the little colored fragments here and there which allow me to construct a fable of their separate lives.

There is activity everywhere. The buzzing of status updates, comments, and wall posts gives the impression of life behind the profiles. Located on my homepage, front and center, is the “friend feed”, a social ticker tape that informs me of everyone’s doings. New friendships are announced, as are modifications to profiles and new photos or videos.

Facebook didn’t really make a difference to me until I actually met one of these lost figures from my past. That is, I could have easily existed without the technology. It was an odd curiosity to glimpse through the photo albums of my old classmates, but not a necessity for social well-being.

After I broke up with my girlfriend, I found myself—once again—indolently browsing the pages of my “friend’s” profiles. One picture in particular caught my attention—my childhood best friend, Brad Dolin, and another childhood friend, Emily Crement, are standing together on a gymnasium floor, smiling for the camera.

In fact, I had seen the picture before. It was a classic in the annals of Butler Junior High memorabilia. I had grown apart from Emily, who now had a son. I wanted to reconnect with her and so I commented on the photo.

Within seconds of posting my comment, I received a message on my wall—not from Emily but from someone else. The note said, “CHRIS!!!!!!!!!!!! ALASWAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

In another couple seconds, this mystery person friended me and soon I was looking through her pictures trying to recall who on earth she was. Her main profile pic was striking, a ravishing young woman in an oriental green and turquoise dress. Half of her face is covered in shadows, she holds her arms behind her back, and stares down at the camera.

“These are the pictures of a model,” I thought as I continued my detective work.

“Do u pronounce ur name like leyth??? answer me that” showed up on my wall; and “THAT IS MY FAVORITE NAME IN THE WORLD. IT MEANS LION OR HEART OF BRAVERY IN ARABIC”

The name on my Facebook profile is not my real name. I think I've already said this. If you Google "Lethe Bashar" you will find a plethora of links related to this adolescent misfit. I’m a fiction writer and choosing a pseudonym for my Facebook profile seemed appropriate. Lethe Bashar lives out the drama of my rebellious past life in distant places like Madrid and Las Vegas. The novel encompasses three websites and is collectively titled, Lethe Bashar’s Novel of Life.

The mystery woman knew me from somewhere because now what appeared on my wall was, “omg how is mandy?? how is ur dad ?? i am soo sorry to hear about your mother”.

How did she know my father and sister? How did she know that my mother passed away?

Looking through her photo albums only increased my bewilderment. Either she was in the mafia or some kind of celebrity. A number of pictures had magazine logos on them. She was definitely a model. There were pictures from photo shoots and many glamorous poses with handsome men. In almost all of the pictures, she gazed inscrutably at the camera without the slightest smile on her lips. Her eyes were arresting and I wanted to know more.

“I don’t like talking back and forth on the wall,” she said. “Let’s use chat.”

And so we began our excursion to Yahoo Messenger, another bit of technology that has since become a favorite of mine. At last this woman’s identity was revealed to me. It took me far too long to guess who she was but this was a girl from my childhood.

She rode on the school bus with me over twenty years ago. Her mother dressed her in a white Christian Dior coat. She giggled at me when I jumped on the bus and ran down the aisles. Sometimes I infuriated her with my clowning around.

Perhaps my greatest surprise that night over Yahoo Messenger was our mutual, spontaneous interest in each other. I had reunited with friends on Facebook before, but this experience was totally different. . .

There is a whole story to tell about what happens next. But, for the moment, I’m going to protect my friend’s identity and choose to not give away any more details. All I will say is that we did indeed meet. And we are now happily engrossed in a romance of sorts.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

I Want to Invest in Your Idea--Mine Sucks

If you have money in the stock market, then most likely you're thinking about other places to invest. If you have any cash, you may be keeping one ear open to innovative ideas in green energy, web technology, or education.

To a twenty-nine year old like myself the idea of launching a start-up glimmers with infinite possibility. I think about those prodigies Larry Page and Sergey Brin who founded Google while they were only in college. An original idea, if properly implemented, could lift me out of these merciless economic times.

I actually have some capital to put toward my idea. My mother died about five years ago and I have money from the inheritance. But that money is disappearing fast; on average $20,000 a month. "It will go back up," my friends reassure me, but I'm getting squirmy and I'm also not entirely convinced by their rosy projections.

If I can find the perfect investment idea, I will do it. If you, dear reader, have any smart investment ideas, please let me know.

I work as a freelance SEO consultant. I serve law firms in my community and also companies and individuals over the Internet. To those comfortable enough using the Internet to find work, there are numerous contract bid sites out there. Whether you're laid off or not making enough money at your job and want an additional stream of income, the following sites can help boost your monthly income:,,,,,,

And that doesn't include all of the specialized job boards out there such as:

Mashable, Craigslist, ProBlogger, SimplyHired, CodeGuru . . .

Based on my success from using these sites, specifically, I started to think that my best investment would be a similar venture. makes 6-7% on every transaction through their site. If there are 10,000 online users per year with the average job costing $1000, at a 6% transaction fee, the site's revenue equals $600,000. Now these are rough figures, but you get the point. There is money to be made in a contract bid site, especially during a recession.

Early on, however, there were some errors in my judgment. First of all, has been around since the early nineties. And the other bid contract sites have glutted the market since then. Just to have a contract bid site does not guarantee revenue. It was recently explained to me that building a website is like putting up a gas station in the middle of the desert. The difficulty is not putting it up; the difficulty is building the six-lane highway to get people there.

So how much would this cost me? If the website cost me $15,000 to build, I would have to spend about 3 times as much on marketing. Furthermore, simply creating a contract bid site would not be enough. As I've already pointed out, there are plenty of these types of sites. My site would have to be unique--a purple cow amid the herd--and it would have to offer something new. So I went back to the drawing board and brainstormed what features might draw unique traffic to my site.

Contract Bid Site start-up idea: “Create a Dream Team for Web Development”

I want to harness the power of social technology on a contract bid site geared toward web developers. I would like to create a site based on three skill sets:

(Web Content, SEO press release, bloggers, writers, editors, etc.)

Design (Web designers, illustrators, graphic designers, etc.)

Promotion (SEO, SEM, Internet advertising)

Users opt for a single freelancer in any category or to build a team. The community would also offer advice on bid projects.

The site would sell the idea: Build your own web team. It would create a social environment for outsourcing and idea generation.

Core objective: Team-building advantage and cross fertilization of ideas:

A) building a team to do a project and B) managing that team

The site is less focused on the individual and more focused on the team.

I want the site to be a cross between a social network and an online workplace. Right now has a system where buyers can hook up with providers and there are plenty of applications for them to use together. I would like to expand the online workplace to include and facilitate:

Buyer to buyer conversation
Provider to provider conversation
Conversation between teams and individuals

I would like to mimic the actual workplace using a) incentives for outstanding work b) competition between teams and individuals c) collaboration between teams and individuals while at the same time serving as a legitimate site for buyers to contract providers.

Think in terms of tools: I would need a mash-up of tools from two different types of sites, a contract bid site and a project management site. Some examples of project management sites include Microsoft Office Live, BaseCampHQ, Wiggio, Google Docs.

I am merging the tools of a bidding site and a collaborative project management site. The team aspect is emphasized. What are the most cost-effective, highly useful tools to people in three skill sets: Web Content, Web Design, and Web Promotion? What collaborative tools can you offer for building a team and managing a team?

Secondary objective: Knowledge community advantage

The site is a way for users to differentiate themselves from others. They could show that they know more than other bidders, that they are a better match for an investor's project, or that they understand an investor's vision. For example, the site could be an initial "free resource" which hooks first time visitors. If the provider has the knowledge/ideas an investor is looking for, then the buyer would be more likely to go with them.

Before a project begins, there could be group-brainstorming through forums or a private message board. Potential providers brainstorm with the buyer for his or her project. The provider who shows the most initiative and the most insight wins the prize.

In addition, the site would organize people by specialty, helping to connect people with similar skills. For example, programmers who know or Joomla. We would organize their profiles with tags.

My next step was finding a web development company to translate my idea into a reality. In the spirit of the project, I decided to post my job description on Elance and Odesk for between $10,000 and $25,000.

I received a flood of responses. In the next two days, I frantically reviewed the pre-bids and locked myself in a conference room at a university library where I spoke to web developers from around the world.

While the prospects of creating a start-up company were exciting, I started to wonder whether this was a quixotic dream. I was talking to sales reps in India who were telling me they had to discuss my requirements with their team of developers before they could write up a proposal for me. What were my requirements? I told them everything I knew. The whole project was so vague that the bidders themselves didn't want to commit to a price. I had the idea, the impetus, the motivation, but I didn't have the architecture. I didn't know exactly what I wanted--other than to create a revenue-generating website.

Without a clear objective, my site would be doomed to failure. Without documentation of user flows, technographic profiles, and specific technology requirements, this idea was a pie in the sky. And talking to the off-shore web development teams, I started to sense my own anxiety toward going forward with the project. They wanted to write detailed proposals, but could I really expect a team in India to reproduce an idea in my head?

And then, in the eleventh hour, I got a call from a gentleman who called himself a "project manager and not a sales guy." I was relieved to hear that his company was located in the US. I shared with him some of my concerns about the project, that it was too large and too expensive. I was giving up, I said.

But he told me that his company was different. They had already created the technology that I needed built. They developed a piece of software for project management. First he gave me a perfect litany of qualifications. His company was one of the top providers on Elance, earning over $200,000. He talked about the scale of projects his company took on and their successes in generating traffic.

We talked for two hours. Not only did he think he could do my project for under $30,000, but he also thought the site was a brilliant idea and was excited to begin work right away. My heart fluttered. I couldn't believe I'd actually found someone to launch my start-up. It would save me hundreds of thousands of dollars. We ended the conversation with him agreeing to write a proposal for the board of trustees. We would communicate again on Monday. It was Friday night.

I was so happy that I closed my computer and curled up in bed with my head on the pillow. I yearned for rest. The last week of interviewing bidders and reading proposals had exhausted me. I was just so glad to have found the right team for the job.

But I couldn't fall asleep for some reason. I lay in bed thinking about the gentleman who practically seduced me with his high-tech wizardry-talk. I jumped out of my bed and turned on my laptop. I looked up his company's profile on Elance. It was true what he said about the high earnings, but written feedback was largely missing. I would think that if someone paid his company to do a job for over $10,000, they would take the time to write some feedback.

Then I tried to go to his company website, but nothing came up. I typed in the name of the company in Google and found this on Rip-Off Report, a website that announces scams to the public.

This floating cyber-fragment shocked me into reality. Immediately, I went to the private message board on Elance and asked the man to account for what I'd found.

He denied the charge, saying that "The Rip-Off Report" was a scam.

But it didn't matter anymore. Whether this guy was a reliable web developer or the Talented Mr. Ripely, I wasn't going to hand over 30 grand to him for a bid project. The whole delirious experience deflated my enthusiasm. After all, if I couldn't trust the providers on Elance, did I really want to create a contract bid site of my own?

After this ordeal, I'm thinking I would still like to create a site. I want to invest in a good idea. I'm just not sure if my idea qualifies as good anymore. Tell me what you think. And if you have an investor idea yourself, let's hear it.

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