Andrew Knopp

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The biggest obstacle to making an effective argument in the court of public opinion is simply being heard. Even the most compelling argument is merely a tree falling in the forest if no one listens to the podcast, sees the TV program, or reads the blog. All types of media are constantly fighting for the attention of the public, and it is hard to tell what will be effective in grabbing the spotlight.

This was my challenge in creating a Wiki page to make an economic argument against panhandling. I knew that I would need some kind of hook to get people interested and to drive traffic to my site. As I was editing the film I took from my interviews with some Harvard Square panhandlers, I found a clip that I felt would fit the bill. It consisted of a local panhandler describing his efforts to save $130 in order to test out his theories on gambling at Foxwoods. There was comedy in his plan to beat the house by betting the “no pass” line in craps, along with his self-satisfaction from “coming out ahead” with the free buffet and keno cards, despite losing the money he had saved. This humor was juxtaposed with the sense of sorrow that one feels for the man, trying to get by on $20 per day, living on the street, and desperately spending all the money he had saved in a fruitless attempt to break free from his uncomfortable situation.

In ten days since I posted “The Gambler” over 170 different people have viewed the clip. Many of those people have also gone on to read more about my economic argument against panhandling, and have sent comments on the videos or the Wiki page to me. I have to believe that it is the viral effect of an entertaining video that is driving people to view my webpage, and not pure interest in what I have to say about the topic of panhandling.

When I signed up for Cyberlaw, I was competent with computers but rarely used mine for anything beyond word processing, spreadsheets, and web surfing. For that reason, my favorite part of this class was learning new applications and developing new means of accessing the court of public opinion. Mastering each of these skills was a major challenge for me. The frustration I felt in trying to design a game in Scratch reminded me of the feelings I had as I was learning how to use the Pro-Engineer computer aided drafting program as a freshman in college, or learning how to brief cases as a first year law student. Figuring out how to edit and then upload my podcast and video clips was similarly difficult. Challenges like these are good reminders that obstacles can always be overcome, no matter how intimidating they seem at first.

While I really enjoyed learning how to create, edit, and upload movies to YouTube, I think my favorite portion of the course was the Wiki. Its elegant simplicity absolutely amazes me. I have always felt that web design is so over complicated, and restricts laypeople from really participating on the internet in a meaningful way. A Wiki is an incredible tool for the transmission of knowledge and can provide a means for achieving informational synergy within a class, a student organization, a living group, or any other kind of assembly of people. After becoming familiar with the class Wiki and thinking about how they can be used, I immediately began developing new Wikis in other areas of my life. As the commissioner of the HLS intramural basketball league, I developed a Wiki for scheduling games and listing teams. It made it much simpler for people to see when the gym was available, and to see scores and standings in real time instead of waiting for me to e-mail them out periodically. I have even made one for my family to communicate about our upcoming Christmas plans. I can be sure that a technology is simple and easy to use if my Grandma can figure it out and participate immediately. I think that providing users the opportunity to interact and contribute on the web instead of merely viewing pages is a key to getting people to buy into your ideas and feel ownership in the product. The applications of the Wiki are therefore only limited by one’s imagination.

I think that Second Life is much more “cool” than practical or value-adding at this point. When I presented my final project to the extension students and others on Berkman Island, I got a kick out of walking around the virtual Austin Hall and seeing these other avatars of participants in the class. But the discussion we held could have just as easily taken place in a relatively low-tech chat room. I have to believe that requiring people to join us in Second Life necessarily limits access to people with a less-advanced computer or a slower internet connection. I was never able to run Second Life on my 2-year-old computer; I had to go to a computer lab just to participate. This makes the opinions and discourse that take place in Second Life less diverse because it excludes that part of the population which cannot afford a brand new computer or a high speed internet connection. While this is unfortunate, I still think that Second Life has great potential as a leveler of the playing field, and should continue to be developed and improved as access issues diminish over time. Even if it is not currently the most efficient or accessible form of communication and interaction, the pioneering efforts of people like Rebecca will pay dividends down the road as more knowledge is developed and shared in Second Life.

As a result of this class, I feel like I am a part of this progress and am on (or near) the cutting edge of these new technologies that are shaping the world around us. By having designed a computer game on Scratch, I feel that I can at least relate to the computer programming crowd. Learning how to edit and upload podcasts and videos has given me access to a broader audience with which to share ideas and opinions. And knowing how to create and use a Wiki provides me with a tool to develop new communities and strengthen those of which I am already a part.