When You Give a Tree an Email Address

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Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas. “The email interactions reveal the love Melburnians have for our trees,” Wood said.

These sorts of initiatives encourage civic engagement and perhaps help with city maintenance, but they also enable people’s relationship with their city to play out at the micro level. Why have a favorite park when you can have a favorite park bench?

It’s a dynamic that is playing out more broadly, too, in concert with a profound shift toward the ubiquity of interactive, cloud-connected technologies. Modern tools for communicating, publishing, and networking aren’t just for connecting to other humans, but end up establishing relationships between people and anthropomorphized non-human objects, too. The experience of chatting with a robot or emailing a tree may be delightful, but it’s not really unusual.

The move toward the Internet of Things only encourages the sense that our objects are not actually things but acquaintances. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new: The urge to talk back to devices and appliances dates at least to the broadcast era. (As television ownership became common in the 20th century, newspaper columnists marveled at the new national pastime of shouting back at the television set.)

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Playing Video Games With My Son Isn’t What I Thought It Would Be

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My son and I do still play those competitive games, and I hope that he’s learning about practice and perseverance when we do. But those games are about stretching and challenging him to fit the mold of the game’s demands. When we play Minecraft together, the direction of his development, and thus our relationship, is reversed: He converts the world into expressions of his own fantasies and dreams. And by letting me enter and explore those dream worlds with him, I come to understand him in a way that the games from my childhood do not.

Touring the worlds that my son has settled over the last couple of years, I find a lot of the imagery one might expect from a kid his age. Throughout are standard fantasies like living in a treehouse or on a boat. The dominant themes vary as I pass through time: trains in his earliest worlds, then robots, a long streak of pyramids. Pirate ships, particularly half-sunken ones with treasure chests, remain a constant.

For 10 Years, I Read the Comments

A series of concentric speech bubbles overlaid with a text box that says "Enter your comment here"

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When I first started posting these photo stories, I was aware of the possible downsides of allowing comments. But I was always hopeful that readers would have interesting responses. I wanted the ability to prevent ugly comments from ever appearing, and the only reliable way to do that was using a method called pre-moderation, where all incoming comments are held in a hidden queue to await approval. What that really meant was that somebody (me) would have to read and approve every single comment before it showed up on the page—and delete the bad ones, so that they were never seen by everyone else. This seemed like a good plan to me at the time. I thought maybe I would be checking incoming comments once a day.

I had no idea what hell I was getting myself into.

The relentless grind had a psychological and emotional toll. While moderation was generally a quiet place, letting comments sit in the queue too long would make readers furious. Constantly making judgment calls on other people’s utterances, sometimes by the dozens in stressful circumstances with uncertain boundaries, is draining. My stomach always twisted in a knot of anticipation when I knew a subject I’d just posted might be even slightly controversial. (And I’ve learned that almost anything can become controversial.)

It was never enjoyable to approve comments that I might disagree with, or that attacked me or a photographer directly. But if the comments weren’t abusive or racist, I would generally let them through. My estimate is that between 90 to 95 percent of the comments made it. That remaining 5 to 10 percent, though—I’m glad that I made the effort to never let them show up on any of my stories, even for a second.

Behind the Selfie

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Who is it we see when we look in the mirror? And when we share selfies — and I post photos of myself all day long, I admit — what version of ourselves is it we are sharing? In the stranger’s case, a selfie represented, more than anything else, a work of the imagination.

Vice dares Facebook users to burst the filter bubble by liking posts they hate

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To prevent these narrow worldviews, the agency has created an online tool that connects to a user’s Facebook profile and analyses what they have already liked, mapping out their political and ideological standpoint. The tool then suggests a list of pages, people and groups the person is most likely to hate and encourages them to like those as well.