Keeping a Soldier Connected Web 2.0 Style
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Reporter's Notebook: In May, my friend Roland popped up in my Gmail. A little message box fixed to the bottom of my browser read:
Roland is a good friend from school, so I took a break from my morning routine to reply.
me: WHOA. Nice Duder. You figured out Gchat
I meant Google Talk, the instant messaging application built into Google's e-mail product, Gmail.
Roland: haha im at work. it launched automatically. this is awesome
It was. We were two recent graduates still in our first years out of school and we talked for a bit about life and work.
I'd just started here at internetnews.com. It was an exciting time for me: my entry into professional journalism.
And Roland, he'd just begun a new assignment, too, in Kuwait, for some training on his way to Iraq.
Roland is a Second Lieutenant in the Army's Transportation Corp. We graduated together from Davidson College in 2005. But when I went to New York, he left for boot camp to fulfill his ROTC obligation.
But here he was, a year later, chatting at the end of his workday in an office on a base near the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq. These are different times, aren't they?
Something has happened to our world. It started with Youve Got Mail! and the tech boom of the 90s. That bubble burst, but now we are saturated in its soapy connectivity.
Call it post-bubble, call it Web 2.0, or call it an evolution in human communication. In our time, information travels at broadband rates.
And it's connecting a solider to his home.
"We're set up here, man." Roland told me, calling from his base in Iraq the other day.
"We've got so many computers. Every man in this room has three computers to himself. We're connected," he said.
Connected enough, Roland said, to fight off the immediate challenge facing the soldiers every day: boredom.
It's not a stuck-in-a-bad-movie-boredom kind of boredom. It's "the realization that every day after today is going to be the same as yesterday," he said. "It definitely weighs on you."
Many of the soldiers Roland works with alleviate that boredom with e-mail and compulsive shopping on eBay.
Soldiers earn pay and there aren't a lot ways to spend money in Iraq.
He told me the soldiers are expected to use the computers for work during most of the day, but when things slow down and on the weekends, they're allowed to browse.
When the base firewall comes down, Roland e-mails, shops on eBay, and even maintains a Facebook profile.
But his main distraction from the grind in Iraq happens to be the same as mine and a few of our scattered friends. It's our Yahoo fantasy baseball league. And it brings our world together.
"It's the one thing I look forward to when I get to work," Roland said. "Checking those box scores. It's great having that."
And it's great having Roland in the league. He's dominated us all year long and has let us know about it, contributing as much as he can to our message boards:
"Yah im back home. this is now my ninth straight 12- hour day, i dunno when my next day off will be. and theyve blocked 95% of the internet again, so my fantasy time is once again extremely limited. so life kinda slizzles right now..."
In industry terms, Roland's participation in the league and banter on the message boards is user-generated content leading to deep engagement with the site. It's gravy for brand advertisers looking to take root in our emotions.
But on human terms, it's just nice to talk to Roland and feel like he's not so far away.
It doesn't take much to remember that he is, though. Take the message he wrote me just after Memorial Day.
"Today is my first sandstorm, its not real bad, but visibility is maybe 200 meters... kinda eery and fun.
"Hope you had a nice memorial day. i cant help but remember last year's. we'll def live it up in october, whether its in d.c. or nyc...."
"Aight man, stay alert--stay alive! --R"