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Blair (Shelley Hennig) and her friends are puzzled by the anonymous caller in their Skype chat.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Ghosts have leveled up from haunting houses to haunting the internet in “Unfriended,” a found-footage horror film set entirely on one computer screen. The story revolves around a group of friends’ interactions on Google, iMessage, Skype and Facebook as they talk to each other even while being tormented by a ghost. The concept of cyber-haunting and the webcam gimmick sound dumb, but “Unfriended” takes advantage of its central premise with surprising cleverness. 

The film opens with the main character, Blair (Shelley Hennig), watching the suicide video of her deceased cyber-bullied classmate, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman). Blair’s boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), calls her on Skype, and the rest of their friends soon join them.

When a mysterious seventh person joins the call using Laura’s account, the friends assume the mystery user is a glitch or an internet troll. When the stranger threatens to kill them if they leave the call and begins to reveal how they have secretly sabotaged each others’ lives, the teens realize the entity is Laura’s vengeful spirit. One by one, Laura attempts to brutally murder each friend as their relationships with each other crumble apart.

“Unfriended” demonstrates a striking understanding of how modern audiences actually use the Internet. Even as she’s Skyping her friends, Blair simultaneously sends messages, chooses new songs to play on Spotify and browses Facebook. It isn’t distracting — it’s realistic. 

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves exploit audiences’ familiarity with the online world by twisting the familiar and innocuous sounds of Facebook notifications and incoming Skype calls. Under their direction and script, the sounds become malevolent alarms.

The film starts off slow, but once it gains momentum, it develops into a roller coaster ride fraught with thrills and jump scares. The actors do an excellent job arguing, screaming and crying as Laura’s revenge unfolds. It’s unfortunate that Gabriadze poorly presents the characters’ deaths. Their webcam feeds glitch and freeze during those scenes, making it hard to understand what is going on. 

The script also has its fair share of purely humorous moments. The characters act like real teens, teasing one another and making dirty comments. Laura occasionally takes control of Blair’s Spotify account and plays happy-go-lucky tunes with titles and lyrics that ostensibly match the events on screen but clash with the horror that is actually unfolding. Some of the friends’ arguments draw a few laughs, too.

“Unfriended” suggests that the line between the bullies and the bullied is blurrier than it seems. All the characters appear to be genuinely nice at the start of the movie. Eventually, Laura shatters the audience’s perception of each character by charging them with various acts of lies and deceit. Each teen is equally a victim and a perpetrator of bullying. “Unfriended” illustrates the idea that anyone can bully someone else and asks people to consider how their actions affect others. Some parts of “Unfriended” don’t work. Blair relies heavily on a sketchy website’s instructions for how to interact with angry ghosts, rendering her just another dumb teen in a long line of dumb teens in horror movies. Whenever the characters try to flee Laura, they have to take their laptops so their webcams can stay on their frightened faces. It’s an unwelcome reminder that we’re watching a movie, and these people aren’t real.

“Unfriended” provides some effective scares and thoughtful social commentary throughout its brisk 82-minute runtime. It’s an innovative take on the found-footage genre worth watching. After it’s over, the ring of a Skype call might make chills run down your spine. 

  •  
  • Title: Unfriended
  • Running time: 82 minutes
  • MPPA rating: R
  • Score: 7/10
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

On Friday, the Texan noted a report published by the University and the city of Austin that examined Internet usage across demographic cleavages in Austin. Unsurprisingly, it found that Internet usage is ubiquitous among the young and largely affluent communities that comprise the 40 Acres. However, the report also found many without this connection.

According to the report, only 80 percent of African-American residents in Austin had home access to the Internet, down from the more than 94 percent of Caucasians with a connection. Older, poorer and less educated Austinites were also significantly less likely to have any type of technological connection in the home, with a strong majority of them attributing their lack of Internet to financial constraints.

All too often, the gap in this city between the haves and the have-nots has been ignored by policymakers and voters alike. This was put on full display last November, when the mayoral election results by precinct split right down Interstate 35, the traditional dividing line between white Austin and black and Hispanic Austin; unsurprisingly, these latter neighborhoods were among the most likely to have lower rates of internet connection.

Austin has been the focus of much national attention for its pioneer role in Google Fiber, the lightning-fast broadband service slowly expanding throughout the country. Google Fiber, we have been told repeatedly, is the future of our relationship with the Internet and will revolutionize our connections. However, this revolution will only be open to those affluent enough to afford the high-dollar prices that come with it.

The fastest Internet through Google Fiber is $70 a month. And while a comparably slower internet connection offered through the service is free, there is a one-time $300 installation fee that serves as a huge barrier to entry, namely for that sizable minority of Austin still without any type of connection to the Internet. (Admittedly, the company is currently waiving the installation fee for a one-year commitment.)

Basic needs have changed since the 1950s. Having a computer with a connection to the Internet is not a luxury signaling opulence; rather, it is a bare necessity for someone who wishes to maintain a modicum of competitiveness in an increasingly technological workforce. Internet access is a public right and, just as we attempt to guarantee lighting and power to all our residents, we need to do the same with these connections. Faster and faster connections for the rich might be fun, but Austin needs to be responsible and ensure the entire city gets taken care of, not just a privileged few.

The decision by the FCC to protect net neutrality has repercussions that extend beyond preventing Internet Service providers from “throttling” service and creating “fast lanes.” Designating the Internet as a utility is an important moment for our society. 

The Internet, now protected under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, is more equal in both accessibility and function. As previously mentioned in a column by Jazmyn Griffin, a level playing field is essential for entrepreneurship.  Access to quality Internet service has allowed the tech industry to flourish and has been integral to the software industry’s incredible ingenuity. This is especially relevant to Austin’s status as one of the top cities in the tech industry for business development. Without equal access to equal Internet service, startup tech companies would not have the exposure or the capability to compete and grow.  

One of the great characteristics of the Internet is its democratic nature. Opponents to net neutrality, like Verizon, sought to create a class system by creating a privileged Internet service.  

How many of us would be able to afford premium Internet? If college students were not able to afford Internet in the fast lane, Facebook may not have “gone viral” and become the global phenomenon it is today. Apps for both business and pleasure would be prevented from accessing the market. Much of the tech industry’s success is the instant access and availability of the product.  

Many Austinites were excited when Google announced that Austin would be receiving the new Google Fiber Internet service. However, installation has been slow.  

Previously, AT&T refused to let Google use its telephone poles and other infrastructure already in place. Google was not considered by law as a “telecommunications provider” and thus was forced to construct its own infrastructure or pay AT&T.  

This policy prevented increased competition in the Austin area and may have doomed the effort if the company were smaller than Google. Now that the Internet is legally a utility, Google and other Internet service providers can compete using the infrastructure in place and more easily move into new markets. The market is more competitive, which promotes efficiency and quality service. 

Declaring the Internet as a utility fits within a larger historical context. Universal utility services help define us as a civilization. At the moment net neutrality appears to stand out as a singular movement of the new millennium. 

However, this decision can be compared to past resolutions, which implemented telephone, water and electric services. Today we consider these services to be basic necessities because of their previous designation as public utilities. The omnipresence of these services is part of what makes the average American quality of life one of the best in the world.  

And there is a reason that certain services have been established as public utilities. There is an underlying principle that empowering our society as a whole is beneficial.  

The electric service industry may not operate at the highest profitability possible. But that isn’t the point. While the free market is certainly an important part of our nation and culture, it has its drawbacks in certain areas.  

What if other utility services operated based on the will of the market? What if electric companies provided stable electricity service to those who could afford it, and rolling blackouts plagued poor and rural communities?  

What if the safer potable tap water cost extra to come out of the faucet? What if it wasn’t guaranteed that your toilets would flush unless you paid for premium sewage service?  

These scenarios could be more profitable, and the majority of Americans would probably be able to afford it. But we have decided that together we are stronger when these and other services are extended to the public, extended to everyone.  

Defining the Internet as a utility makes it a right and not a privilege. We have the right not to use the service, and we have the right to pay for as much of it as we would like, but we also have the right to the product free from discrimination. We are going to contribute for our collective benefit. 

America stands for more than profit and individual freedom. As a society we succeed when opportunity is maximized, and when the fortunate invest in those with less than. 

Most interpretations of the American dream are based on equal opportunity. As a society we have decided that the quality of essential services should not be reduced based on privilege. The less fortunate must work hard to make a better life for themselves, but in the 21st century, the ability to work hard would be obstructed by life in the slow lane.

Burchard is a Plan II and international relations and global studies senior from Houston. Follow Burchard on Twitter @nathburch.

Improved technology does not absolve us of our responsibility to vote

Editor's Note: This is the first column this semester in a series of weekly responses to Jeremi Suri's columns.

Our nation is one of meticulous structure and evolving interests. This delicate arrangement has weathered three centuries as disenfranchised groups have fought and continue fighting for Constitutional protections. Today we find ourselves in a unique position. Our “political moment,” as coined by Jeremi Suri in a column last week on the importance of optimism at the beginning of the semester, is of historic proportion. We are the heirs of globalization, interconnected and socialized with an unparalleled diversity of peers and perspectives. Our networks and technologies have expanded beyond conceivable proportions only within the last decade. This position is often scorned by past generations who cannot read it in 140-character tweets or newsfeeds. We are accused of being the “entitled generation” because our access has outpaced our accomplishments. But today, we are equipped to effect change and we have the potential to do more than any generation before us. 

The brilliant minds who fashioned our democracy held slaves and restricted equality to men, practices which are unforgivable today. Less than 100 years ago, women were taxed without representation. Less than 70 years ago, black and white children were still considered “separate but equal” in public schools. So how is our reality today so vastly different? 

Of all 27 constitutional amendments, including the Bill of Rights, about 40 percent were ratified in the 20th century alone. That means that of all the changes made to the fundamental structure of our government since its founding, nearly half were done in the past 100 years. The law began recognizing women, African-Americans and immigrants as human and autonomous. People began sharing memories and experiences with their first cameras, computers and gaming systems. Just a decade ago we met Google and then Facebook. No generation before us had instant access to a network of 1 billion people worldwide and trillions of web pages from a pocket-sized, six-inch screen. Google eliminated our language barriers and Facebook transformed our social boundaries. 

At the core of these changes were people. Entrepreneurs, activists and citizens created these institutions and movements. Today's new Congress, our new governor and our legislature were chosen by voters. We must never forget that this big institution, the “government,” is made up of people. The big technologies, like Facebook and Google, are made by people. The private sector has swelled because of this rapid technological advancement, and the public-private dialogue will react accordingly. The first step of activism is expression -— it’s voting. Only 16.1 percent of young people, of ages 18-29, voted in the Texas midterms in 2010. This means that despite our tweets and posts, 83.9 percent of us do not use our voice where it matters. The prospect to effect change is sustained in our ambitions. We can escape the stunted imagination, low expectations and self-defeating tactics of recent years that Suri describes, but we have to seek change. Through our activism and engagement, we will determine our progress for the next 100 years. 

Shah is a business and government sophomore from Temple.

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

With Austin set to become the second city in the country to adopt Google Fiber, the new Internet service announced its initial pricing plan and unveiled the location of its downtown office.

Mark Strama, head of Google Fiber in Austin and former state representative, also announced the costs for the three tiers of service. The basic tier offers a 5 MB download speed and 1 MB upload speed and will cost a $300 construction fee but will not require users to pay a monthly fee. The second tier offers 1 GB of upload and download speed, and costs $70 per month, which Strama said will be an asset for people who need access to an above average amount of content. The third tier includes the 1 GB speed and Google Fiber television service, which offers 150 high-definition channels and costs $130 per month.

Google Fiber’s new workspace, located at the former site of the Austin’s Children Museum at Second and Colorado streets, will open in December, when the Internet service will become available to citizens living in South and Southeast Austin. Google Fiber uses fiber-optic cables to deliver connection speeds that, according to Google, are 100 times faster than current standard broadband speeds.

Strama said the 23,000 square-foot space will not only be a place to experience the Internet and television services — but also a place to host the community.

“When Whole Foods opened that store on Sixth and Lamar, they called it their ‘love letter to the city of Austin,’ and I thought that we needed something to capture that spirit,” Strama said. “We anticipate having town hall meetings and political forums, as well as concerts and hack-a-thons and really cool technology-centric events.”

Google Fiber spokeswoman Kelly Mason said she believes the product will provide those in the technology industry, specifically application developers, the opportunity to create products that were formerly not sustainable on a typical broadband network.

“Google Fiber came about because we saw that Internet speeds in the U.S. were falling behind, and there was an artificial ceiling being put on innovation because of lower speeds in the web,” Mason said. “The future of the web is built on innovation, and these high speeds will support that.”

Google Fiber will not be available on and around UT’s campus when it launches in December, although Strama said there is a possibility that surrounding student housing areas will be eligible to get the service if enough people sign up.

“We’ve been in ongoing discussions with Google — as we would be with any other service — and are happy to continue that conversation,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said.

Photo Credit: Mariana Munoz | Daily Texan Staff

Students in West Campus now have the option for a gigabit Internet service that, while present in parts of Austin, has not been available in the area for residents to purchase.

Grande Communications is the first service provider to bring gigabit Internet to West Campus, beating other providers to the area. Grande said the new service provides Internet that is 10 times faster than its current Internet plan. Grande’s gigabit service has been offered since February in other parts of Austin and costs $64.99 a month.

“It’s available now,” said Matt Rohre, senior vice president of operations and general manager for Grande. “Everyone else is talking about theirs, and ours is there. People are using it.” 

Grande expanded its service to West Campus to reach University students, Rohre said.

“We know students, as much as or more than anyone else, truly value a great Internet experience,” Rohre said “It was adjacent to our existing territory and kind of a logical progression for us to go [to West Campus] and make the service available in that area.”

Google Fiber announced its Austin pricing plan Monday. The company’s services will start in Austin in December but, at this time, will not be offered in West Campus. Mark Strama, head of Google Fiber Austin, said Monday that the service could become available to students living in the area in the future.

Emma Duffy, accounting and finance junior, said the high-speed Internet would be helpful since the Internet in her West Campus co-op is inconsistent. She said she would be willing to pay for the service.

“Students use a lot of streaming services and faster speeds are good for that,” Duffy said. “My connection is a bit annoying at
the moment.”

Despite Grande’s service being available now, Corey Monreal-Jackson, human development and family sciences junior and West Campus resident, said he does not plan to purchase the service from Grande. He said he would only pay for the gigabit services if Google offered them, even if services are comparable.

“Google’s a buzzword,” Monreal-Jackson said. “You hear Google and you already are for it because, whether or not they truly are the best, they are going to be known as the best regardless of the services they offer.”

Karen Munoz, undeclared freshman and West Campus resident, said, while services like the gigabit Internet are nice, they are too expensive and are unnecessary for students.

“I think that’s too much for Internet,” Munoz said. “Right now I don’t pay anything where I live, and my Internet seems fine. I don’t think it’s slow or anything, so I wouldn’t buy it.”

For more information about Google Fiber's pricing plans, check out our full story here

In this podcast, Anthony Green and Madlin Mekelburg discuss the reinstatement of the controversial state voter ID law, the impending launch of Google Fiber in Austin and the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa as well as the two Dallas health care workers who have tested positive for the virus. They are joined by crime reporter Natalie Sullivan to discuss this week in crime and Austin’s stricter implementation of the city’s sound ordinances.  

Mark Strama, city manager for Google, explains the much-anticipated “fiber- hood,” which will start to be installed in December. Google Fiber’s goal is to produce an extraordinarily fast Internet that can reach as many people as possible.

Photo Credit: Madison Richards | Daily Texan Staff

Residents in South and Southeast Austin will be able to sign up for Google Fiber in December after waiting almost two years since the service was first announced.

Google held a briefing Wednesday at its Austin office about the Internet service the company will offer to its customers.

“Think about how many things you don’t want to click due to speed,” said Mark Strama, city manager for Google Fiber. “Speed is really important to us as a company, and we want to bring that to Austin.”

In November 2012, Kansas City became the only city to have the network. Google announced in April 2013 that Austin would be the next city to get Google Fiber.

David Anthony, technical program manager for Google Fiber, said the project goal is to install thousands of miles of fiber optic cable that will run right to people’s homes. The cables are made of hair-thin fibers of glass that transmit information close to the speed of light.

“This is the next step of the Internet,” Anthony said.

According to Anthony, the network delivers Internet speed at one gigabit per second, which is a hundred times faster than the current broadband speeds in the U.S. At this speed, a digital movie can be downloaded in less than two minutes, and high definition video can be streamed with little to no buffering.

“There will be no more waiting for the gray bar to fill up on the screen,” Strama said. “No more friction.”

Parisa Fatehi-Weeks, community impact manager for Fiber, said it is too soon to determine when student neighborhoods, such as West Campus and Hyde Park, will be able to sign up for Fiber. Strama said that a “fiberhood” has to have a certain number of people to sign up in order to receive the service for their respective neighborhood.

Fatehi-Weeks also talked about the Community Leaders program that aims to build greater digital literacy for underprivileged communities in Austin.

Fatehi-Weeks said that the program involves students helping people in the areas of Austin that have lower levels of Internet access. She said that students teach skills, such as how to setup an email or how to use a computer.

According to Fathehi-Weeks, 30 UT students take part in the program, as well as 20 others from both Huston-Tillotson University and St. Edward’s University. All 50 of the students work with employees called “Google Mentors” and will act as ambassadors for Fiber in underprivileged communities.

“Not every part of Austin will get Fiber,” Strama said. “But every area will get an opportunity to get it.”

Kara Kockelman is one of three UT professors who received a 2014 Google Research Award. The three professors were awarded grants for a variety of research topics that span from autonomous vehicle ride-sharing to health care data processing.

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Three University professors recently received Google Research Awards — totaling $170,000 — to fund cutting-edge scientific research on topics including driverless vehicle systems, data crunching and child-friendly search engines.

Transportation engineering professor Kara Kockelman, information assistant professor Jacek Gwizdka and computer science professor Lorenzo Alvisi will each receive funding structured as one-year gifts. 

Google Research Awards fund a project for one year and provide both faculty and students an opportunity to work directly with Google researchers and engineers. In the latest round of biannual awards for project proposals in computer science-related fields, 110 out of 722 proposals received funding. 

“What’s fabulous is the flexibility,” Kockelman said. “The topic is something I chose, rather than their issuing us a specific request for proposals, so that is very appreciated that we get to pick our favorite topics.” 

Kockelman, whose research investigates how automated driving capabilities will impact transportation system design, said the funding comes at a time when money is tight. 

“It is very challenging for us, even in engineering and traditionally well-sponsored areas, and so absolutely every dollar counts,” Kockelman said. “We are just hoping and praying that we can get more research support from the federal and state [transportation departments].”

Gwizdka, who is also the co-director of the University’s Information eXperience Lab, said the recognition for his work was more important than the money. His research focuses on how children search for information on the Internet. 

“We want to create a better metric of text readability of search results on the Internet, and one of the tools that I will be using in this research is eye-tracking,” Gwizdka said. “Something that tells me where a person, in this case where a kid, is looking on the screen.”

Alvisi, who could not be reached for comment, will work on developing instruments to help health care systems manage and process large quantities of data.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Vanicek | Daily Texan Staff

After leaving her career at Google in San Francisco, UT alum Brit Morin’s is returning to Austin to host a variety of Texas’ small, do-it-yourself business vendors at “Re:Make.” 

A variety of local artisans are setting up shop at the Palmer Events Center on Saturday and Sunday for Re:Make, a festival that emphasizes how technology is revolutionizing the creative community. The convention will display about 70 of Texas’ small businesses that sell handcrafted merchandise. 

Re:Make first took place last year in San Francisco, where Morin’s company, Brit + Co., is based. Brit + Co. is an online media and e-commerce business that educates people on how to complete DIY projects and support makers. It developed Re:Make in efforts to expand and reach people offline. 

“The website is about the community of people who get together and learn how to make things and do things,” Morin said. “Re:Make is about bringing together the thought leaders and influencers of the maker community.”

In search of a creative outlet, Morin left her career and created Brit + Co. She realized that various digital tools were making it easier for people to make and distribute their creative productions.

After a turnout of about 5,000 people last year, Re:Make will return to San Francisco in September. Inspired by her company’s success, Morin decided to reach out to other areas, specifically, Austin. 

“I knew Austin, my hometown, was a great place to start,” Morin said. “I knew the community there and how creative of a city it was and that people would really respect what Re:Make is all about.” 

The event will take place over the course of two days, during which vendors will sell their handcrafted merchandise. The guests of Re:Make will be able to shop and be given the opportunity to learn how to create their own products at interactive stands called “Make Stations.”

“You can learn how to make everything from different types of DIY crafts to technology projects,” Morin said. “[From] robotics to how to properly decorate cupcakes.” 

Brit + Co. worked to recruit vendors who sell what people of Austin want to see. 

“We got involved with a lot of local organizations, like TechShop Austin, and organizations at UT, like in engineering, communications and art, to get the right people there that would have that Austin local vibe,” Morin said. 

Although the artisans come from all around Texas, the majority comes directly from Austin. Morgana Lamson, co-owner of Satchel and Sage, a printed goods and textiles business from Austin, heard about the San Francisco Re:Make through friends who attended the event and decided to participate in Austin this year.

“They said it was curated really well and everything was just really well-made,” Lamson said. “I think it’s good because our city has such a huge maker community and lots of people investing in the arts.”

Kelley and Kris Denby, owners of an Austin-based custom furniture business named Hemlock and Heather, are looking forward to being a part of Re:Make because it gives them a chance to sell directly to the public instead of through retailers. 

“We have never done an event like this before” Kelley Denby said. “They basically gave us this 10x10 booth for free, and I think that’s a really big deal because you normally have to buy in to these kinds of events.”

The couple said they find it important to interact with other makers and are excited that Re:Make will give them the opportunity.

“It’s really such a tight-knit, supportive community,” Kelley Denby said. “You would think that it would be really competitive, but we’re all just kind of trying to make a living.”   

Re:Make’s technology-based theme is geared toward a 20- to 30-year-old audience. 

“The combination of being able to learn how to make things and take them home with you as well as the curation is much different than your traditional craft fair,” Morin said. “It’s not your grandma’s craft fair.”

This article has been updated since its original posting.