Category Archives: advice

Why Is PRI's The World Having Social Media Issues?

Some raw notes on why PRI’S The World (especially “The World Tech Podcast” or WTP) is having issues with social media. It may sound bad, for many reasons. But I won’t adapt the tone.

No offense intended.

Thing is, I don’t really care about WTP, The World, or even the major media outlets behind them (PRI, BBC, Discovery).

Reason for those notes: WTP host Clark Boyd mentioned that their social media strategy wasn’t working as well as they expected. Seemed like a nice opportunity to think about social media failures from mainstream media outlets.

My list of reasons is not exhaustive and it’s not really in order of importance.

Social media works best when people contribute widely. In other words, a podcaster (or blogger, etc.) who contributes to somebody else’s podcast (blog, etc.) is likely to attract the kind of mindshare afforded social media outlets. Case in point, I learnt about WTP through Erik Hersman because Afrigadget was able to post WTP content. A more efficient strategy is to actually go and contribute to other people’s social media.

The easiest way to do it is to link to other people, especially other blogs. Embedding a YouTube video can have some effects but a good ol’ trackback is so much more effective. In terms of attention economy, the currency is, well, attention: you need to pay attention to others!

Clark Boyd says WTP isn’t opposed to interacting with listeners. Nice… Yet, there hasn’t been any significant move toward interaction with listeners. Not even “letters to the editor” which could be read on the radio programme. No button to leave audio feedback. Listeners who feel they’re recognized as being interesting are likely to go the social media route.

While it’s a technology podcast, WTP is formatted as a straightforward radio news bulletin. “Stories” are strung together in a seamless fashion, most reports follow a very standard BBC format, there are very few “conversations” with non-journalists (interviews don’t count as conversations)… Such shows tend not to attract the same crowd as typical social media formats do. So WTP probably attracts a radio crowd and radio crowds aren’t necessarily that engaged in social media. Unless there’s a compelling reason to engage, but that’s not the issue I want to address.

What’s probably the saddest part is that The World ostensibly has a sort of global mission. Of course, they’re limited by language. But their coverage is even more Anglo-American than it needs to be. A far cry from Global Voices (and even GV tends to be somewhat Anglophone-centric).

The fact that WTP is part of The World (which is itself produced/supported by PRI, BBC, and Discovery) is an issue, in terms of social media. Especially given the fact that WTP-specific information is difficult to find. WTP is probably the one part of The World which is savvy to social media so the difficulty of finding WTP is made even more noticeable by the lack of a dedicated website.

WTP does have its own blog. But here’s how it shows up:

Discovery News: Etherized.

The main URL given for this blog? <tinyurl.com/wtpblog> Slightly better than <http://tinyurl.com/6g3me9> (which also points to the same place). But very forgettable. No branding, no notion of an autonomous entity, little personality.

Speaking of personality, the main show’s name sounds problematic: The World. Not the most unique name in the world! 😉 On WTP, correspondents and host often use “the world” to refer to their main show. Not only is it confusing but it tends to sound extremely pretentious. And pretention is among the trickiest attitudes in social media.

A strange dimension of WTP’s online presence is that it isn’t integrated. For instance, their main blog doesn’t seem to have direct links to its Twitter and Facebook profiles. As we say in geek circles: FAIL!

To make matters worse, WTP is considering pulling off its Facebook page. As Facebook pages require zero maintenance and may bring help listeners associate themselves with the show, I have no idea why they would do such a thing. I’m actually having a very hard time finding that page, which might explain why it has had zero growth in the recent past. (Those who found it originally probably had friends who were adding it. Viral marketing works in bursts.) WTP host Clark Boyd doesn’t seem to have a public profile on Facebook. Facebook searches for WTP and “The World Tech Podcast” don’t return obvious results. Oh! There you go. I found the link to that Facebook page: <http://www.new.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=2411818715&ref=ts>. Yes, the link they give is directly to the new version of Facebook. Yes, it has extra characters. No, it’s not linked in an obvious fashion.

That link was hidden in the August 22 post on WTP’s blog. But because every post has a link with “Share on Facebook” text, searching the page for “Facebook” returns all blogposts on the same page (not to mention the “Facebook” category for posts, in the right-hand sidebar). C’mon, folks! How about a Facebook badge? It’s free and it works!

Oh, wait! It’s not even a Facebook page! It’s a Facebook group! The difference between group and page seems quite small to the naked eye but ever since Fb came out with pages (a year or so ago), most people have switched from groups to pages. That might be yet another reason why WTP isn’t getting its “social media cred.” Not to mention that maintaining a Facebook group implies just a bit of time and doesn’t tend to provide direct results. Facebook groups may work well with preestablished groups but they’re not at all effective at bringing together disparate people to discuss diverse issues. Unless you regularly send messages to group members which is the best way to annoy people and generate actual animosity against the represented entity.

On that group, I eventually learn that WTP host Clark Boyd has his own WTP-themed blog. In terms of social media, the fact that I only found that blog after several steps indicates a broader problem, IMHO.

And speaking of Clark Boyd… He’s most likely a great person and an adept journalist. But is WTP his own personal podcast with segments from his parent entity or is WTP, like the unfortunately defunct Search Engine, a work of collaboration? If the latter is true, why is Boyd alone between segments in the podcast, why is his picture the only one of the WTP blog, and why is his name the domain for the WTP-themed blog on WordPress.com?

Again, no offence. But I just don’t grok WTP.

There’s one trap I’m glad WTP can avoid. I won’t describe it too much for fear that it will represent the main change in strategy. Not because I get the impression I may have an impact. But, in attention economy, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Oops! I said too much… 🙁

I said I don’t care about WTP. It’s still accurate. But I do care about some of the topics covered by WTP. I wish there were more social media with a modicum of cultural awareness. In this sense, WTP is a notch above Radio Open Source and a few notches below Global Voices. But the podcast for Global Voices may have podfaded and Open Source sounds increasingly U.S.-centric.

Ah, well…

Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life- msnbc.com.

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modĂ©ration a bien meilleur goĂ»t» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.

Éloge de la courtoisie en-ligne

Nous y voilĂ !

AprĂšs avoir terminĂ© mon billet sur le contact social, j’ai reçu quelques commentaires et eu d’autres occasions de rĂ©flĂ©chir Ă  la question. Ce billet faisait suite Ă  une interaction spĂ©cifique que j’ai vĂ©cue hier mais aussi Ă  divers autres Ă©vĂ©nements. En Ă©crivant ce billet sur le contact social, j’ai eu l’idĂ©e (peut-ĂȘtre saugrenue) d’Ă©crire une liste de «conseils d’ami» pour les gens qui dĂ©sirent me contacter. Contrairement Ă  mon attitude habituelle, j’ai rĂ©digĂ© cette liste dans un mode assez impĂ©ratif et tĂ©lĂ©graphique. C’est peut-ĂȘtre contraire Ă  mon habitude, mais c’est un exercice intĂ©ressant Ă  faire, dans mon cas.

Bien qu’Ă©noncĂ©s sur un ton quasi-sentencieux, ces conseils se veulent ĂȘtre des idĂ©es de base avec lesquelles je travaille quand on me sollicite (ce qui arrive plusieurs fois par jour). C’est un peu ma façon de dire: je suis trĂšs facile Ă  contacter mais voici ce que je considĂšre comme Ă©tant des bonnes et mauvaises idĂ©es dans une procĂ©dure de contact. Ça vaut pour mes lecteurs ici, pour mes Ă©tudiants (avant que je aie rencontrĂ©s), pour des contacts indirects, etc.

Pour ce qui est du «contact social», je parlais d’un contexte plus spĂ©cifique que ce que j’ai laissĂ© entendre. Un des problĂšmes, c’est que mĂȘme si j’ai de la facilitĂ© Ă  dĂ©crire ce contexte, j’ai de la difficultĂ© Ă  le nommer d’une façon qui soit sans Ă©quivoque. C’est un des mondes auxquels je participe et il est liĂ© Ă  l’«écosystĂšme geek». En parlant de «cĂ©lĂ©brité» dans le billet sur le contact social, je faisais rĂ©fĂ©rence Ă  une situation assez prĂ©cise qui est celle de la vie publique de certaines des personnes qui passent le plus clair de leur temps en-ligne. Les limites sont pas trĂšs claires mais c’est un groupe de quelques millions de personnes, dont plusieurs Anglophones des États-Unis, qui entrent dans une des logiques spĂ©cifiques de la socialisation en-ligne. Des gens qui vivent et qui oeuvrent dans le mĂ©dia social, le marketing social, le rĂ©seau social, la vie sociale mĂ©diĂ©e par les communications en-ligne, etc.

Des «socialiseurs alpha», si on veut.

C’est pas un groupe homogĂšne, loi de lĂ . Mais c’est un groupe qui a ses codes, comme tout groupe social. Certains individus enfreignent les rĂšgles et ils sont ostracisĂ©s, parfois sans le savoir.

Ce qui me permet de parler de courtoisie.

Un des trucs dont on parle beaucoup dans nos cours d’introduction, en anthropologie culturelle, c’est la diversitĂ© des normes de politesse Ă  l’Ă©chelle humaine. Pas parce que c’est une partie essentielle de nos recherches, mais c’est souvent une façon assez efficace de faire comprendre des concepts de base Ă  des gens qui n’ont pas (encore) de formation ethnographique ou de regard anthropologique. C’est encore plus efficace dans le cas d’Ă©tudiants qui ont dĂ©jĂ  Ă©tĂ© formĂ©s dans une autre discipline et qui ont parfois tendance Ă  ramener les concepts Ă  leur expĂ©rience personnelle (ce qui, soit dit en passant, est souvent une bonne stratĂ©gie d’apprentissage quand elle est bien appliquĂ©e). L’idĂ©e de base, c’est qu’il n’y a pas d’«universal», de la politesse (malgrĂ© ce que disent Brown et Levinson). Il n’y a pas de rĂšgle universelle de politesse qui vaut pour l’ensemble de la population humaine, peu importe la distance temporelle ou culturelle. Chaque contexte culturel est bourrĂ© de rĂšgles de politesse, trĂšs souvent tacites, mais elles ne sont pas identiques d’un contexte Ă  l’autre. Qui plus est, la mĂȘme rĂšgle, Ă©noncĂ©e de la mĂȘme façon, a souvent des applications et des implications trĂšs diffĂ©rentes d’un contexte Ă  l’autre. Donc, en contexte, il faut savoir se plier.

En classe, il y en a toujours pour essayer de trouver des exceptions Ă  cette idĂ©e de base. Mais ça devient un petit jeu semi-compĂ©titif plutĂŽt qu’un rĂ©el processus de comprĂ©hension. D’aprĂšs moi, ç’a un lien avec ce que les pĂ©dagogues anglophones appellent “Ways of Knowing”. Ce sont des gens qui croient encore qu’il n’existe qu’une vĂ©ritĂ© que le prof est en charge de dĂ©voiler. Avec eux, il y a plusieurs Ă©tapes Ă  franchir mais ils finissent parfois par passer Ă  une comprĂ©hension plus souple de la rĂ©alitĂ©.

Donc, une fois qu’on peut travailler avec cette idĂ©e de base sur la non-universalitĂ© de rĂšgles de politesse spĂ©cifiques, on peut travailler avec des contextes dans lesquelles la politesse fonctionne. Et elle l’est fonctionnelle!

Mes «conseils d’ami» et mon «petit guide sur le contact social en-ligne» Ă©taient Ă  inscrire dans une telle optique. Mon erreur est de n’avoir pas assez dĂ©crit le contexte en question.

Si on pense Ă  la notion de «blogosphĂšre», on a dĂ©jĂ  une idĂ©e du contexte. Pas des blogueurs isolĂ©s. Une sphĂšre sociale qui est concentrĂ©e autour du blogue. Ces jours-ci, Ă  part le blogue, il y a d’autres plates-formes Ă  travers lesquelles les gens dont je parle entretiennent des rapports sociaux plus ou moins approfondis. Le micro-blogue comme Identi.ca et Twitter, par exemple. Mais aussi des rĂ©seaux sociaux comme Facebook ou mĂȘme un service de signets sociaux comme Digg. C’est un «petit monde», mais c’est un groupe assez influent, puisqu’il lie entre eux beaucoup d’acteurs importants d’Internet. C’est un rĂ©seau tentaculaire, qui a sa prĂ©sence dans divers milieux. C’est aussi, et c’est lĂ  que mes propos peuvent sembler particuliĂšrement Ă©tranges, le «noyau d’Internet», en ce sens que ce sont des membres de ce groupe qui ont un certain contrĂŽle sur plusieurs des choses qui se passent en-ligne. Pour utiliser une analogie qui date de l’Ăšre nationale-industrielle (le siĂšcle dernier), c’est un peu comme la «capitale» d’Internet. Ou, pour une analogie encore plus vieillotte, c’est la «MĂ©tropole» de l’Internet conçu comme Empire.

Donc, pour revenir Ă  la courtoisie…

La spĂ©cificitĂ© culturelle du groupe dont je parle a crĂ©Ă© des tas de trucs au cours des annĂ©es, y compris ce qu’ils ont appelĂ© la «Netiquette» (de «-net» pour «Internet» et «étiquette»). Ce qui peut contribuer Ă  rendre mes propos difficiles Ă  saisir pour ceux qui suivent une autre logique que la mienne, c’est que tout en citant (et apportant du support Ă ) certaines composantes de cette Ă©tiquette, je la remets en contexte. Personnellement, je considĂšre cette Ă©tiquette trĂšs valable dans le contexte qui nous prĂ©occupe et j’affirme mon appartenance Ă  un groupe socio-culturel prĂ©cis qui fait partie de l’ensemble plus vaste auquel je fais rĂ©fĂ©rence. Mais je conserve mon approche ethnographique.

La Netiquette est si bien «internalisĂ©e» par certains qu’elles semblent provenir du sens commun (le «gros bon sens» dont je parlais hier). C’est d’ailleurs, d’aprĂšs moi, ce qui explique certaines rĂ©actions trĂšs vives au bris d’Ă©tiquette: «comment peux-tu contrevenir Ă  une rĂšgle aussi simple que celle de donner un titre clair Ă  ton message?» (avec variantes plus insultantes). Comme j’ai tentĂ© de l’expliquer en contexte semi-acadĂ©mique, une des bases du conflit en-ligne (la “flame war”), c’est la difficultĂ© de se ressaisir aprĂšs un bris de communication. Le bris de communication, on le tient pour acquis, il se produit de toutes façons. Mais c’est la façon de rĂ©Ă©tablir la communication qui change tout.

De la mĂȘme façon, c’est pas tant le bris d’Ă©tiquette qui pose problĂšme. Du moins, pas l’occasion spĂ©cifique de manquement Ă  une rĂšgle prĂ©cise. C’est la dynamique qui s’installe suite Ă  de nombreux manquements aux «rĂšgles de base» de la vie sociale d’un groupe prĂ©cis. L’effet immĂ©diat, c’est le dĂ©coupage du ‘Net en plus petites factions.

Et, personnellement, je trouve dommage ce fractionnement, cette balkanisation.

Qui plus est, c’est dans ce contexte que, malgrĂ© mon relativisme bien relatif, j’assigne le terme «éthique» Ă  mon hĂ©donisme. Pas une Ă©thique absolue et rigide. Mais une orientation vers la bonne entente sociale.

Qu’on me comprenne bien (ça serait gĂ©nial!), je me plains pas du comportement des gens, je ne jugent pas ceux qui se «comportent mal» ou qui enfreignent les rĂšgles de ce monde dans lequel je vis. Mais je trouve utile de parler de cette dynamique. ThĂ©rapeutique, mĂȘme.

La raison spĂ©cifique qui m’a poussĂ© Ă  Ă©crire ce billet, c’est que deux des commentaires que j’ai reçu suite Ă  mes billets d’hier ont fait appel (probablement sans le vouloir) au «je fais comme ça me plaĂźt et ça dĂ©range personne». LĂ  oĂč je me sens presqu’obligĂ© de dire quelque-chose, c’est que le «ça dĂ©range personne» me semblerait plutĂŽt myope dans un contexte oĂč les gens ont divers liens entre eux. DĂ©solĂ© si ça choque, mais je me fais le devoir d’ĂȘtre honnĂȘte.

D’ailleurs, je crois que c’est la logique du «troll», ce personnage du ‘Net qui prend un «malin plaisir» Ă  bousculer les gens sur les forums et les blogues. C’est aussi la logique du type macho qui se plaĂźt Ă  dire: «Je pince les fesses des filles. Dix-neuf fois sur 20, je reçois une baffe. Mais la vingtiĂšme, c’est la bonne». Personnellement, outre le fait que je sois fĂ©ministe, j’ai pas tant de problĂšmes que ça avec cette idĂ©e quand il s’agit d’un contexte qui le permet (comme la France des annĂ©es 1990, oĂč j’ai souvent entendu ce genre de truc). Mais lĂ  oĂč ça joue pas, d’aprĂšs moi, c’est quand cette attitude est celle d’un individu qui se meut dans un contexte oĂč ce genre de chose est trĂšs mal considĂ©rĂ© (par exemple, le milieu cosmopolite contemporain en AmĂ©rique du Nord). Au niveau individuel, c’est peut-ĂȘtre pas si bĂȘte. Mais au niveau social, ça fait pas preuve d’un sens Ă©thique trĂšs approfondi.

Pour revenir au «troll». Ce personnage quasi-mythique gĂ©nĂšre une ambiance trĂšs tendue, en-ligne. Individuellement, il peut facilement considĂ©rer qu’il est «dans son droit» et que ses actions n’ont que peu de consĂ©quences nĂ©gatives. Mais, ce qui se remarque facilement, c’est que ce mĂȘme individu tolĂšre mal le comportement des autres. Il se dĂ©bat «comme un diable dans le bĂ©nitier», mais c’est souvent lui qui «sĂšme le vent» et «rĂ©colte la tempĂȘte». Un forum sans «troll», c’est un milieu trĂšs agrĂ©able, “nurturing”. Mais il n’est besoin que d’un «troll» pour dĂ©molir l’atmosphĂšre de bonne entente. Surtout si les autres membres du groupes rĂ©agissent trop fortement.

D’ailleurs, ça me fait penser Ă  ceux qui envoient du pourriel et autres Plaies d’Internet. Ils ont exactement la logique du pinceur de femmes, mais menĂ©e Ă  l’extrĂȘme. Si aussi peu que 0.01% des gens acceptent le message indĂ©sirable, ils pourront en tirer un certain profit Ă  peu d’effort, peu importe ce qui affecte 99.99% des rĂ©cipiendaires. Tant qu’il y aura des gens pour croire Ă  leurs balivernes ou pour ouvrir des fichiers attachĂ©s provenant d’inconnus, ils auront peut-ĂȘtre raison Ă  un niveau assez primaire («j’ai obtenu ce que je voulais sans me forcer»). Mais c’est la sociĂ©tĂ© au complet qui en souffre. Surtout quand on parle d’une sociĂ©tĂ© aussi diversifiĂ©e et complexe que celle qui vit en-ligne.

C’est intĂ©ressant de penser au fait que la culture en-ligne anglophone accorde une certaine place Ă  la notion de «karma». Depuis une expression dĂ©signant une forme particuliĂšre de causalitĂ© Ă  composante spirituelle, cette notion a pris, dans la culture geek, un acception spĂ©cifique liĂ©e au mĂ©rite relatif des propos tenus en-ligne, surtout sur le vĂ©nĂ©rable site Slashdot. MalgrĂ© le glissement de sens de causalitĂ© «mystique» Ă  Ă©valuation par les pairs, on peut lier les deux concepts dans une idĂ©e du comportement optimal pour la communication en-ligne: la courtoisie.

Les Anglophones ont tendance Ă  se fier, sans les nommer ou mĂȘme les connaĂźtre, aux maximes de Grice. J’ai beau percevoir qu’elles ne sont pas universelles, j’y vois un intĂ©rĂȘt particulier dans le contexte autour duquel je tourne. L’idĂ©e de base, comme le diraient Wilson et Sperber, est que «tout acte de communication ostensive communique la prĂ©somption de sa propre pertinence optimale». Cette pertinence optimale est liĂ©e Ă  un processus Ă  la fois cognitif et communicatif qui fait appel Ă  plusieurs des notions Ă©laborĂ©es par Grice et par d’autres philosophes du langage. Dans le contexte qui m’intĂ©resse, il y a une espĂšce de jeu entre deux orientations qui font appel Ă  la mĂȘme notion de pertinence: l’orientation individuelle («je m’exprime») souvent lĂ©galiste-rĂ©ductive («j’ai bien le droit de m’exprimer») et l’orientation sociale («nous dialoguons») souvent Ă©thique-idĂ©aliste («le fait de dialoguer va sauver le monde»).

Aucun mystĂšre sur mon orientation prĂ©fĂ©rĂ©e…

Par contre, faut pas se leurrer: le fait d’ĂȘtre courtois, en-ligne, a aussi des effets positifs au niveau purement individuel. En Ă©tant courtois, on se permet trĂšs souvent d’obtenir de rĂ©els bĂ©nĂ©fices, qui sont parfois financiers (c’est comme ça qu’on m’a payĂ© un iPod touch). Je parle pas d’une causalitĂ© «cosmique» mais bien d’un processus prĂ©cis par lequel la bonne entente gĂ©nĂšre directement une bonne ambiance.

Bon, Ă©videmment, je semble postuler ma propre capacitĂ© Ă  ĂȘtre courtois. Il m’arrive en fait trĂšs souvent de me faire dĂ©signer comme Ă©tant trĂšs (voire trop) courtois. C’est peut-ĂȘtre rĂ©aliste, comme description, mĂȘme si certains ne sont peut-ĂȘtre pas d’accord.

À vous de dĂ©cider.

Le petit guide du contact social en-ligne (brouillon)

Je viens de publier un «avis Ă  ceux qui cherchent Ă  me contacter». Et je pense Ă  mon expertise au sujet de la socialisation en-ligne. Ça m’a donnĂ© l’idĂ©e d’Ă©crire une sorte de guide, pour aider des gens qui n’ont pas tellement d’expĂ©rience dans le domaine. J’ai de la difficultĂ© Ă  me vendre.

Oui, je suis un papillon social. Je me lie facilement d’amitiĂ© avec les gens et j’ai gĂ©nĂ©ralement d’excellents contacts. En fait, je suis trĂšs peu sĂ©lectif: Ă  la base, j’aime tout le monde.

Ce qui ne veut absolument pas dire que mon degrĂ© d’intimitĂ© est constant, peu importe l’individu. En fait, ma façon de gĂ©rer le degrĂ© d’intimitĂ© est relativement complexe et dĂ©pend d’un grand nombre de facteurs. C’est bien conscient mais difficile Ă  verbaliser, surtout en public.

Et ça m’amĂšne Ă  penser au fait que, comme plusieurs, je suis «trĂšs sollicité». Chaque jour, je reçois plusieurs requĂȘtes de la part de gens qui veulent ĂȘtre en contact avec moi, d’une façon ou d’une autre. C’est tellement frĂ©quent, que j’y pense peu. Mais ça fait partie de mon quotidien, comme c’est le cas pour beaucoup de gens qui passent du temps en-ligne (blogueurs, membres de rĂ©seaux sociaux, etc.).

Évidemment, un bon nombre de ces requĂȘtes font partie de la catĂ©gorie «indĂ©sirable». On pourrait faire l’inventaire des Dix Grandes Plaies d’Internet, du pourriel jusqu’Ă  la sollicitation  intempestive. Mais mon but ici est plus large. Discuter de certaines façons d’Ă©tablir le contact social. Qu’il s’agisse de se lier d’amitiĂ© ou simplement d’entrer en relation sociale diffuse (de devenir la «connaissance» de quelqu’un d’autre).

La question de base: comment effectuer une requĂȘte appropriĂ©e pour se mettre en contact avec quelqu’un? Il y a des questions plus spĂ©cifiques. Par exemple, comment dĂ©montrer Ă  quelqu’un que nos intentions sont lĂ©gitimes? C’est pas trĂšs compliquĂ© et c’est trĂšs rapide. Mais ça fait appel Ă  une logique particuliĂšre que je crois bien connaĂźtre.

Une bonne partie de tout ça, c’est ce qu’on appelle ici «le gros bon sens». «Ce qui devrait ĂȘtre Ă©vident.» Mais, comme nous le disons souvent en ethnographie, ce qui semble Ă©vident pour certains peut paraĂźtre trĂšs bizarre pour d’autres. Dans le fond, le contact social en-ligne a ses propres contextes culturels et il faut apprendre Ă  s’installer en-ligne comme on apprend Ă  emmĂ©nager dans une nouvelle rĂ©gion. Si la plupart des choses que je dis ici semblent trĂšs Ă©videntes, ça n’implique pas qu’elles sont bien connues du «public en gĂ©nĂ©ral».

Donc, quelle est la logique du contact social en-ligne?

Il faut d’abord bien comprendre que les gens qui passent beaucoup de temps en-ligne reçoivent des tonnes de requĂȘtes Ă  chaque jour. MĂȘme un papillon social comme moi finit par ĂȘtre sĂ©lectif. On veut bien ĂȘtre inclusifs mais on veut pas ĂȘtre inondĂ©s, alors on trie les requĂȘtes qui nous parviennent. On veut bien faire confiance, mais on veut pas ĂȘtre dupes, alors on se tient sur nos gardes.

Donc, pour contacter quelqu’un comme moi, «y a la maniĂšre».

Une dimension trĂšs importante, c’est la transparence. Je pense mĂȘme Ă  la «transparence radicale». En se prĂ©sentant aux autres, vaut mieux ĂȘtre transparent. Pas qu’il faut tout dĂ©voiler, bien au contraire. Il faut «contrĂŽler son masque». Il faut «manipuler le voile». Une excellente façon, c’est d’ĂȘtre transparent.

L’idĂ©e de base, derriĂšre ce concept, c’est que l’anonymat absolu est illusoire. Tout ce qu’on fait en-ligne laisse une trace. Si les gens veulent nous retracer, ils ont souvent la possibilitĂ© de le faire. En donnant accĂšs Ă  un profil public, on Ă©vite certaines intrusions.

C’est un peu la mĂȘme idĂ©e derriĂšre la «gĂ©olocation». Dans «notre monde post-industriel», nous sommes souvent faciles Ă  localiser dans l’espace (grĂące, entre autres, Ă  la radio-identification). D’un autre cĂŽtĂ©, les gens veulent parfois faire connaĂźtre aux autres leur situation gĂ©ographique et ce pour de multiples raisons. En donnant aux gens quelques informations sur notre prĂ©sence gĂ©ographique, on tente de contrĂŽler une partie de l’information Ă  notre sujet. La «gĂ©olocation» peut aller de la trĂšs grande prĂ©cision temporelle et gĂ©ographique («je suis au bout du comptoir de CaffĂš in Gamba jusqu’Ă  13h30») jusqu’au plus vague («je serai de retour en Europe pour une pĂ©riode indĂ©terminĂ©e, au cours des six prochains mois»). Il est par ailleurs possible de guider les gens sur une fausse piste, de leur faire croire qu’on est ailleurs que lĂ  oĂč on est rĂ©ellement. Il est Ă©galement possible de donner juste assez de prĂ©cisions pour que les gens n’aient pas d’intĂ©rĂȘt particulier Ă  nous «traquer». C’est un peu une contre-attaque face aux intrusions dans notre vie privĂ©e.

Puisque plusieurs «Internautes» ont adoptĂ© de telles stratĂ©gies contre les intrusions, il est important de respecter ces stratĂ©gies et il peut ĂȘtre utile d’adopter des stratĂ©gies similaires. Ce qui implique qu’il faudrait accepter l’image que veut projeter l’individu et donner Ă  cet individu la possibilitĂ© de se faire une image de nous.

Dans la plupart des contextes sociaux, les gens se dĂ©voilent beaucoup plus facilement Ă  ceux qui se dĂ©voilent eux-mĂȘmes. Dans certains coins du monde (une bonne partie de la blogosphĂšre mais aussi une grande partie de l’Afrique), les gens ont une façon trĂšs sophistiquĂ©e de se montrer trĂšs transparents tout en conservant une grande partie de leur vie trĂšs secrĂšte. Se cacher en public. C’est une forme radicale de la «prĂ©sentation de soi». Aucune hypocrisie dans tout ça. Rien de sournois. Mais une transparence bien contrĂŽlĂ©e. Radicale par son utilitĂ© (et non par son manque de pudeur).

«En-ligne, tout le monde agit comme une cĂ©lĂ©britĂ©.» En fait, tout le monde vit une vie assez publique, sur le ‘Net. Ce qui implique plusieurs choses. Tout d’abord qu’il est presqu’aussi difficile de protĂ©ger sa vie privĂ©e en-ligne que dans une ville africaine typique (oĂč la gestion de la frontiĂšre entre vie publique et vie privĂ©e fait l’objet d’une trĂšs grande sophistication). Ça implique aussi que chaque personne est moins fragile aux assauts de la cĂ©lĂ©britĂ© puisqu’il y a beaucoup plus d’information sur beaucoup plus de personnes. C’est un peu la thĂ©orie du bruit dans la lutte contre les paparazzi et autres prĂ©dateurs. C’est lĂ  oĂč la transparence de plusieurs aide Ă  conserver l’anonymat relatif de chacun.

D’aprĂšs moi, la mĂ©thode la plus efficace de se montrer transparent, c’est de se construire un profil public sur un blogue et/ou sur un rĂ©seau social. Il y a des tas de façons de construire son profil selon nos propres besoins et intĂ©rĂȘts, l’effet reste le mĂȘme. C’est une façon de se «prĂ©senter», au sens fort du terme.

Le rĂŽle du profil est beaucoup plus complexe que ne semblent le croire ces journalistes qui commentent la vie des «Internautes». Oui, ça peut ĂȘtre une «carte de visite», surtout utile dans le rĂ©seautage professionnel. Pour certains, c’est un peu comme une fiche d’agence de rencontre (avec poids et taille). Plusieurs personnes rendent publiques des choses qui semblent compromettantes. Mais c’est surtout une façon de contrĂŽler l’image,

Dans une certaine mesure, «plus on dĂ©voile, plus on cache». En offrant aux gens la possibilitĂ© d’en savoir plus sur nous, on se permet une marge de manƓuvre. D’ailleurs, on peut se crĂ©er un personnage de toutes piĂšces, ce que beaucoup ont fait Ă  une certaine Ă©poque. C’est une technique de dissimulation, d’assombrissement. Ou, en pensant Ă  l’informatique, c’est une mĂ©thode de cryptage et d’«obfuscation».

Mais on peut aussi «ĂȘtre soi-mĂȘme» et s’accepter tel quel. D’un point de vue «philosophie de vie», c’est pas mauvais, Ă  mon sens.

En bĂątissant son profil, on pense Ă  ce qu’on veut dĂ©voiler. Le degrĂ© de prĂ©cision varie Ă©normĂ©ment en fonction de nos façons de procĂ©der et en fonction des contextes. Rien de linĂ©aire dans tout ça. Il y a des choses qu’on dĂ©voilerait volontiers Ă  une Ă©trangĂšre et qu’on n’avouerait pas Ă  des proches. On peut maintenir une certaine personnalitĂ© publique qui est parfois plus rĂ©elle que notre comportement en privĂ©. Et on utilise peut-ĂȘtre plus de tact avec des amis qu’avec des gens qui nous rencontrent par hasard.

Il y a toute la question de la vie privĂ©e, bien sĂ»r. Mais c’est pas tout. D’ailleurs, faut la complexifier, cette idĂ©e de «vie privĂ©e». Beaucoup de ce qu’on peut dire sur soi-mĂȘme peut avoir l’effet d’impliquer d’autres personnes. C’est parfois Ă©vident, parfois trĂšs subtil. La stratĂ©gie de «transparence radicale» dans le contact social en-ligne est parfois difficile Ă  concilier avec notre vie sociale hors-ligne. Mais on ne peut pas se permettre de ne rien dire. Le tout est une question de dosage.

Il y a de multiples façons de se bĂątir un profil public et elles sont gĂ©nĂ©ralement faciles Ă  utiliser. La meilleure mĂ©thode dĂ©pend gĂ©nĂ©ralement du contexte et, outre le temps nĂ©cessaire pour les mettre Ă  jour (individuellement ou de façon centralisĂ©e), il y a peu d’inconvĂ©nients d’avoir de nombreux profils publics sur diffĂ©rents services.

Personnellement, je trouve qu’un blogue est un excellent moyen de conserver un profil public. Ceux qui laissent des commentaires sur des blogues ont un intĂ©rĂȘt tout particulier Ă  se crĂ©er un profil de blogueur, mĂȘme s’ils ne publient pas de billets eux-mĂȘmes. Il y a un sens de la rĂ©ciprocitĂ©, dans le monde du blogue. En fait, il y a toute une nĂ©gociation au sujet des diffĂ©rences entre commentaire et billet. Il est parfois prĂ©fĂ©rable d’Ă©crire son propre billet en rĂ©ponse Ă  celui d’un autre (les liens entre billets sont rĂ©pertoriĂ©s par les “pings” et “trackbacks”). Mais, en laissant un commentaire sur le blogue de quelqu’un d’autre, on fait une promotion indirecte: «modĂ©rĂ©e et tempĂ©rĂ©e» (dans tous les sens de ces termes).

Ma prĂ©fĂ©rence va Ă  WordPress.com et Disparate est mon blogue principal. Sans ĂȘtre un vĂ©ritable rĂ©seau social, WordPress.com a quelques Ă©lĂ©ments qui facilitent les contacts entre blogueurs. Par exemple, tout commentaire publiĂ© sur un blogue WordPress.com par un utilisateur de WordPress.com sera automatiquement liĂ© Ă  ce compte, ce qui facilite l’Ă©criture du commentaire (nul besoin de taper les informations) et lie le commentateur Ă  son identitĂ©. Blogger (ou Blogspot.com) a aussi certains de ces avantages mais puisque plusieurs blogues sur Blogger acceptent les identifiants OpenID et que WordPress.com procure de tels identifiants, j’ai tendance Ă  m’identifier Ă  travers WordPress.com plutĂŽt qu’Ă  travers Google/Blogger.

Hors du monde des blogues, il y a celui des services de rĂ©seaux sociaux, depuis SixDegrees.com (Ă  l’Ă©poque) Ă  OpenSocial (Ă  l’avenir). Tous ces services offrent Ă  l’utilisateur la possibilitĂ© de crĂ©er un profil (gĂ©nĂ©ral ou spĂ©cialisĂ©) et de spĂ©cifier des liens que nous avons avec d’autres personnes.

Ces temps-ci, un peu tout ce qui est en-ligne a une dimension «sociale» en ce sens qu’il est gĂ©nĂ©ralement possible d’utiliser un peu n’importe quoi pour se lier Ă  quelqu’un d’autre. Dans chaque cas, il y a un «travail de l’image» plus ou moins sophistiquĂ©. Sans qu’on soit obligĂ©s d’entreprendre ce «travail de l’image» de façon trĂšs directe, ceux qui sont actifs en-ligne (y compris de nombreux adolescents) sont passĂ©s maĂźtres dans l’art de jouer avec leurs identitĂ©s.

Il peut aussi ĂȘtre utile de crĂ©er un profil public sur des plates-formes de microblogue, comme Identi.ca et Twitter. Ces plates-formes ont un effet assez intĂ©ressant, au niveau du contact social. Le profil de chaque utilisateur est plutĂŽt squelettique, mais les liens entre utilisateurs ont un certain degrĂ© de sophistication parce qu’il y a une distinction entre lien unidirectionnel et lien bidirectionnel. En fait, c’est relativement difficile Ă  dĂ©crire hors-contexte alors je crois que je vais laisser tomber cette section pour l’instant. Un bon prĂ©alable pour comprendre la base du microbloguage, c’est ce court vidĂ©o, aussi disponible avec sous-titres français.

Tout ça pour parler de profil public!

En commençant ce billet, je croyais Ă©laborer plusieurs autres aspects. Mais je crois quand mĂȘme que la base est lĂ  et je vais probablement Ă©crire d’autres billets sur la mĂȘme question, dans le futur.

Quand mĂȘme quelques bribes, histoire de conserver ce billet «en chantier».

Un point important, d’aprĂšs moi, c’est qu’il est gĂ©nĂ©ralement prĂ©fĂ©rable de laisser aux autres le soin de se lier Ă  nous, sauf quand il y a un lien qui peut ĂȘtre Ă©tabli. C’est un peu l’idĂ©e derriĂšre mon billet prĂ©cĂ©dent. Oh, bien sĂ»r, on peut aller au-devant des gens dans un contexte spĂ©cifique. Si nous sommes au mĂȘme Ă©vĂ©nement, on peut aller se prĂ©senter «sans autre». DĂšs qu’il y a communautĂ© de pratique (ou communautĂ© d’expĂ©rience), on peut en profiter pour faire connaissance. S’agit simplement de ne pas s’accaparer l’attention de qui que ce soit et d’accepter la façon qu’a l’autre de manifester ses opinions.

Donc, en contexte (mĂȘme en-ligne), on peut aller au-devant des gens.

Mais, hors-contexte, c’est une idĂ©e assez saugrenue que d’aller se prĂ©senter chez les gens sans y avoir Ă©tĂ© conviĂ©s.

Pour moi, c’est un peu une question de courtoisie. Mais il y a aussi une question de la comprĂ©hension du contexte. MĂȘme si nous rĂ©agissons tous un peu de la mĂȘme façon aux appels non-solicitĂ©s, plusieurs ont de la difficultĂ© Ă  comprendre le protocole.

Et le protocole est pas si diffĂ©rent de la vie hors-ligne. D’ailleurs, une technique trĂšs utile dans les contextes hors-ligne et qui a son importance en-ligne, c’est l’utilisation d’intermĂ©diaires. Peut-ĂȘtre parce que je pense au Mali, j’ai tendance Ă  penser au rĂŽle du griot et au jeu trĂšs complexe de l’indirection, dans le contact social. Le rĂ©seau professionnel LinkedIn fait appel Ă  une version trĂšs fruste de ce principe d’indirection, sans Ă©toffer le rĂŽle de l’intermĂ©diaire. Pourtant, c’est souvent en construisant la mĂ©diation sociale qu’on comprend vraiment comment fonctionnent les rapports sociaux.

Toujours est-il qu’il y a une marche Ă  suivre, quand on veut contacter les gens en-ligne. Ce protocole est beaucoup plus fluide que ne peuvent l’ĂȘtre les codes sociaux les mieux connus dans les sociĂ©tĂ©s industriels. C’est peut-ĂȘtre ce qui trompe les gens peu expĂ©rimentĂ©s, qui croient que «sur Internet, on peut tout faire».

D’oĂč l’idĂ©e d’aider les gens Ă  comprendre le contact social en-ligne.

Ce billet a Ă©tĂ© en partie motivĂ© par une requĂȘte qui m’a Ă©tĂ© envoyĂ©e par courriel. Cette personne tentait de se lier d’amitiĂ© avec moi mais sa requĂȘte Ă©tait dĂ©contextualisĂ©e et trĂšs vague. Je lui ai donc Ă©crit une rĂ©ponse qui contenait certains Ă©lĂ©ments de ce que j’ai voulu Ă©crire ici.

Voici un extrait de ma réponse:

Si t’as toi-mĂȘme un blogue, c’est une excellente façon de se prĂ©senter. Ou un compte sur un des multiples rĂ©seaux sociaux. AprĂšs, tu peux laisser le lien sur ton profil quand tu contactes quelqu’un et laisser aux autres le soin de se lier Ă  toi, si tu les intĂ©resses. C’est trĂšs facile et trĂšs efficace. Les messages non-sollicitĂ©s, directement Ă  l’adresse courriel de quelqu’un, ça Ă©veille des suspicions. Surtout quand le titre est trĂšs gĂ©nĂ©rique ou que le contenu du message est pas suffisamment spĂ©cifique. Pas de ta faute, mais c’est le contexte.

En fait, la meilleure mĂ©thode, c’est de passer par des contacts prĂ©Ă©tablis. Si on a des amis communs, le tour est jouĂ©. Sinon, la deuxiĂšme meilleure mĂ©thode, c’est de laisser un commentaire vraiment trĂšs pertinent sur le blogue de quelqu’un que tu veux connaĂźtre. C’est alors cette personne qui te contactera. Mais si le commentaire n’est pas assez pertinent, cette mĂȘme personne peut croire que c’est un truc indĂ©sirable et effacer ton commentaire, voire t’inclure dans une liste noire.

J’utilise pas Yahoo! Messenger, non. Et je suis pas assez souvent sur d’autres plateformes de messagerie pour accepter de converser avec des gens, comme ça. Je sais que c’est une technique utilisĂ©e par certaines personnes sĂ©rieuses, mais c’est surtout un moyen utilisĂ© par des gens malveillants.

Si vous avez besoin d’aide, vous savez comment me contacter! 😉

The Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media (Draft)

[Been sitting on this one for a little while. Better RERO it, I guess.]

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

I think that participants in many technology-enthusiastic movements which carry the term “social” would do well to learn some social science. Furthermore, my guess is that ethnographic disciplines are very well-suited to the task of teaching participants in these movements something about social groups.

Disclaimer

Despite the potentially provocative title and my explicitly stating a position, I mostly wish to think out loud about different things which have been on my mind for a while.

I’m not an “expert” in this field. I’m just a social scientist and an ethnographer who has been observing a lot of things online. I do know that there are many experts who have written many great books about similar issues. What I’m saying here might not seem new. But I’m using my blog as a way to at least write down some of the things I have in mind and, hopefully, discuss these issues thoughtfully with people who care.

Also, this will not be a guide on “what to do to be social-savvy.” Books, seminars, and workshops on this specific topic abound. But my attitude is that every situation needs to be treated in its own context, that cookie-cutter solutions often fail. So I would advise people interested in this set of issues to train themselves in at least a little bit of social science, even if much of the content of the training material seems irrelevant. Discuss things with a social scientist, hire a social scientist in your business, take a course in social science, and don’t focus on advice but on the broad picture. Really.

Clarification

Though they are all different, enthusiastic participants in “social web,” “social marketing,” “social media,” and other “social things online” do have some commonalities. At the risk of angering some of them, I’m lumping them all together as “social * enthusiasts.” One thing I like about the term “enthusiast” is that it can apply to both professional and amateurs, to geeks and dabblers, to full-timers and part-timers. My target isn’t a specific group of people. I just observed different things in different contexts.

Links

Shameless Self-Promotion

A few links from my own blog, for context (and for easier retrieval):

Shameless Cross-Promotion

A few links from other blogs, to hopefully expand context (and for easier retrieval):

Some raw notes

  • Insight
  • Cluefulness
  • Openness
  • Freedom
  • Transparency
  • Unintended uses
  • Constructivism
  • Empowerment
  • Disruptive technology
  • Innovation
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technology adoption
  • Early adopters
  • Late adopters
  • Forced adoption
  • OLPC XO
  • OLPC XOXO
  • Attitudes to change
  • Conservatism
  • Luddites
  • Activism
  • Impatience
  • Windmills and shelters
  • Niche thinking
  • Geek culture
  • Groupthink
  • Idea horizon
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Influence
  • Sphere of influence
  • Influence network
  • Social butterfly effect
  • Cog in a wheel
  • Social networks
  • Acephalous groups
  • Ego-based groups
  • Non-hierarchical groups
  • Mutual influences
  • Network effects
  • Risk-taking
  • Low-stakes
  • Trial-and-error
  • Transparency
  • Ethnography
  • Epidemiology of ideas
  • Neural networks
  • Cognition and communication
  • Wilson and Sperber
  • Relevance
  • Global
  • Glocal
  • Regional
  • City-State
  • Fluidity
  • Consensus culture
  • Organic relationships
  • Establishing rapport
  • Buzzwords
  • Viral
  • Social
  • Meme
  • Memetic marketplace
  • Meta
  • Target audience

Let’s Give This a Try

The Internet is, simply, a network. Sure, technically it’s a meta-network, a network of networks. But that is pretty much irrelevant, in social terms, as most networks may be analyzed at different levels as containing smaller networks or being parts of larger networks. The fact remains that the ‘Net is pretty easy to understand, sociologically. It’s nothing new, it’s just a textbook example of something social scientists have been looking at for a good long time.

Though the Internet mostly connects computers (in many shapes or forms, many of them being “devices” more than the typical “personal computer”), the impact of the Internet is through human actions, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Sure, we can talk ad nauseam about the technical aspects of the Internet, but these topics have been covered a lot in the last fifteen years of intense Internet growth and a lot of people seem to be ready to look at other dimensions.

The category of “people who are online” has expanded greatly, in different steps. Here, Martin Lessard’s description of the Internet’s Six Cultures (Les 6 cultures d’Internet) is really worth a read. Martin’s post is in French but we also had a blog discussion in English, about it. Not only are there more people online but those “people who are online” have become much more diverse in several respects. At the same time, there are clear patterns on who “online people” are and there are clear differences in uses of the Internet.

Groups of human beings are the very basic object of social science. Diversity in human groups is the very basis for ethnography. Ethnography is simply the description of (“writing about”) human groups conceived as diverse (“peoples”). As simple as ethnography can be, it leads to a very specific approach to society which is very compatible with all sorts of things relevant to “social * enthusiasts” on- and offline.

While there are many things online which may be described as “media,” comparing the Internet to “The Mass Media” is often the best way to miss “what the Internet is all about.” Sure, the Internet isn’t about anything (about from connecting computers which, in turn, connect human beings). But to get actual insight into the ‘Net, one probably needs to free herself/himself of notions relating to “The Mass Media.” Put bluntly, McLuhan was probably a very interesting person and some of his ideas remain intriguing but fallacies abound in his work and the best thing to do with his ideas is to go beyond them.

One of my favourite examples of the overuse of “media”-based concepts is the issue of influence. In blogging, podcasting, or selling, the notion often is that, on the Internet as in offline life, “some key individuals or outlets are influential and these are the people by whom or channels through which ideas are disseminated.” Hence all the Technorati rankings and other “viewer statistics.” Old techniques and ideas from the times of radio and television expansion are used because it’s easier to think through advertising models than through radically new models. This is, in fact, when I tend to bring back my explanation of the “social butterfly effect“: quite frequently, “influence” online isn’t through specific individuals or outlets but even when it is, those people are influential through virtue of connecting to diverse groups, not by the number of people they know. There are ways to analyze those connections but “measuring impact” is eventually missing the point.

Yes, there is an obvious “qual. vs. quant.” angle, here. A major distinction between non-ethnographic and ethnographic disciplines in social sciences is that non-ethnographic disciplines tend to be overly constrained by “quantitative analysis.” Ultimately, any analysis is “qualitative” but “quantitative methods” are a very small and often limiting subset of the possible research and analysis methods available. Hence the constriction and what some ethnographers may describe as “myopia” on the part of non-ethnographers.

Gone Viral

The term “viral” is used rather frequently by “social * enthusiasts” online. I happen to think that it’s a fairly fitting term, even though it’s used more by extension than by literal meaning. To me, it relates rather directly to Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” treatment of culture (see Explaining Culture) which may itself be perceived as resembling Dawkins’s well-known “selfish gene” ideas made popular by different online observers, but with something which I perceive to be (to use simple semiotic/semiological concepts) more “motivated” than the more “arbitrary” connections between genetics and ideas. While Sperber could hardly be described as an ethnographer, his anthropological connections still make some of his work compatible with ethnographic perspectives.

Analysis of the spread of ideas does correspond fairly closely with the spread of viruses, especially given the nature of contacts which make transmission possible. One needs not do much to spread a virus or an idea. This virus or idea may find “fertile soil” in a given social context, depending on a number of factors. Despite the disadvantages of extending analogies and core metaphors too far, the type of ecosystem/epidemiology analysis of social systems embedded in uses of the term “viral” do seem to help some specific people make sense of different things which happen online. In “viral marketing,” the type of informal, invisible, unexpected spread of recognition through word of mouth does relate somewhat to the spread of a virus. Moreover, the metaphor of “viral marketing” is useful in thinking about the lack of control the professional marketer may have on how her/his product is perceived. In this context, the term “viral” seems useful.

The Social

While “viral” seems appropriate, the even more simple “social” often seems inappropriately used. It’s not a ranty attitude which makes me comment negatively on the use of the term “social.” In fact, I don’t really care about the use of the term itself. But I do notice that use of the term often obfuscates what is the obvious social character of the Internet.

To a social scientist, anything which involves groups is by definition “social.” Of course, some groups and individuals are more gregarious than others, some people are taken to be very sociable, and some contexts are more conducive to heightened social interactions. But social interactions happen in any context.
As an example I used (in French) in reply to this blog post, something as common as standing in line at a grocery store is representative of social behaviour and can be analyzed in social terms. Any Web page which is accessed by anyone is “social” in the sense that it establishes some link, however tenuous and asymmetric, between at least two individuals (someone who created the page and the person who accessed that page). Sure, it sounds like the minimal definition of communication (sender, medium/message, receiver). But what most people who talk about communication seem to forget (unlike Jakobson), is that all communication is social.

Sure, putting a comment form on a Web page facilitates a basic social interaction, making the page “more social” in the sense of “making that page easier to use explicit social interaction.” And, of course, adding some features which facilitate the act of sharing data with one’s personal contacts is a step above the contact form in terms of making certain type of social interaction straightforward and easy. But, contrary to what Google Friend Connect implies, adding those features doesn’t suddenly make the site social. The site itself isn’t really social and, assuming some people visited it, there was already a social dimension to it. I’m not nitpicking on word use. I’m saying that using “social” in this way may blind some people to social dimensions of the Internet. And the consequences can be pretty harsh, in some cases, for overlooking how social the ‘Net is.

Something similar may be said about the “Social Web,” one of the many definitions of “Web 2.0” which is used in some contexts (mostly, the cynic would say, “to make some tool appear ‘new and improved'”). The Web as a whole was “social” by definition. Granted, it lacked the ease of social interaction afforded such venerable Internet classics as Usenet and email. But it was already making some modes of social interaction easier to perceive. No, this isn’t about “it’s all been done.” It’s about being oblivious to the social potential of tools which already existed. True, the period in Internet history known as “Web 2.0” (and the onset of the Internet’s sixth culture) may be associated with new social phenomena. But there is little evidence that the association is causal, that new online tools and services created a new reality which suddenly made it possible for people to become social online. This is one reason I like Martin Lessard’s post so much. Instead of postulating the existence of a brand new phenomenon, he talks about the conditions for some changes in both Internet use and the form the Web has taken.

Again, this isn’t about terminology per se. Substitute “friendly” for “social” and similar issues might come up (friendship and friendliness being disconnected from the social processes which underline them).

Adoptive Parents

Many “social * enthusiasts” are interested in “adoption.” They want their “things” to be adopted. This is especially visible among marketers but even in social media there’s an issue of “getting people on board.” And some people, especially those without social science training, seem to be looking for a recipe.

Problem is, there probably is no such thing as a recipe for technology adoption.

Sure, some marketing practises from the offline world may work online. Sometimes, adapting a strategy from the material world to the Internet is very simple and the Internet version may be more effective than the offline version. But it doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a recipe. It’s a matter of either having some people who “have a knack for this sort of things” (say, based on sensitivity to what goes on online) or based on pure luck. Or it’s a matter of measuring success in different ways. But it isn’t based on a recipe. Especially not in the Internet sphere which is changing so rapidly (despite some remarkably stable features).

Again, I’m partial to contextual approaches (“fully-customized solutions,” if you really must). Not just because I think there are people who can do this work very efficiently. But because I observe that “recipes” do little more than sell “best-selling books” and other items.

So, what can we, as social scientists, say about “adoption?” That technology is adopted based on the perceived fit between the tools and people’s needs/wants/goals/preferences. Not the simple “the tool will be adopted if there’s a need.” But a perception that there might be a fit between an amorphous set of social actors (people) and some well-defined tools (“technologies”). Recognizing this fit is extremely difficult and forcing it is extremely expensive (not to mention completely unsustainable). But social scientists do help in finding ways to adapt tools to different social situations.

Especially ethnographers. Because instead of surveys and focus groups, we challenge assumptions about what “must” fit. Our heads and books are full of examples which sound, in retrospect, as common sense but which had stumped major corporations with huge budgets. (Ask me about McDonald’s in Brazil or browse a cultural anthropology textbook, for more information.)

Recently, while reading about issues surrounding the OLPC’s original XO computer, I was glad to read the following:

John Heskett once said that the critical difference between invention and innovation was its mass adoption by users. (Niti Bhan The emperor has designer clothes)

Not that this is a new idea, for social scientists. But I was glad that the social dimension of technology adoption was recognized.

In marketing and design spheres especially, people often think of innovation as individualized. While some individuals are particularly adept at leading inventions to mass adoption (Steve Jobs being a textbook example), “adoption comes from the people.” Yes, groups of people may be manipulated to adopt something “despite themselves.” But that kind of forced adoption is still dependent on a broad acceptance, by “the people,” of even the basic forms of marketing. This is very similar to the simplified version of the concept of “hegemony,” so common in both social sciences and humanities. In a hegemony (as opposed to a totalitarian regime), no coercion is necessary because the logic of the system has been internalized by people who are affected by it. Simple, but effective.

In online culture, adept marketers are highly valued. But I’m quite convinced that pre-online marketers already knew that they had to “learn society first.” One thing with almost anything happening online is that “the society” is boundless. Country boundaries usually make very little sense and the social rules of every local group will leak into even the simplest occasion. Some people seem to assume that the end result is a cultural homogenization, thereby not necessitating any adaptation besides the move from “brick and mortar” to online. Others (or the same people, actually) want to protect their “business models” by restricting tools or services based on country boundaries. In my mind, both attitudes are ineffective and misleading.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto can somehow be summarized through concepts of freedom, openness, and transparency. These are all very obvious (in French, the book title is something close to “the evident truths manifesto”). They’re also all very social.

Social scientists often become activists based on these concepts. And among social scientists, many of us are enthusiastic about the social changes which are happening in parallel with Internet growth. Not because of technology. But because of empowerment. People are using the Internet in their own ways, the one key feature of the Internet being its lack of centralization. While the lack of centralized control may be perceived as a “bad thing” by some (social scientists or not), there’s little argument that the ‘Net as a whole is out of the control of specific corporations or governments (despite the large degree of consolidation which has happened offline and online).

Especially in the United States, “freedom” is conceived as a basic right. But it’s also a basic concept in social analysis. As some put it: “somebody’s rights end where another’s begin.” But social scientists have a whole apparatus to deal with all the nuances and subtleties which are bound to come from any situation where people’s rights (freedom) may clash or even simply be interpreted differently. Again, not that social scientists have easy, ready-made answers on these issues. But we’re used to dealing with them. We don’t interpret freedom as a given.

Transparency is fairly simple and relates directly to how people manage information itself (instead of knowledge or insight). Radical transparency is giving as much information as possible to those who may need it. Everybody has a “right to learn” a lot of things about a given institution (instead of “right to know”), when that institution has a social impact. Canada’s Access to Information Act is quite representative of the move to transparency and use of this act has accompanied changes in the ways government officials need to behave to adapt to a relatively new reality.

Openness is an interesting topic, especially in the context of the so-called “Open Source” movement. Radical openness implies participation by outsiders, at least in the form of verbal feedback. The cluefulness of “opening yourself to your users” is made obvious in the context of successes by institutions which have at least portrayed themselves as open. What’s in my mind unfortunate is that many institutions now attempt to position themselves on the openness end of the “closed/proprietary to open/responsive” scale without much work done to really open themselves up.

Communitas

Mottoes, slogans, and maxims like “build it and they will come,” “there’s a sucker born every minute,” “let them have cake,” and “give them what they want” all fail to grasp the basic reality of social life: “they” and “we” are linked. We’re all different and we’re all connected. We all take parts in groups. These groups are all associated with one another. We can’t simply behave the same way with everyone. Identity has two parts: sense of belonging (to an “in-group”) and sense of distinction (from an “out-group”). “Us/Them.”

Within the “in-group,” if there isn’t any obvious hierarchy, the sense of belonging can take the form that Victor Turner called “communitas” and which happens in situations giving real meaning to the notion of “community.” “Community of experience,” “community of practise.” Eckert and Wittgenstein brought to online networks. In a community, contacts aren’t always harmonious. But people feel they fully belong. A network isn’t the same thing as a community.

The World Is My Oyster

Despite the so-called “Digital Divide” (or, more precisely, the maintenance online of global inequalities), the ‘Net is truly “Global.” So is the phone, now that cellphones are accomplishing the “leapfrog effect.” But this one Internet we have (i.e., not Internet2 or other such specialized meta-network) is reaching everywhere through a single set of compatible connections. The need for cultural awareness is increased, not alleviated by online activities.

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

The RERO principle is a multiple-pass system. Instead of waiting for the right moment to release a “perfect product” (say, a blogpost!), the “work in progress” is provided widely, garnering feedback which will be integrated in future “product versions.” The RERO approach can be unnerving to “product developers,” but it has proved its value in online-savvy contexts.

I use “product” in a broad sense because the principle applies to diverse contexts. Furthermore, the RERO principle helps shift the focus from “product,” back into “process.”

The RERO principle may imply some “emotional” or “psychological” dimensions, such as humility and the acceptance of failure. At some level, differences between RERO and “trial-and-error” methods of development appear insignificant. Those who create something should not expect the first try to be successful and should recognize mistakes to improve on the creative process and product. This is similar to the difference between “rehearsal” (low-stakes experimentation with a process) and “performance” (with responsibility, by the performer, for evaluation by an audience).

Though applications of the early/often concept to social domains are mostly satirical, there is a social dimension to the RERO principle. Releasing a “product” implies a group, a social context.

The partial and frequent “release” of work to “the public” relates directly to openness and transparency. Frequent releases create a “relationship” with human beings. Sure, many of these are “Early Adopters” who are already overrepresented. But the rapport established between an institution and people (users/clients/customers/patrons…) can be transfered more broadly.

Releasing early seems to shift the limit between rehearsal and performance. Instead of being able to do mistakes on your own, your mistakes are shown publicly and your success is directly evaluated. Yet a somewhat reverse effect can occur: evaluation of the end-result becomes a lower-stake rating at different parts of the project because expectations have shifted to the “lower” end. This is probably the logic behind Google’s much discussed propensity to call all its products “beta.”

While the RERO principle does imply a certain openness, the expectation that each release might integrate all the feedback “users” have given is not fundamental to releasing early and frequently. The expectation is set by a specific social relationship between “developers” and “users.” In geek culture, especially when users are knowledgeable enough about technology to make elaborate wishlists, the expectation to respond to user demand can be quite strong, so much so that developers may perceive a sense of entitlement on the part of “users” and grow some resentment out of the situation. “If you don’t like it, make it yourself.” Such a situation is rather common in FLOSS development: since “users” have access to the source code, they may be expected to contribute to the development project. When “users” not only fail to fulfil expectations set by open development but even have the gumption to ask developers to respond to demands, conflicts may easily occur. And conflicts are among the things which social scientists study most frequently.

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

In the past several years, ”monetization” (transforming ideas into currency) has become one of the major foci of anything happening online. Anything which can be a source of profit generates an immediate (and temporary) “buzz.” The value of anything online is measured through typical currency-based economics. The relatively recent movement toward ”social” whatever is not only representative of this tendency, but might be seen as its climax: nowadays, even social ties can be sold directly, instead of being part of a secondary transaction. As some people say “The relationship is the currency” (or “the commodity,” or “the means to an end”). Fair enough, especially if these people understand what social relationships entail. But still strange, in context, to see people “selling their friends,” sometimes in a rather literal sense, when social relationships are conceived as valuable. After all, “selling the friend” transforms that relationship, diminishes its value. Ah, well, maybe everyone involved is just cynical. Still, even their cynicism contributes to the system. But I’m not judging. Really, I’m not. I’m just wondering
Anyhoo, the “What are you selling anyway” question makes as much sense online as it does with telemarketers and other greed-focused strangers (maybe “calls” are always “cold,” online). It’s just that the answer isn’t always so clear when the “business model” revolves around creating, then breaking a set of social expectations.
Me? I don’t sell anything. Really, not even my ideas or my sense of self. I’m just not good at selling. Oh, I do promote myself and I do accumulate social capital. As social butterflies are wont to do. The difference is, in the case of social butterflies such as myself, no money is exchanged and the social relationships are, hopefully, intact. This is not to say that friends never help me or never receive my help in a currency-friendly context. It mostly means that, in our cases, the relationships are conceived as their own rewards.
I’m consciously not taking the moral high ground, here, though some people may easily perceive this position as the morally superior one. I’m not even talking about a position. Just about an attitude to society and to social relationships. If you will, it’s a type of ethnographic observation from an insider’s perspective.

Makes sense?

Flying Saucer: Doing the Right Thing

Few things impress me more from management than responsiveness and a sense of responsibility. Contrary to what some people seem to assume when I say a thing like this, the reciprocal isn’t true. There are several things managers can do which disappoint me more than their lack of responsiveness or their failure to take responsibility for something going on in their business. The main point is that I don’t really expect most managers to be responsive or responsible in matters pertaining to their business. Without my noticing it, there might be an implicit indictment of common managerial styles in the way I perceive responsive and responsible managers. But I mostly mean this as praise for what I perceive as proper management.

Now, those who know me would probably shout out that I’m really nothing like the “managerial type.” At best, I’d be the kind of person managers may pay attention to, on occasion. But I like ambivalence and nuance too much to be a “decider.” Since I have never been (nor do I ever plan to be) in a position of power over others, “it’s all good.”

What does any of this have to do with the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, you ask so eagerly I can smell the anxiety in your voice? Simple: Management at FS has just provided me with an excellent example of what I consider to be responsible and responsive management. And this does almost as much to endear them to me than their beer selection. SRSLY!

Here’s the deal…

Went to the recently-opened Austin location of the FS beerpub chain. Based in Houston, the chain has pubs in different parts of Southcentral and Southeastern United States (AR, TN, TX, NC, and SC). Because their beer selection tends to be rather extensive, their pubs are mentioned occasionally in beer podcasts and informal discussions. I was thus enthusiastic about the opportunity to go and sample some of their beers. Anything which brings people to understand beer diversity has my attention.

To make things even more exciting, the pub has a Monday night special (every week, apparently) during which draft beers are sold at $2.50 a pint. There are less expensive beers around (including some carefully crafted beer brewed locally) but given Flying Saucer’s beer selection, the deal sounded too good to be true.

And it kind of was. Not every beer on the draft menu was part of the special. Fair enough, of course. But a bit confusing. In fact, something on their Austin website was slightly misleading. Nothing to sue them over but, still, it’s a bit frustrating to have reality not live up to expectations set up by information given out by an enterprise. (A rare occurrence, right? 😉 )
So I submitted some comments using their feedback form. Because my comments were (hopefully constructive but still) somewhat negative, I sent those comments in the “Criticize Us” category. I tried to make my comments as thoughtful as possible but I did feel a bit silly to criticize a pub for what is objectively a very nice special. It’s probably just something about myself that I like to tell people what I feel about what they do to me. It might even be a Quebecker thing.

Thing is, I didn’t really expect an answer. I was sending comments in the hope that, maybe, it would reach someone who might be reminded of it on an occasion where it might matter, somewhat. I almost sent a copy of my comments as an “open letter” but, probably because I felt a bit silly for sending such comments, I refrained from compulsively blogging the issue.

I sent my comment at 10PM CET. An automatic response told me, in a humorous way, that I should receive a response within 12 to 24 hours and, failing this, I should send another message. I don’t even expect that kind of a response time in time-sensitive situations (say, a moving or a courier company) so I really didn’t expect a response in that timeframe. But this auto-response did prepare me to get some kind of reply (probably a generic response) at some point in the not-too-distant future. Again, this wasn’t something I was really expecting when I submitted my comments.

What I still wasn’t expecting after receiving the automatic response was what actually happened. By 4:30AM CET,  a message was sent to me by someone at the Austin management for Flying Saucer. That message was CC’ed to other people but was clearly addressed to me. No form letter here. In fact, the message was directly addressing the issues I had raised, in exactly the right tone and most appropriate way. The person who sent the message took responsibility for the misleading statement and pledged to rectify it right away. In fact, by the time I read that message, the actual webpage had in fact been updated, and the statement I had quoted had been replaced with a claim that I find humorous, honest, and quite appropriate.

Wow!

Of course, it didn’t take them too much of an effort to make these changes. And they might have acted so quickly for fear of legal issues (even though my message wasn’t at all meant to be threatening). But I’m still very impressed by the responsiveness and sense of responsibility displayed by management at Flying Saucer Austin.

To remain in the corporate mindframe, it reminds me of ads for a fast-food chain in which people act in a “refreshingly honest” way. Though I’m certainly not going to eat fast-food because of ads like these, I definitely appreciate the concept. Openness, transparency, effectiveness, responsiveness, responsibility… Taken together, these qualities make for a very pleasurable experience, even when they relate to relatively large institutions. I sincerely think that if more managers were like that, many problems could be solved.

Now, if I can only get Texas to change its beer import laws… 😉

The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium – www.beerknurd.com

To a Newbie Blogger

 

Lisamm, who just commented on two of my own blog entries, is asking about blogging:How to Increase Your Blog Hits « Books on the Brain

Blogging is new to me. I haven’t learned the lingo. I don’t know the etiquette. I don’t know what a meme is (Do I want one? Do I need one? Is it fattening?) What is the deal with bloggers giving other bloggers awards? No one has challenged me, or tagged me, or whatever it is people do. I’m totally winging it.Someone told me recently that I could increase my blog hits with an intriguing title on my entries. Hmmmm. This one might get noticed. I guess we’ll see how it works.Speaking of blog hits, I seem to be getting a lot (I guess). What is a lot? How many do other people get?What is up with my obsessive desire to check my stats? How I love to see the blog stat graph go up, up, up. Is this normal? Why do I care? Do other bloggers do that? Will the obsession wear off soon????Experienced bloggers, I would love to hear from you. I’m hoping my insanity is only temporary.

My answers:Simply put, meme is an idea which propagates itself. Think “viral marketing.” Among bloggers, it often refers to a kind of tag-like game by which one blogger asks other blogger to post about something (say, eight random things about yourself) and to do the same with other people. It’s a fun (and non-fattening) way to connect with fellow bloggers.Awards are a bit similar. Bloggers tend to enjoy kudos, praises, marks of recognition, etc. Some awards (the “thinking blog” one is an example) are given as a way to connect bloggers who perceive to be of the same calibre, in one dimension or another.Intriguing titles do help increase traffic and bloggers are often (semi-secretly) proud of their clever titles. In this sense, we’re no different from journalists! An issue with titles, though, is that the type of traffic it increases might be the type of headline-reading which does relatively little good to a blog. My best example is my Facebook Celebs and Fakes post which is getting good traffic, apparently for the wrong reasons
 ;-)As anyone can guess, “a lot” of blog hits is a really relative measure. Some bloggers get thousands of hits every single day, others get a few hundreds a month. From November, 2006 to February, 2007, I was getting an average of about 180 hits a day (with a peak at 307 hits in a single day). Since then, I’ve been down to about 100 to 130 hits a day. I still consider this to be a lot of hits, especially when I compare it to the number of comments I get. I also notice (by looking at the WordPress.com statistics page) that many of the hits I get come from Web searches about terms for which my entries aren’t that relevant (cf. “celebs and fakes” above).Many bloggers are obsessed by stats even if they know that they don’t tell much of a story. Bloggers often discuss measurement tools, especially if their blogging has a financial impact. Personally, I do check my blog stats regularly but I don’t really care about the numbers. It’s more of a way to observe tendencies, to learn more about effects of blogging, and as a way to assess differences between blog entries. Besides, the way WordPress.com works, the stats page is where incoming links are displayed. Now, having said all this, it’s probably true that I get a pleasant feeling when I see my numbers going up and I probably was slightly disappointed when they dropped. But those feelings are really transient.Speaking of graphs going up. It seems to be a common effect among bloggers that a site’s traffic will increase pretty regularly, regardless of what the blogger does. At least, that’s what I figured until my March, 2007 drop. I’m still a bit puzzled about this, actually.As for insanity, I think it comes with the territory.Main point of blogging is: blog the way you want to blog. Have fun, experiment with things, don’t take yourself too seriously. Blogging is just a system for making content available publicly. There aren’t set rules about blogging. In other words, don’t listen to any piece of advice.Now, a few words of advice. ;-)It’s probably a good idea not to make too much of stats. They’re fun to look at but they don’t say much about blogs. A blog with a small but dynamic reader-base is often better than a blog getting a lot of hits. Technorati and other measures of influence are similarly misleading as blogging isn’t “about that,” for most people. Yes, there are “A-list bloggers” out there (blogging celebrities, very influential bloggers). But starting a blog to become an A-list blogger is like learning a new language to become a best-selling author in that language.Use the bookmarklet in your blogging system. I can’t paste the WordPress.com one because WordPress.com doesn’t accept JavaScript in blog entries (for security reasons, allegedly), but it’s the one at the bottom of the blog writing page. I personally find those bookmarklets to be among the best features available anywhere. When you see a web page you want to blog about, select a piece of text and click on the bookmarklet from your bookmark bar. You then have a new blog entry with the title of the page, a link to that page, and the portion of text you selected. This part is so ingrained in my blogging habits that I often look for a page to start an entry from instead of creating a blank entry. That part may sound silly but it makes sense in my workflow.Speaking of workflow, it’s probably a good idea to take on tabbed browsing if you haven’t done so already. One blogging use of browser tabs is as placeholders for would-be blog entries. Kind of like a “to do” list for blogging. Notice something potentially bloggable? Keep that tab open so you can come back to it when you have time. I know other bloggers are doing this too because some talk about the number of tabs remaining in their browsers.Which leads me to one of the main hazards of blogging: you end up thinking about all the things you could say and you never find time to do much of it. As a general concept, “Information Overload” refers to something similar. Hence the need to adopt a blogging strategy. Personally, I haven’t find the best way to do it yet but I am decreasing my “blogload,” somehow. In fact, blogging itself does make me more efficient as it provides a central place for putting things I would otherwise repeat. (Though I end up with something like seven blogs
) So, my advice here would be something like: think about ways to control the number of things you want to blog about.One way to think about it is that, with “big issues,” other people have certainly blogged about them. Though there’s something intimidating about this, it also means that you may not need to blog about something if it’s likely to become common knowledge soon.Many bloggers seem to crave the latest thing. They want to “scoop” a story, be the first to blog it. Though it pains me to do so, I must say that I’m probably as guilty of this as the next blogger. Problem with this is that it requires a lot of effort to keep up with everything which is happening. And while being the first to blog about something might be the best way to get incredible traffic, the outcome may not be worth the effort.I try to take a longer view on things. If I can, I like to bring multiple items together in the same blog entry. Kind of like a “roundup,” if I can. It’s also a lot of effort, but it’s less likely to make you crazy than the quest for the first post.This all reminds me of a blog post I read about types of blog posts. IIRC, it was a presentation file and it had some things to say about the effectiveness of those posts. Though this kind of thinking makes a lot of sense for media-oriented bloggers, there’s a lot more to blogging than trying to build readership.Which leads me to the more social aspects of blogging. In the past several months, my blogging activities have probably decreased as my Facebook (Fb) activities increased. While Fb and blogging are quite different from one another, connections are quite clear. Posting notes or other items on Fb is almost exactly like a simplified form of blogging.There are disadvantages to posting things on Facebook.com, by comparison with blogging. There aren’t (AFAICT) RSS feeds for Fb Notes and Posted Items. Only your Fb friends can see (and comment on) things you post on Facebook. There isn’t a WYSIWYG editor for Fb notes (though you can use basic HTML). Fb notes don’t have categories or tags (though you can tag Fb friends). And you don’t get neat stats.But there are nice things about Fb notes and posted items. Since those items are seen by people who already know you, it’s often easier to get feedback through Facebook posted items than through a (public) blog. And because posted items are put on your Facebook profile, there’s a special connection between your items and your Facebook persona. Not to mention that blog entries can be posted directly on Facebook, which kills two birds with one stone.To get back to social dimensions of blogging
 No matter how much bloggers like to talk about blogging as a social form of writing, it tends to be one-to-many, not many-to-many. In fact, most people who leave comments on blog entries are bloggers themselves. Though blogging is very “democratic,” it’s not the most efficient community-building tool available online.Anyhoo
I do tend to ramble a lot. There’s a lesson about blogging, somewhere
 ;-)

Facebook for Teaching and Learning

My friend Jay Pottharst has created a Facebook group for a section he’s teaching. Thought about doing the same thing myself but I still prefer Moodle for learning and teaching contexts.

One thing which could be quite useful is Jay’s Tips for people who are concerned about joining Facebook. Though he wrote those three tips for his students, they could apply more widely. They’re quite straightforward and sensical. (Which shouldn’t be surprising as Jay’s in math at Harvard. If he were to not make sense, the world might collapse.) Summarised (from Jay’s already brief tips): use privacy settings, think about using a pseudonym, get a friend to register for you.

Personally, I’d say that it’s probably best to heed the first of the three tips. While Fb does encourage members to post all sorts of potentially sensitive information, it’s good practise to carefully treat any information you may provide online. Despite the ongoing media coverage on privacy concerns on Facebook and elsewhere, the main point here is that there are varying degrees of privacy which can be applied to information distributed on- or offline.

There’s a lot more to say about learning/teaching uses of Fb.

Of course, there’s a Facebook group about Teaching & Learning with Facebook. And I created a moderated group for passionate teachers on Facebook.

One thing I like about Fb in educational contexts is that it encourages a type of candour or, at least, some amount of transparency. Public information about members of a class (registered students, instructors, assistants, auditors…) can be very helpful as a course progresses. In fact, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Fb-like features in Moodle, such as elaborate profiles, ability to build links across courses, ad hoc groups, etc. Moodle and Facebook share several features and there could be a rich integration of features from both.

What Radio Open Source Should Do

I probably think too much. In this case, about a podcast and radio show which has been with me for as long as I started listening to podcasts: Radio Open Source on Public Radio International. The show is hosted by Christopher Lydon and is produced in Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with WGBH Boston. The ROS staff is a full team working on not only the show and the podcast version but on a full-fledged blog (using a WordPress install, hosted by Contegix) with something of a listener community.

I recently decided not to listen to ROS anymore. Nothing personal, it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. But I spent enough time listening to the show and thinking about it, I even have suggestions about what they should do.

At the risk of sounding opinionated, I’m posting these comments and suggestions. In my mind, honesty is always the best policy. Of course, nothing personal about the excellent work of the ROS team.

Executive summary of my suggestion: a weekly spinoff produced by the same team, as an actual podcast, possibly as a summary of highlights. Other shows do something similar on different radio stations and it fits the podcasting model. Because time-shifting is of the essence with podcasts, a rebroadcast version (instead of a live show) would make a lot of sense. Obviously, it would imply more work for the team as a whole but I sincerely think it would be worth it.

ROS has been one of the first podcasts to which I subscribed and it might be the one that I have maintained in my podcatcher for the longest time. The reason is that several episodes have inspired me in different ways. My perception is that the teamwork “behind the scenes” makes for a large part of the success of the show.

Now, I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the ROS team. But I do get the impression that some important changes are imminent. The two people who left in the last few months, the grant they received, their successful fundraiser, as well as some perceivable changes in the way the show is handled tell me that ROS may be looking for new directions. I’m just an ethnographer and not a media specialist but here are some of my (honest) critical observations.

First, some things which I find quite good about the show (or some reasons I was listening to the show).

  • In-depth discussions. As Siva Vaidhyanathan mentioned it on multiple occasions, ROS is one of few shows in the U.S . during which people can really spend an hour debating a single issue. While intriguing, Siva’s comparison with Canadian shows does seem appropriate according to my own experience with CBC and Radio-Canada. Things I’ve heard in Western Europe and West Africa would also fit this pattern. A show like ROS is somewhat more like The New Yorker than like The New York Times. (Not that these are innocent choices, of course.)
  • Research. A lot of care has been put in preparing for each show and, well, “it shows.” The “behind the scenes” team is obviously doing a great job. I include in this the capacity for the show to entice fascinating guests to come on the show. It takes diplomacy, care, and insight.
  • Podcasting. ROS was one of the first “public radio” shows to be available as a podcast and it’s possibly one of the radio shows for which the podcasting process is the most appropriate. Ease of subscribing, relatively few problems downloading shows, etc.
  • Show notes. Because the show uses a blog format for all of its episodes, it makes for excellent show notes, very convenient and easy to find. Easy to blog. Good trackback.
  • The “Community.” Though it can be troublesome at times, the fact that the show has a number of fans who act as regular commentators on the blog entries has been an intriguing feature of the show. On occasion, there is a sense that listeners can have some impact on the way the show is structured. Few shows on public radio do this and it’s a feature that makes the show, erm, let’s say “podworthy.” (Apologies to those who hate the “pod-” prefix. At least, you got my drift, right?)

On the other hand, there are things with ROS that have kept putting me off, especially as a podcast. A few of those “pet peeves.”

  • “Now the News.” While it’s perfectly natural for a radio show to have to break for news or ads, the disruption is quite annoying on a podcast. The pacing of the show as a whole becomes completely dominated by the breaks. What’s more, the podcast version makes very obvious the fact that discussions started before the break rarely if ever get any resolution after the break. A rebroadcast would allow for seamless editing. In fact, some television shows offer exclusive online content as a way to avoid this problem. Or, more accurately, some television shows use this concept as a way to entice watchers to visit their websites. Neat strategy, powerful concept.
  • Length. While the length of the show (a radio “hour”) allows for in-depth discussions, the usual pacing of the show often implies a rather high level of repetition. One gets the impression that the early part of the show contains most of the “good tidbits” one needs to understand what will be discussed later. I often listen to the first part of the show (before the first break) and end up skipping the rest of the show. This could be alleviated with a “best of ROS” podcast. In fact, it’s much less of an issue when the listener knows what to expect.
  • Host. Nothing personal. Chris Lydon is certainly a fabulous person and I would feel bad to say anything personal about him even though, to make a point, I have used a provocative title in the past which specifically criticised him. (My point was more about the show as a whole.) In fact, Lydon can be very good as a radio host, as I described in the past. Thing is, Lydon’s interviewing style seems to me more appropriate for a typical radio show than for a podcast. Obviously, he is quite knowledgeable of a wide array of subjects enabling him to relate to his guests. Also, he surely has a “good name” in U.S. journalistic milieus. But, to be perfectly honest, I sometimes feel that his respect for guests and other participants (blog commentators and callers when ROS still had them) is quite selective. In my observation, Lydon also tends to do what Larry King described on the Colbert Report as an “I-show” (host talking about her/his own experience, often preventing a guest to follow a thought). It can be endearing on some radio shows but it seems inappropriate for a podcast. What makes this interviewing style even more awkward is the fact that the show is frequently billed as a “conversation.” In conversation analysis, Lydon’s interviews would merit a lot of discussion.
  • Leading questions. While many questions asked on the show do help guests get into interesting issues, many questions sound like “leading” questions. Maybe not to the “how long have you been beating your wife?” extreme, but it does seem that the show is trying to get something specific out of each guest. Appropriate for journalism but awkward for what is billed as a “conversation.” In fact, many “questions” asked on the show are phrased as affirmative utterances instead of actual questions
  • Old School Journalism. It may sound like harsh criticism but what I hear from ROS often makes me think that they still believe that some sources are more worthy than others by mere virtue of being “a trusted source.” I’ve been quite critical of what I think of as “groupthink.” Often characterised by the fact that everybody listens, reads, or watches the same sources of information. In Quebec, it’s often Radio-Canada’s television shows. In the U.S., it typically implies that everyone reads the New York Times and thinks of it as their main “source of information.” IMHO, the ROS-NYT connection is a strong one. To me, critical thinking implies a mistrust of specific sources and an ability to process information regardless of the source. I do understand that the NYT is, to several people, the “paper of record” but the very notion of “paper of record” seems outdated in this so-called “Information Age.” In fact, as an outsider, I often find the NYT even more amenable to critical challenge than some other sources. This impression I got even before the scandals which have been plaguing the NYT. In other words, the NYT is the best example of Old School Journalism. Podcasting is going away from Old School Journalism so a podcast version of ROS should go away from NYT groupthink. Lydon’s NYT background is relevant here but what I describe goes much beyond that print newspaper.
  • The “Wolfpack.” The community around ROS is fascinating. If I had more time, I might want to spend more time “in” it. Every commentator on the show’s entries has interesting things to say and the comments are sometimes more insightful than the show itself. Yet, as contradictory as it may sound, the ROS “fanbase” makes the show less approachable to new listeners. This one is a common feature of open networks with something of a history but it’s heightened by the way the community is handled in the show. It sometimes seems as though some “frequent contributors” are appreciated more than others. The very fact that some people are mentioned as “frequent contributors to the show” makes the “community” sound more like a clique than like an open forum. While Brendan often brought in some questions from the real-time blog commentators, these questions rarely led to real two-way conversations. The overall effect is more like a typical radio talk show than like a community-oriented podcast.
  • Show suggestions. Perhaps because suggestions submitted to the show are quite numerous, very few of these suggestions have been discussed extensively. The “pitch a show idea of your own” concept is helpful but the end-result is that commentators will need to prepare a pitch which might be picked up by a member of the ROS team to be pitched during the team’s meeting. The process is thus convoluted, non-transparent, non-democratic, and cumbersome. To be perfectly honest, it sounds as if it were “lipservice” to the audience instead of being a way to have listeners be part of the show. As a semi-disclaimer, I did pitch several ideas. The one of my ideas which was picked up was completely transformed from my original idea. Nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t make the process feel transparent or open. While a digg-like system for voting on suggestions might be a bit too extreme for a show on public radio, I find myself dreaming for the ROS team working on shows pitched by listeners.
  • Time-sensitiveness. Because the show is broadcast and podcast four days a week, the production cycle is particularly tight. In this context, commentators need to post on an entry in a timely fashion to “get the chance to be heard.” Perfectly normal, but not that podfriendly. It seems that the most dedicated listeners are those who listen to the show live while posting comments on the episode’s blog entry. This alienates the actual podcasting audience. Time-shifting is at the very basis of podcasting and many shows had to adapt to this reality (say, for a contest or to get feedback). The time-sensitive nature of ROS strengthens the idea that it’s a radio show which happens to be podcast, contrary to their claims. A weekly podcast would alleviate this problem.
  • Gender bias. Though I didn’t really count, it seems to me that a much larger proportion of men than women are interviewed as guests on the show. It even seems that women are only interviewed when the show focuses specifically on gender. Women are then interviewed as women instead of being guests who happen to be females. This is especially flagrant when compared to podcasts and radio shows outside of the U.S. mainstream media. Maybe I’m too gender-conscious but a gender-balanced show often produces a dynamic which is, I would dare say, “friendlier.”
  • U.S. focus. While it makes sense that a show produced in Cambridge, MA should focus on the U.S., I naively thought that the ‘I’ in PRI implied a global reach. Many ROS episodes have discussed “international affairs” yet the focus is on “what does it mean for U.S.” This approach is quite far from what I have heard in West Africa, Western Europe, and Canada.

Phew!

Yes, that’s a lot.

Overall, I still enjoyed many things of the show while I was listening to it. I was often compelled to post a blog entry about something I heard on the show which, in itself, is a useful thing about a podcast. But the current format of the show is clearly not what I expect a podcast to be.

Now what? Well, my dream would be a podcast on disparate subjects with the team and clout of ROS but with podcasting in mind, from beginning to end. I imagine the schedule to be more of a weekly wrap-up than a live daily show. As a podcast listener, I tend to prefer weekly shows. In some cases, podcasts serve as a way to incite listeners to listen to the whole show. Makes a lot of sense.

That podcast could include a summary of what was said in the live comments. It could also have guest hosts. And exclusive content. And it could become an excellent place to get insight about a number of things. And I’d listen to it. Carefully.

Some “pie in the sky” wishes.

  • Full transcripts. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it brings audio to the blogosphere more than anything else could. Different transcribing services are available for podcasts and members of the team could make this more efficient.
  • Categorised feeds. The sadly missed DailySonic podcast had excellent customisation feature. If a mainstream radio station could do it, ROS would be a good candidate for categorised feeds.
  • Voting mechanism. Since Slashdot and Digg, voting has probably been the most common form of online participation by people who care about media. Voting on features would make the “pitching” process more than simply finding the right “hook” to make the show relevant. Results are always intriguing in those cases.
  • Community guests. People do want to get involved and the ROS community is fascinating. Bringing some members on the podcast could do a lot to give a voice to actual people. The only attempt I remember on ROS was with a kind of answering machine system. Nothing was played on the show. (What I left was arguably not that fascinating but I was surprised nothing came out of it.)
  • Guest hosts. Not to go too Bakhtin on y’all, but multiple voices in the same discussion makes for interesting stories. Being a guest host could prove how difficult it is be a host.
  • Field assignments. With a wide community of listeners, it could be interesting to have audio from people in other parts of the world, apart from phone interviews. Even an occasional one-minute segment would go a long way to give people exposure to realities outside the United States.
  • Social bookmarking. Someone recently posted an advice for a book club. With social bookmarking features, book recommendations could be part of a wider scheme.
  • Enhanced audio. While the MP3 version is really necessary, podcasts using enhanced features such as chapters and embedded images can be extremely useful, especially for owners of recent iPod/iPhone.
  • Links. ROS is not the only radio show and links are what makes podcasts alive, especially when one is linked to another. In a way, podcasts become an alternate universe through those links.

Ok, I’m getting too far astray from my original ideas about ROS. It must mean that I should leave it at that.

I do sincerely hope that ROS will take an interesting turn. I’ll be watching from my blog aggregator and I might join the ROS community again.

In the meantime, I’ll focus on other podcasts.

Advice to Forum Posters

Related to a thread about Moodle which veered into something of a flame war.

Lounge: How open source projects survive poisonous people

  • don’t start a discussion with an “I HATE…” list
  • respond sincerely and respectfully even if you suspect a possible trolly-conversation (Martin D.)
  • give concrete practical suggestions for action (Martin L.)
  • respond with light-hearted humor (Paul and his asbestos underpants) big grin
  • it is OK to be passionate (Tim)
  • take a step back and reflect on the process (Nicholas: “…can’t separate the code from the community…”)
  • and there no need to be defensive about Moodle and its history–warts and all, we are who we are

These pieces of advice can work in many online contexts, IMHO.

(Comments closed because of unsollicited and inappropriate submissions…)