Category Archives: communitas

Twenty Years Online

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Internet account. I don’t remember the exact date but I know it was in late summer 1993, right before what became known as “Eternal September”. The Internet wasn’t new, but it still wasn’t on most people’s proverbial “radars”.

Had heard one of my professors, Kevin Tuite, talk about the Internet as a system through which people from all over the World were communicating. Among the examples Tuite gave of possibilities offered by the ‘Net were conversations among people from former Soviet Republics, during this period of broad transitions. As a specialist of Svaneti, in present-day Georgia, Kevin was particularly interested in these conversations.

During that fated Summer of ‘93, I was getting ready to begin the last year of my B.Sc. in anthropology, specializing in linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology. As I had done during previous summers, I was working BOH at a French restaurant. But, in my free time, I was exploring a brand new world.

In retrospect, it might not be a complete coincidence that my then-girlfriend of four years left me during that Fall 1993 semester.

It started with a local BBS, WAJU (“We Are Joining You”). I’m not exactly sure when I got started, but I remember being on WAJU in July. Had first been lent a 300 baud modem but I quickly switched to a 2400 baud one. My current ISP plan is 15Mbps, literally 50,000 times faster than my original connection.

By August 1993, thanks to the aforementioned Kevin Tuite, I was able to get an account on UdeM’s ERE network, meant for teaching and research (it stood for «Environnement de recherche et d’enseignement»). That network was running on SGI machines which weren’t really meant to handle large numbers of external connections. But it worked for my purpose of processing email (through Pine), Usenet newsgroups, FTP downloads (sometimes through Archie), IRC sessions, individual chats (though Talk), Gopher sites, and other things via Telnet. As much as possible, I did all of these things from campus, through one of the computer rooms, which offered amazingly fast connections (especially compared to my 2.4kbps modem). I spent enough time in those computer rooms that I still remember a distinct smell from them.

However, at some point during that period, I was able to hack a PPP connection going through my ERE account. In fact, I ended up helping some other people (including a few professors) do the same. It then meant we could use native applications to access the ’Net from home and, eventually, browse the Web graphically.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got online, NCSA Mosaic hadn’t been released. In fact, it took a little while before I even heard of the “World Wide Web”. I seem to remember that I only started browsing the Web in 1994. At the same time, I’m pretty sure one of my most online-savvy friends (likely Alex Burton or Martin Dupras) had told me about the Web as soon as version 1.0 of Mosaic was out, or even before.

The Web was a huge improvement, to be sure. But it was neither the beginning nor the end of the ‘Net, for those of us who had been there a little while. Yes, even a few months. Keep in mind that, at the time, there weren’t that many sites, on the Web. Sure, most universities had a Web presence and many people with accounts on university networks had opportunities to create homepages. But there’s a reason there could be Web directories (strongly associated with Yahoo!, now, but quite common at the time). Pages were “static” and there wasn’t much which was “social” on the Web, at the time.

But the ’Net as a whole was very social. At least, for the budding ethnographer that I was, the rest of the ‘Net was a much more interesting context for observation than the Web. Especially newsgroups and mailinglists.

Especially since the ‘Net was going through one of its first demographic explosions. Some AOLers were flooding the ‘Net. Perhaps more importantly, newbie bashing was peaking and comments against AOL or other inexperienced “Netizens” were frequently heard. I personally heard a lot more from people complaining about AOL than from anyone accessing the ’Net through AOL.

Something about the influx which was clear, though, is that the “democratization” was being accompanied by commercialization. A culture of open sharing was being replaced by corporate culture. Free culture was being preempted by a culture of advertising. The first .com domains were almost a novelty, in a ‘Net full of country-specific domains along with lots of .edu, .net, .org, .gov, and even .mil servers.

The ‘Net wasn’t yet about “paying for content”. That would come a few years later, when media properties pushed “user-generated content” into its own category (instead of representing most of what was available online). The ‘Net of the mid-1990s was about gaining as much attention as possible. We’re still in that mode, of course. But the contrast was striking. Casual conversations were in danger of getting drowned by megaphones. The billboard overtook the café. With the shift, a strong sense of antagonism emerged. The sense of belonging to a community of early adopters increased with the sense of being attacked by old “media types”. People less interested in sharing knowledge and more interested in conveying their own corporate messages. Not that individuals had been agenda-free until that point. But there was a big difference between geeks arguing about strongly-held opinions and “brands” being pushed onto the scene.

Early on, the thing I thought the Internet would most likely disrupt was journalism. I had a problem with journalism so, when I saw how the ‘Net could provide increased access to information, I was sure it’d imply a reappropriation of news by people themselves, with everything this means in the spread of critical thinking skills. Some of this has happened, to an extent. But media consolidation had probably a more critical role to play in journalism’s current crisis than online communication. Although, I like to think of these things as complex systems of interrelated trends and tendencies instead of straightforward causal scenarios.

In such a situation, the ‘Net becoming more like a set of conventional mass media channels was bad news. More specifically, the logic of “getting your corporate message across” was quite offputting to a crowd used to more casual (though often heated and loud) conversations. What comes to mind is a large agora with thousands of people having thousands of separate conversations being taken over by a massive PA system. Regardless of the content of the message being broadcast by this PA system, the effect is beyond annoying.

Through all of this, I distinctly remember mid-April, 1994. At that time, the Internet changed.  One might say it never recovered.

At that time, two unscrupulous lawyers sent the first commercial spam on Usenet newsgroups. They apparently made a rather large sum of money from their action but, more importantly, they ended the “Netiquette” era. From this point on, a conflict has emerged between those who use and those who abuse the ‘Net. Yes, strong words. But I sincerely think they’re fitting. Spammers are like Internet’s cancer. They may “serve a function” and may inspire awe. Mostly, though, they’re “cells gone rogue”. Not that I’m saying the ‘Net was free of disease before this “Green Card lottery” moment. For one thing, it’s possible (though unlikely) that flamewars were somewhat more virulent then than they are now. It’s just that the list of known online woes expanded quickly with the addition of cancer-like diseases. From annoying Usenet spam, we went rather rapidly to all sorts of malevolent large-scale actions. Whatever we end up doing online, we carry the shadow of such actions.

Despite how it may sound, my stance isn’t primarily moral. It’s really about a shift from a “conversational” mode to a “mass media” one. Spammers exploited Usenet by using it as a “mass media” channel, at a time when most people online were using it as a large set of “many-to-many” channels.

The distinction between Usenet spam and legitimate advertising may be extremely important, to a very large number of people. But the gates spammers opened were the same ones advertisers have been using ever since.

My nostalgia of the early Internet has a lot to do with this shift. I know we gained a lot, in the meantime. I enjoy many benefits from the “democratization” of the ‘Net. I wouldn’t trade the current online services and tools for those I was using in August, 1993. But I do long for a cancer-free Internet.

Yoga and Community in Contemporary North America

Last night, Matthew Remski’s chapter on yoga “culture” served as the basis for a conversation on yoga and communities. Roseanne Harvey had invited some panelists and like-minded people to join her at Andrew Gordon Middleton’s and Michael O’Brien’s Studio Flow Space in Verdun.

After the conversation, I started reading Remski’s chapter in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, the collected essays that Roseanne has edited with Carol Horton.

Several things transpired from this conversation and, though I’m still a yoga newbie, I thought I’d post a few thoughts.

Most important, to me, is the realization that yoga may be antithetical to community development. Remski’s chapter made some of this painfully clear and I had such a feeling of recognition while reading the first part of this chapter that I almost clapped. (It’d have been weird, since I was in the métro.)

Yoga, like transcendentalism, focuses on individualism. As Margaret Fuller with transcendentalism, I find something unsatisfying in this. While I can understand the value of therapeutic self-centredness, I can only handle it for short periods of time. As an extrovert, I need some level of social interaction, especially if I can help others. Navigating either Nietzsche or Thoreau, I quickly feel trapped in a limited world.

Which brings me to Catholicism. The topic ended up being a significant piece of the backdrop to last night’s conversation. Though I wasn’t baptized (and, therefore, not officially a member of the Catholic community), I was raised in a quickly-secularizing Catholic context (Québécois society during the Quiet Revolution). Culturally, I associate more directly with the Catholic Play Ethic (or with the Sensual Ethic) than with what Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). Sounds like Remski may be in a similar situation. And so were some participants in last night’s conversation. Not that no Catholic subscribes to PWE or that all Protestants are caught in it. But it’s remarkable how “key scenarios” may differ along such lines. I’d rather have a picnic with Manet (or Monet) or a food fight with Gwen Stefani and the band than a success story written by Horatio Alger. Just don’t get me started about the difference between Fellini and Bergman.

What does this have to do with yoga? Precious little. Yoga is about self-improvement and introspection… until it becomes about interdependence, intersubjectivity, and projecting the mind outside the self. Only then does yoga reach a sense of community. But this sense of community isn’t local, social, cultural, spatial. It’s sense of universal community of mind, beyond such pesky little things as families, cities, countries, and social movements. In “loving kindness” meditation, the shift from individuals to the Whole Earth doesn’t sound very gradual. Sure, “the community” can be there as a target for meditation. But the difference in kind between a neighbourhood community and, say, the community of spirit between humans and locusts affords little discussion, in such a context.

Playing the social scientist during yesterday’s convo, I couldn’t help but point out two key features of communities, from a social science perspective: sense of belonging and interdependency. Though they apply to any community, they may be especially useful in the yoga context. I don’t know enough about yoga to be sure about this, but comments made after I mentioned these two dimensions did sound like they resonated with my simple description.

Interdependency is a recent addition to my definition of community. A student in my “Cyberspace Sociology” course added it as a key feature, and it really helps to bring things in focus. One aspect of this dimension is that community isn’t necessarily something we choose. We may choose some of our neighbours but we may be affected by many community members who’d otherwise have “nothing to do with us”. Also, given issues surrounding our natural environment, the ecological principles behind communities are easy to describe: we can “do our part” but the system can still be dysfunctional if some people don’t. As both victims of climate change and perpetrators of pollution which takes part in it, we can perceive the implications of being dependent on one another. Not to mention that interdependence is an important concept in yoga.

The sense of belonging part may afford more unpacking. Sure, hippies have reappropriated “kumbaya” as the mushy version of belonging. That one fits in the “community of spirits” model. In anthropology, we tend to focus on the “community of experience” model (if not on the “community of practise” one). To do so, some of us refer to Victor Turner’s communitas, based on the liminal phase in initiation rituals. Through this concept, we identify a space for intense relationships among equals, typical of people subjected to a difficult experience together. The concept also involves a separation from the rest of the social system.

By extension, we can think about the divisive nature of social identity: if there’s an us, there’s also a them. Quite frequently, this them is a particular group, with which the community entertains a rivalry. Montreal may be Quebec City’s “Other”, even though Montrealers care very little about the “national capital”. Fans of the Maple Leafs may also perceive Montreal as the other, although I’ve heard more anti-Boston sentiment in my youth than anything about Toronto.

Yoga’s communities are peculiar. It sounds like it may be possible to create a sense of belonging through yoga retreats and other occasions for shared experiences. Yet the embedded hierarchy of many yoga instruction models may shift the communitas away from “practice”. Bonding works remarkably well when people have a common foe (an initiator causing harm would be an appropriate figure, here). However authoritative they may be, yoga instructors may not desire this type of antagonism.

Though (as was clear from last night’s discussion) some yoga studios enter in direct competition as businesses, yoga communities may not be ideal places for impassioned rivalries. The “slippery slope” from opposition between groups and outright conflict may make peace-loving yoginis and yogis think twice about this type of chants and cheers.

Which isn’t to say that the yoga world lacks distinction. In fact, yoga sociology has a lot to explore. From the outside, the internal structure of the North American yogasphere is fascinating. But that structure, it sounds like, rarely made explicit. It also sounds like it’s inward-looking, to a fairly large extent. The yogasphere includes all sorts of yoga practitioners, but it’s focused on yoga teachers and other experts, not necessarily on the local embedding of yoga practice. Yoga studios, in this model, are like havens of peace in a fastpaced world. The them group comprises a large number of people who don’t get yoga.

Personally, I’m more interested in how communities can appropriate yoga. Yes, it involves the adaptation of yoga practice, which implies some level of inauthenticity. Thanks to the association between yoga and New Age (a drone under 21st Century Yoga), yoga specialists may shy away from this type of reappropriation. Yet, empowering communities through yoga-inspired practice could be a worthy cause for yogactivists.

Yoga needs space. A key theme during yesterday’s discussion was space: studio rent, overhead, location, sense of place, neighbourhoods as markets… In North American cities, yoga doesn’t own much space, and that’s the crux of the problem.

This is where we can go back to Catholicism, where Remski started his essay on yoga “culture”. It was an underlying theme through the discussion. (Funnily enough, the conversation was structured by a key figure who invited four “evangelists” and we were eight “disciples”.)

The Catholic Church does own space. In fact, a large part of the “business model” for the Catholic clergy relates to real estate. As many of these properties are being sold, there may be opportunities for community ownership of prime space. In fact, I’m a research associate for a community organization involved in a community-based project surrounding the reappropriation of a church. Wasn’t thinking about yoga in that space, but I’m sure some other people have been. Last summer, Yoga en rouge was happening (led by Audrey Béliveau) in Parc Molson, next door to that church. And it’s clearly a grassroots community affair.

I’m not (officially) Catholic and I’m a n00b to yoga. I’m finally grokking the difficulties to develop community membership through yoga. So I’ll continue doing my yoga practice at home, by myself, away from other people’s gaze. Still feels good.

Intimacy, Network Effect, Hype

Is “intimacy” a mere correlate of the network effect?

Can we use the network effect to explain what has been happening with Quora?

Is the Quora hype related to network effect?

I really don’t feel a need to justify my dislike of Quora. Oh, sure, I can explain it. At length. Even on Quora itself. And elsewhere. But I tend to sense some defensiveness on the part of Quora fans.

[Speaking of fans, I have blogposts on fanboism laying in my head, waiting to be hatched. Maybe this will be part of it.]

But the important point, to me, isn’t about whether or not I like Quora. It’s about what makes Quora so divisive. There are people who dislike it and there are some who defend it.

Originally, I was only hearing from contacts and friends who just looooved Quora. So I was having a “Ionesco moment”: why is it that seemingly “everyone” who uses it loves Quora when, to me, it represents such a move in the wrong direction? Is there something huge I’m missing? Or has that world gone crazy?

It was a surreal experience.

And while I’m all for surrealism, I get this strange feeling when I’m so unable to understand a situation. It’s partly a motivation for delving into the issue (I’m surely not the only ethnographer to get this). But it’s also unsettling.

And, for Quora at least, this phase seems to be over. I now think I have a good idea as to what makes for such a difference in people’s experiences with Quora.

It has to do with the network effect.

I’m sure some Quora fanbois will disagree, but it’s now such a clear picture in my mind that it gets me into the next phase. Which has little to do with Quora itself.

The “network effect” is the kind of notion which is so commonplace that few people bother explaining it outside of introductory courses (same thing with “group forming” in social psychology and sociology, or preferential marriage patterns in cultural anthropology). What someone might call (perhaps dismissively): “textbook stuff.”

I’m completely convinced that there’s a huge amount of research on the network effect, but I’m also guessing few people looking it up. And I’m accusing people, here. Ever since I first heard of it (in 1993, or so), I’ve rarely looked at explanations of it and I actually don’t care about the textbook version of the concept. And I won’t “look it up.” I’m more interested in diverse usage patterns related to the concept (I’m a linguistic anthropologist).

So, the version I first heard (at a time when the Internet was off most people’s radar) was something like: “in networked technology, you need critical mass for the tools to become truly useful. For instance, the telephone has no use if you’re the only one with one and it has only very limited use if you can only call a single person.” Simple to the point of being simplistic, but a useful reminder.

Over the years, I’ve heard and read diverse versions of that same concept, usually in more sophisticated form, but usually revolving around the same basic idea that there’s a positive effect associated with broader usage of some networked technology.

I’m sure specialists have explored every single implication of this core idea, but I’m not situating myself as a specialist of technological networks. I’m into social networks, which may or may not be associated with technology (however defined). There are social equivalents of the “network effect” and I know some people are passionate about those. But I find that it’s quite limiting to focus so exclusively on quantitative aspects of social networks. What’s so special about networks, in a social science perspective, isn’t scale. Social scientists are used to working with social groups at any scale and we’re quite aware of what might happen at different scales. But networks are fascinating because of different features they may have. We may gain a lot when we think of social networks as acephalous, boundless, fluid, nameless, indexical, and impactful. [I was actually lecturing about some of this in my “Intro to soci” course, yesterday…]

So, from my perspective, “network effect” is an interesting concept when talking about networked technology, in part because it relates to the social part of those networks (innovation happens mainly through technological adoption, not through mere “invention”). But it’s not really the kind of notion I’d visit regularly.

This case is somewhat different. I’m perceiving something rather obvious (and which is probably discussed extensively in research fields which have to do with networked technology) but which strikes me as missing from some discussions of social networking systems online. In a way, it’s so obvious that it’s kind of difficult to explain.

But what’s coming up in my mind has to do with a specific notion of “intimacy.” It’s actually something which has been on my mind for a while and it might still need to “bake” a bit longer before it can be shared properly. But, like other University of the Streets participants, I perceive the importance of sharing “half-baked thoughts.”

And, right now, I’m thinking of an anecdotal context which may get the point across.

Given my attendance policy, there are class meetings during which a rather large proportion of the class is missing. I tend to call this an “intimate setting,” though I’m aware that it may have different connotations to different people. From what I can observe, people in class get the point. The classroom setting is indeed changing significantly and it has to do with being more “intimate.”

Not that we’re necessarily closer to one another physically or intellectually. It needs not be a “bonding experience” for the situation to be interesting. And it doesn’t have much to do with “absolute numbers” (a classroom with 60 people is relatively intimate when the usual attendance is close to 100; a classroom with 30 people feels almost overwhelming when only 10 people were showing up previously). But there’s some interesting phenomenon going on when there are fewer people than usual, in a classroom.

Part of this phenomenon may relate to motivation. In some ways, one might expect that those who are attending at that point are the “most dedicated students” in the class. This might be a fairly reasonable assumption in the context of a snowstorm but it might not work so well in other contexts (say, when the incentive to “come to class” relates to extrinsic motivation). So, what’s interesting about the “intimate setting” isn’t necessarily that it brings together “better people.” It’s that something special goes on.

What’s going on, with the “intimate classroom,” can vary quite a bit. But there’s still “something special” about it. Even when it’s not a bonding experience, it’s still a shared experience. While “communities of practice” are fascinating, this is where I tend to care more about “communities of experience.” And, again, it doesn’t have much to do with scale and it may have relatively little to do with proximity (physical or intellectual). But it does have to do with cognition and communication. What is special with the “intimate classroom” has to do with shared assumptions.

Going back to Quora…

While an online service with any kind of network effect is still relatively new, there’s something related to the “intimate setting” going on. In other words, it seems like the initial phase of the network effect is the “intimacy” phase: the service has a “large enough userbase” to be useful (so, it’s achieved a first type of critical mass) but it’s still not so “large” as to be overwhelming.

During that phase, the service may feel to people like a very welcoming place. Everyone can be on a “first-name basis. ” High-status users mingle with others as if there weren’t any hierarchy. In this sense, it’s a bit like the liminal phase of a rite of passage, during which communitas is achieved.

This phase is a bit like the Golden Age for an online service with a significant “social dimension.” It’s the kind of time which may make people “wax nostalgic about the good ole days,” once it’s over. It’s the time before the BYT comes around.

Sure, there’s a network effect at stake.  You don’t achieve much of a “sense of belonging” by yourself. But, yet again, it’s not really a question of scale. You can feel a strong bond in a dyad and a team of three people can perform quite well. On the other hand, the cases about which I’m thinking are orders of magnitude beyond the so-called “Dunbar number” which seems to obsess so many people (outside of anthro, at least).

Here’s where it might get somewhat controversial (though similar things have been said about Quora): I’d argue that part of this “intimacy effect” has to do with a sense of “exclusivity.” I don’t mean this as the way people talk about “elitism” (though, again, there does seem to be explicit elitism involved in Quora’s case). It’s more about being part of a “select group of people.” About “being there at the time.” It can get very elitist, snobbish, and self-serving very fast. But it’s still about shared experiences and, more specifically, about the perceived boundedness of communities of experience.

We all know about early adopters, of course. And, as part of my interest in geek culture, I keep advocating for more social awareness in any approach to the adoption part of social media tools. But what I mean here isn’t about a “personality type” or about the “attributes of individual actors.” In fact, this is exactly a point at which the study of social networks starts deviating from traditional approaches to sociology. It’s about the special type of social group the “initial userbase” of such a service may represent.

From a broad perspective (as outsiders, say, or using the comparativist’s “etic perspective”), that userbase is likely to be rather homogeneous. Depending on the enrollment procedure for the service, the structure of the group may be a skewed version of an existing network structure. In other words, it’s quite likely that, during that phase, most of the people involved were already connected through other means. In Quora’s case, given the service’s pushy overeagerness on using Twitter and Facebook for recruitment, it sounds quite likely that many of the people who joined Quora could already be tied through either Twitter or Facebook.

Anecdotally, it’s certainly been my experience that the overwhelming majority of people who “follow me on Quora” have been part of my first degree on some social media tool in the recent past. In fact, one of my main reactions as I’ve been getting those notifications of Quora followers was: “here are people with whom I’ve been connected but with whom I haven’t had significant relationships.” In some cases, I was actually surprised that these people would “follow” me while it appeared like they actually weren’t interested in having any kind of meaningful interactions. To put it bluntly, it sometimes appeared as if people who had been “snubbing” me were suddenly interested in something about me. But that was just in the case of a few people I had unsuccessfully tried to engage in meaningful interactions and had given up thinking that we might not be that compatible as interlocutors. Overall, I was mostly surprised at seeing the quick uptake in my follower list, which doesn’t tend to correlate with meaningful interaction, in my experience.

Now that I understand more about the unthinking way new Quora users are adding people to their networks, my surprise has transformed into an additional annoyance with the service. In a way, it’s a repeat of the time (what was it? 2007?) when Facebook applications got their big push and we kept receiving those “app invites” because some “social media mar-ke-tors” had thought it wise to force people to “invite five friends to use the service.” To Facebook’s credit (more on this later, I hope), these pushy and thoughtless “invitations” are a thing of the past…on those services where people learnt a few lessons about social networks.

Perhaps interestingly, I’ve had a very similar experience with Scribd, at about the same time. I was receiving what seemed like a steady flow of notifications about people from my first degree online network connecting with me on Scribd, whether or not they had ever engaged in a meaningful interaction with me. As with Quora, my initial surprise quickly morphed into annoyance. I wasn’t using any service much and these meaningless connections made it much less likely that I would ever use these services to get in touch with new and interesting people. If most of the people who are connecting with me on Quora and Scribd are already in my first degree and if they tend to be people I have limited interactions, why would I use these services to expand the range of people with whom I want to have meaningful interactions? They’re already within range and they haven’t been very communicative (for whatever reason, I don’t actually assume they were consciously snubbing me). Investing in Quora for “networking purposes” seemed like a futile effort, for me.

Perhaps because I have a specific approach to “networking.”

In my networking activities, I don’t focus on either “quantity” or “quality” of the people involved. I seriously, genuinely, honestly find something worthwhile in anyone with whom I can eventually connect, so the “quality of the individuals” argument doesn’t work with me. And I’m seriously, genuinely, honestly not trying to sell myself on a large market, so the “quantity” issue is one which has almost no effect on me. Besides, I already have what I consider to be an amazing social network online, in terms of quality of interactions. Sure, people with whom I interact are simply amazing. Sure, the size of my first degree network on some services is “well above average.” But these things wouldn’t matter at all if I weren’t able to have meaningful interactions in these contexts. And, as it turns out, I’m lucky enough to be able to have very meaningful interactions in a large range of contexts, both offline and on. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m teaching addict. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m a papillon social (social butterfly). It may even have to do with a stage in my life, at which I still care about meeting new people but I don’t really need new people in my circle. Part of it makes me much less selective than most other people (I like to have new acquaintances) and part of it makes me more selective (I don’t need new “friends”). If it didn’t sound condescending, I’d say it has to do with maturity. But it’s not about my own maturity as a human being. It’s about the maturity of my first-degree network.

There are other people who are in an expansionist phase. For whatever reason (marketing and job searches are the best-known ones, but they’re really not the only ones), some people need to get more contacts and/or contacts with people who have some specific characteristics. For instance, there are social activists out there who need to connect to key decision-makers because they have a strong message to carry. And there are people who were isolated from most other people around them because of stigmatization who just need to meet non-judgmental people. These, to me, are fine goals for someone to expand her or his first-degree network.

Some of it may have to do with introversion. While extraversion is a “dominant trait” of mine, I care deeply about people who consider themselves introverts, even when they start using it as a divisive label. In fact, that’s part of the reason I think it’d be neat to hold a ShyCamp. There’s a whole lot of room for human connection without having to rely on devices of outgoingness.

So, there are people who may benefit from expansion of their first-degree network. In this context, the “network effect” matters in a specific way. And if I think about “network maturity” in this case, there’s no evaluation involved, contrary to what it may seem like.

As you may have noticed, I keep insisting on the fact that we’re talking about “first-degree network.” Part of the reason is that I was lecturing about a few key network concepts just yesterday so, getting people to understand the difference between “the network as a whole” (especially on an online service) and “a given person’s first-degree network” is important to me. But another part relates back to what I’m getting to realize about Quora and Scribd: the process of connecting through an online service may have as much to do with collapsing some degrees of separation than with “being part of the same network.” To use Granovetter’s well-known terms, it’s about transforming “weak ties” into “strong” ones.

And I specifically don’t mean it as a “quality of interaction.” What is at stake, on Quora and Scribd, seems to have little to do with creating stronger bonds. But they may want to create closer links, in terms of network topography. In a way, it’s a bit like getting introduced on LinkedIn (and it corresponds to what biz-minded people mean by “networking”): you care about having “access” to that person, but you don’t necessarily care about her or him, personally.

There’s some sense in using such an approach on “utilitarian networks” like professional or Q&A ones (LinkedIn does both). But there are diverse ways to implement this approach and, to me, Quora and Scribd do it in a way which is very precisely counterproductive. The way LinkedIn does it is context-appropriate. So is the way Academia.edu does it. In both of these cases, the “transaction cost” of connecting with someone is commensurate with the degree of interaction which is possible. On Scribd and Quora, they almost force you to connect with “people you already know” and the “degree of interaction” which is imposed on users is disproportionately high (especially in Quora’s case, where a contact of yours can annoy you by asking you personally to answer a specific question). In this sense, joining Quora is a bit closer to being conscripted in a war while registering on Academia.edu is just a tiny bit more like getting into a country club. The analogies are tenuous but they probably get the point across. Especially since I get the strong impression that the “intimacy phase” has a lot to do with the “country club mentality.”

See, the social context in which these services gain much traction (relatively tech-savvy Anglophones in North America and Europe) assign very negative connotations to social exclusion but people keep being fascinating by the affordances of “select clubs” in terms of social capital. In other words, people may be very vocal as to how nasty it would be if some people had exclusive access to some influential people yet there’s what I perceive as an obsession with influence among the same people. As a caricature: “The ‘human rights’ movement leveled the playing field and we should never ever go back to those dark days of Old Boys’ Clubs and Secret Societies. As soon as I become the most influential person on the planet, I’ll make sure that people who think like me get the benefits they deserve.”

This is where the notion of elitism, as applied specifically to Quora but possibly expanding to other services, makes the most sense. “Oh, no, Quora is meant for everyone. It’s Democratic! See? I can connect with very influential people. But, isn’t it sad that these plebeians are coming to Quora without a proper knowledge of  the only right way to ask questions and without proper introduction by people I can trust? I hate these n00bz! Even worse, there are people now on the service who are trying to get social capital by promoting themselves. The nerve on these people, to invade my own dedicated private sphere where I was able to connect with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the industry.” No wonder Quora is so journalistic.

But I’d argue that there’s a part of this which is a confusion between first-degree networks and connection. Before Quora, the same people were indeed connected to these “influential people,” who allegedly make Quora such a unique system. After all, they were already online and I’m quite sure that most of them weren’t more than three or four degrees of separation from Quora’s initial userbase. But access to these people was difficult because connections were indirect. “Mr. Y Z, the CEO of Company X was already in my network, since there were employees of Company X who were connected through Twitter to people who follow me. But I couldn’t just coldcall CEO Z to ask him a question, since CEOs are out of reach, in their caves. Quora changed everything because Y responded to a question by someone ‘totally unconnected to him’ so it’s clear, now, that I have direct access to my good ol’ friend Y’s inner thoughts and doubts.”

As RMS might say, this type of connection is a “seductive mirage.” Because, I would argue, not much has changed in terms of access and whatever did change was already happening all over this social context.

At the risk of sounding dismissive, again, I’d say that part of what people find so alluring in Quora is “simply” an epiphany about the Small World phenomenon. With all sorts of fallacies caught in there. Another caricature: “What? It takes only three contacts for me to send something from rural Idaho to the head honcho at some Silicon Valley firm? This is the first time something like this happens, in the History of the Whole Wide World!”

Actually, I do feel quite bad about these caricatures. Some of those who are so passionate about Quora, among my contacts, have been very aware of many things happening online since the early 1990s. But I have to be honest in how I receive some comments about Quora and much of it sounds like a sudden realization of something which I thought was a given.

The fact that I feel so bad about these characterizations relates to the fact that, contrary to what I had planned to do, I’m not linking to specific comments about Quora. Not that I don’t want people to read about this but I don’t want anyone to feel targeted. I respect everyone and my characterizations aren’t judgmental. They’re impressionistic and, again, caricatures.

Speaking of what I had planned, beginning this post… I actually wanted to talk less about Quora specifically and more about other issues. Sounds like I’m currently getting sidetracked, and it’s kind of sad. But it’s ok. The show must go on.

So, other services…

While I had a similar experiences with Scribd and Quora about getting notifications of new connections from people with whom I haven’t had meaningful interactions, I’ve had a very different experience on many (probably most) other services.

An example I like is Foursquare. “Friendship requests” I get on Foursquare are mostly from: people with whom I’ve had relatively significant interactions in the past, people who were already significant parts of my second-degree network, or people I had never heard of. Sure, there are some people with whom I had tried to establish connections, including some who seem to reluctantly follow me on Quora. But the proportion of these is rather minimal and, for me, the stakes in accepting a friend request on Foursquare are quite low since it’s mostly about sharing data I already share publicly. Instead of being able to solicit my response to a specific question, the main thing my Foursquare “friends” can do that others can’t is give me recommendations, tips, and “notifications of their presence.” These are all things I might actually enjoy, so there’s nothing annoying about it. Sure, like any online service with a network component, these days, there are some “friend requests” which are more about self-promotion. But those are usually easy to avoid and, even if I get fooled by a “social media mar-ke-tor,” the most this person may do to me is give usrecommendation about “some random place.” Again, easy to avoid. So, the “social network” dimension of Foursquare seems appropriate, to me. Not ideal, but pretty decent.

I never really liked the “game” aspect and while I did play around with getting badges and mayorships in my first few weeks, it never felt like the point of Foursquare, to me. As Foursquare eventually became mainstream in Montreal and I was asked by a journalist about my approach to Foursquare, I was exactly in the phase when I was least interested in the game aspect and wished we could talk a whole lot more about the other dimensions of the phenomenon.

And I realize that, as I’m saying this, I may sound to some as exactly those who are bemoaning the shift out of the initial userbase of some cherished service. But there are significant differences. Note that I’m not complaining about the transition in the userbase. In the Foursquare context, “the more the merrier.” I was actually glad that Foursquare was becoming mainstream as it was easier to explain to people, it became more connected with things business owners might do, and generally had more impact. What gave me pause, at the time, is the journalistic hype surrounding Foursquare which seemed to be missing some key points about social networks online. Besides, I was never annoyed by this hype or by Foursquare itself. I simply thought that it was sad that the focus would be on a dimension of the service which was already present on not only Dodgeball and other location-based services but, pretty much, all over the place. I was critical of the seemingly unthinking way people approached Foursquare but the service itself was never that big a deal for me, either way.

And I pretty much have the same attitude toward any tool. I happen to have my favourites, which either tend to fit neatly in my “workflow” or otherwise have some neat feature I enjoy. But I’m very wary of hype and backlash. Especially now. It gets old very fast and it’s been going for quite a while.

Maybe I should just move away from the “tech world.” It’s the context for such hype and buzz machine that it almost makes me angry. [I very rarely get angry.] Why do I care so much? You can say it’s accumulation, over the years. Because I still care about social media and I really do want to know what people are saying about social media tools. I just wish discussion of these tools weren’t soooo “superlative”…

Obviously, I digress. But this is what I like to do on my blog and it has a cathartic effect. I actually do feel better now, thank you.

And I can talk about some other things I wanted to mention. I won’t spend much time on them because this is long enough (both as a blogpost and as a blogging session). But I want to set a few placeholders, for further discussion.

One such placeholder is about some pet theories I have about what worked well with certain services. Which is exactly the kind of thing “social media entrepreneurs” and journalists are so interested in, but end up talking about the same dimensions.

Let’s take Twitter, for instance. Sure, sure, there’s been a lot of talk about what made Twitter a success and probably-everybody knows that it got started as a side-project at Odeo, and blah, blah, blah. Many people also realize that there were other microblogging services around as Twitter got traction. And I’m sure some people use Twitter as a “textbook case” of “network effect” (however they define that effect). I even mention the celebrity dimensions of the “Twitter phenomenon” in class (my students aren’t easily starstruck by Bieber and Gaga) and I understand why journalists are so taken by Twitter’s “broadcast” mission. But something which has been discussed relatively rarely is the level of responsiveness by Twitter developers, over the years, to people’s actual use of the service. Again, we all know that “@-replies,” “hashtags,” and “retweets” were all emerging usage patterns that Twitter eventually integrated. And some discussion has taken place when Twitter changed it’s core prompt to reflect the fact that the way people were using it had changed. But there’s relatively little discussion as to what this process implies in terms of “developing philosophy.” As people are still talking about being “proactive” (ugh!) with users, and crude measurements of popularity keep being sold and bandied about, a large part of the tremendous potential for responsiveness (through social media or otherwise) is left untapped. People prefer to hype a new service which is “likely to have Twitter-like success because it has the features users have said they wanted in the survey we sell.” Instead of talking about the “get satisfaction” effect in responsiveness. Not that “consumers” now have “more power than ever before.” But responsive developers who refrain from imposing their views (Quora, again) tend to have a more positive impact, socially, than those which are merely trying to expand their userbase.

Which leads me to talk about Facebook. I could talk for hours on end about Facebook, but I almost feel afraid to do so. At this point, Facebook is conceived in what I perceive to be such a narrow way that it seems like anything I might say would sound exceedingly strange. Given the fact that it was part one of the first waves of Web tools with explicit social components to reach mainstream adoption, it almost sounds “historical” in timeframe. But, as so many people keep saying, it’s just not that old. IMHO, part of the implication of Facebook’s relatively young age should be that we are able to discuss it as a dynamic process, instead of assigning it to a bygone era. But, whatever…

Actually, I think part of the reason there’s such lack of depth in discussing Facebook is also part of the reason it was so special: it was originally a very select service. Since, for a significant period of time, the service was only available to people with email addresses ending in “.edu,” it’s not really surprising that many of the people who keep discussing it were actually not on the service “in its formative years.” But, I would argue, the fact that it was so exclusive at first (something which is often repeated but which seems to be understood in a very theoretical sense) contributed quite significantly to its success. Of course, similar claims have been made but, I’d say that my own claim is deeper than others.

[Bang! I really don’t tend to make claims so, much of this blogpost sounds to me as if it were coming from somebody else…]

Ok, I don’t mean it so strongly. But there’s something I think neat about the Facebook of 2005, the one I joined. So I’d like to discuss it. Hence the placeholder.

And, in this placeholder, I’d fit: the ideas about responsiveness mentioned with Twitter, the stepwise approach adopted by Facebook (which, to me, was the real key to its eventual success), the notion of intimacy which is the true core of this blogpost, the notion of hype/counterhype linked to journalistic approaches, a key distinction between privacy and intimacy, some non-ranting (but still rambling) discussion as to what Google is missing in its “social” projects, anecdotes about “sequential network effects” on Facebook as the service reached new “populations,” some personal comments about what I get out of Facebook even though I almost never spent any significant amount of time on it, some musings as to the possibility that there are online services which have reached maturity and may remain stable in the foreseeable future, a few digressions about fanboism or about the lack of sophistication in the social network models used in online services, and maybe a bit of fun at the expense of “social media expert marketors”…

But that’ll be for another time.

Cheers!

Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…

A Glocal Network of City-States?

This one should probably be in a fictive mode, maybe even in a science-fiction genre. In fact, I’m reconnecting with literature after a long hiatus and now would be an interesting time to start writing fiction. But I’ll still start this as one of those  “ramblings” blogposts that I tend to build or which tend to come to me.

The reason this should be fiction is that it might sound exceedingly naïve, especially for a social scientist. I tend to “throw ideas out there” and see what sticks to other ideas, but this broad idea about which I’ve been thinking for a while may sound rather crazy, quaint, unsophisticated.

See, while my academic background is rather solid, I don’t have formal training in political science. In fact, I’ve frequently avoided several academic activities related to political science as a discipline. Or to journalism as a discipline. Part of my reluctance to involve myself in academic activities related political science relates to my reaction to journalism. The connection may not seem obvious to everyone but I see political science as a discipline in the same frame, and participating in the same worldview, as what I find problematic in journalism.

The simplest way to contextualize this connection is the (“modern”) notion of the “Nation-State.” That context involves me personally. As an anthropologist, as a post-modernist, as a “dual citizen” of two countries, as a folklorist, as a North American with a relatively salient European background, as a “citizen of the World,” and as a member of a community which has switched in part from a “nationalist” movement to other notions of statehood. Simply put: I sincerely think that the notion of a “Nation-State” is outdated and that it will (whether it should or not) give way to other social constructs.

A candidate to replace the conceptual apparatus of the “Nation-State” is both global and local, both post-modern and ancient: a glocal network of city-states (GNoCS).

Yes, I know, it sounds awkward. No, I’m not saying that things would necessarily be better in a post-national world. And I have no idea when this shift from the “nation-states” frame to a network of city-states may happen. But I sincerely think that it could happen. And that it could happen rather quickly.

Not that the shift would be so radical as to obliterate the notion of “nation-state” overnight. In this case, I’m closer to Foucault’s épistémè than to Kuhn’s paradigm. After all, while the “Democratic Nation-State” model is global, former social structures are still present around the Globe and the very notion of a “Nation-State” takes different values in different parts of the world. What I envision has less to do with the linear view of history than with a perspective in which different currents of social change interact with one another over time, evoking shifts in polarity for those who hold a binary perspective on social issues.

I started “working on” this post four months ago. I was just taking some notes in a blog draft, in view of a blogpost, instead of simply keeping general notes, as I tend to do. This post remained on my mind and I’ve been accumulating different threads which can connect to my basic idea. I now realize that this blogpost will be more of a placeholder for further thinking than a “milestone” in my reflection on the topic. My reluctance to publish this blog entry had as much to do with an idiosyncratic sense of prudence as with time-management or any other issue. In other words, I was wary of sticking my neck out. Which might explain why this post is so personal as compared to most of my posts in English.

As uninformed as I may seem of the minutiae of national era political science, I happen to think that there’s a lot of groupthink involved in the way several people describe political systems. For instance, there’s a strong tendency for certain people, journalists especially, to “count countries.” With relatively few exceptions (especially those which have to do with specific international institutions like the United Nations or the “G20”) the number of countries involved in an event only has superficial significance. Demographic discrepancies between these national entities, not tio mention a certain degree of diversity in their social structures or even government apparatus, makes “counting countries” appear quite misleading, especially when the issue has to do with, say, social dynamics or geography. It sounds at times like people have a vague “political map of the World” in their heads and that this image preempts other approaches to global diversity. This may sound like a defensive stance on my part, as I try to position myself as “perhaps crazy but not more than others are.” But the issue goes deeper. In fact, it seems that “countries” are so ingrained  in some people’s minds and political borders are so obvious that local and regional issues are perceived as micro-version of what happens at the “national level.” This image doesn’t seem so strange when we talk about partisan politics but it appears quite inappropriate when we talk about a broad range of other subjects, from epidemiology to climate change, from online communication to geology, from language to religion.

An initial spark in my thinking about several of these issues came during Beverly Stoeltje‘s interdisciplinary Ph.D. seminar on nationalism at Indiana University Bloomington, back in 2000. Not only was this seminar edifying on many levels, but it represented a kind of epiphany moment in my reflections on not only nationalism itself (with related issues of patriotism, colonialism, and citizenship) but on a range of social issues and changes.

My initial “realization” was on the significance of the shift from Groulx-style French-Canadian nationalism to what Lévesque called «souveraineté-association» (“sovereignty-association”) and which served as the basis for the Quebec sovereignty movement.

While this all connects to well-known issues in political science and while it may (again) sound exceedingly naïve, I mean it in a very specific way which, I think, many people who discuss Quebec’s political history may rarely visit. As with other shifts about which I think, I don’t envision the one from French-Canadian nationalism (FCN) to Quebec sovereignty movement (QSM) to be radical or complete. But it was significant and broad-reaching.

Regardless of Lévesque’s personal view on nationalism (a relatively recent television series on his life had it that he became anti-nationalist after a visit to concentration camps), the very idea that there may exist a social movement oriented toward sovereignty outside of the nationalist logic seems quite important to me personally. The fact that this movement may only be represented in partisan politics as nationalism complicates the issue and may explain a certain confusion in terms of the range of Quebec’s current social movements. In other words, the fact that anti-nationalists are consistently lumped together with nationalists in the public (and journalistic) eye makes it difficult to discuss post-nationalism in this part of the Globe.

But Quebec’s history is only central to my thinking because I was born and Montreal and grew up through the Quiet Revolution. My reflections on a post-national shift are hopefully broader than historical events in a tiny part of the Globe.

In fact, my initial attempt at drafting this blogpost came after I attended a talk by Satoshi Ikeda entitled The Global Financial Crisis and the End of Neoliberalism. (November 27, 2008, Concordia University, SGW H-1125-12; found thanks to Twistory). My main idea at this point was that part of the solution to global problems were local.

But I was also thinking about The Internet.

Contrary to what technological determinists tend to say, the ‘Net isn’t changing things as much as it is part of a broad set of changes. In other words, the global communication network we now know as the Internet is embedded in historical contexts, not the ultimate cause of History. At the risk of replacing technological determinism with social determinism, one might point out that the ‘Net existed (both technologically and institutionally) long before its use became widespread. Those of us who observed a large influx of people online during the early to mid-1990s might even think that social changes were more significant in making the ‘Net what it is today than any “immanent” feature of the network as it was in, say, 1991.

Still, my thinking about the ‘Net has to do with the post-national shift. The ‘Net won’t cause the shift to new social and political structures. But it’s likely to “play a part” in that shift, to be prominently places as we move into a post-national reality.

There’s a number of practical and legal issues with a wide range of online activities which make it clear that the ‘Net fits more in a global structure than in an “international” one. Examples I have in mind include issues of copyright, broadcast rights, “national content,” and access to information, not to mention the online setting for some grassroots movements and the notion of “Internet citizenry.” In all of these cases, “Globalization” expands much beyond trade and currency-based economy.

Then, there’s the notion of “glocalization.” Every time I use the term “glocal,” I point out how “ugly” it is. The term hasn’t gained any currency (AFAICT) but I keep thinking that the concept can generate something interesting. What I personally have in mind is a movement away from national structures into both a globally connected world and a more local significance. The whole “Think Local, Act Global” idea (which I mostly encountered as “Think Global, Drink Local” as a motto). “Despite” the ‘Net, location still matters. But many people are also global-looking.

All of this is part of the setup for some of my reflections on a GNoCS. A kind of prelude/prologue. While my basic idea is very much a “pie in the sky,” I do have more precise notions about what the future may look like and the conditions in which some social changes might happen. At this point, I realize that these thoughts will be part of future blogposts, including some which might be closer to science-fiction than to this type semi- (or pseudo-) scholarly rambling.

But I might still flesh out a few notes.

Demographically, cities may matter more now than ever as the majority of the Globe’s population is urban. At least, the continued urbanization trend may fit well with a city-focused post-national model.

Some metropolitan areas have become so large as to connect with one another, constituting a kind of urban continuum. Contrary to boundaries between “nation-states,” divisions between cities can be quite blurry. In fact, a same location can be connected to dispersed centres of activity and people living in the same place can participate in more than one local sphere. Rotterdam-Amsterdam, Tokyo-Kyoto, Boston-NYC…

Somewhat counterintuitvely, urban areas tend to work relatively as the source of solutions to problems in the natural environment. For instance, some mayors have taken a lead in terms of environmental initiatives, not waiting for their national governments. And such issues as public transportations represent core competencies for municipal governments.

While transborder political entities like the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are enmeshed in the national logic, they fit well with notions of globalized decentralization. As the mayor of a small Swiss town was saying on the event of Switzerland’s official 700th anniversary, we can think about «l’Europe des régions» (“Europe of regions”), beyond national borders.

Speaking of Switzerland, the confederacy/confederation model fits rather well with a network structure, perhaps more than with the idea of a “nation-state.” It also seems to go well with some forms of participatory democracy (as opposed to representative democracy). Not to mean that Switzerland or any other confederation/confederacy works as a participatory democracy. But these notions can help situate this GNoCS.

While relatively rare and unimportant “on the World Stage,” micro-states and micro-nations represent interesting cases in view of post-nationalist entities. For one thing, they may help dispel the belief that any political apart from the “nation-state” is a “reversal” to feudalism or even (Greek) Antiquity. The very existence of those entities which are “the exceptions to the rule” make it possible to “think outside of the national box.”

Demographically at the opposite end of the spectrum from microstates and micronations, the notion of a China-India union (or even a collaboration between China, India, Brazil, and Russia) may sound crazy in the current state of national politics but it would go well with a restructuring of the Globe, especially if this “New World Order” goes beyond currency-based trade.

Speaking of currency, the notion of the International Monetary Fund having its own currency is quite striking as a sign of a major shift from the “nation-state” logic. Of course, the IMF is embedded in “national” structures, but it can shift the focus away from “individual countries.”

The very notion of “democracy” has been on many lips, over the years. Now may be the time to pay more than lipservice to a notion of “Global Democracy,” which would transcend national boundaries (and give equal rights to all people across the Globe). Chances are that representative democracy may still dominate but a network structure connecting a large number of localized entities can also fit in other systems including participatory democracy, consensus culture, republicanism, and even the models of relatively egalitarian systems that some cultural anthropologists have been constructing over the years.

I still have all sorts of notes about examples and issues related to this notion of a GNoCS. But that will do for now.

Social Networks and Microblogging

Microblogging (Laconica, Twitter, etc.) is still a hot topic. For instance, during the past few episodes of This Week in Tech, comments were made about the preponderance of Twitter as a discussion theme: microblogging is so prominent on that show that some people complain that there’s too much talk about Twitter. Given the centrality of Leo Laporte’s podcast in geek culture (among Anglos, at least), such comments are significant.

The context for the latest comments about TWiT coverage of Twitter had to do with Twitter’s financials: during this financial crisis, Twitter is given funding without even asking for it. While it may seem surprising at first, given the fact that Twitter hasn’t publicized a business plan and doesn’t appear to be profitable at this time, 

Along with social networking, microblogging is even discussed in mainstream media. For instance, Médialogues (a media critique on Swiss national radio) recently had a segment about both Facebook and Twitter. Just yesterday, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart made fun of compulsive twittering and mainstream media coverage of Twitter (original, Canadian access).

Clearly, microblogging is getting some mindshare.

What the future holds for microblogging is clearly uncertain. Anything can happen. My guess is that microblogging will remain important for a while (at least a few years) but that it will transform itself rather radically. Chances are that other platforms will have microblogging features (something Facebook can do with status updates and something Automattic has been trying to do with some WordPress themes). In these troubled times, Montreal startup Identi.ca received some funding to continue developing its open microblogging platform.  Jaiku, bought by Google last year, is going open source, which may be good news for microblogging in general. Twitter itself might maintain its “marketshare” or other players may take over. There’s already a large number of third-party tools and services making use of Twitter, from Mahalo Answers to Remember the Milk, Twistory to TweetDeck.

Together, these all point to the current importance of microblogging and the potential for further development in that sphere. None of this means that microblogging is “The Next Big Thing.” But it’s reasonable to expect that microblogging will continue to grow in use.

(Those who are trying to grok microblogging, Common Craft’s Twitter in Plain English video is among the best-known descriptions of Twitter and it seems like an efficient way to “get the idea.”)

One thing which is rarely mentioned about microblogging is the prominent social structure supporting it. Like “Social Networking Systems” (LinkedIn, Facebook, Ning, MySpace…), microblogging makes it possible for people to “connect” to one another (as contacts/acquaintances/friends). Like blogs, microblogging platforms make it possible to link to somebody else’s material and get notifications for some of these links (a bit like pings and trackbacks). Like blogrolls, microblogging systems allow for lists of “favourite authors.” Unlike Social Networking Systems but similar to blogrolls, microblogging allow for asymmetrical relations, unreciprocated links: if I like somebody’s microblogging updates, I can subscribe to those (by “following” that person) and publicly show my appreciation of that person’s work, regardless of whether or not this microblogger likes my own updates.

There’s something strangely powerful there because it taps the power of social networks while avoiding tricky issues of reciprocity, “confidentiality,” and “intimacy.”

From the end user’s perspective, microblogging contacts may be easier to establish than contacts through Facebook or Orkut. From a social science perspective, microblogging links seem to approximate some of the fluidity found in social networks, without adding much complexity in the description of the relationships. Subscribing to someone’s updates gives me the role of “follower” with regards to that person. Conversely, those I follow receive the role of “following” (“followee” would seem logical, given the common “-er”/”-ee” pattern). The following and follower roles are complementary but each is sufficient by itself as a useful social link.

Typically, a microblogging system like Twitter or Identi.ca qualifies two-way connections as “friendship” while one-way connections could be labelled as “fandom” (if Andrew follows Betty’s updates but Betty doesn’t follow Andrew’s, Andrew is perceived as one of Betty’s “fans”). Profiles on microblogging systems are relatively simple and public, allowing for low-involvement online “presence.” As long as updates are kept public, anybody can connect to anybody else without even needing an introduction. In fact, because microblogging systems send notifications to users when they get new followers (through email and/or SMS), subscribing to someone’s update is often akin to introducing yourself to that person. 

Reciprocating is the object of relatively intense social pressure. A microblogger whose follower:following ratio is far from 1:1 may be regarded as either a snob (follower:following much higher than 1:1) or as something of a microblogging failure (follower:following much lower than 1:1). As in any social context, perceived snobbery may be associated with sophistication but it also carries opprobrium. Perry Belcher  made a video about what he calls “Twitter Snobs” and some French bloggers have elaborated on that concept. (Some are now claiming their right to be Twitter Snobs.) Low follower:following ratios can result from breach of etiquette (for instance, ostentatious self-promotion carried beyond the accepted limit) or even non-human status (many microblogging accounts are associated to “bots” producing automated content).

The result of the pressure for reciprocation is that contacts are reciprocated regardless of personal relations.  Some users even set up ways to automatically follow everyone who follows them. Despite being tricky, these methods escape the personal connection issue. Contrary to Social Networking Systems (and despite the term “friend” used for reciprocated contacts), following someone on a microblogging service implies little in terms of friendship.

One reason I personally find this fascinating is that specifying personal connections has been an important part of the development of social networks online. For instance, long-defunct SixDegrees.com (one of the earliest Social Networking Systems to appear online) required of users that they specified the precise nature of their relationship to users with whom they were connected. Details escape me but I distinctly remember that acquaintances, colleagues, and friends were distinguished. If I remember correctly, only one such personal connection was allowed for any pair of users and this connection had to be confirmed before the two users were linked through the system. Facebook’s method to account for personal connections is somewhat more sophisticated despite the fact that all contacts are labelled as “friends” regardless of the nature of the connection. The uniform use of the term “friend” has been decried by many public commentators of Facebook (including in the United States where “friend” is often applied to any person with whom one is simply on friendly terms).

In this context, the flexibility with which microblogging contacts are made merits consideration: by allowing unidirectional contacts, microblogging platforms may have solved a tricky social network problem. And while the strength of the connection between two microbloggers is left unacknowledged, there are several methods to assess it (for instance through replies and republished updates).

Social contacts are the very basis of social media. In this case, microblogging represents a step towards both simplified and complexified social contacts.

Which leads me to the theme which prompted me to start this blogpost: event-based microblogging.

I posted the following blog entry (in French) about event-based microblogging, back in November.

Microblogue d’événement

I haven’t received any direct feedback on it and the topic seems to have little echoes in the social media sphere.

During the last PodMtl meeting on February 18, I tried to throw my event-based microblogging idea in the ring. This generated a rather lengthy between a friend and myself. (Because I don’t want to put words in this friend’s mouth, who happens to be relatively high-profile, I won’t mention this friend’s name.) This friend voiced several objections to my main idea and I got to think about this basic notion a bit further. At the risk of sounding exceedingly opinionated, I must say that my friend’s objections actually comforted me in the notion that my “event microblog” idea makes a lot of sense.

The basic idea is quite simple: microblogging instances tied to specific events. There are technical issues in terms of hosting and such but I’m mostly thinking about associating microblogs and events.

What I had in mind during the PodMtl discussion has to do with grouping features, which are often requested by Twitter users (including by Perry Belcher who called out Twitter Snobs). And while I do insist on events as a basis for those instances (like groups), some of the same logic applies to specific interests. However, given the time-sensitivity of microblogging, I still think that events are more significant in this context than interests, however defined.

In the PodMtl discussion, I frequently referred to BarCamp-like events (in part because my friend and interlocutor had participated in a number of such events). The same concept applies to any event, including one which is just unfolding (say, assassination of Guinea-Bissau’s president or bombings in Mumbai).

Microblogging users are expected to think about “hashtags,” those textual labels preceded with the ‘#’ symbol which are meant to categorize microblogging updates. But hashtags are problematic on several levels.

  • They require preliminary agreement among multiple microbloggers, a tricky proposition in any social media. “Let’s use #Bissau09. Everybody agrees with that?” It can get ugly and, even if it doesn’t, the process is awkward (especially for new users).
  • Even if agreement has been reached, there might be discrepancies in the way hashtags are typed. “Was it #TwestivalMtl or #TwestivalMontreal, I forgot.”
  • In terms of language economy, it’s unsurprising that the same hashtag would be used for different things. Is “#pcmtl” about Podcamp Montreal, about personal computers in Montreal, about PCM Transcoding Library…?
  • Hashtags are frequently misunderstood by many microbloggers. Just this week, a tweep of mine (a “peep” on Twitter) asked about them after having been on Twitter for months.
  • While there are multiple ways to track hashtags (including through SMS, in some regions), there is no way to further specify the tracked updates (for instance, by user).
  • The distinction between a hashtag and a keyword is too subtle to be really useful. Twitter Search, for instance, lumps the two together.
  • Hashtags take time to type. Even if microbloggers aren’t necessarily typing frantically, the time taken to type all those hashtags seems counterproductive and may even distract microbloggers.
  • Repetitively typing the same string is a very specific kind of task which seems to go against the microblogging ethos, if not the cognitive processes associated with microblogging.
  • The number of character in a hashtag decreases the amount of text in every update. When all you have is 140 characters at a time, the thirteen characters in “#TwestivalMtl” constitute almost 10% of your update.
  • If the same hashtag is used by a large number of people, the visual effect can be that this hashtag is actually dominating the microblogging stream. Since there currently isn’t a way to ignore updates containing a certain hashtag, this effect may even discourage people from using a microblogging service.

There are multiple solutions to these issues, of course. Some of them are surely discussed among developers of microblogging systems. And my notion of event-specific microblogs isn’t geared toward solving these issues. But I do think separate instances make more sense than hashtags, especially in terms of specific events.

My friend’s objections to my event microblogging idea had something to do with visibility. It seems that this friend wants all updates to be visible, regardless of the context. While I don’t disagree with this, I would claim that it would still be useful to “opt out” of certain discussions when people we follow are involved. If I know that Sean is participating in a PHP conference and that most of his updates will be about PHP for a period of time, I would enjoy the possibility to hide PHP-related updates for a specific period of time. The reason I talk about this specific case is simple: a friend of mine has manifested some frustration about the large number of updates made by participants in Podcamp Montreal (myself included). Partly in reaction to this, he stopped following me on Twitter and only resumed following me after Podcamp Montreal had ended. In this case, my friend could have hidden Podcamp Montreal updates and still have received other updates from the same microbloggers.

To a certain extent, event-specific instances are a bit similar to “rooms” in MMORPG and other forms of real-time many-to-many text-based communication such as the nostalgia-inducing Internet Relay Chat. Despite Dave Winer’s strong claim to the contrary (and attempt at defining microblogging away from IRC), a microblogging instance could, in fact, act as a de facto chatroom. When such a structure is needed. Taking advantage of the work done in microblogging over the past year (which seems to have advanced more rapidly than work on chatrooms has, during the past fifteen years). Instead of setting up an IRC channel, a Web-based chatroom, or even a session on MSN Messenger, users could use their microblogging platform of choice and either decide to follow all updates related to a given event or simply not “opt-out” of following those updates (depending on their preferences). Updates related to multiple events are visible simultaneously (which isn’t really the case with IRC or chatrooms) and there could be ways to make event-specific updates more prominent. In fact, there would be easy ways to keep real-time statistics of those updates and get a bird’s eye view of those conversations.

And there’s a point about event-specific microblogging which is likely to both displease “alpha geeks” and convince corporate users: updates about some events could be “protected” in the sense that they would not appear in the public stream in realtime. The simplest case for this could be a company-wide meeting during which backchannel is allowed and even expected “within the walls” of the event. The “nothing should leave this room” attitude seems contradictory to social media in general, but many cases can be made for “confidential microblogging.” Microblogged conversations can easily be archived and these archives could be made public at a later date. Event-specific microblogging allows for some control of the “permeability” of the boundaries surrounding the event. “But why would people use microblogging instead of simply talking to another?,” you ask. Several quick answers: participants aren’t in the same room, vocal communication is mostly single-channel, large groups of people are unlikely to communicate efficiently through oral means only, several things are more efficiently done through writing, written updates are easier to track and archive…

There are many other things I’d like to say about event-based microblogging but this post is already long. There’s one thing I want to explain, which connects back to the social network dimension of microblogging.

Events can be simplistically conceived as social contexts which bring people together. (Yes, duh!) Participants in a given event constitute a “community of experience” regardless of the personal connections between them. They may be strangers, ennemies, relatives, acquaintances, friends, etc. But they all share something. “Participation,” in this case, can be relatively passive and the difference between key participants (say, volunteers and lecturers in a conference) and attendees is relatively moot, at a certain level of analysis. The key, here, is the set of connections between people at the event.

These connections are a very powerful component of social networks. We typically meet people through “events,” albeit informal ones. Some events are explicitly meant to connect people who have something in common. In some circles, “networking” refers to something like this. The temporal dimension of social connections is an important one. By analogy to philosophy of language, the “first meeting” (and the set of “first impressions”) constitute the “baptism” of the personal (or social) connection. In social media especially, the nature of social connections tends to be monovalent enough that this “baptism event” gains special significance.

The online construction of social networks relies on a finite number of dimensions, including personal characteristics described in a profile, indirect connections (FOAF), shared interests, textual content, geographical location, and participation in certain activities. Depending on a variety of personal factors, people may be quite inclusive or rather exclusive, based on those dimensions. “I follow back everyone who lives in Austin” or “Only people I have met in person can belong to my inner circle.” The sophistication with which online personal connections are negotiated, along such dimensions, is a thing of beauty. In view of this sophistication, tools used in social media seem relatively crude and underdeveloped.

Going back to the (un)conference concept, the usefulness of having access to a list of all participants in a given event seems quite obvious. In an open event like BarCamp, it could greatly facilitate the event’s logistics. In a closed event with paid access, it could be linked to registration (despite geek resistance, closed events serve a purpose; one could even imagine events where attendance is free but the microblogging backchannel incurs a cost). In some events, everybody would be visible to everybody else. In others, there could be a sort of ACL for diverse types of participants. In some cases, people could be allowed to “lurk” without being seen while in others radically transparency could be enforced. For public events with all participants visible, lists of participants could be archived and used for several purposes (such as assessing which sessions in a conference are more popular or “tracking” event regulars).

One reason I keep thinking about event-specific microblogging is that I occasionally use microblogging like others use business cards. In a geek crowd, I may ask for someone’s Twitter username in order to establish a connection with that person. Typically, I will start following that person on Twitter and find opportunities to communicate with that person later on. Given the possibility for one-way relationships, it establishes a social connection without requiring personal involvement. In fact, that person may easily ignore me without the danger of a face threat.

If there were event-specific instances from microblogging platforms, we could manage connections and profiles in a more sophisticated way. For instance, someone could use a barebones profile for contacts made during an impersonal event and a full-fledged profile for contacts made during a more “intimate” event. After noticing a friend using an event-specific business card with an event-specific email address, I got to think that this event microblogging idea might serve as a way to fill a social need.

 

More than most of my other blogposts, I expect comments on this one. Objections are obviously welcomed, especially if they’re made thoughtfully (like my PodMtl friend made them). Suggestions would be especially useful. Or even questions about diverse points that I haven’t addressed (several of which I can already think about).

So…

 

What do you think of this idea of event-based microblogging? Would you use a microblogging instance linked to an event, say at an unconference? Can you think of fun features an event-based microblogging instance could have? If you think about similar ideas you’ve seen proposed online, care to share some links?

 

Thanks in advance!

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?