Category Archives: community-building

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.

Bean Counters and Ecologists

[So many things in my drafts, but this one should be quick.]

Recently met someone who started describing their restaurant after calling it a “café”. The “pitch” revolved around ethical practices, using local products, etc. As both a coffee geek and ethnographer, my simple question was: “Which coffee do you use?” Turns out, they’re importing coffee from a multinational corporation. “Oh, but, they’re lending us an expensive espresso machine for free! And they have fair-trade coffee!”

Luckily, we didn’t start talking about “fair trade”. And this person was willing to reflect upon the practices involved, including about the analogy with Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola. We didn’t get further into the deeper consequences of the resto’s actions, but the “seed” has been planted.

Sure, it’s important to focus on your financials and there’s nothing preventing a business from being both socially responsible and profitable. It just requires a shift in mindset. Small, lean, nimble businesses are more likely to do it than big, multinational corporate empires…

…which leads me to Google.

Over the years since its IPO, Google has attracted its share of praise and criticism. Like any big, multinational corporate empire. In any sector.

Within the tech sector, the Goog‘ is often compared with Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. All of these corporate entities have been associated in some people’s minds with some specific issue, from child labour and failure to protect users’ privacy to anticompetitive practices (the tech equivalent of free fridges and espresso machines). The issues are distinct and tech enthusiast spend a large amount of time discussing which one is worse. Meanwhile, we’re forgetting a number of larger issues.

Twitter is an interesting example, here. The service took its value from being at the centre of an ecosystem. As with any ecosystem, numerous interactions among many different members produce unexpected and often remarkable results. As the story goes, elements like hashtags and “@-replies” were invented by users and became an important part of the system. Third-party developers were instrumental in Twitter’s reach outside of its original confines. Though most of the original actors have since left the company, the ecosystem has maintained itself over the years.

When Twitter started changing the rules concerning its API, it shook the ecosystem. Sure, the ecosystem will maintain itself, in the end. But it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will change. For people at Twitter, it must have been obvious that the first changes was a warning shot to scare away those they didn’t want in their ecosystem. But, to this day, there are people who depend on Twitter, one way or another.

Google Reader offers an interesting case. The decision to kill it might have been myopic and its death might have a domino effect.

The warning shot was ambiguous, but the “writing was on the wall”. Among potential consequences of the move, the death of RSS readers was to be expected. One might also expect users of feedreaders to be displeased. In the end, the ecosystem will maintain itself.

Chances are, feedreading will be even more marginalized than it’s been and something else might replace it. Already, many people have been switching from feedreading to using Twitter as a way to gather news items.

What’s not so well-understood is the set of indirect consequences, further down the line. Again, domino effect. Some dominoes are falling in the direction of news outlets which have been slow to adapt to the ways people create and “consume” news items. Though their ad-driven models may sound similar to Google’s, and though feedreading might not be a significant source of direct revenue, the death of feedreaders may give way to the birth of new models for news production and “consumption” which might destabilize them even further. Among the things I tag as #FoJ (“Future of Journalism”) are several pieces of a big puzzle which seems misunderstood by news organizations.

There are other big dominoes which might fall from the death of Google Reader. Partly because RSS itself is part of a whole ecosystem. Dave Winer and Aaron Swartz have been major actors in the technical specifications of RSS. But Chris Lydon and people building on calendar syndication are also part of the ecosystem. In business-speak, you might call them “stakeholders”. But thinking about the ecosystem itself leads to a deeper set of thoughts, beyond the individuals involved. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s premature death, it may be appropriate to point out that the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

As I said on a service owned by another widely-criticized corporate empire:

Many of us keep saying that Google needs to listen to its social scientists. It also needs to understand ecology.

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Concierge-Style Service

Disclaimer: This is one of those blogposts in which I ramble quite a bit. I do have a core point, but I take winding roads around it. It’s also a post where I’m consciously naïve, this time talking about topics which may make economists react viscerally. My hope is that they can get past their initial reaction and think about “the fool’s truth”.

High-quality customer service is something which has a very positive effect, on me. More than being awed by it, I’m extremely appreciative for it when it’s directed towards me and glad it exists when other people take advantage of it.

And I understand (at least some of) the difficulties of customer service.

Never worked directly in customer service. I do interact with a number of people, when I work (teaching, doing field research, working in restaurants, or even doing surveys over the phone). And I’ve had to deal with my share of “difficult customers”, sometimes for months at a time. But nothing I’ve done was officially considered customer service. In fact, with some of my work, “customer service” is exactly the opposite of “what the job is about”, despite some apparent similarities.

So I can only talk about customer service as a customer.

As job sectors go, customer service is quite compatible with a post-industrial world. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, jobs in the primary and secondary sectors have decreased a lot in numbers, especially in the wealthiest parts of the World. The tertiary sector is rapidly growing, in these same contexts. We may eventually notice a significant move toward the quaternary sector, through the expansion of the “knowledge society” but, as far as I know, that sector employs a very small proportion of the active population in any current context.

Point is, the service sector is quite big.

It’s also quite diverse, in terms of activities as well as in terms of conditions. There are call centres where working conditions and salaries are somewhat comparable to factory work (though the latter is considered “blue collar” and the former “white collar”). And there are parts of the service industry which, from the outside, sound quite pleasant.

But, again, I’m taking the point of view of the customer, here. I really do care about working conditions and would be interested in finding ways to improve them, but this blogpost is about my reactions as someone on the other side of the relationship.

More specifically, I’m talking about cases where my satisfaction reaches a high level. I don’t like to complain about bad service (though I could share some examples). But I do like to underline quality service.

And there are plenty of examples of those. I often share them on Twitter and/or on Facebook. But I might as well talk about some of these, here. Especially since I’m wrapping my head about a more general principal.

A key case happened back in November, during the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, here in Montreal. Was meeting a friend of mine at the conference hotel. Did a Foursquare checkin there, while I was waiting, pointing out that I was a local. Received a Twitter reply from the hotel’s account, welcoming me to Montreal. Had a short exchange about this and was told that “if my friend needs anything…” Went to lunch with my friend.

Among the topics of our conversation was the presentation she was going to give, that afternoon. She was feeling rather nervous about it and asked me what could be done to keep her nervousness under control. Based on both personal experience and rumours, I told her to eat bananas, as they seem to help in relieving stress. But, obviously, bananas aren’t that easy to get, in a downtown area.

After leaving my friend, I thought about where to get bananas for her, as a surprise. Didn’t remember that there was a supermarket, not too far from the hotel, so I was at a loss. Eventually went back to the hotel, thinking I might ask the hotel staff about this. Turns out, it would have been possible to order bananas for my friend but the kitchen had just closed.

On a whim, I thought about contacting the person who had replied to me through the hotel’s Twitter account. Explained the situation, gave my friend’s room number and, within minutes, a fruit basket was delivered to her door. At no extra charge to me or to my friend. As if it were a completely normal thing to do, asking for bananas to be delivered to a room.

I’m actually not one to ask for favours, in general. And I did feel strange asking for these bananas. But I wanted to surprise my friend and was going to pay for the service anyway. And the “if she needs anything” message was almost a dare, to me. My asking for bananas was almost defiant. “Oh, yeah? Anything? How about you bring bananas to her room, then?” Again, I’m usually not like this but exchanges like those make me want to explore the limits of the interaction.

And the result was really positive. My friend was very grateful and I sincerely think it helped her relax before her presentation, beyond the effects of the bananas themselves. And it titillated my curiosity, as an informal observer of customer service.

Often heard about hotel concierges as the model of quality in customer service. This fruit basket gave me a taster.

What’s funny about «concierges» is that, as a Québécois, I mostly associate them with maintenance work. In school, for instance, the «concierge» was the janitor, the person in charge of cleaning up the mess left by students. Sounds like “custodian” (and “custodial services”) may be somewhat equivalent to this meaning of «concierge», among English-speaking Canadians, especially in universities. Cleaning services are the key aspect of this line of work. Of course, it’s important work and it should be respected. But it’s not typically glorified as a form of employment. In fact, it’s precisely the kind of work which is used as a threat to those whose school performance is considered insufficient. Condescending teachers and principals would tell someone that they could end up working as a «concierge» (“janitor”) if they didn’t get their act together. Despite being important, this work is considered low-status. And, typically, it has little to do with customer service, as their work is often done while others are absent.

Concierges in French apartment buildings are a different matter, as they also control access and seem to be involved in collecting rent. But, in the “popular imagination” (i.e., in French movies), they’re not associated with a very high quality of service. Can think of several concierges of this type, in French movies. Some of them may have a congenial personality. But I can’t think of one who was portrayed as a model of high-quality customer service.

(I have friends who were «concierges» in apartment buildings, here in Montreal. Their work, which they did while studying, was mostly about maintenance, including changing lightbulbs and shovelling snow. The equivalent of “building superintendent”, it seems. Again, important but devalued work.)

Hotel concierges are the ones English-speakers think of when they use the term. They are the ones who are associated with high-quality (and high-value) customer service. These are the ones I’m thinking about, here.

Hotel concierges’ “golden keys” («Clefs d’or») are as much of a status symbol as you can get one. No idea how much hotel concierges make and I’m unclear as to their training and hiring. But it’s clear that they occupy quite specific a position in the social ladder, much higher than that of school janitors or apartment concierges.

Again, I can just guess how difficult their work must be. Not only the activities themselves but the interactions with the public. Yet, what interests me now is their reputation for delivering outstanding service. The fruit basket delivered to my friend’s door was a key example, to me.

(I also heard more about staff in luxury hotels, in part from a friend who worked in a call centre for a hotel with an enviable reputation. The hospitality industry is also a central component of Swiss culture, and I heard a few things about Swiss hotel schools, including Lausanne’s well-known EHL. Not to mention contacts with ITHQ graduates. But my experience with this kind of service in a hotel context is very limited.)

And it reminds me of several other examples. One is my admiration for the work done by servers in a Fredericton restaurant. The food was quite good and the restaurant’s administration boasts their winelist. But the service is what gave me the most positive feeling. Those service were able to switch completely from treating other people like royalty to treating me like a friend. These people were so good at their job that I discussed it with some of them. Perhaps they were just being humble but they didn’t even seem to realize that they were doing an especially good job.

A similar case is at some of Siena’s best restaurants, during a stay with several friends. At most places we went, the service was remarkably impeccable. We were treated like we deserved an incredible amount of respect, even though we were wearing sandals, shorts, and t-shirts.

Of course, quality service happens outside of hotels and restaurants. Which is why I wanted to post this.

Yesterday, I went to the “Genius Bar” at the Apple Store near my university campus. Had been having some issues with my iPhone and normal troubleshooting didn’t help. In fact, I had been to the same place, a few months ago, and what they had tried hadn’t really solved the problem.

This time, the problem was fixed in a very simple way: they replaced my iPhone with a new one. The process was very straightforward and efficient. And, thanks to regular backups, setting up my replacement iPhone was relatively easy a process. (There were a few issues with it and it did take some time to do, but nothing compared to what it might have been like without cloud backups.)

Through this and previous experiences with the “Genius Bar“, I keep thinking that this service model should be applied to other spheres of work. Including healthcare. Not the specifics of how a “Genius Bar” works. But something about this quality of service, applied to patient care. I sincerely think it’d have a very positive impact on people’s health.

In a way, this might be what’s implied by “concierge medicine”: personalized healthcare services, centred on patients’ needs. But there’s a key difference between Apple’s “Genius Bar” and “concierge medicine”: access to the “Genius Bar” is open to all (customers of Apple products).

Sure, not everyone can afford Apple products. But, despite a prevailing impression, these products are usually not that much more expensive than those made by competitors. In fact, some products made by Apple are quite competitive in their market. So, while the concierge-style services offered by the “Genius Bar” are paid by Apple’s customers, costing those services as even the totality of the “Apple premium” might reveal quite decent a value proposition.

Besides, it’s not about Apple and it’s not really about costs. While Apple’s “Genius Bar” provided my inspiration for this post, I mostly think about quality of service, in general. And while it’s important for decision-makers to think about the costs involved, it’s also important to think about what we mean by high quality service.

One aspect of concierge-style service is that it’s adapted to specific needs. It’s highly customized and personalized, the exact opposite of a “cookie-cutter” approach. My experience at BrewBakers was like that: I was treated the way I wanted to be treated and other people were treated in a very different way. For instance, a server sat besides me as I was looking at the menu, as if I had been a friend “hanging out” with them, and then treated some other customers as if they were the most dignified people in the world. Can’t say for sure the other people appreciated it (looked like they did), but I know it gave me a very warm feeling.

Similar thing at the “Genius Bar”. I could hear other people being treated very formally, but every time I went I was treated with the exact level of informality that I really enjoy. Perhaps more importantly, people’s technology skills are clearly taken into account and they never, in my experience, represent a basis for condescension or for misguided advice. In other words, lack of knowledge of an issue is treated with an understanding attitude and a customer’s expertise on an issue is treated with the exact level of respect it deserves. As always, YMMV. But I’m consistently struck by how appropriately “Genius Bar” employees treat diverse degrees of technological sophistication. As a teacher, this is something about which I care deeply. And it’s really challenging.

While it’s flexible and adaptable, concierge-style service is also respectful, no matter what. This is where our experiences in Siena were so striking. We were treated with respect, even though we didn’t fit the “dress code” for any of these restaurants. And this is a city where, in our observations, people seemed to put a lot of care in what they wore. It’s quite likely that we were judged like annoying tourists, who failed to understand the importance of wearing a suit and tie when going to a “classy” restaurant. But we were still welcomed in these establishments, and nothing in the service made us perceive negatively judged by these servers.

I’ve also heard about hotel staff having to maintain their dignity while coping with people who broke much more than dress codes. And this applies whether or not these people are clients. Friends told me about how the staff at a luxury hotel may deal with people who are unlikely to be customers (including homeless people). According to these friends, the rule is to treat everyone with respect, regardless of which position in the social ladder people occupy. Having noticed a few occasions where respectful treatment was applied to people who are often marginalized, it gives me some of the same satisfaction as when I’m treated adequately.

In other words, concierge-style service is appropriate, “no matter what”. The payoff may not be immediately obvious to everyone, but it’s clearly there. For one thing, poor-quality service to someone else can be quite painful to watch and those of us who are empathetic are likely to “take our business elsewhere” when we see somebody else being treated with disrespect. Not to mention that a respectful attitude is often the best way to prevent all sorts of negative situations from happening. Plus, some high-status people may look like low-status ones in certain of these situations. (For instance, friend working for a luxury hotel once commented on some celebrities looking like homeless people when they appeared at the hotel’s entrance.)

Concierge-style service is also disconnected from business transactions. While the money used to pay for people providing concierge-style service comes from business transactions, this connection is invisible in the service itself. This is similar to something which seems to puzzle a number of people I know, when I mention it. And I’m having a hard time explaining it in a way that they understand. But it’s quite important in the case of customer service.

At one level, you may call it an illusion. Though people pay for a service, the service is provided as if this payment didn’t matter. Sure, the costs associated with my friend’s fruit basket were incurred in the cost of her room. But neither of us saw that cost. So, at that level, it’s as if people were oblivious to the business side of things. This might help explain it to some people, but it’s not the end of it.

Another part has to do with models in which the costs behind the service are supported by a larger group of people, for instance in the ad-based model behind newspapers and Google or in the shared costs model behind insurance systems (not to mention public sectors programs). The same applies to situation where a third-party is responsible for the costs, like parents paying for services provided to their children. In this case, the separation between services and business transactions is a separation between roles. The same person can be beneficiary or benefactor in the same system, but at different times. Part of the result is that the quality of the service is directed toward the beneficiary, even though this person may not be directly responsible for the costs incurred by this service. So, the quality of a service offered by Google has to do with users of that service, not with Google’s customers (advertisers). The same thing applies to any kind of sponsorship and can work quite well with concierge-level quality of service. The Apple Store model is a bit like this, in that Apple subsidizes its stores out of its “own pocket”, and seems to be making a lot of money thanks to them. It may be counterintuitive, as a model, and the distinction between paying for and getting a service may sound irrelevant. But, from the perspective of human beings getting this kind of service, the difference is quite important.

At another level, it’s a matter of politeness. While some people are fine talking financials about any kind of exchange, many others find open discussion of money quite impolite. The former group of people may find it absurd but some of us would rather not discuss the specifics of the business transactions while a service is given. And I don’t mean anything like the lack of transparency of a menu with no price, in a very expensive restaurant. Quite the contrary. I mean a situation where everybody knows how much things cost in this specific situation, but discussion of those costs happens outside of the service itself. Again, this may sound strange to some, but I’d argue that it’s a characteristic of concierge-style service. You know how much it costs to spend a night at this hotel (or to get a haircut from this salon). But, while a specific service is provided, these costs aren’t mentioned.

Another component of this separation between services and their costs is about “fluidity”. It can be quite inefficient for people to keep calculating how much a service costs, itemized. The well-known joke about an engineer asked to itemize services for accounting purposes relates to this. In an industrial context, every item can have a specific cost. Applying the same logic to the service sector can lead to an overwhelming overhead and can also be quite misleading, especially in the case of knowledge and creative work. (How much does an idea cost?) While concierge-style service may be measured, doing so can have a negative impact on the service itself.

Some of my thinking about services and their costs has to do with learning contexts. In fact, much of my thinking about quality of service has to do with learning, since teaching remains an important part of my life. The equation between the costs of education and the learning process is quite complex. While there may be strong correlations between socioeconomic factors and credentials, the correlation between learning and credential is seems to be weaker and the connection between learning and socioeconomic factors is quite indirect.

In fact, something which is counterintuitive to outsiders and misconstrued to administrators at learning institutions is the relationship between learning and the quality of the work done by a teacher. There are many factors involved, in the work of a teacher, from students’ prior knowledge to their engagement in the learning process, and from “time on task” to the compatibility between learning and teaching methods. It’s also remarkably difficult to measure teaching effectiveness, especially if one is to pay more than lipservice to lifelong learning. Also, the motivations behind a teacher’s work rarely have much to do with such things as differential pay. At the very least, it’s clear that dedicated teachers spend more time than is officially required, and that they do so without any expectation of getting more money. But they do expect (and often get) much more than money, including the satisfaction of a job well done.

The analogy between teaching and concierge services falls down quickly if we think that concierges’ customers are those who use their services. Even in “for-profit” schools, the student-teacher relationship has very little to do with a client-business relationship. Those who “consume” the learning process are learners’ future employers or society as a whole. But students themselves aren’t “consuming teaching”, they’re learning. Sure, students often pay a portion of the costs to run educational institutions (other costs being covered by research activities, sponsorships, government funding, alumni, and even parents). But the result of the learning process is quite different from paying for a service. At worst, students are perceived as the “products” of the process. At best, they help construct knowledge. And even if students are increasingly treated as if they were customers of learning institutions (including publicly-funded ones), their relationship to teachers is quite distinct from patronage.

And this is one place for a connection between teachers and concierges, having to do with the separation between services and their fees: high quality service is given by concierges and teachers beyond direct financial incentives to do so. Even if these same teachers and concierges are trying to get increased wages, the services they provide are free of these considerations. Salary negotiations are a matter between employers and employees. Those who receive services are customers of the employers, not the employees. There’d be no reason for a concierge or teacher to argue with customers and students about their salaries.

In a way, this is almost the opposite of “social alienation”. In social sciences. “alienation” refers to a feeling of estrangement often taking place among workers whose products are consumed by people with whom they have no connection. A worker at a Foxconn factory may feel alienated from the person who will buy the Dell laptop on which she’s working. But service work is quite distinct from this. While there may be a huge status differential between someone getting a service and the person providing it and there can be a feeling of distance, the fact that there’s a direct connection between the two is quite significant. Even someone working at a call centre in India providing technical support to a high-status customer in the US  is significantly different from the alienated factory worker. The direct connection between call centre employee and customer can have a significant impact on both people involved, and on the business behind the technical support request.

And, to a large extent, the further a person working in customer service is from the financial transaction, the higher the quality of the service.

Lots has been said about Zappos and about Nordstrom. Much of that has to do with how these two companies’ approaches to customer service differ from other approaches (for instance, avoiding scripts). But there might be a key lesson, here, in terms of distancing the service from the job. The “customers are always right” ethos doesn’t jive well with beancounting.

So, concierge-style service is “more than a job”.

Providing high-quality service can be highly stimulating, motivating, and satisfying. Haven’t looked at job satisfaction levels among these people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were quite high. What managers seem to forget, about job satisfaction, is that it has an impact beyond employee retention, productivity, and reputation. Satisfying jobs have a broad impact on society, which then impacts business. Like Ford paying high wages for his workers, much of it has to do with having a broader vision than simply managing the “ins and outs” of a given business. This is where Hanifan’s concept of social capital may come into play. Communities are built through such things as trust and job satisfaction.

Again, these aren’t simple issues. Quality customer service isn’t a simple matter of giving people the right conditions. But its effect are far-reaching.

It’s interesting to hear about “corporate concierge services” offered to employees of certain businesses. In a way, they loop back the relationship between high-quality service and labour. It sounds like corporate concierges can do a lot to enhance a workplace, even  making it more sustainable. I’d be curious to know more about them, as it sounds like they might have an interesting position with regards to the enterprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if their status were separate from that of regular employees within the business.

And, of course, I wish I were working at a place where such services were available. Sounds like those workplaces aren’t that uncommon. But having access to such services would be quite a privilege.

Thing is, I hate privilege, even when I’m the one benefitting from it. I once quipped that I hated library privileges, because they’re unequally distributed. The core of this is that I wish society were more equal. Not by levelling down everything we have, but by providing broader access to resources and services.

A key problem with concierge-style services is that access to them tends to be restricted. But it doesn’t sound like their costs are the only factor for this exclusiveness. In a way, concierge-level service may not be that much more expensive than standard service. It might be about concierge-style services being a differentiating factor, but even that doesn’t imply that it should be so restricted.

I’d argue that the level of quality of service that I’ve been describing (and rambling on about) can be found in just about any context. I’ve observed the work of librarians, gas station attendants, police officers, street vendors, park rangers, and movers who provided this level of service. While it may difficult to sustain high-quality service, it does scale and it does seem to make life easier for everyone.

Ethnic Diversity and Post-Nationalism

I normally don’t enjoy Quora. But I was just asked an anonymous question there which made me react. It’s close to the kind of question I get in my intro-level courses in sociology or anthropology, so I like to “do my job” of elucidating these issues.

Here’s the question:

Can there be such a thing as too much diversity?
Up until recently the rule for all immigrants was “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” This appears to have been replaced by “We’re not going to integrate but live as we did back home.”

Is it possible that at some point diversity becomes a detriment that divides society? Just look at how segregated some cities have become

Here’s my answer:

Funnily enough, I’m preparing an exam on material where this very issue appears. Unfortunately, this material isn’t online.
One of sociology’s core perspectives, functionalism, had “extreme diversity” among the conditions under which social order breaks down. The idea, there, was that it went against society’s integration, since the model was based on well-delimited groups.
That theory has been challenged multiple times. For one thing, very few groups have been that well-integrated. The modern notion of “what The Romans were” comes from a biased view and a limited understanding of what went on at the time. In fact, an episode of the Entitled Opinions podcast contains useful discussions of the very issue.

Same thing can be said about a number of other societies, including contemporary ones.
And this is where things get interesting. We’re probably living a transition from a period marked by the Nation-State (19th and 20th Centuries) to a period marked by fluid groupings, including social networks.
In the Nation-State (contemporary Somalia and Japan, along with the fiction of 19th Century France and possibly a short period of time in Ancient Rome), ethnic homogeneity is presumed and ethnicity is managed through a very complex bureaucratic system related to citizenship. The way ethnic groups are treated then is based on what Benedict Anderson called “Imagined Communities”.
In more fluid systems, which include most of human history, diversity is taken for granted and social integration comes from other dimensions of social life.
In the current context, we have an unusual mixture of rigid Nation-State identities in parallel with the reality of transnationalism, postnationalism, Globalization, and blurred boundaries.
So, to answer the question: is it so clear what the limits of the group are? If so, what are those limits based on? If not, why would diversity be a problem?

For those interested in fluid boundaries, a classic work is Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth’s “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries”.

Open Letter: UnivCafé Testimonial

Here’s a slightly edited version of a message I sent about University of the Streets Café. I realize that my comments about it may sound strange for people who haven’t participated in one of their conversations. And there may be people who don’t like it as much as I do. But it’s remarkable how favourable people are to the program, once they participate in it.

Having taught at eight academic institutions in the United States and Canada, I have frequently gone on record to say that Concordia is my favourite context for teaching and learning. By a long stretch.

Concordia’s “University of the Streets Café” program is among the things I like the most about my favourite university.

Over the past few years, I have been a vocal participant at a rather large number of “UnivCafé” events and have been the guest at one of them. Each of these two-hour conversations has provided me with more stimulation than any seminar or class meeting in which I participated, as a teacher or as a student.

In fact, I have frequently discussed UnivCafé with diverse people (including several members of the Concordia community). As is clear to anyone who knows me, UnivCafé has had a strong impact on my life, both professionally and personally.

Given my experience elsewhere, I have a clear impression of what makes Concordia unique.

  • Emphasis on community development.
  • Strong social awareness.
  • Thoughtful approach to sustainability.
  • Seamless English/French bilingualism.
  • Inclusive attitude, embracing cultural and social diversity.
  • Ease of building organic social networks through informal events.

In a way, UnivCafé encapsulates Concordia’s uniqueness.

Yet it goes further than that. Though it may sound hyperbolic to outsiders, I would not hesitate to say that UnivCafé captures some of the Greek academia (Ἀκαδημία) while integrating dimensions of contemporary life. More pithily: ”UnivCafé is a social media version of Plato‘s Academy”.

It seems to me that academia is in a transition period. For instance, the tenure system could be rethought. With social and technological developments challenging many academic models, universities are often searching for new models. I sincerely hope that the UnivCafé model is a sign of things to come.

I have discussed this on several occasions with students and colleagues, and this notion is gaining ground.

There is something remarkable about how appropriate the UnivCafé model is, in the current context. To my mind, UnivCafé does all of the following:

  • Encourages critical thinking.
  • Gives voice to people who are rarely heard.
  • Exposes participants to a diversity of perspectives.
  • Brings together people who rarely get a chance to interact.
  • Integrates practical and theoretical concerns.
  • Allays fears of public speaking.
  • Builds valuable connections through the local community.
  • Brings academics outside the Ivory Tower.

As may be obvious, I could talk about UnivCafé for hours and would be happy to do so in any context.

In the meantime, may this testimonial serve as a token of appreciation for all the things I have gained from UnivCafé.