Category Archives: consumerism

Body and Tech: My Year in Quantified Self

Though I’m a qual, I started quantifying my self a year ago.

Not Even Started Yet

This post is long. You’ve been warned.

This post is about my experience with the Quantified Self (QuantSelf). As such, it may sound quite enthusiastic, as my perspective on my own selfquantification is optimistic. I do have several issues with the Quantified Self notion generally and with the technology associated with selfquantification. Those issues will have to wait until a future blogpost.

While I realize QuantSelf is broader than fitness/wellness/health tracking, my own selfquantification experience focuses on working with my body to improve my health. My future posts on the Quantified Self would probably address the rest more specifically.

You might notice that I frequently link to the DC Rainmaker site, which is a remarkably invaluable source of information and insight about a number of things related to fitness and fitness technology. Honestly, I don’t know how this guy does it. He’s a one-man shop for everything related to sports and fitness gadgets.

Though many QuantSelf devices are already available on the market, very few of them are available in Quebec. On occasion, I think about getting one shipped to someone I know in the US and then manage to pick it up in person, get a friend to bring it to Montreal, or get it reshipped. If there were such a thing as the ideal QuantSelf device, for me, I might do so.

(The title of this post refers to the song Body and Soul, and I perceive something of a broader shift in the mind/body dualism, even leading to post- and transhumanism. But this post is more about my own self.)

Quaint Quant

I can be quite skeptical of quantitative data. Not that quants aren’t adept at telling us very convincing things. But numbers tend to hide many issues, when used improperly. People who are well-versed in quantitative analysis can do fascinating things, leading to genuine insight. But many other people use numbers as a way to “prove” diverse things, sometimes remaining oblivious to methodological and epistemological issues with quantification.

Still, I have been accumulating fairly large amounts of quantitative data about my self. Especially about somatic dimensions of my self.

Started with this a while ago, but it’s really in January 2013 that my Quantified Self ways took prominence in my life.

Start Counting

It all started with the Wahoo Fitness fisica key and soft heartrate strap. Bought those years ago (April 2011), after thinking about it for months (December 2010).

Had tried different exercise/workout/fitness regimens over the years, but kept getting worried about possible negative effects. For instance, some of the exercises I’d try in a gym would quickly send my heart racing to the top of my healthy range. Though, in the past, I had been in a more decent shape than people might have surmised, I was in bad enough shape at that point that it was better for me to exercise caution while exercising.

At least, that’s the summary of what happened which might make sense to a number of people. Though I was severely overweight for most of my life, I had long periods of time during which I was able to run up long flights of stairs without getting out of breath. This has changed in the past several years, along with other health issues. The other health issues are much more draining and they may not be related to weight, but weight is the part on which people tend to focus, because it’s so visible. For instance, doctors who meet me for a few minutes, only once, will spend more time talking about weight than a legitimate health concern I have. It’s easy for me to lose weight, but I wanted to do it in the best possible way. Cavalier attitudes are discouraging.

Habits, Old and New

Something I like about my (in this case not-so-sorry) self is that I can effortlessly train myself into new habits. I’m exactly the opposite of someone who’d get hooked on almost anything. I never smoked or took drugs, so I’ve never had to kick one of those trickiest of habits. But I often stop drinking coffee or alcohol with no issue whatsoever. Case in point: I’m fairly well-known as a coffee geek yet I drank less than two full cups of coffee during the last two months.

Getting new habits is as easy for me as kicking new ones. Not that it’s perfect, of course. I occasionally forget to bring down the lid on the toilet seat. But if I put my mind to something, I can usually undertake it. Willpower, intrinsic motivation, and selfdiscipline are among my strengths.

My health is a significant part of this. What I started a year ago is an exercise and fitness habit that I’ve been able to maintain and might keep up for a while, if I decide to do so.

Part of it is a Pilates-infused yoga habit that I brought to my life last January and which became a daily routine in February or March. As is the case with other things in my life, I was able to add this routine to my life after getting encouragement from experts. In this case, yoga and Pilates instructors. Though it may be less impressive than other things I’ve done, this routine has clearly had a tremendous impact on my life.

Spoiler alert: I also took on a workout schedule with an exercise bike. Biked 2015 miles between January 16, 2013 and January 15, 2014.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So Close, Yet So Far

Flashback to March, 2011. Long before I really got into QuantSelf.

At the time, I had the motivation to get back into shape, but I had to find a way to do it safely. The fact that I didn’t have access to a family physician played a part in that.

So I got the Wahoo key, a dongle which allows an iOS device to connect to ANT+ equipment, such as heartrate straps (including the one I bought at the same time as the key). Which means that I was able to track my heartrate during exercise using my iPod touch and iPad (I later got an iPhone).

Used that setup on occasion. Including at the gym. Worked fairly well as a way to keep track of my workouts, but I had some difficulty fitting gym workouts in my schedule. Not only does it take a lot of time to go to a gym (even one connected to my office by a tunnel), but my other health issues made it very difficult to do any kind of exercise for several hours after any meal. In fact, those other health issues made most exercise very unpleasant. I understand the notion of pushing your limits, getting out of your comfort zone. I’m fine with some types of discomfort and I don’t feel the need to prove to anyone that I can push my limits. But the kind of discomfort I’m talking about was more discouraging than anything else. For one thing, I wasn’t feeling anything pleasant at any point during or after exercising.

So, although I had some equipment to keep track of my workouts, I wasn’t working out on that regular a basis.

I know, typical, right? But that’s before I really started in QuantSelf.

Baby Steps

In the meantime (November, 2011), I got a Jawbone UP wristband. First generation.

That device was my first real foray into “Quantified Self”, as it’s normally understood. It allowed me to track my steps and my sleep. Something about this felt good. Turns out that, under normal circumstances, my stepcount can be fairly decent, which is in itself encouraging. And connecting to this type of data had the effect of helping me notice some correlations between my activity and my energy levels. There have been times when I’ve felt like I hadn’t walked much and then noticed that I had been fairly active. And vice-versa. I wasn’t getting into such data that intensely, but I had started accumulating some data on my steps.

Gotta start somewhere.

Sleepwalking

My sleep was more interesting, as I was noticing some difficult nights. An encouraging thing, to me, is that it usually doesn’t take me much time to get to sleep (about 10 minutes, according to the UP). Neat stuff, but not earth-shattering.

Obviously, the UP stopped working. Got refunded, and all, but it was still “a bummer”. My experience with the first generation UP had given me a taste of QuantSelf, but the whole thing was inconclusive.

Feeling Pressure

Fastforward to late December, 2012 and early January, 2013. The holiday break was a very difficult time for me, physically. I was getting all sorts of issues, compounding one another. One of them was a series of intense headaches. I had been getting those on occasion since Summer, 2011. By late 2012, my headaches were becoming more frequent and longer-lasting. On occasion, physicians at walk-in clinics had told me that my headaches probably had to do with blood pressure and they had encouraged me to take my pressure at the pharmacy, once in a while. While my pressure had been normal-to-optimal (110/80) for a large part of my life, it was becoming clear that my blood pressure had increased and was occasionally getting into more dangerous territory. So I eventually decided to buy a bloodpressure monitor.

Which became my first selfquantification method. Since my bloodpressure monitor is a basic no-frills model, it doesn’t sync to anything or send data anywhere. But I started manually tracking my bloodpressure by taking pictures and putting the data in a spreadsheet. Because the monitor often gives me different readings (especially depending on which arm I got them from), I would input lowest and highest readings from each arm in my spreadsheet.

Tensio

My first bloodpressure reading, that first evening (January 3, 2013), was enough of a concern that a nurse at Quebec’s phone health consultation service recommended that I consult with a physician at yet another walk-in clinic. (Can you tell not having a family physician was an issue? I eventually got one, but that’s another post.) Not that it was an emergency, but it was a good idea to take this seriously.

So, on January 4, 2013, I went to meet Dr. Anthony Rizzuto, a general practitioner at a walk-in clinic in my neighbourhood.

Getting Attention

At the clinic, I was diagnosed with hypertension (high bloodpressure). Though that health issue was less troublesome to me than the rest, it got me the attention of that physician who gave me exactly the right kind of support. Thanks to that doctor, a bit of medication, and all sorts of efforts on my part, that issue was soon under control and I’m clearly out of the woods on this one. I’ve documented the whole thing in my previous blogpost. Summary version of that post (it’s in French, after all): more than extrinsic motivation, the right kind of encouragement can make all the difference in the world. (In all honesty, I already had all the intrinsic motivation I needed. No worries there!)

Really, that bloodpressure issue wasn’t that big of a deal. Sure, it got me a bit worried, especially about risks of getting a stroke. But I had been more worried and discouraged by other health issues, so that bloodpressure issue wasn’t the main thing. The fact that hypertension got me medical attention is the best part, though. Some things I was unable to do on my own. I needed encouragement, of course, but I also needed professional advice. More specifically, I felt that I needed a green light. A license to exercise.

Y’know how, in the US especially, “they” keep saying that you should “consult a physician” before doing strenuous exercise? Y’know, the fine print on exercise programs, fitness tools, and the like? Though I don’t live in the US anymore and we don’t have the same litigation culture here, I took that admonition to heart. So I was hesitant to take on a full fitness/training/exercise routine before I could consult with a physician. I didn’t have a family doctor, so it was difficult.

But, a year ago, I got the medical attention I needed. Since we’re not in the US, questions about the possibility to undertake exercise are met with some surprise. Still, I was able to get “approval” on doing more exercise. In fact, exercise was part of a solution to the hypertension issue which had brought this (minimal level of) medical attention to my case.

So I got exactly what I needed. A nod from a licensed medical practitioner. “Go ahead.”

Weight, Weight! Don’t Tell Me![1]

Something I got soon after visiting the clinic was a scale. More specifically, I got a Conair WW54C Weight Watchers Body Analysis Digital Precision Scale. I would weigh myself everyday (more than once a day, in fact) and write down the measures for total weight, body water percentage, and body fat percentage. As with the bloodpressure monitor, I was doing this by hand, since my scale wasn’t connected in any way to another device or to a network.

Weighing My Options

I eventually bought a second scale, a Starfrit iFit. That one is even more basic than the Weight Watchers scale, as it doesn’t do any “body analysis” beyond weight. But having two scales makes me much more confident about the readings I get. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I keep getting significant discrepancies in my readings. On a given scale, I would weigh myself three times and keep the average. The delta between the highest and lowest readings on that same scale would often be 200g or half a pound. The delta between the two scales can be as much as 500g or over one pound. Unfortunately, these discrepancies aren’t regular: it’s not that one scale is offset from the other by a certain amount. One day, the Weight Watchers has the highest readings and the Starfrit has the highest readings. I try to position myself the same way on each scale every time and I think both of them are on as flat a surface as I can get. But I keep getting different readings. I was writing down averages from both scales in my spreadsheet. As I often weighed myself more than once a day and would get a total of six readings every time, that was a significant amount of time spent on getting the most basic of data.

Food for Thought

At the same time, I started tracking my calories intake. I had done so in the past, including with the USDA National Nutrient Database on PalmOS devices (along with the Eat Watch app from the Hacker’s Diet). Things have improved quite a bit since that time. Not that tracking calories has become effortless, far from it. It’s still a chore, an ordeal, a pain in the neck, and possibly a relatively bad idea. Still, it’s now easier to input food items in a database which provides extensive nutritional data on most items. Because these databases are partly crowdsourced, it’s possible to add values for items which are specific to Canada, for instance. It’s also become easier to get nutritional values for diverse items online, including meals at restaurant chains. Though I don’t tend to eat at chain restaurants, tracking my calories encouraged me to do so, however insidiously.

But I digress.

Nutritional data also became part of my QuantSelf spreadsheet. Along with data from my bloodpressure monitor and body composition scale, I would copy nutritional values (protein, fat, sodium, carbohydrates…) from a database. At one point, I even started calculating my estimated and actual weightloss in that spreadsheet. Before doing so, I needed to know my calories expenditure.

Zipping

One of the first things I got besides the bloodpressure monitor and scale(s) was a fitbit Zip. Two months earlier (November, 2012), I had bought a fitbit One. But I lost it. The Zip was less expensive and, though it lacks some of the One’s features (tracking elevation, for instance), it was good enough for my needs at the time.

In fact, I prefer the Zip over the One, mostly because it uses a coin battery, so it doesn’t need to be recharged. I’ve been carrying it for a year and my fitbit profile has some useful data about my activity. Sure, it’s just a “glorified pedometer”. But the glorification is welcomed, as regular synchronization over Bluetooth is very useful a feature. My Zip isn’t a big deal, for me. It’s as much of a part of my life as my glasses, though I wear it more often (including during my sleep, though it doesn’t track sleep data).

Stepping UP

I also bought a new Jawbone UP. Yep, despite issues I had with the first generation one. Unfortunately, the UP isn’t really that much more reliable now than it was at the time. But they keep replacing it. A couple or weeks ago, my UP stopped working and I got a replacement. I think it’s the fifth one.

Despite its unreliability, I really like the UP for its sleeptracking and “gentle waking” features. If it hadn’t been for the UP, I probably wouldn’t have realized the importance of sleep as deeply as I have. In other words, the encouragement to sleep more is something I didn’t realize I needed. Plus, it’s really neat to wake up to a gentle buzz, at an appropriate point in my sleep cycle. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the UP just for this, but it’s something I miss every time my UP stops working. And there’s been several of those times.

My favourite among UP’s features is one they added, through firmware, after a while (though it might have been in the current UP from the start). It’s the ability to take “smart naps”. Meaning that I can set an alarm to wake me up after a certain time or after I’ve slept a certain amount of time. The way I set it up, I can take a 20 minute nap and I’ll be awaken by the UP after a maximum of 35 minutes. Without this alarm, I’d oversleep and likely feel more messed up after the nap than before. The alarm is also reassuring in that it makes the nap fit neatly my schedule. I don’t nap everyday, but naps are one of these underrated things I feel could be discussed more. Especially when it comes to heavy work sessions such as writing reports or grading papers. My life might shift radically in the near future and it’s quite possible that naps will be erased from my workweek indefinitely. But chances are that my workweek will also become much more manageable once I stop freelancing.

The UP also notifies me when I’ve been inactive for a certain duration (say, 45 minutes). It only does so a few times a month, on average, because I don’t tend to be that inactive. Exceptions are during long stretches of writing, so it’s a useful reminder to take a break. In fact, the UP just buzzed while I was writing this post so I should go and do my routine.

(It’s fun to write on my iPad while working out. Although, I tend to remain in the aerobic/endurance or even in the fitness/fatburning zone. I should still reach mile 2100 during this workout.)

Contrary to the fitbit Zip, the UP does require a charge on a regular basis. In fact, it seems that the battery is a large part of the reliability issue. So, after a while, I got into the habit of plugging my UP to the wall during my daily yoga/Pilates routine. My routine usually takes over half an hour and the UP is usually charged after 20 minutes.

Back UP

It may seem strange to have two activity trackers with complete feature overlap (there’s nothing the fitbit Zip does that the Jawbone UP doesn’t do). I probably wouldn’t have planned it this way, had I been able to get a Jawbone UP right at first. If I were to do it now, I might get a different device from either fitbit or Jawbone (the Nike+ FuelBand is offputting, to me).

I do find it useful to have two activity trackers. For one thing, the UP is unreliable enough that the Zip is useful as a backup. The Zip also stopped working once, so there’s been six periods of time during the past year during which I only had one fitness tracker. Having two trackers means that there’s no hiatus in my tracking, which has a significant impact in the routine aspect of selfquantification. Chances are slim that I would have completely given up on QuantSelf during such a hiatus. But I would probably have been less encouraged by selfquantification had I been forced to depend on one device.

Having two devices also helps me get a more accurate picture of my activities. Though the Zip and UP allegedly track the same steps, there’s usually some discrepancy between the two, as is fairly common among activity trackers. For some reasons, the discrepancy has actually decreased after a few months (and after I adapted my UP usage to my workout). But it’s useful to have two sources of data points.

Especially when I do an actual workout.

Been Working Out, Haven’t You?

In January, last year, I also bought an exercise bike, for use in my apartment. I know, sounds like a cliché, right? Getting an exercise bike after New Year? Well, it wasn’t a New Year’s resolution but, had it been one, I could be proud to say I kept it (my hypothetical resolution; I know, weird structure; you get what I mean, right?).

Right away, I started doing bike workouts on a very regular basis. From three to five times a week, during most weeks. Contrary to going to a gym, exercising at home is easy to fit in my freelancing schedule. I almost always work out before breakfast, so there’s no digestion issue involved. Since I’m by myself, it means I feel no pressure or judgment from others, a very significant factor in my case. Though I’m an extrovert’s extrovert (86 percentile), gyms are really offputting, to me. Because of my bodyshape, age, and overall appearance, I really feel like I don’t “fit”. It does depend on the gym, and I had a fairly good time at UMoncton’s Ceps back in 2003. But ConU’s gym wasn’t a place where I enjoyed working out.

My home workouts have become a fun part of my week. Not that the effort level is low, but I often do different things while working out, including listen to podcasts and music, reading, and even writing. As many people know, music can be very encouraging during a workout. So can a podcast, as it takes your attention elsewhere and you might accomplish more than you thought, during a podcast. Same thing with reading and writing, and I wrote part of this post while working out.

Sure, I could do most of this in a gym. The convenience factor at home is just too high, though. I can have as many things as I want by my sides, on a table and on a chair, so I just have to reach out when I need any of them. Apart from headphones, a music playing device, and a towel (all things I’d have at a gym) I typically have the following items with me when I do a home workout:

  • Travel mug full of tea
  • Stainless steel water bottle full of herbal tea (proper tea is theft)
  • Britta bottle full of water (I do drink a lot of fluid while working out)
  • three mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, Nexus 7)
  • Small weights,
  • Reading glasses
  • Squeeze balls

Wouldn’t be so easy to bring all of that to a gym. Not to mention that I can wear whatever I want, listen to whatever I want, and make whatever noise I want (I occasionally yell beats to music, as it’s fun and encouraging). I know some athletic people prefer gym workouts over home ones. I’m not athletic. And I know what I prefer.

On Track

Since this post is nominally about QuantSelf, how do I track my workouts, you ask? Well, it turns out that my Zip and UP do help me track them out, though in different ways. To get the UP to track my bike workouts, I have to put it around one of my pedals, a trick which took me a while to figure out.

2014-01-22 18.38.24

The Zip tracks my workouts from its usual position but it often counts way fewer “steps” than the UP does. So that’s one level of tracking. My workouts are part of my stepcounts for the days during which I do them.

Putting My Heart into IT

More importantly, though, my bike workouts have made my heartrate strap very useful. By pairing the strap with Digifit’s iBiker app, I get continuous heartrate monitoring, with full heartrate chart, notifications about “zones” (such as “fat burning”, “aerobic”, and “anaerobic”), and a recovery mode which lets me know how quickly my heartrate decreases after the workout. (I could also control the music app, but I tend to listen to Rdio instead.) The main reason I chose iBiker is that it works natively on the iPad. Early on, I decided I’d use my iPad to track my workouts because the battery lasts longer than on an iPhone or iPod touch, and the large display accommodates more information. The charts iBiker produces are quite neat and all the data can be synced to Digifit’s cloud service, which also syncs with my account on the fitbit cloud service (notice how everything has a cloud service?).

20140103-162048.jpg

Heartrate monitoring is close to essential, for workouts. Sure, it’d be possible to do exercise without it. But the difference it makes is more significant than one might imagine. It’s one of those things that one may only grok after trying it. Since I’m able to monitor my heartrate in realtime, I’m able to pace myself, to manage my exertion. By looking at the chart in realtime, I can tell how long I’ve spent at which intensity level and can decide to remain in a “zone” for as long as I want. Continuous feedback means that I can experiment with adjustment to the workout’s effort level, by pedaling faster or increasing tension. It’s also encouraging to notice that I need increasing intensity levels to reach higher heartrates, since my physical condition has been improving tremendously over the past year. I really value any encouragement I can get.

Now, I know it’s possible to get continuous heartrate monitoring on gym equipment. But I’ve noticed in the past that this monitoring wasn’t that reliable as I would often lose the heartrate signal, probably because of perspiration. On equipment I’ve tried, it wasn’t possible to see a graphical representation of my heartrate through the whole workout so, although I knew my current heartrate, I couldn’t really tell how long I was maintaining it. Not to mention that it wasn’t possible to sync that data to anything. Even though some of that equipment can allegedly be used with a special key to transfer data to a computer, that key wasn’t available.

It’d also be possible to do continuous heartrate monitoring with a “fitness watch”. A big issue with most of these is that data cannot be transferred to another device. Several of the new “wearable devices” do add this functionality. But these devices are quite expensive and, as far as I can see in most in-depth reviews, not necessarily that reliable. Besides, their displays are so small that it’d be impossible to get as complete a heartrate chart as the one I get on iBiker. I got pretty excited about the Neptune Pine, though, and I feel sad I had to cancel my pledge at the very last minute (for financial reasons). Sounds like it can become a rather neat device.

As should be obvious, by now, the bike I got (Marcy Recumbent Mag Cycle ME–709 from Impex) is a no-frills one. It was among the least expensive exercise bikes I’ve seen but it was also one with high ratings on Amazon. It’s as basic as you can get and I’ve been looking into upgrading. But other exercise bikes aren’t that significantly improved over this one. I don’t currently have enough money to buy a highend bike, but money isn’t the only issue. What I’d really like to get is exercise equipment which can be paired with another device, especially a tablet. Have yet to see an exercise bike, rower, treadmill, or elliptical which does. At any price. Sure, I could eventually find ways to hack things together to get more communication between my devices, but that’d be a lot of work for little results. For instance, it might be possible to find a cadence sensor which works on an exercise bike (or tweak one to make it work), thereby giving some indication of pace/speed and distance. However, I doubt that there’s exercise equipment which would allow a tablet to control tension/strength/difficulty. It’d be so neat if it were available. Obviously, it’s far from a requirement. But none of the QuantSelf stuff is required to have a good time while exercising.

Off the Bike

I use iBiker and my heartrate monitor during other activities besides bike workouts. Despite its name, iBiker supports several activity types (including walking and hiking) and has a category for “Other” activities. I occasionally use iBiker on my iPhone when I go on a walk for fitness reasons. Brisk walks do seem to help me in my fitness regime, but I tend to focus on bike workouts instead. I already walk a fair bit and much of that walking is relatively intense, so I feel less of a need to do it as an exercise, these days. And I rarely have my heartrate strap with me when I decide to take a walk. At some point, I had bought a Garmin footpod and kept installing it on shoes I was wearing. I did use it on occasion, including during a trip to Europe (June–July, 2012). It tends to require a bit of time to successfully pair with a mobile app, but it works as advertised. Yet, I haven’t really been quantifying my walks in the same way, so it hasn’t been as useful as I had wished.

More frequently, I use iBiker and my heartrate strap during my yoga/Pilates routine. “Do you really get your heart running fast enough to make it worthwhile”, you ask? No, but that’s kind of the point. Apart from a few peaks, my heartrate charts during such a routine tends to remain in Zone 0, or “Warmup/Cooldown”. The peaks are interesting because they correspond to a few moves and poses which do feel a bit harder (such as pushups or even the plank pose). That, to me, is valuable information and I kind of wish I could see which moves and poses I’ve done for how long using some QuantSelf tool. I even thought about filming myself, but I would then need to label each pose or move by hand, something I’d be very unlikely to do more than once or twice. It sounds like the Atlas might be used in such a way, as it’s supposed to recognize different activities, including custom ones. Not only is it not available, yet, but it’s so targeted at the high performance fitness training niche that I don’t think it could work for me.

One thing I’ve noticed from my iBiker-tracked routine is that my resting heartrate has gone down very significantly. As with my recovery and the amount of effort necessary to increase my heartrate, I interpret this as a positive sign. With other indicators, I could get a fuller picture of my routine’s effectiveness. I mean, I feel its tremendous effectiveness in diverse ways, including sensations I’d have a hard time explaining (such as an “opening of the lungs” and a capacity to kill discomfort in three breaths). The increase in my flexibility is something I could almost measure. But I don’t really have tools to fully quantify my yoga routine. That might be a good thing.

Another situation in which I’ve worn my heartrate strap is… while sleeping. Again, the idea here is clearly not to measure how many calories I burn or to monitor how “strenuous” sleeping can be as an exercise. But it’s interesting to pair the sleep data from my UP with some data from my heart during sleep. Even there, the decrease in my heartrate is quite significant, which signals to me a large improvement in the quality of my sleep. Last summer (July, 2013), I tracked a night during which my average heartrate was actually within Zone 1. More recently (November, 2013), my sleeping heartrate was below my resting heartrate, as it should be.

Using the Wahoo key on those occasions can be quite inconvenient. When I was using it to track my brisk walks, I would frequently lose signal, as the dongle was disconnecting from my iPad or iPhone. For some reason, I would also lose signal while sleeping (though the dongle would remain unmoved).

So I eventually bought a Blue HR, from Wahoo, to replace the key+strap combination. Instead of ANT+, the Blue HR uses Bluetooth LE to connect directly with a phone or tablet, without any need for a dongle. I bought it in part because of the frequent disconnections with the Wahoo key. I rarely had those problems during bike exercises, but I thought having a more reliable signal might encourage me to track my activities. I also thought I might be able to pair the Blue HR with a version of iBiker running on my Nexus 7 (first generation). It doesn’t seem to work and I think the Nexus 7 doesn’t support Bluetooth LE. I was also able to hand down my ANT+ setup (Wahoo key, heartrate strap, and footpod) to someone who might find it useful as a way to track walks. We’ll see how that goes.

‘Figures!

Going back to my QuantSelf spreadsheet. iBiker, Zip, and UP all output counts of burnt calories. Since Digifit iBiker syncs with my fitbit account, I’ve been using the fitbit number.

Inputting that number in the spreadsheet meant that I was able to measure how many extra calories I had burnt as compared to calories I had ingested. That number then allowed me to evaluate how much weight I had lost on a given day. For a while, my average was around 135g, but I had stretches of quicker weightloss (to the point that I was almost scolded by a doctor after losing too much weight in too little time). Something which struck me is that, despite the imprecision of so many things in that spreadsheet, the evaluated weightloss and actual loss of weight were remarkably similar. Not that there was perfect synchronization between the two, as it takes a bit of time to see the results of burning more calories. But I was able to predict my weight with surprising accuracy, and pinpoint patterns in some of the discrepancies. There was a kind of cycle by which the actual number would trail the predicted one, for a few days. My guess is that it had to do with something like water retention and I tried adjusting from the lowest figure (when I seem to be the least hydrated) and the highest one (when I seem to retain the most water in my body).

Obsessed, Much?

ObsessiveSpreadsheet

As is clear to almost anyone, this was getting rather obsessive. Which is the reason I’ve used the past tense with many of these statements. I basically don’t use my QuantSelf spreadsheet, anymore. One reason is that (in March, 2013) I was advised by a healthcare professional (a nutrition specialist) to stop counting my calories intake and focus on eating until I’m satiated while ramping up my exercise, a bit (in intensity, while decreasing frequency). It was probably good advice, but it did have a somewhat discouraging effect. I agree that the whole process had become excessive and that it wasn’t really sustainable. But what replaced it was, for a while, not that useful. It’s only in November, 2013 that a nutritionist/dietician was able to give me useful advice to complement what I had been given. My current approach is much better than any other approach I’ve used, in large part because it allows me to control some of my digestive issues.

So stopping the calories-focused monitoring was a great idea. I eventually stopped updating most columns in my spreadsheet.

What I kept writing down was the set of readings from my two “dumb” scales.

Scaling Up

Abandoning my spreadsheet didn’t imply that I had stopped selfquantifying.

In fact, I stepped up my QuantSelf a bit, about a month ago (December, 2013) by getting a Withings WS–50 Smart Body Analyzer. That WiFi-enabled scale is practically the prototype of QuantSelf and Internet of Things devices. More than I had imagined, it’s “just the thing I needed” in my selfquantified life.

The main advantage it has over my Weight Watchers scale is that it syncs data with my Withings cloud service account. That’s significant because the automated data collection saves me from my obsessive spreadsheet while letting me learn about my weightloss progression. Bingo!

Sure, I could do the same thing by hand, adding my scale readings to any of my other accounts. Not only would it be a chore to do so, but it’d encourage me to dig too deep in those figures. I learnt a lot during my obsessive phase, but I don’t need to go back to that mode. There are many approaches in between that excessive data collection and letting Withings do the work. I don’t even need to explore those intermediary approaches.

There are other things to like about the Withings scale. One is Position Control™, which does seem to increase the accuracy of the measurements. Its weight-tracking graphs (app and Web) are quite reassuring, as they show clear trends, between disparate datapoints. WithingsWeightKg WithingsLeanMassPercent

This Withings scale also measures heartrate, something I find less useful given my usage of a continuous heartrate monitor. Finally, it has sensors for air temperature and CO2 levels, which are features I’d expect in a (pre-Google) Nest product.

Though it does measure body fat percentage, the Withings Smart Body Analyzer doesn’t measure water percentage or bone mass, contrary to my low-end Weight Watchers body composition scale. Funnily enough, it’s around the time I got the Withings that I finally started gaining enough muscle mass to be able to notice the shift on the Weight Watchers. Prior to that, including during my excessive phase, my body fat and body water percentages added up to a very stable number. I would occasionally notice fluctuations of ~0.1%, but no downward trend. I did notice trends in my overall condition when the body water percentage was a bit higher, but it never went very high. Since late November or early December, those percentages started changing for the first time. My body fat percentage decreased by almost 2%, my body water percentage increased by more than 1%, and the total of the two decreased by 0.6%. Since these percentages are now stable and I have other indicators going in the same direction, I think this improvement in fat vs. water is real and my muscle mass did start to increase a bit (contrary to what a friend said can happen with people our age). It may not sound like much but I’ll take whatever encouragement I get, especially in such a short amount of time.

The Ideal QuantSelf Device

On his The Talk Show podcast, Gruber has been dismissing the craze in QuantSelf and fitness devices, qualifying them as a solved problem. I know what he means, but I gather his experience differs from mine.

I feel we’re in the “Rio Volt era” of the QuantSelf story.

The Rio Volt was one of the first CD players which could read MP3 files. I got one, at the time, and it was a significant piece of my music listening experience. I started ripping many of my CDs and creating fairly large compilations that I could bring with me as I traveled. I had a carrying case for the Volt and about 12 CDs, which means that I could carry about 8GB of music (or about 140 hours at the 128kbps bitrate which was so common at the time). Quite a bit less than my whole CD collection (about 150GB), but a whole lot more than what I was used to. As I was traveling and moving frequently, at the time, the Volt helped me get into rather… excessive music listening habits. Maybe not excessive compared to a contemporary teenager in terms of time, but music listening had become quite important to me, at a time when I wasn’t playing music as frequently as before.

There have been many other music players before, during, and after the Rio Volt. The one which really changed things was probably… the Microsoft Zune? Nah, just kidding. The iRiver players were much cooler (I had an iRiver H–120 which I used as a really neat fieldrecording device). Some people might argue that things really took a turn when Apple released the iPod. Dunno about that, I’m no Apple fanboi.

Regardless of which MP3-playing device was most prominent, it’s probably clear to most people that music players have changed a lot since the days of the Creative Nomad and the Rio Volt. Some of these changes could possibly have been predicted, at the time. But I’m convinced that very few people understood the implications of those changes.

Current QuantSelf devices don’t appear very crude. And they’re certainly quite diverse. CES2014 was the site of a number of announcements, demos, and releases having to do with QuantSelf, fitness, Internet of Things, and wearable devices (unsurprisingly, DC Rainmaker has a useful two-part roundup). But despite my interest in some of these devices, I really don’t think we’ve reached the real breakthrough with those devices.

In terms of fitness/wellness/health devices, specifically, I sometimes daydream about features or featuresets. For instance, I really wish a given device would combine the key features of some existing devices, as in the case of body water measurements and the Withings Smart Body Analyzer. A “killer feature”, for me, would be strapless continuous 24/7 heartrate monitoring which could be standalone (keeping the data without transmitting it) yet able to sync data with other devices for display and analysis, and which would work at rest as well as during workouts, underwater as well as in dry contexts.

Some devices (including the Basis B1 and Mio Alpha) seem to come close to this, but they all have little flaws, imperfections, tradeoffs. At an engineering level, it should be an interesting problem so I fully expect that we’ll at least see an incremental evolution from the current state of the market. Some devices measure body temperature and perspiration. These can be useful indicators of activity level and might help one gain insight about other aspects of the physical self. I happen to perspire profusely, so I’d be interested in that kind of data. As is often the case, unexpected usage of such tools could prove very innovative.

How about a device which does some blood analysis, making it easier to gain data on nutrients or cholesterol levels? I often think about the risks of selfdiagnosis and selfmedication. Those issues, related to QuantSelf, will probably come in a future post.

I also daydream about something deeper, though more imprecise. More than a featureset or a “killer feature”, I’m thinking about the potential for QuantSelf as a whole. Yes, I also think about many tricky issues around selfquantification. But I perceive something interesting going on with some of these devices. Some affordances of Quantified Self technology. Including the connections this technology can have with other technologies and domains, including tablets and smartphones, patient-focused medicine, Internet of Things, prosumption, “wearable hubs”, crowdsourced research, 3D printing, postindustrialization, and technological appropriation. These are my issues, in the sense that they’re things about which I care and think. I don’t necessarily mean issues as problems or worries, but things which either give me pause or get me to discuss with others.

Much of this will come in later posts, I guess. Including a series of issues I have with self-quantification, expanded from some of the things I’ve alluded to, here.

Walkthrough

These lines are separated from many of the preceding ones (I don’t write linearly) by a relatively brisk walk from a café to my place. Even without any QuantSelf device, I have quite a bit of data about this walk. For instance, I know it took me 40 minutes because I checked the time before and after. According to Google Maps, it’s between 4,1km and 4,2km from that café to my place, depending on which path one might take (I took an alternative route, but it’s probably close to the Google Maps directions, in terms of distance). It’s also supposed to be a 50 minute walk, so I feel fairly good about my pace (encouraging!). I also know it’s –20°C, outside (–28°C with windchill, according to one source). I could probably get some data about elevation, which might be interesting (I’d say about half of that walk was going up).

With two of my QuantSelf devices (UP and Zip), I get even more data. For instance, I can tell how many steps I took (it looks like it’s close to 5k, but I could get a more precise figure). I also realize the intensity of this activity, as both devices show that I started at a moderate pace followed by an intense pace for most of the duration. These devices also include this walk in measuring calories burnt (2.1Mcal according to UP, 2.7Mcal according to Zip), distance walked (11.2km according to Zip, 12.3km according to UP), active minutes (117’ Zip, 149’ UP), and stepcount (16.4k UP, 15.7k Zip). Not too shabby, considering that it’s still early evening as I write these lines.

2014-01-21 18.47.54 2014-01-21 18.47.48 2014-01-21 18.46.47

Since I didn’t have my heartrate monitor on me and didn’t specifically track this activity, there’s a fair bit of data I don’t have. For instance, I don’t know which part was most strenuous. And I don’t know how quickly I recovered. If I don’t note it down, it’s difficult to compare this activity to other activities. I might remember more or less which streets I took, but I’d need to map it myself. These are all things I could have gotten from a fitness app coupled with my heartrate monitor.

As is the case with cameras, the best QuantSelf device is the one you have with you.

I’m glad I have data about this walk. Chances are I would have taken public transit had it not been for my QuantSelf devices. There weren’t that many people walking across the Mont-Royal park, by this weather.

Would I get fitter more efficiently if I had the ideal tool for selfquantification? I doubt it.

Besides, I’m not in that much of a hurry.


  1. Don’t like my puns? Well, it’s my blogpost and I’ll cry if I want to.  ↩

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.

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.

Future of Learning Content

If indeed Apple plans to announce not just more affordable textbook options for students, but also more interactive, immersive ebook experiences…

Forecasting next week’s Apple education event (Dan Moren and Lex Friedman for Macworld)

I’m still in catchup mode (was sick during the break), but it’s hard to let this pass. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like to blog about: wishful thinking and speculation about education. Sometimes, my crazy predictions are fairly accurate. But my pleasure at blogging these things has little to do with the predictions game. I’m no prospectivist. I just like to build wishlists.

In this case, I’ll try to make it short. But I’m having drift-off moments just thinking about the possibilities. I do have a lot to say about this but we’ll see how things go.

Overall, I agree with the three main predictions in that MacWorld piece: Apple might come out with eBook creation tools, office software, and desktop reading solutions. I’m interested in all of these and have been thinking about the implications.

That MacWorld piece, like most media coverage of textbooks, these days, talks about the weight of physical textbooks as a major issue. It’s a common refrain and large bookbags/backpacks have symbolized a key problem with “education”. Moren and Friedman finish up with a zinger about lecturing. Also a common complaint. In fact, I’ve been on the record (for a while) about issues with lecturing. Which is where I think more reflection might help.

For one thing, alternative models to lecturing can imply more than a quip about the entertainment value of teaching. Inside the teaching world, there’s a lot of talk about the notion that teaching is a lot more than providing access to content. There’s a huge difference between reading a book and taking a class. But it sounds like this message isn’t heard and that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of teaching.

It’s quite likely that Apple’s announcement may make things worse.

I don’t like textbooks but I do use them. I’m not the only teacher who dislikes textbook while still using them. But I feel the need to justify myself. In fact, I’ve been on the record about this. So, in that context, I think improvements in textbooks may distract us from a bigger issue and even lead us in the wrong direction. By focusing even more on content-creation, we’re commodifying education. What’s more, we’re subsuming education to a publishing model. We all know how that’s going. What’s tragic, IMHO, is that textbook publishers themselves are going in the direction of magazines! If, ten years from now, people want to know when we went wrong with textbook publishing, it’ll probably be a good idea for them to trace back from now. In theory, magazine-style textbooks may make a lot of sense to those who perceive learning to be indissociable from content consumption. I personally consider these magazine-style textbooks to be the most egregious of aberrations because, in practice, learning is radically different from content consumption.

So… If, on Thursday, Apple ends up announcing deals with textbook publishers to make it easier for them to, say, create and distribute free ad-supported magazine-style textbooks, I’ll be going through a large range of very negative emotions. Coming out of it, I might perceive a silverlining in the fact that these things can fairly easily be subverted. I like this kind of technological subversion and it makes me quite enthusiastic.

In fact, I’ve had this thought about iAd producer (Apple’s tool for creating mobile ads). Never tried it but, when I heard about it, it sounded like something which could make it easy to produce interactive content outside of mobile advertising. I don’t think the tool itself is restricted to Apple’s iAd, but I could see how the company might use the same underlying technology to create some content-creation tool.

“But,” you say, “you just said that you think learning isn’t about content.” Quite so. I’m not saying that I think these tools should be the future of learning. But creating interactive content can be part of something wider, which does relate to learning.

The point isn’t that I don’t like content. The point is that I don’t think content should be the exclusive focus of learning. To me, allowing textbook publishers to push more magazine-style content more easily is going in the wrong direction. Allowing diverse people (including learners and teachers) to easily create interactive content might in fact be a step in the right direction. It’s nothing new, but it’s an interesting path.

In fact, despite my dislike of a content emphasis in learning, I’m quite interested in “learning objects”. In fact, I did a presentation about them during the Spirit of Inquiry conference at Concordia, a few years ago (PDF).

A neat (but Flash-based) example of a learning object was introduced to me during that same conference: Mouse Party. The production value is quite high, the learning content seems relatively high, and it’s easily accessible.

But it’s based on Flash.

Which leads me to another part of the issue: formats.

I personally try to avoid Flash as much as possible. While a large number of people have done amazing things with Flash, it’s my sincere (and humble) opinion that Flash’s time has come and gone. I do agree with Steve Jobs on this. Not out of fanboism (I’m no Apple fanboi), not because I have something against Adobe (I don’t), not because I have a vested interested in an alternative technology. I just think that mobile Flash isn’t going anywhere and that. Even on the desktop, I think Flash-free is the way to go. Never installed Flash on my desktop computer, since I bought it in July. I do run Chrome for the occasional Flash-only video. But Flash isn’t the only video format out there and I almost never come across interesting content which actually relies on something exclusive to Flash. Flash-based standalone apps (like Rdio and Machinarium) are a different issue as Flash was more of a development platform for them and they’re available as Flash-free apps on Apple’s own iOS.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s announcements had something to do with a platform for interactive content as an alternative to Adobe Flash. In fact, I’d be quite enthusiastic about that. Especially given Apple’s mobile emphasis. We might be getting further in “mobile computing for the rest of us”.

Part of this may be related to HTML5. I was quite enthusiastic when Tumult released its “Hype” HTML5-creation tool. I only used it to create an HTML5 version of my playfulness talk. But I enjoyed it and can see a lot of potential.

Especially in view of interactive content. It’s an old concept and there are many tools out there to create interactive content (from Apple’s own QuickTime to Microsoft PowerPoint). But the shift to interactive content has been slower than many people (including educational technologists) would have predicted. In other words, there’s still a lot to be done with interactive content. Especially if you think about multitouch-based mobile devices.

Which eventually brings me back to learning and teaching.

I don’t “teach naked”, I do use slides in class. In fact, my slides are mostly bullet points, something presentation specialists like to deride. Thing is, though, my slides aren’t really meant for presentation and, while they sure are “content”, I don’t really use them as such. Basically, I use them as a combination of cue cards, whiteboard, and coursenotes. Though I may sound defensive about this, I’m quite comfortable with my use of slides in the classroom.

Yet, I’ve been looking intently for other solutions.

For instance, I used to create outlines in OmniOutliner that I would then send to LaTeX to produce both slides and printable outlines (as PDFs). I’ve thought about using S5, but it doesn’t really fit in my workflow. So I end up creating Keynote files on my Mac, uploading them (as PowerPoint) before class, and using them in the classroom using my iPad. Not ideal, but rather convenient.

(Interestingly enough, the main thing I need to do today is create PowerPoint slides as ancillary material for a textbook.)

In all of these cases, the result isn’t really interactive. Sure, I could add buttons and interactive content to the slides. But the basic model is linear, not interactive. The reason I don’t feel bad about it is that my teaching is very interactive (the largest proportion of classtime is devoted to open discussions, even with 100-plus students). But I still wish I could have something more appropriate.

I have used other tools, especially whiteboarding and mindmapping ones. Basically, I elicit topics and themes from students and we discuss them in a semi-structured way. But flow remains an issue, both in terms of workflow and in terms of conversation flow.

So if Apple were to come up with tools making it easy to create interactive content, I might integrate them in my classroom work. A “killer feature” here is if interaction could be recorded during class and then uploaded as an interactive podcast (à la ProfCast).

Of course, content-creation tools might make a lot of sense outside the classroom. Not only could they help distribute the results of classroom interactions but they could help in creating learning material to be used ahead of class. These could include the aforementioned learning objects (like Mouse Party) as well as interactive quizzes (like Hot Potatoes) and even interactive textbooks (like Moglue) and educational apps (plenty of these in the App Store).

Which brings me back to textbooks, the alleged focus of this education event.

One of my main issues with textbooks, including online ones, is usability. I read pretty much everything online, including all the material for my courses (on my iPad) but I find CourseSmart and its ilk to be almost completely unusable. These online textbooks are, in my experience, much worse than scanned and OCRed versions of the same texts (in part because they don’t allow for offline access but also because they make navigation much more difficult than in GoodReader).

What I envision is an improvement over PDFs.

Part of the issue has to do with PDF itself. Despite all its benefits, Adobe’s “Portable Document Format” is the relic of a bygone era. Sure, it’s ubiquitous and can preserve formatting. It’s also easy to integrate in diverse tools. In fact, if I understand things correctly, PDF replaced Display PostScript as the basis for Quartz 2D, a core part of Mac OS X’s graphics rendering. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t be supplemented by something else.

Part of the improvement has to do with flexibility. Because of its emphasis on preserving print layouts, PDF tends to enforce print-based ideas. This is where EPUB is at a significant advantage. In a way, EPUB textbooks might be the first step away from the printed model.

From what I can gather, EPUB files are a bit like Web archives. Unlike PDFs, they can be reformatted at will, just like webpages can. In fact, iBooks and other EPUB readers (including Adobe’s, IIRC) allow for on-the-fly reformatting, which puts the reader in control of a much greater part of the reading experience. This is exactly the kind of thing publishers fail to grasp: readers, consumers, and users want more control on the experience. EPUB textbooks would thus be easier to read than PDFs.

EPUB is the basis for Apple’s iBooks and iBookstore and people seem to be assuming that Thursday’s announcement will be about iBooks. Makes sense and it’d be nice to see an improvement over iBooks. For one thing, it could support EPUB 3. There are conversion tools but, AFAICT, iBooks is stuck with EPUB 2.0. An advantage there is that EPUBs can possibly include scripts and interactivity. Which could make things quite interesting.

Interactive formats abound. In fact, PDFs can include some interactivity. But, as mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of room for improvement in interactive content. In part, creation tools could be “democratized”.

Which gets me thinking about recent discussions over the fate of HyperCard. While I understand John Gruber’s longstanding position, I find room for HyperCard-like tools. Like some others, I even had some hopes for ATX-based TileStack (an attempt to bring HyperCard stacks back to life, online). And I could see some HyperCard thinking in an alternative to both Flash and PDF.

“Huh?”, you ask?

Well, yes. It may sound strange but there’s something about HyperCard which could make sense in the longer term. Especially if we get away from the print model behind PDFs and the interaction model behind Flash. And learning objects might be the ideal context for this.

Part of this is about hyperlinking.  It’s no secret that HyperCard was among HTML precursors. As the part of HTML which we just take for granted, hyperlinking is among the most undervalued features of online content. Sure, we understand the value of sharing links on social networking systems. And there’s a lot to be said about bookmarking. In fact, I’ve been thinking about social bookmarking and I have a wishlist about sharing tools, somewhere. But I’m thinking about something much more basic: hyperlinking is one of the major differences between online and offline wriiting.

Think about the differences between, say, a Wikibook and a printed textbook. My guess is that most people would focus on the writing style, tone, copy-editing, breadth, reviewing process, etc. All of these are relevant. In fact, my sociology classes came up with variations on these as disadvantages of the Wikibook over printed textbooks. Prior to classroom discussion about these differences, however, I mentioned several advantages of the Wikibook:

  • Cover bases
  • Straightforward
  • Open Access
  • Editable
  • Linked

(Strangely enough, embedded content from iWork.com isn’t available and I can’t log into my iWork.com account. Maybe it has to do with Thursday’s announcement?)

That list of advantages is one I’ve been using since I started to use this Wikibook… excerpt for the last one. And this is one which hit me, recently, as being more important than the others.

So, in class, I talked about the value of links and it’s been on my mind quite a bit. Especially in view of textbooks. And critical thinking.

See, academic (and semi-academic) writing is based on references, citations, quotes. English-speaking academics are likely to be the people in the world of publishing who cite the most profusely. It’s not rare for a single paragraph of academic writing in English to contain ten citations or more, often stringed in parentheses (Smith 1999, 2005a, 2005b; Smith and Wesson 1943, 2010). And I’m not talking about Proust-style paragraphs either. I’m convinced that, with some quick searches, I could come up with a paragraph of academic writing which has less “narrative content” than citation.

Textbooks aren’t the most egregious example of what I’d consider over-citing. But they do rely on citations quite a bit. As I work more specifically on textbook content, I notice even more clearly the importance of citations. In fact, in my head, I started distinguishing some patterns in textbook content. For instance, there are sections which mostly contain direct explanations of key concepts while other sections focus on personal anecdotes from the authors or extended quotes from two sides of the debate. But one of the most obvious sections are summaries from key texts.

For instance (hypothetical example):

As Nora Smith explained in her 1968 study Coming Up with Something to Say, the concept of interpretation has a basis in cognition.

Smith (1968: 23) argued that Pierce’s interpretant had nothing to do with theatre.

These citations are less conspicuous than they’d be in peer-reviewed journals. But they’re a central part of textbook writing. One of their functions should be to allow readers (undergraduate students, mostly) to learn more about a topic. So, when a student wants to know more about Nora Smith’s reading of Pierce, she “just” have to locate Smith’s book, go to the right page, scan the text for the read for the name “Pierce”, and read the relevant paragraph. Nothing to it.

Compare this to, say, a blogpost. I only cite one text, here. But it’s linked instead of being merely cited. So readers can quickly know more about the context for what I’m discussing before going to the library.

Better yet, this other blogpost of mine is typical of what I’ve been calling a linkfest, a post containing a large number of links. Had I put citations instead of links, the “narrative” content of this post would be much less than the citations. Basically, the content was a list of contextualized links. Much textbook content is just like that.

In my experience, online textbooks are citation-heavy and take almost no benefit from linking. Oh, sure, some publisher may replace citations with links. But the result would still not be the same as writing meant for online reading because ex post facto link additions are quite different from link-enhanced writing. I’m not talking about technological determinism, here. I’m talking about appropriate tool use. Online texts can be quite different from printed ones and writing for an online context could benefit greatly from this difference.

In other words, I care less about what tools publishers are likely to use to create online textbooks than about a shift in the practice of online textbooks.

So, if Apple comes out with content-creation tools on Thursday (which sounds likely), here are some of my wishes:

  • Use of open standards like HTML5 and EPUB (possibly a combination of the two).
  • Completely cross-platform (should go without saying, but Apple’s track record isn’t that great, here).
  • Open Access.
  • Link library.
  • Voice support.
  • Mobile creation tools as powerful as desktop ones (more like GarageBand than like iWork).
  • HyperCard-style emphasis on hyperlinked structures (à la “mini-site” instead of web archives).
  • Focus on rich interaction (possibly based on the SproutCore web framework).
  • Replacement for iWeb (which is being killed along with MobileMe).
  • Ease creation of lecturecasts.
  • Deep integration with iTunes U.
  • Combination of document (à la Pages or Word), presentation (à la Keynote or PowerPoint), and standalone apps (à la The Elements or even Myst).
  • Full support for course management systems.
  • Integration of textbook material and ancillary material (including study guides, instructor manuals, testbanks, presentation files, interactive quizzes, glossaries, lesson plans, coursenotes, etc.).
  • Outlining support (more like OmniOutliner or even like OneNote than like Keynote or Pages).
  • Mindmapping support (unlikely, but would be cool).
  • Whiteboard support (both in-class and online).
  • Collaboration features (à la Adobe Connect).
  • Support for iCloud (almost a given, but it opens up interesting possibilities).
  • iWork integration (sounds likely, but still in my wishlist).
  • Embeddable content (à la iWork.com).
  • Stability, ease of use, and low-cost (i.e., not Adobe Flash or Acrobat).
  • Better support than Apple currently provides for podcast production and publishing.
  • More publisher support than for iBooks.
  • Geared toward normal users, including learners and educators.

The last three are probably where the problem lies. It’s likely that Apple has courted textbook publishers and may have convinced them that they should up their game with online textbooks. It’s clear to me that publishers risk to fall into oblivion if they don’t wake up to the potential of learning content. But I sure hope the announcement goes beyond an agreement with publishers.

Rumour has it that part of the announcement might have to do with bypassing state certification processes, in the US. That would be a big headline-grabber because the issue of state certification is something of wedge issue. Could be interesting, especially if it means free textbooks (though I sure hope they won’t be ad-supported). But that’s much less interesting than what could be done with learning content.

User-generated content” may be one of the core improvements in recent computing history, much of which is relevant for teaching. As fellow anthro Mike Wesch has said:

We’ll  need to rethink a few things…

And Wesch sure has been thinking about learning.

Problem is, publishers and “user-generated content” don’t go well together. I’m guessing that it’s part of the reason for Apple’s insufficient support for “user-generated content”. For better or worse, Apple primarily perceives its users as consumers. In some cases, Apple sides with consumers to make publishers change their tune. In other cases, it seems to be conspiring with publishers against consumers. But in most cases, Apple fails to see its core users as content producers. In the “collective mind of Apple”, the “quality content” that people should care about is produced by professionals. What normal users do isn’t really “content”. iTunes U isn’t an exception, those of us who give lectures aren’t Apple’s core users (even though the education market as a whole has traditionally being an important part of Apple’s business). The fact that Apple courts us underlines the notion that we, teachers and publishers (i.e. non-students), are the ones creating the content. In other words, Apple supports the old model of publishing along with the old model of education. Of course, they’re far from alone in this obsolete mindframe. But they happen to have several of the tools which could be useful in rethinking education.

Thursday’s events is likely to focus on textbooks. But much more is needed to shift the balance between publishers and learners. Including a major evolution in podcasting.

Podcasting is especially relevant, here. I’ve often thought about what Apple could do to enhance podcasting for learning. Way beyond iTunes U. Into something much more interactive. And I don’t just mean “interactive content” which can be manipulated seamless using multitouch gestures. I’m thinking about the back-and-forth of learning and teaching, the conversational model of interactivity which clearly distinguishes courses from mere content.

iCloud Dreams

Got lots more to blog, including something about “received knowledge”. And a list of things I love about Google. (I’m also getting started on “logical punctuation”, as you may already be noticing…)

But, at the risk of attracting trolls and Apple haters, I thought I’d post some notes from a daydreaming session. In some ways, it’s easier to write than the rest. And it’s more “time-sensitive”, in that my thoughts will likely sound very silly, very soon.

But I don’t care.

So, yes, this post is about iCloud, which will be officially unveiled in a few hours. No, it doesn’t mean that I expect anything specific from iCloud or that I trust Apple to deliver something awesome.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, I’m no Apple fanboi. I use a number of Apple products and I find several of them to be close to the ideal in my workflow, but I don’t have any sort of deep involvement in “the Cult of Mac”, Apple Inc., AAPL, or even Apple-focused development. I use the tools and like them, but I don’t think Apple will save us any more than will Facebook, Dell, Google, Amazon, Twitter, HP, or Microsoft.

[Automattic, on the other hand… 😉 ]

So, back to iCloud…

According to many, “cloud computing” (whatever that means) is a domain in which Apple has been relatively weak. I tend to share that opinion, despite the fact that a number of tools that I use have to do with either “the cloud”, Apple, or both. What might give trolls and haters some ammo is that I do have a MobileMe subscription. But there’s a lot I dislike about it and the only features I really find valuable are “over-the-air” syncing (henceforth “OTA”) and “Find My iPhone”. And since I use GSync on my iPod touch, MobileMe’s OTA isn’t that incredibly important. Depending on what iCloud may be, my MobileMe renewal (which comes up in a few days) could be a very hard sell. I don’t regret having it as it did help me retrieve my iPad. But it’s rather expensive if it’s the only thing it does. (Then again, so is insurance of any kind, but I digress…)

So, I’m no MobileMe poweruser. Why would I care about iCloud?

In some ways, I don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t. Until very recently, though I saw rumours about Apple’s new “cloud services”, I was only vaguely intrigued about it. I did think that it might solve my MobileMe issue. But I treated these rumours with a lot of skepticism and a rather low level of interest.

Yet, today, iCloud has been giving me a drift-off moment. Like Android did, at some point.

It’s not that I have predictions to make about iCloud. I’m not even speculating, really. But it got me to think. And, I admit, I enjoy thinking.

Without further ado (about nothing), my fanciful thoughts stemming from a short daydreaming session about iCloud…

The main thing people seem to be expecting  (based on rumoured negotiations with music publishers) is a music streaming service similar to Music Beta by Google or a digital file storage service similar to Amazon Cloud Drive. Both of these are quite neat and I could see myself using something like this. But it’s not exactly what makes me dream. While iTunes integration might make Apple’s version of a music streaming service somewhat more useful than the others. Besides, rumours have it that, through agreements with the recording industry, iCloud might sync music without requiring long uploads. It’s quite possible that this only works with tracks purchased on iTunes, which would upset those whose expectations are high, but could already be useful to some.

Where I’m beginning to drift off, though, is when I start thinking about OTA for podcasts. It’s been high up on my wishlist, as a feature, and you might say that it’s a pet peeve with iOS devices for podcatching. Having to sync my iPod touch to my main desktop just to have my podcast list up-to-date is a major hassle. Sure, there are apps which sync podcasts OTA. Problem is, they can’t add podcasts to the native iOS media player, which is a dealbreaker in my case. (As absurd as it may sound to others, one reason this is a dealbreaker is that I now listen to everything at doublespeed. Hey, it’s my podcast library and I listen to it as I want, ok?)

So, OTA podcasts would constitute a significant enhancement to my experience. Nothing absolutely required and possibly not that significant for others, but it’d really help me in more ways than one could imagine.

Thing is, syncing my iPod touch isn’t just about podcasts, even though podcatching is my main motivation to sync. After all, I don’t listen to podcasts yet I still sync my iPad. So, what else? Well, backing up is the main other thing, and it might be one of the core reason for Apple’s implicit insistence on syncing. That’d be classic Apple. Data loss can be such a big problem that they’d “do what they can” to prevent users from losing data. Far from perfect, in my experience (I ended up having some problems when I lost my “iTunes Library” file). And quite annoying when it meant that the sync would take a very long time to finish at precisely the point when I’m trying to leave home. But a classic Apple move, even in the way Apple haters may mean it.

So OTA synchronization of the whole iOS device, and not just podcasts or music, would be a definite plus, in this perspective. If it does end up coming with iCloud, it’d provide support to the idea that the tethering of iOS devices to desktop computers is really about ensuring that users back up their devices…

…and stay up to date. Firmware updates aren’t that frequent, but they’re probably a major part of the equation for Apple.

But not so much for me. If OTA podcasts were available, I’d still sync my iOS devices on occasion, through whatever means necessary. In fact, were I to use an Android device, a backup app would be essential, to me. So still not much dreaming from the backup aspect of iCloud.

Although… Sync is much broader than preventing device-specific data loss and making sure your device has the latest firmware.

For one thing, it does encompass some of the aforementioned OTA functionalities in MobileMe. Useful, but still not dreamworthy.

We get a bit closer to a “dream come true” if we talk about Xmarks, a bookmark-sync service originally meant for Firefox.  Sure, it sounds incredibly prosaic. But OTA bookmarks would open up a wide range of possibilities. This is about a qualitative difference from going OTA. In the case of backups, it’s about avoiding an annoyance but, arguably, it’s not really about changing something major about our behaviour. (Then again, maybe it is, with people who don’t back their devices up.) Point is, with something as simple as bookmarks, OTA is “disruptive”. At least, it gets me to daydream. One reason is that:

…no matter how fundamental they have been for the Web, links and bookmarks have yet to find their full value.

Hmm… Ok, perhaps a bit hyperbolic… So let me rephrase…

There’s still a lot to be done with URLs and, as simple as they are, I love thinking about links. Maybe I’m just obsessed with URLs.

As it so happens, I have a full list of thoughts about “link processing” and I’ve already blogged about related topics (on more than one occasion, in different contexts, going back to relatively early blogposts). And I even think social science can help.

I mean, think about it! There’s so much you can do, with links! Much of it is obvious, but I’d argue, rarely discussed. For instance, it’s very clear that we can post links pretty much anywhere. Doing so, we’re sharing their “content”. (In a semiotic sense, links are indices. I wish we can move from the “semantic Web” to the “semiotic Web”. But that’s another issue.) Sharing a link is the basic act of the social Web. It’s so obvious and frequent that it seems not to require discussion”.

Another obvious thing about links: we can measure the number of times they’re followed. In 2011, more than thirty years after hypertext has been introduced as a stable concept, much of the Web’s finances still relies on “clickthroughs”. Seems important.

And there’s a lot of processing which can be done with URLs: shortening them, adding them to “to do” lists, checking them for validity, keeping them in link libraries, archiving their “content”, showing them as external or internal links, preventing them from “rotting away”, showing the wordcount or reading time of the item they “target”, display them as QR codes, abuse them, etc.

As you can notice, it’s easy to get me on a tangent simply thinking about URLs. What’s this have t’do with iCloud, you ask? Probably not much, in terms of the actual service which will be announced at Moscone. But I’ve been dreaming about iCloud as a way to integrate Diigo, Instapaper, Delicious, reddit, digg, Slashdot, StumbleUpon, Spurl, The NethernetXmarks

Hey, I told you I was dreaming! Something as simple as managing, processing, sharing, and archiving links in iCloud could lead to just about anything, in my imagination.

And speaking of Xmarks… It’s now owned by Lastpass, a company which focus on password management. IMHO, some Lastpass-like features could make their way in diverse products, including iCloud. Is this far-fetched? Possibly. But secure handling of passwords can be a major issue in both of Apple’s new operating systems (Mac OS X Lion and iOS5). From “keychains” to SSO, there’s a lot of work to be done which relates to password management, in my mind.

Which leads me to think about authentication in general and the rumours about “deep Twitter integration in iOS 5”. (Not directly related to iCloud, but who knows?) Again, something which can send me (and others) on drift-off moments. What if this integration suddenly made iOS devices more useful in terms of social networking services? Something to ponder, if one has a propensity for pondering.

At the same time, given the relative lack of activity on iTunes Ping, I wouldn’t bet on Twitter integration having that major an impact by itself. Not unlike Google, Apple has a hard time making a mark on the social Web. Now, if Twitter integration does connect to everything else Apple does, it could lead to interesting things. A full-fledged online identity? Access to contacts for not only messaging and photo sharing but for collaboration, group management, and media sharing? Not betting on any of this, but it could be fun. Again, not specific to iCloud, but quite related to “The Cloud”. If Twitter integration is deep enough, in iOS 5, it’d be possible to use iOS devices for “cloud computing”, getting further into the “post-PC era”.

An iCloud feature which is expected by several people, is something like an OTA version of the “iTunes file sharing” feature in iOS. Several apps (especially Apple’s own apps) use iTunes and a USB cable to share files. It was a welcome addition to iTunes 9.1 but it’s rather inconvenient. So many other apps rely on Dropbox for file sharing.

Which leads me to dream about iCloud as a replacement for Dropbox. Sounds extremely unlikely that it’ll have the full Dropbox feature set, especially if one thinks about the “Pro 50” and “Pro 100” plans on Dropbox. But I dream of the day when Apple’s iDisk will compete with Dropbox. Not that I’m convinced it ever will. But it’d make Apple’s devices all the more useful if it did.

Something similar, which isn’t frequently discussed directly, in connection with iCloud rumours, but which would rock: Mozy– or Carbonite-style backup, for Mac OS X machines. Sounds very unlikely that Apple will ever offer something like this but, as crazy as it may sound, the connection between Time Capsule and iCloud would be great if it went that far. From a user’s perspective, the similarities between Time Machine backup and “backing up in the cloud” (à la Mozy/Carbonite) are quite obvious. The advantages of both are clear. And while no hardware announcement is supposed to make its way to the WWDC 2011 keynote, I’d give the Time Capsule some consideration if it provided me with the equivalent of what I currently have with Mozy. Not to mention that Mozy has already sparked some drift-off moments, in me, before they announced their new plans. What if I could have a single service which combines features from Mozy, Time Machine, Dropbox, and YouSendIt?

I even think about the possibilities in terms of web hosting. As it stands, MobileMe does allow for some Web publishing through the iWeb application in its iLife suite. But iWeb has never been a major effort for Apple and it hasn’t been seen a significant update in quite a while. What if iCloud could become a true webhost just like, say… iWeb.com? (Semi-disclaimer: I won a free account with iWeb.com, last Fall, and I host some sites there. I also know some of the people who work there…)

Yet again, I don’t expect this to happen. It’s not speculation, on my part. It’s a daydream.

The reason this makes me dream is that I find all these things to be related and I wish they were integrated more seamlessly. Something about which Apple haters may not care much is the type of integration represented by iTunes. As clunky as iTunes may be, in some respects, it’s quite a success in terms of integrating a lot of different things. In fact, it probably overextended its reach a bit too much and we need to replace it. Apple needs to replace iTunes and we should also replace iTunes in our lives.

Like Gruber, I end up thinking about iCloud in relation to iTunes more than in relation to MobileMe. But I also dream about the ideal cloud service, which would not only sync and backup files between iOS devices, hundreds of millions of iTunes store accounts, and Macs, but replace several of the services for which I’m paying monthly fees.

Here’s to dreaming…

Other parts of this crazy, iCloud-infused daydream, in notes form:

Espace social et innovation ouverte

Présentation pour le panel « Innovation ouverte et living labs, la divergence cohésive par les réseaux sociaux ?» organisé par Patrick Dubé dans le cadre de la dixième conférence internationale webcom Montréal.

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!