Category Archives: friends

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 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 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.


Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

Landing On His Feet: Nicolas Chourot

Listening to Nicolas Chourot‘s début album: First Landing (available on iTunes). Now, here’s someone who found his voice.

A few years ago, Nicolas Chourot played with us as part of Madou Diarra & Dakan, a group playing music created for Mali’s hunters’ associations.

Before Chourot joined us, I had been a member of Dakan for several years and my perspective on the group’s music was rather specific. As an ethnomusicologist working on the original context for hunters’ music, I frequently tried to maintain the connection with what makes Malian hunters so interesting, including a certain sense of continuity through widespread changes.

When Nicolas came up with his rather impressive equipment, I began to wonder how it would all fit. A very open-minded, respectful, and personable musician, Nicolas was able to both transform Dakan’s music from within and adapt his playing to a rather distant performance style. Not an easy task for any musician and Nicolas sure was to be commended for such a success.

After a while, Chourot and Dakan’s Madou Diarra parted ways. Still, Nicolas remained a member of the same informal music network as several people who had been in Dakan, including several of my good friends. And though I haven’t seen Nicolas in quite a while, he remains in my mind as someone whose playing and attitude toward music I enjoy.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the launch of Nicolas’s launch/show, on August 29. What’s strange is that it took me until today to finally buy Nicolas’s album. Not exactly sure why. Guess my mind was elsewhere. For months.

Ah, well… Désolé Nicolas!

But I did finally get the album. And I’m really glad I did!

When I first heard Nicolas’s playing, I couldn’t help but think about Michel Cusson. I guess it was partly because both have been fusing Jazz and “World” versions of the electric guitar. But there was something else in Nicolas’s playing that I readily associated with Cusson. Never analyzed it. Nor am I planning to analyze it at any point. Despite my music school background and ethnomusicological training, I’ve rarely been one for formal analysis. But there’s something intriguing, there, as a connection. It’s not “imitation as sincerest form of flattery”: Chourot wasn’t copying Cusson. But it seemed like both were “drinking from the same spring,” so to speak.

In First Landing, this interpretation comes back to my mind.

See, not only does Chourot’s playing still have some Cussonisms, but I hear other voices connected to Cusson’s. Including that of Cusson’s former bandmate Alain Caron And even Uzeb itself, the almost mythical band which brought Caron and Cusson together.

For a while, in the 1980s, Uzeb dominated a large part of Quebec’s local Jazz market. At the time, other Jazz players were struggling to get some recognition. As they do now. To an extent, Uzeb was a unique phenomenon in Quebec’s musical history since, despite their diversity and the quality of their work, Quebec’s Jazz musicians haven’t become mainstream again. Which might be a good thing but bears some reflection. What was so special about Uzeb? Why did it disappear? Can’t other Jazz acts fill the space left by Uzeb, after all these years?

I don’t think it’s what Nicolas is trying to do. But if he were, First Landing would be the way to go at it. It doesn’t “have all the ingredients.” That wouldn’t work. But, at the risk of sounding like an old cub scout, it has “the Uzeb spirit.”

Which brings me to other things I hear. Other bands with distinct, if indirect, Uzebian connections.

One is Jazzorange, which was a significant part of Lausanne’s Jazz scene when I was living there.My good friend Vincent Jaton introduced to Jazzorange in 1994 and Uzeb’s alumni Caron and Cusson were definitely on my mind at the time.

Vincent, musician and producer extraordinaire, introduced me to a number of musicians and I owe him a huge debt for helping me along a path to musical (self-)discovery. Vincent’s own playing also shares a few things with what I hear in First Landing, but the connection with Jazzorange is more obvious, to me.

Another band I hear in connection to Chourot’s playing is Sixun. That French band, now 25 years old, is probably among the longest-lasting acts in this category of Jazz. Some Jazz ensembles are older (including one of my favourites, Oregon). But Sixun is a key example of what some people call “Jazz Fusion.”

Which is a term I avoided, as I mentioned diverse musicians. Not because I personally dislike the term. It’s as imprecise as any other term describing a “musical genre” (and as misleading as some of my pet peeves). But I’m not against its use, especially since there is a significant degree of agreement about several of the musicians I mention being classified (at least originally) as “Fusion.” Problem is, the term has also been associated with an attitude toward music which isn’t that conducive to thoughtful discussion. In some ways, “Fusion” is used for dismissal more than as a way to discuss musical similarities.

Still, there are musical features that I appreciate in a number of Jazz Fusion performances, some of which are found in some combination through the playing of several of the musicians I’m mentioning here.

Some things like the interactions between the bass and other instruments, some lyrical basslines, the fact that melodic lines may be doubled by the bass… Basically, much of it has to do with the bass. And, in Jazz, the bass is often key. As Darcey Leigh said to Dale Turner (Lonette McKee and Dexter Gordon’s characters in ‘Round Midnight):

You’re the one who taught me to listen to the bass instead of the drums

Actually, there might be a key point about the way yours truly listens to bass players. Even though I’m something of a “frustrated bassist” (but happy saxophonist), I probably have a limited understanding of bass playing. To me, there’s a large variety of styles of bass playing, of course, but several players seem to sound a bit like one another. It’s not really a full classification that I have in my mind but I can’t help but hear similarities between bass performers. Like clusters.

Sometimes, these links may go outside of the music domain, strictly speaking.  For instance, three of my favourite bassists are from Cameroon: Guy Langue, Richard Bona, and Étienne Mbappe. Not that I heard these musicians together: I noticed Mbappe as a member of ONJ in 1989, I first heard Bona as part of the Zawinul syndicate in 1997, and I’ve been playing with Langue for a number of years (mostly with Madou Diarra & Dakan). Further, as I’m discovering British/Nigerian bass player Michael Olatuja, I get to extend what I hear as the Cameroonian connection to parts of West African music that I know a bit more about. Of course, I might be imagining things. But my imagination goes in certain directions.

Something similar happens to me with “Fusion” players. Alain Caron is known for his fretless bass sound and virtuosic playing, but it’s not really about that, I don’t think. It’s something about the way the bass is embedded in the rest of the band, with something of a Jazz/Rock element but also more connected to lyricism, complex melodic lines, and relatively “clean” playing. The last one may relate, somehow, to the Fusion stereotype of coldness and machine-like precision. But my broad impression of what I might call “Fusion bass” actually involves quite a bit of warmth. And humanness.

Going back to Chourot and other “Jazz Fusion” acts I’ve been thinking about, it’s quite possible that Gilles Deslauriers (who plays bass on Chourot’s First Landing) is the one who reminds me of other Fusion acts. No idea if Bob Laredo (Jazzorange), Michel Alibo (Sixun), Alain Caron (Uzeb), and Gilles Deslauriers really all have something in common. But my own subjective assessment of bass playing connects them in a special way.

The most important point, to me, is that even if this connection is idiosyncratic, it still helps me enjoy First Landing.

Nicolas Chourot and his friends from that album (including Gilles Deslauriers) are playing at O Patro Výš, next Saturday (January 23, 2010).

Présence féminine et culture geek (Journée Ada Lovelace) #ald09

En 2009, la journée de la femme a été hypothéquée d’une heure, dans certaines contrées qui sont passées à l’heure d’été le 8 mars. Pourtant, plus que jamais, c’est aux femmes que nous devrions accorder plus de place. Cette Journée internationale en l’honneur d’Ada Lovelace et des femmes dans les domaines technologiques est une excellente occasion pour discuter de l’importance de la présence féminine pour la pérennité sociale.

Pour un féministe mâle, le fait de parler de condition féminine peut poser certains défis. Qui suis-je, pour parler des femmes? De quel droit pourrais-je m’approprier de la parole qui devrait, selon moi, être accordée aux femmes? Mes propos ne sont-ils pas teintés de biais? C’est donc d’avantage en tant qu’observateur de ce que j’ai tendance à appeler la «culture geek» (voire la «niche geek» ou la «foule geek») que je parle de cette présence féminine.

Au risque de tomber dans le panneau du stéréotype, j’oserais dire qu’une présence accrue des femmes en milieu geek peut avoir des impacts intéressants en fonction de certains rôles impartis aux femmes dans diverses sociétés liées à la culture geek. En d’autres termes, j’aimerais célébrer le pouvoir féminin, bien plus fondamntal que la «force» masculine.

Je fais en cela référence à des notions sur les femmes et les hommes qui m’ont été révélées au cours de mes recherches sur les confréries de chasseurs, au Mali. En apparence exclusivement mâles, les confréries de chasseurs en Afrique de l’ouest accordent une place prépondérante à la féminité. Comme le dit le proverbe, «nous sommes tous dans les bras de nos mères» (bèè y’i ba bolo). Si le père, notre premier rival (i fa y’i faden folo de ye), peut nous donner la force physique, c’est la mère qui nous donne la puissance, le vrai pouvoir.

Loin de moi l’idée d’assigner aux femmes un pouvoir qui ne viendrait que de leur capacité à donner naissance. Ce n’est pas uniquement en tant que mère que la femme se doit d’être respectée. Bien au contraire, les divers rôles des femmes ont tous à être célébrés. Ce qui donne à la maternité une telle importance, d’un point de vue masculin, c’est son universalité: un homme peut ne pas avoir de sœur, d’épouse ou de fille, il peut même ne pas connaître l’identité précise de son père, il a au minimum eu un contact avec sa mère, de la conception à la naissance.

C’est souvent par référence à la maternité que les hommes conçoivent le respect le plus inconditionnel pour la femme. Et l’image maternelle ne doit pas être négligée, même si elle est souvent stéréotypée. Même si le terme «materner» a des connotations péjoratives, il fait appel à un soi adapté et sans motif spécifique. La culture geek a-t-elle besoin de soins maternels?

Une étude récente s’est penchée sur la dimension hormonale des activités des courtiers de Wall Street, surtout en ce qui a trait à la prise de risques. Selon cette étude (décrite dans une baladodiffusion de vulgarisation scientifique), il y aurait un lien entre certains taux d’hormones et un comportement fondé sur le profit à court terme. Ces hormones sont surtout présentes chez de jeunes hommes, qui constituent la majorité de ce groupe professionnel. Si les résultats de cette étude sont valables, un groupe plus diversifié de courtiers, au niveau du sexe et de l’âge, risque d’être plus prudent qu’un groupe dominé par de jeunes hommes.

Malgré d’énormes différences dans le détail, la culture geek a quelques ressemblances avec la composition de Wall Street, du moins au point de vue hormonal. Si l’appât du gain y est moins saillant que sur le plancher de la Bourse, la culture geek accorde une très large place au culte méritocratique de la compétition et à l’image de l’individu brillant et tout-puissant. La prise de risques n’est pas une caractéristique très visible de la culture geek, mais l’approche «résolution de problèmes» (“troubleshooting”) évoque la décision hâtive plutôt que la réflexion approfondie. Le rôle du dialogue équitable et respectueux, sans en être évacué, n’y est que rarement mis en valeur. La culture geek est «internationale», en ce sens qu’elle trouve sa place dans divers lieux du Globe (généralement définis avec une certaine précision en cebuees névralgiques comme la Silicon Valley). Elle est pourtant loin d’être représentative de la diversité humaine. La proportion bien trop basse de femmes liées à la culture geek est une marque importante de ce manque de diversité. Un groupe moins homogène rendrait plus prégnante la notion de coopération et, avec elle, un plus grand soucis de la dignité humaine. Après tout, le vrai humanisme est autant philogyne que philanthrope.

Un principe similaire est énoncé dans le cadre des soins médicaux. Sans être assignées à des tâches spécifiques, associées à leur sexe, la présence de certaines femmes-médecins semble améliorer certains aspects du travail médical. Il y a peut-être un stéréotype implicite dans tout ça et les femmes du secteur médical ne sont probablement pas traitées d’une bien meilleure façon que les femmes d’autres secteurs d’activité. Pourtant, au-delà du stéréotype, l’association entre féminité et relation d’aide semble se maintenir dans l’esprit des membres de certaines sociétés et peut être utilisée pour rendre la médecine plus «humaine», tant dans la diversité que dans cette notion d’empathie raisonnée, évoquée par l’humanisme.

Je ne peux m’empêcher de penser à cette remarquable expérience, il y a quelques années déjà, de participer à un colloque académique à forte présence féminine. En plus d’une proportion élevée de femmes, ce colloque sur la nourriture et la culture donnait la part belle à l’image de la mère nourricière, à l’influence fondamentale de la sphère donestique sur la vie sociale. Bien que mâle, je m’y suis senti à mon aise et je garde de ces quelques jours l’idée qu’un monde un tant soit peu féminisé pouvait avoir des effets intéressants, d’un point de vue social. Un groupe accordant un réel respect à la condition féminine peut être associé à une ambiance empreinte de «soin», une atmosphère “nurturing”.

Le milieu geek peut être très agréable, à divers niveaux, mais la notion de «soin», l’empathie, voire même l’humanisme n’en sont pas des caractéristiques très évidentes. Un monde geek accordant plus d’importance à la présence des femmes serait peut-être plus humain que ce qu’un portrait global de la culture geek semble présager.

Et n’est-ce pas ce qui s’est passé? Le ‘Net s’est partiellement féminisé au cours des dix dernières années et l’émergence du média social est intimement lié à cette transformation «démographique».

D’aucuns parlent de «démocratisation» d’Internet, usant d’un champ lexical associé au journalisme et à la notion d’État-Nation. Bien qu’il s’agisse de parler d’accès plus uniforme aux moyens technologiques, la source de ce discours se situe dans une vision spécifique de la structure social. Un relent de la Révolution Industrielle, peut-être? Le ‘Net étant construit au-delà des frontières politiques, cette vision du monde semble peu appropriée à la communication mondialisée. D’ailleurs, qu’entend-on vraiment par «démocratisation» d’Internet? La participation active de personnes diversifiées aux processus décisionnels qui créent continuellement le ‘Net? La simple juxtaposition de personnes provenant de milieux socio-économiques distincts? La possibilité pour la majorité de la planète d’utiliser certains outils dans le but d’obtenir ces avantages auxquels elle a droit, par prérogative statistique? Si c’est le cas, il en reviendrait aux femmes, majoritaires sur le Globe, de décider du sort du ‘Net. Pourtant, ce sont surtout des hommes qui dominent le ‘Net. Le contrôle exercé par les hommes semble indirect mais il n’en est pas moins réel.

Cet état des choses a tendance à changer. Bien qu’elles ne soient toujours pas dominantes, les femmes sont de plus en plus présentes, en-ligne. Certaines recherches statistiques semblent d’ailleurs leur assigner la majorité dans certaines sphères d’activité en-ligne. Mais mon approche est holistique et qualitative, plutôt que statistique et déterministe. C’est plutôt au sujet des rôles joués par les femmes que je pense. Si certains de ces rôles semblent sortir en ligne direct du stéréotype d’inégalité sexuelle du milieu du XXè siècle, c’est aussi en reconnaissant l’emprise du passé que nous pouvons comprendre certaines dimensions de notre présent. Les choses ont changé, soit. La conscience de ce changement informe certains de nos actes. Peu d’entre nous ont complètement mis de côté cette notion que notre «passé à tous» était patriarcal et misogyne. Et cette notion conserve sa signifiance dans nos gestes quotidiens puisque nous nous comparons à un modèle précis, lié à la domination et à la lutte des classes.

Au risque, encore une fois, de faire appel à des stéréotypes, j’aimerais parler d’une tendance que je trouve fascinante, dans le comportement de certaines femmes au sein du média social. Les blogueuses, par exemple, ont souvent réussi à bâtir des communautés de lectrices fidèles, des petits groupes d’amies qui partagent leurs vies en public. Au lieu de favoriser le plus grand nombre de visites, plusieurs femmes ont fondé leurs activités sur la blogosphère sur des groupes relativement restreints mais très actifs. D’ailleurs, certains blogues de femmes sont l’objet de longues discussions continues, liant les billets les uns aux autres et, même, dépassant le cadre du blogue.

À ce sujet, je fonde certaines de mes idées sur quelques études du phénomène de blogue, parues il y a déjà plusieurs années (et qu’il me serait difficile de localiser en ce moment) et sur certaines observations au sein de certaines «scènes geeks» comme Yulblog. Lors de certains événements mettant en contacts de nombreuses blogueuses, certaines d’entre elles semblaient préférer demeurer en groupe restreint pour une part importante de la durée de l’événement que de multiplier les nouveaux contacts. Il ne s’agit pas ici d’une restriction, certaines femmes sont mieux à même de provoquer l’«effet du papillon social» que la plupart des hommes. Mais il y a une force tranquille dans ces petits regroupements de femmes, qui fondent leur participation à la blogosphère sur des contacts directs et forts plutôt que sur la «pêche au filet». C’est souvent par de très petits groupes très soudés que les changements sociaux se produisent et, des “quilting bees” aux blogues de groupes de femmes, il y a une puissance ignorée.

Il serait probablement abusif de dire que c’est la présence féminine qui a provoqué l’éclosion du média social au cours des dix dernières années. Mais la présence des femmes est liée au fait que le ‘Net ait pu dépasser la «niche geek». Le domaine de ce que certains appellent le «Web 2.0» (ou la sixième culture d’Internet) n’est peut-être pas plus démocratique que le ‘Net du début des années 1990. Mais il est clairement moins exclusif et plus accueillant.

Comme ma tendre moitié l’a lu sur la devanture d’une taverne: «Bienvenue aux dames!»

Les billets publiés en l’honneur de la Journée Ada Lovelace devaient, semble-t-il, se pencher sur des femmes spécifiques, œuvrant dans des domaines technologiques. J’ai préféré «réfléchir à plume haute» au sujet de quelques éléments qui me trottaient dans la tête. Il serait toutefois de bon ton pour moi de mentionner des noms et de ne pas consigner ce billet à une observation purement macroscopique et impersonnelle. Étant peu porté sur l’individualisme, je préfère citer plusieurs femmes, plutôt que de me concentrer sur une d’entre elles. D’autant plus que la femme à laquelle je pense avec le plus d’intensité dit désirer garder une certaine discrétion et, même si elle blogue depuis bien plus longtemps que moi et qu’elle sait très bien se débrouiller avec les outils en question, elle prétend ne pas être associée à la technologie.

J’ai donc décidé de procéder à une simple énumération (alphabétique, j’aime pas les rangs) de quelques femmes dont j’apprécie le travail et qui ont une présence Internet facilement identifiable. Certaines d’entre elles sont très proches de moi. D’autres planent au-dessus de milieux auxquels je suis lié. D’autres encore sont des présences discrètes ou fortes dans un quelconque domaine que j’associe à la culture geek et/ou au média social. Évidemment, j’en oublie des tonnes. Mais c’est un début. Continuons le combat! 😉

Social Networks and Microblogging

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

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

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

Clearly, microblogging is getting some mindshare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microblogue d’événement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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


Thanks in advance!

Transparency and Secrecy

[Started working on this post on December 1st, based on something which happened a few days prior. Since then, several things happened which also connected to this post. Thought the timing was right to revisit the entry and finally publish it. Especially since a friend just teased me for not blogging in a while.]

I’m such a strong advocate of transparency that I have a real problem with secrecy.

I know, transparency is not exactly the mirror opposite of secrecy. But I think my transparency-radical perspective causes some problem in terms of secrecy-management.

“Haven’t you been working with a secret society in Mali?,” you ask. Well, yes, I have. And secrecy hasn’t been a problem in that context because it’s codified. Instead of a notion of “absolute secrecy,” the Malian donsow I’ve been working with have a subtle, nuanced, complex, layered, contextually realistic, elaborate, and fascinating perspective on how knowledge is processed, “transmitted,” managed. In fact, my dissertation research had a lot to do with this form of knowledge management. The term “knowledge people” (“karamoko,” from kalan+mogo=learning+people) truly applies to members of hunter’s associations in Mali as well as to other local experts. These people make a clear difference between knowledge and information. And I can readily relate to their approach. Maybe I’ve “gone native,” but it’s more likely that I was already in that mode before I ever went to Mali (almost 11 years ago).

Of course, a high value for transparency is a hallmark of academia. The notion that “information wants to be free” makes more sense from an academic perspective than from one focused on a currency-based economy. Even when people are clear that “free” stands for “freedom”/«libre» and not for “gratis”/«gratuit» (i.e. “free as in speech, not free as in beer”), there persists a notion that “free comes at a cost” among those people who are so focused on growth and profit. IMHO, most the issues with the switch to “immaterial economies” (“information economy,” “attention economy,” “digital economy”) have to do with this clash between the value of knowledge and a strict sense of “property value.”

But I digress.

Or, do I…?

The phrase “radical transparency” has been used in business circles related to “information and communication technology,” a context in which the “information wants to be free” stance is almost the basis of a movement.

I’m probably more naïve than most people I have met in Mali. While there, a friend told me that he thought that people from the United States were naïve. While he wasn’t referring to me, I can easily acknowledge that the naïveté he described is probably characteristic of my own attitude. I’m North American enough to accept this.

My dedication to transparency was tested by an apparently banal set of circumstances, a few days before I drafted this post. I was given, in public, information which could potentially be harmful if revealed to a certain person. The harm which could be done is relatively small. The person who gave me that information wasn’t overstating it. The effects of my sharing this information wouldn’t be tragic. But I was torn between my radical transparency stance and my desire to do as little harm as humanly possible. So I refrained from sharing this information and decided to write this post instead.

And this post has been sitting in my “draft box” for a while. I wrote a good number of entries in the meantime but I still had this one at the back of my mind. On the backburner. This is where social media becomes something more of a way of life than an activity. Even when I don’t do anything on this blog, I think about it quite a bit.

As mentioned in the preamble, a number of things have happened since I drafted this post which also relate to transparency and secrecy. Including both professional and personal occurrences. Some of these comfort me in my radical transparency position while others help me manage secrecy in a thoughtful way.

On the professional front, first. I’ve recently signed a freelance ethnography contract with Toronto-based consultancy firm Idea Couture. The contract included a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Even before signing the contract/NDA, I was asking fellow ethnographer and blogger Morgan Gerard about disclosure. Thanks to him, I now know that I can already disclose several things about this contract and that, once the results are public, I’ll be able to talk about this freely. Which all comforts me on a very deep level. This is precisely the kind of information and knowledge management I can relate to. The level of secrecy is easily understandable (inopportune disclosure could be detrimental to the client). My commitment to transparency is unwavering. If all contracts are like this, I’ll be quite happy to be a freelance ethnographer. It may not be my only job (I already know that I’ll be teaching online, again). But it already fits in my personal approach to information, knowledge, insight.

I’ll surely blog about private-sector ethnography. At this point, I’ve mostly been preparing through reading material in the field and discussing things with friends or colleagues. I was probably even more careful than I needed to be, but I was still able to exchange ideas about market research ethnography with people in diverse fields. I sincerely think that these exchanges not only add value to my current work for Idea Couture but position me quite well for the future. I really am preparing for freelance ethnography. I’m already thinking like a freelance ethnographer.

There’s a surprising degree of “cohesiveness” in my life, these days. Or, at least, I perceive my life as “making sense.”

And different things have made me say that 2009 would be my year. I get additional evidence of this on a regular basis.

Which brings me to personal issues, still about transparency and secrecy.

Something has happened in my personal life, recently, that I’m currently unable to share. It’s a happy circumstance and I’ll be sharing it later, but it’s semi-secret for now.

Thing is, though, transparency was involved in that my dedication to radical transparency has already been paying off in these personal respects. More specifically, my being transparent has been valued rather highly and there’s something about this type of validation which touches me deeply.

As can probably be noticed, I’m also becoming more public about some emotional dimensions of my life. As an artist and a humanist, I’ve always been a sensitive person, in-tune with his emotions. Specially positive ones. I now feel accepted as a sensitive person, even if several people in my life tend to push sensitivity to the side. In other words, I’ve grown a lot in the past several months and I now want to share my growth with others. Despite reluctance toward the “touchy-feely,” specially in geek and other male-centric circles, I’ve decided to “let it all loose.” I fully respect those who dislike this. But I need to be myself.

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

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

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

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


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

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

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


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


Shameless Self-Promotion

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

Shameless Cross-Promotion

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

Some raw notes

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

Let’s Give This a Try

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone Viral

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

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

The Social

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

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

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

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

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

Adoptive Parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The World Is My Oyster

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

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

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

Makes sense?