Category Archives: geek culture

Wheel Reinvention and Geek Culture

In mainstream North American society, “reinventing the wheel” (investing efforts on something which has already been done) is often seen as a net negative.  “Don’t waste your time.” “It’s all been done.” “No good can come out of it.”

In geek culture, the mainstream stigma on wheel reinvention has an influence. But many people do spend time revisiting problems which have already been solved. In this sense, geek culture is close to scientific culture. Not everything you do is completely new. You need to attempt things several times to make sure there isn’t something you missed. Like scientists, geeks (especially engineering-type ones) need to redo what others have done before them so they can “evolve.” Geeks are typically more impatient in their quest for “progress” than most scientists working in basic research, but the connection is there.

Reasons for wheel reinvention abound. The need to practice before you can perform. The burden of supporting a deprecated approach. The restrictions placed on so-called “intellectual property.” The lack of inspiration by some people. The (in)famous NIH (“Not Invented Here”) principle.  The fact that, as Larry Wall say, “there is always another way.”

Was thinking about this because of a web forum in which I participate. Although numerous web forum platforms exist as part of “Content Management Systems,” several of them free of charge, this web developer created his own content management system, including forum support.

Overall, it looks like any other web forum.  Pretty much the same features. The format tags are somewhat non-standard, the “look-and-feel” is specific, but users probably see it as the exact same as any other forum they visit. In fact, I doubt that most users think about the forum implementation on a regular basis.

This particular forum was created at a time when free-of-charge Content Management Systems were relatively rare.  The site itself was apparently not meant to become very big. The web developer probably put together the forum platform (platforum?) as an afterthought since he mostly wanted to bring people to his main site.

Thing is, though, the forums on that particular site seem to be the most active part of the site. In the past, the developer has even referred to this situation as a problem. He would rather have his traffic go to the main pages on the site than to the forums. Several “bridges” exist between the forums and the main site but the two seem rather independent of one another. Maybe the traffic issue has been solved in the meantime but the forums remain quite active.

My perception is that the reasons for the forums’ success include some “social” dimensions (the forum readership) and technical dimensions (the “reinvented” forum platform). None of these factors could explain the forums’ success but, taken together, they make it easy to understand why the forums are so well-attended.

In social terms, these forums reach something of a niche market which happens to be expanding. The niche itself is rather geeky in the passion for a product category as well as in the troubleshooting approach to life. Forum readers and participants are often looking for answers to specific questions. The signal to noise ratio in most of the site’s forums seems, on average, particularly high. Most moderation happens seamlessly, through the community. While not completely invisible, the site’s staff is rarely seen in most forum threads. Different forums, addressing different categories of issues, attract different groups of people even though some issues cross over from one forum to another. The forum users’ aggregate knowledge on the site’s main topic is so impressive as to make the site look like the “one-stop shop” for any issue related to the site’s topic. At the same time, some approaches to the topic are typically favored by the site’s members and alternative sites have sprung up in part to counterbalance a perceived bias on that specific site. A sense of community has been built among some members of several of the forums and the whole forum section of the site feels like a very congenial place.

None of this seems very surprising for any successful web forum. All of the social dynamics on the site (including the non-forum sections) reinforce the idea that a site’s succes “is all about the people.”

But there’s a very simple feature of the site’s forum platform which seems rather significant: thread following through email. Not unique to this site and not that expertly implemented, IMHO. But very efficient, in context.

At the end of every post is a checkbox for email notification. It’s off by default so the email notification is “opt-in,” as people tend to call this. There isn’t an option to “watch” a thread without posting in it (that is, only people who write messages in that specific thread can be notified directly when a new message appears). When a new message appears in a specific thread, everyone who has checked the mail notification checkbox for a message in that thread receives a message at the email address they registered with the site. That email notification includes some information about the new forum post (author’s username, post title, thread title, thread URL, post URL) but not the message’s content. That site never sends any other mail to all users. Private mail is done offsite as users can register public email addresses and/or personal homepages/websites in their profiles.

There’s a number of things I don’t particularly enjoy about the way this email notification system works. The point is, though, it works pretty well. If I were to design a mail notification system, I would probably not do it the same way.  But chances are that, as a result, my forums would be less successful than that site’s forums are (from an outsider’s perspective).

Now, what does all this have to do with my original point, you ask? Simple: sometimes reinventing the wheel is the best strategy.

The Geek Niche (Draft)

As explained before, I am not a “visual” thinker. Unlike some other people, I don’t draw witty charts all the time. However, I do occasionally think visually. In this case, I do “see” Venn diagrams and other cutesy graphics. What I’m seeing is the proportion of “geeks” in the world. And, to be honest, it’s relatively clear for me. I may be completely off, but I still see it clearly.

Of course, much of it is about specifying what we mean by “geek.” Which isn’t easy for someone used to looking at culture’s near-chaotic intricacy and intricacies. At this point, I’m reluctant to define too clearly what I mean by “geek” because some people (self-professed geeks, especially) are such quick nitpickers that anything I say about the term is countered by more authorized definitions. I even expect comments to this blog entry to focus on how inaccurate my perception of geeks is, regardless of any other point I make.

Ah, well…

My intention isn’t to stereotype a group of people. And I don’t want to generalize. I just try to describe a specific situation which I find very interesting. In and of itself, the term “geek” carries a lot of baggage, much of which is problematic for anyone who is trying to understand an important part of the world in which we all live. But the term is remarkably useful as a way to package an ethos, a style, a perspective, an approach, a worldview, a personality type. Among those who could be called “geeks” are very diverse people. There might not even a single set of criteria to define who should legitimately be called a “geek.” But “geekness” is now a reference for some actions, behaviors, markets, and even language varieties. Describing “geeks” as a group makes some sense, even if some people get very sensitive about the ways geeks are described.

For the record, I don’t really consider myself a geek. At the same time, I do enjoy geekness and I consider myself geek-friendly. It’s just that I’m not an actual insider to the geek coterie.

Thinking demographically has some advantages in terms of simplification. Simple is reassuring, especially in geek culture. So, looking at geek demographics on a broad scale…

First, the upper demographic limit for geekery. At the extreme, the Whole Wide World. What’s geeky about The World?

Number of things, actually. Especially in terms of some key technologies. Those technologies some people call “the tech world.” Consumer electronics, digital gadgets, computers…

An obvious tech factor for the upper limit of geekness is the ‘Net. The Internet is now mainstream. Not that everyone, everywhere truly lives online but the ‘Net is having a tremendous impact on the world as a whole. And Internet penetration is shaping up, in diverse parts of the world. This type of effect goes well with a certain type of “low-level geekness.” Along with widespread online communication, a certain approach to the world has become more prominent. A techno-enthusiastic and troubleshooting approach I often associate with engineering. Not that all engineers uses this type of approach or that everyone who uses this type of approach is an engineer. But, in my mind, it’s an “engineering worldview” similar to an updated set of mechanistic metaphors.

Another obvious example of widespread geek-friendly technology is the cellphone. Obvious because extremely widespread (apparently, close to half of the human population of the planet is cellphoned). Yet, cellphones are the geekiest technology item available. What makes them geeky, in my eyes, is the way they’re embedded in a specific social dynamic emphasizing efficiency, mobility, and “always-on connectivity” along with work/life, group/individual, and public/private dichotomies.

The world’s geekiness can also be observed through other lenses, more concerned with the politic and the social drive of human behavior. Meritocracies, relatively non-judgemental ethics, post-national democracies, neo-liberal libertarianism, neo-Darwinian progress-mindedness, networked identities… Figures on populations “affected” by these geeky dimensions of socio-political life are hard to come by and it’s difficult to tell apart these elements from simple “Westernization.” But it’s easy to conceive of a geeky version of the world in which all of these elements are linked. In a way, it’s as if the world were dominated by geekdom.

Which brings me to the lower demographic limit for geekiness: How many “true geeks” are there? What’ are the figures for the “alpha geek” population?

My honest guesstimate? Five to ten million worldwide, concentrated in a relatively small number of urban areas in North America and Eurasia. I base this range on a number of hunches I got throughout the years. In fact, my impression is that there are about two million people in (or “oriented toward”) the United States who come close enough to the geek stereotype to qualify as “alpha geeks.” Haven’t looked at academic literature on the subject but judging from numbers of early adopters in “geeky tech,” looking at FLOSS movements, thinking about desktop Linux, listening to the “tech news” I don’t think this figure is so far off. On top of these U.S. geeks are “worldwide geeks” who are much harder to count. Especially since geekness itself is a culture-specific concept. But, for some reason, I get the impression that those outside the United States who would be prototypical geeks number something like five million people, plus or minus two million.

All this surely sounds specious. In fact, I’m so not a quant dude, I really don’t care about the exact figure. But my feeling, here, is that this ultra-geeky population is probably comparable to a large metropolitan area.

Of course, geeks are dispersed throughout the world. Though there are “geek meccas” like Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, geeks are often modern cosmopolitans. They are typically not “of a place” and they navigate through technology institutions rather than through native locales. Thanks to telecommuting, some geeks adopt a glocal lifestyle making connections outside of their local spheres yet constructing local realities, at least in their minds. In some cases, übergeeks are resolute loners who consciously try to avoid being tied to local circles.

Thanks in part to the “tech industry” connections of geek society, geek-friendly regions compete with one another on the world stage.

Scattered geeks have an impact on local communities and this impact can be disproportionately large in comparison to the size of the geek population.

Started this post last week, after listening to Leo Laporte’s  TWiT “netcast.” 

The TWiT Netcast Network with Leo Laporte

 …

I wanted to finish this post but never got a round tuit. I wanted to connect this post with a few things about the connection between “geek culture” in the computer/tech industry and the “craft beer” and “coffee geek” movements. There was also the obvious personal connection to the subject. I’m now a decent ethnographic insider-outsider to geek culture. Despite (thanks to) the fact that, as a comment-spammer was just saying, I’m such a n00b.

Not to mention that I wanted to expand upon JoCo‘s career, attitude, and character (discussed during the TWiT podcast). And that was before I learned that JoCo himself was coming to Austin during but not through the expensive South by Southwest film/music/interactive festivals.

If I don’t stop myself, I even get the urge to talk about the politics of geek groups, especially in terms of idealism

This thoughtful blogpost questioning the usefulness of the TED conference makes me want to push the “publish” button, even though this post isn’t ready. My comments about TED aren’t too dissimilar to many of the things which have appeared in the past couple of days. But I was going to focus on the groupthink, post-Weberian neo-liberalism, Well/Wired/GBN links, techy humanitarianism, etc.

 

Ah, well… 

Guess I should just RERO it and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll be able to leave those topics behind. RSN

TBC

Android "Sales Pitch" and "Drift-Off"

(Google’s Android is an open software platform to be put on cellphones next year.)

There’s something to this video. Something imilar to Steve Jobs’s alleged “Reality Distortion Field,” but possibly less connected to presentation skills or perceived charisma. Though Mike seems to be a more experienced presenter than those we see in other videos about Android, and though the presentation format is much slicker than other videos about Android, there’s something special about this video, to me.

For one thing, the content of the three “Androidology” videos are easy to understand, even for a non-developer/non-coder. Sure, you need to know some basic terms. But the broad concepts are easy to understand, at least for those who have been observing the field of technology. One interesting thing about this is that these “Androidology” videos are explicitly meant for software programmers. The “you” in this context specifically refers to would-be developers of Android applications. At the same time, these videos do a better job, IMHO, of “selling Android to tech gurus” than other Android-related videos published by Google.

Now, I do find this specific video quite interesting, and my interest has to do with a specific meaning of “sales pitch.”

I keep going back to a Wired article about the “drift-off moment” during sales pitches (or demos):

When Mann gives a demo, what he’s waiting for is what salespeople call “the drift-off moment.” The client’s eyes get gooey, and they’re staring into space. They’re not bored – they’re imagining what they could do with SurveyBuilder. All tech salespeople mention this – they’ve succeeded not when they rivet the client’s attention, but when they lose it.

I apply this to teaching when I can and I specifically talked about this during a presentation about online tools for teaching.

This video on four of Android’s APIs had this effect on me. Despite not being a developer myself, I started imagining what people could do with Android. It was just a few brief moments. But very effective.

The four APIs discussed in this video are (in presentation order):

  1. Location Manager
  2. XMPP Service
  3. Notification Manager
  4. View System (including MapView and WebView)

Mike’s concise (!) explanations on all of these are quite straightforward (though I was still unclear on XMPP and on details of the three other APIs after watching the video). Yet something “clicked” in my mind while watching this. Sure, it might just be serendipitous. But there’s something about these APIs or about the way they are described which make me daydream.

Which is exactly what the “drift-off moment” is all about.

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Product Differentiation

A chart meant to show the merits of Participatory Culture’s Miro video platform over a competing product from Joost.

Miro vs. Joost – Head to Head Comparison

Interesting approach. After the obligatory feature and content comparisons, details about the organizational structure for Participatory Culture (creators of Miro) and Joost N.V. (creators of the Joost program, with links to Skype and Kazaa). Even the “technological” comparison focuses on Miro’s openness.

It seems that social and cultural factors may be important for folks at Participatory Culture. Seems like members of their target audience should care about enterprise size (11 people for Miro vs. 100 for Joost) and about connections to the Open Source community (Participatory Culture is claiming that Joost uses Open Source without making its own source code available). However, this chart makes it a bit difficult to distinguish statements about these factors from typical marketing hype.

Social Beer

As a reply to Liz Losh’s generous blogpost on my passion for beer and coffee culture(s).

virtualpolitik: Strange Brew

My tone is clearly much less formal than Losh’s. Hope it still fits and doesn’t bring down the quality standards expected from her blog.

Quoth Losh’s post:

Doesn’t consigning brewing of coffee and beer in private homes eliminate third spaces for social interactions with a cross-section of people and opportunities for discussions and debates? Isn’t it like putting yourself in a cul-de-sac with a garage door facing the street in that you aren’t participating with neighborhood businesses? Enkerli strongly disagreed, since beer-making involves large quantities, parties, and collective beer making sessions. He thought that it was a powerfully social activity and one that was often situated in specific neighborhoods.

Probably overstated my disagreement about eliminating third spaces. Was mostly trying to describe what I had observed from the beer and coffee world(s). Basically, wanted to emphasise that making coffee or beer at home is just one of several activities done by members of those networks. And those activities often push people to go and consume beer or coffee outside the home.

Actually, discussing this is helpful to me because it reinforces the point that what I’m observing has more to do with “craft beer culture” (or “culinary coffee culture”) than with homebrewing (or making coffee at home).

Haven’t tried to find out whether or not homebrewing and home coffee making might prevent meaningful interactions between coffee/beer geeks and “the rest of the (local) community.” Really, that’s not my type of work. My impression is that those DIY activities might have those “decreased participation” effects in some contexts but such effects haven’t been apparent to me on any occasion during the last few years of observing and participating in beer and coffee geekery.

To be clearer, and specifically focusing on (beer) homebrewers. Making beer at home has become a fairly common activity in North America since the 1980s (when the legal status of homebrewing in the United States was finally cleared up). But my focus isn’t beer making as an activity. It’s a social network which revolves around “handcrafted” beer. This is one network I have been connecting with for several years, now. And, IMHO, it’s the core of the so-called “craft beer revolution.”

Many people brew beer at home for purely financial reasons. While these are technically “home brewers,” they are not taking part in the social and cultural dynamics that I aim to eventually describe academically. In fact, while those “thrifty brewers” are known to the “beergeek” crowd, they are considered as complete outsiders to the “craft beer revolution.” Typically, those who brew for financial reasons use cans of hopped malt extract and dextrose powder to make beer. On the homebrewing side of the craft beer movement, all-grain brewing (making beer from scratch, with the malted barley, hops, yeast, and water) is the normative method.

I guess we could use terms like “casual,” “dedicated,” “careless,” “serious,” “extract,” and “advanced” to make distinctions between those types of “homebrewers.” But we’re talking about such different worlds here that emphasising these distinctions seems irrelevant. So, when I talk about “homebrewers,” I almost always mean “serious, dedicated, advanced brewers who care more about beer quality than about costs.”

(It’s quite interesting that, in OZ, the term “homebrewer” refers to people who make beer at home to save money while “craftbrewer” refers specifically to people who brew beer for “serious” reasons.)

The homebrewers I tend to talk about aren’t casual brewers, they often spend rather large amounts of money on beer and brewing equipment, they frequently send their beers to large competitions, and typically belong to brewing associations (“brewclubs”). In the United States, many of them are card-carrying members of the American Homebrewers Association. AHA membership gives them access to a rather “serious” technical magazine on brewing techniques (Zymurgy) and discounts at local brewpubs all over the United States (and some parts of Canada).

The typical brewclub has monthly meetings as well as a number of beer-related events. In large urban areas, brewclubs can have a very elaborate structure, with annual fees, bulk purchasing accounts, etc.

The keen observer with an eye toward folklore might notice that these sound like the “quilting bees” which were served as a way for North American women to unite and eventually form “grassroots movements.” Given Losh’s political bent, I feel compelled to note this similarity, even though I care fairly little about political involvement on the part of homebrewers.

Interesting that Losh should say that I teach “folklore and ethnomusicology” at Concordia. While I do teach a course in the anthropology of music which is, in fact, labeled “ethnomusicology,” the courses I’ve been teaching at different institutions in the past five years were all in anthropology. However, I did serve as an associate instructor for a large course in folkloristics at Indiana University for three semesters during part of my Ph.D. coursework at that institution. And I do consider “folklore” to be among my fields of specialisation.  Of course, Losh probably got her notion about my teaching from the fact that I’m finishing a Ph.D. at Indiana University’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. 😉

Anyhoo…

Some brewclubs also serve as “beer appreciation” groups, similar to wine-tasting (and emphasizing the fact that beer is chemically more complex than wine). While beer-tasting can be a solitary activity, sampling beer with fellow homebrewers (and beergeeks) is common practise for serious beer-lovers. Perhaps more importantly, homebrewers frequently use a set of guidelines while tasting beer. These guidelines, from the Beer Judge Certification Program, often serve as a shared knowledge base for “beer literacy.” The BJCP’s main purpose is to train judges for homebrewing competitions. When I eventually do publish some academic work on craft beer culture, I’ll need to have a rather large section on the BJCP, competitions, and so on. Among homebrewers, I’m known as a vocal opponent to the BJCP guidelines. I do recognise, however, that they serve important functions in the context. (I simply happen to think that there is more to beer than evaluating it through set standards and I see the effects of the BJCP guidelines as broadening the gap between actual beer appreciation and the general public.)

One thing which was already clear to me when I gave a talk on craft beer culture at an surprisingly pleasant food and culture conference,  is that craft beer culture is geek culture. As geek ethnographer Jenny Cool was present during the conversation which triggered Losh’s reaction (Cool and Losh are friends), I actually wanted to steer the conversation toward the issue of geek sociability, using homebrewers as an example.

Homebrewing is social because geeking out is social

(To simplify things a whole lot, someone could say that “geeks” are something of the “somewhat sociable” equivalent of “nerds.” To caricature, the type of sociability involved is that of the stereotypical “basement hacker.” Some of “them” might in fact be antisocial human beings. But “they” become less unfriendly with like-minded people. Especially when “they” feel there is “smartness parity” in terms of intellectual prowess. Going on a limb, someone could say that what has been happening in the last thirty years, thanks to computer-mediated communication, is a steady increase in the opportunities for “basement hacker-type nerds” to interact with one another. These interactions might occasionally lead to meaningful social relationships. In the context of increased social capital given to computer-savvy people, geekness becomes almost cool and geeks are “more social” (according to a broader social group) than the “nerds” who had been stigmatised for so long.)

Homebrewing as an activity was facilitated by changes in its legal status (and by the alcohol regulations in general). Beer geekery is embedded in the increased prominence of online communication. Pre-Internet beer people were pretty much just “beer nerds.” Today’s beergeeks are almost all Internet-savvy and many beer-related activities happen through mailing-lists and websites. (Usenet newsgroups used to be fairly important but, since 1994 or so, mailing-lists and websites have pretty much taken over.)

As is the case with many other groups, online interactions give way to face-to-face interactions, friendships, and elaborate support systems. Meeting at brewpubs to sample beer and “talk shop,” beergeeks are bonding. And this type of bonding often creates strong… bonds. I personally have a large number of anecdotes which reveal the strength of the bonds among beergeeks. And, as a social scientist, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon.

Going back to Losh’s points(!), I might say that beergeeks are connecting more with broader social groups than the homebrewers she seems to have had in mind. Using the “think global, drink local” motto, beergeeks (including homebrewers) are situating themselves in complex social systems. They/we talk about important social and political issue.

And we do drink good beer.

Sniff It!

It’s probably the most distinctive sign of the beverage geek: the attentive sniff.

When you see someone taking a long sniff of a beverage (say, a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or even a glass of milk), you just know that this person is an avid enthusiast of the sensory exploration that drinking can be. Of course, that person may also be wondering about some strange odour coming from that drink. But even that may be a step in the direction of beverage hedonism.  If the sniffer also looks intently at the beverage and takes a long time to concentrate on every sip, you know this person is a true geek. If that person also takes notes or even listens to the beverage, the geek meter should go off the charts.

Sure, much of it sounds really funny. And there’s often social pressure against this type of enjoyment, especially in cultural contexts linked with Calvinism or Puritanism.  Yet, there’s a lot to be said about experiencing a good beverage. Continue reading Sniff It!

Wishlists and Dreaming

I like how the OpenMoko people think.

Alcohol meter

Give the phone some info about your body (gender, size, weigth) and when/what you drink and it will compute an approximation of the amount of alcohol in your blood. Updates automatically, could have an alarm, when you are probably sober again. See, for example (German text) http://www.misterio-online.de/promille.htm

Wish List – OpenMoko

OpenMoko is an Open Source project for cellular phone software. It seems quite active and they have a current version of the software running on an actual phone. So it’s not just vapourware, AFAICT.

The whole wishlist is certainly worth a read. Full of neat ideas, some of which are trivial to implement, others are much more ambitious. For those who care about creativity, innovation, and technological sophistication, this is exactly the kind of project which shows the power of dreaming.

Or maybe I’m just recognising other “benevolent inventors.” 😉

Whatever this feeling is, OpenMoko might drive my dream phone in the not-so-distant future!

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Smells Like Geek Spirit

Ok, too easy. But this piece does mention odours:

Take off your suit pants and jacket — It’s Web 2.0 – Blogs – Code Monkey Business – Builder AU

And, as always, I’m fascinated by geek culture. I associate with it, to an extent, even though I am not a coder.

It’s still really funny, all these parallels between the Net boom of the mid-to-late 90’s and the rather recent “Web 2.0” discussions.