Category Archives: media

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?

Culture and Health: Contact and Coverage

It’s late in the game, as the story has already made the rounds, but I guess I was under a rock.

FUNAI, a Brazilian foundation which aims to help indigenous groups, has released pictures of a relatively isolated group in the Amazon region. Apparently, the purpose of those pictures was to show how healthy these people seemed to be, contrary to folk beliefs about indigenous groups. These folk beliefs are widespread in post-industrial societies and seem to relate to basic ethnocentrism.

Some major media outlets released those same pictures with captions and other comments about allegedly “uncontacted tribes.” Through the “telephone game,” the same images became part of an awkwardly anachronistic coverage of cultural diversity, many comments being made from a resolutely neo-evolutionist perspective. A whole debacle ensued. Several anthropologists have been contacted to comment on the situation.

So far, the most thoughtful piece of writing I’ve seen about the whole situation is this one:

‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist! « Culture Matters

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if media debacles such as this one could be avoided? One would hope that a good dose of critical thinking and some thoughtful blogging might help.

I Like Car Ads

Lots of people are talking about issues with advertisement in today’s stuffy mediascape. I stopped watching television a while ago and I rarely read offline print but I do “consume media” online. And “media” still mostly means advertisement-supported business models, at this point in Internet history.

So I get to think about ads, on occasion. For instance, while watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And one thing I notice fairly consistently is that I quite like television commercials for cars.

Those who know me might be puzzled as I’ve never had a driver’s license, I never bought a car, and I have no plans to buy a car in the foreseeable future. But that’s precisely a reason for me to enjoy car ads: they really don’t seem to affect me. If I ever buy a car, I’ll be as careful a shopper as I can be. There’s a slight possibility that some of the incredibly large number of car ads I’ve seen in my life might influence me. But that’s rather unlikely, given the saturation level with commercials from automobile makers. It’s also unlikely that I would influence other people based on my perception of a car manufacturer based on their marketing since I rarely remember which car is made by which company.

So I occasionally pay attention to those car ads, having in mind the notion that I’m relatively immune to them. And I frequently enjoy them. They’re often well-produced, they sometimes contain fun little bits, and are almost never obnoxious.

What’s funny about this specific case is that a car ad came on right after I watched a segment about oil prices.

Even funnier is the fact that the still image ad displayed on the page while I watch these segments is a campaign for the local transit system (Capital Metro). The campaign does influence me as the grand prize is one of Apple’s Touch devices and I’ve been lusting over those for a while. Yet I probably won’t enter this contest since I don’t evaluate my chances of winning to be rather low. The fact that ad may influence in terms of taking the bus is quite irrelevant since I already use the bus very frequently (except for when I walk or when I end up getting a ride with someone). I already support Capital Metro and I’m quite favorable to the very idea of using public transit. So I find Capital Metro’s campaign quite enjoyable

So… Another neat thing about being a compulsive pedestrian.

Hey, it gives me an idea for a new blog.

Fair-Minded Anthropocentrism

As part of an anthropologist’s mission is the task, infrequently discussed, of determining what is “unique to humanity as a species.” Defining the human condition, we want to find that which is exclusively human. Not that we’re restrictive in our approaches. We are, in fact, very inclusive on the whole. We simply care about “what it means to be human.” Human beings are our main focus so we should be allowed to concentrate on them, using all those angles we like to use (through time and space, looking at diversity and universalism in culture, language, biology, etc.).

Yet, in this bio-obsessed neo-Darwinian world in which we live, someone’s focus on a single species is sometimes viewed as overly restrictive. In some milieus, “anthropocentrism” (like most other “-centrisms”) is perceived as a fault. In some contexts, especially in mainstream science media, “anthropomorphism” (like some other “-morphisms”) is conceived as a fallacy, a logical error.

As should be obvious, my perspective is somewhat different.

The broad reason I think about these things is a bit personal. I listen to a number of science podcasts and I encounter a number of news items about science. As an anthropologist, I’m particularly interested when science journalists or others are talking about humanity in a broad perspective. To be honest, I get slightly disappointed by the type of approach used in these contexts. In a way, those we hear on these issues tend to oversimplify the type of concept which warrants, IMHO, the most careful attention. Sure, there might be a disciplinary bias in my desire to get some concepts more carefully handled by “science media.” But there’s also a rational dimension to this desire. For instance, “culture” and “intelligence” are terms which are very significant when used with caution but become hindrances when oversimplified. A term like “species,” on the other hand, remains rather useful even in a simplified version. As a kind of hybrid case, “society” can be a fairly simple concept to grasp yet care is needed to understand what particular “social scientists” mean by it.

Clearly, there’s a type of “hard vs. soft” science issue, here. And though the disciplinary gap in science hardness is bridged by scholars themselves, science media outlets are often broadening this gap.

Became motivated to write this post after listening to the broadcast version of the latest episode of Radio-Canada’s science show. This specific episode included a panel on animal behavior, intelligence, and “culture.” This panel came at the end of a conference series on “animal societies” and related issues.

During the radio panel, one scholar dismissed the idea of using so restrictive a set of criteria to define intelligence that it would only apply to humans. The same scholar also dismissed criteria which would be so broad as to include a large number of species. In the end, this scholar’s goal is apparently to define intelligence in a quantitative way so as to encompass just enough species to be meaningful in the type of framework he has in mind.

“Fair enough,” I say. If people like him want to build a quantitative model of intelligence which includes some animal species and not others, there’s no harm in that. Science is model-building and model-testing, not “blind obedience to absolutes.” There wasn’t any discussion of why we would need such a model but, unfortunately, we can expect this kind of oversight in mainstream science media.

What I hope is also “fair enough” is that some anthropologists are attempting to build a meaningful (not exclusively quantitative) model of human intelligence which would, in effect, exclude non-human species. Not trying to say that human beings are “better” or more interesting. Just trying to show where humans and other species differ. Because many of us use do not restrict research to quantitative methods, it matters relatively little if the distance between humans and other species seems rather short. So much hinges on this distance that we can call it “significant.” It’s as much our right as the right to study phenomena which are in some ways similar to human intelligence. In fact, those who study non-human intelligence can help us in defining the outer limits of our field. Division of labor in academia is effective when people are open-minded.

During that same radio panel, another scholar dismissed the distinction between “culture” (“human culture”) and “proto-culture” (“culture among non-human species including proto-human hominids”). This scholar was using an (IMHO) awkward analogy having to do with the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. (Something to the effect that we didn’t need a new name of automobiles so we don’t need a new name for human culture.) The fact that the analogy isn’t very effective is slightly amusing. More importantly, the dismissive statement displays a “pushy” attitude which I don’t find conducive to interdisciplinary work. Oh, sure, scholars in any discipline might display this attitude on occasion. In fact, I probably said similar things in classroom contexts, in order to make a point about something I was teaching. What I find problematic has more to do with overrepresentation from simplistic approaches to culture in mainstream science media. I don’t necessarily want “equal representation” (that’s not the way science works) but I would be pleased if mainstream science media could occasionally have culture scholars talking about culture.

Ah, well…

Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk reaction on my part. That’s why it appears on my blog.

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Ethnocentrism and Toponymy (Draft Notes)

This one is more of a rant. At least, it’s about a pet peeve. But I don’t think I’ll flesh it out unless I feel really motivated.

Basically, I wish people used more precise terms to designate different parts of the world and I can’t help but feel that there’s some ethnocentrism involved in the placenames used by many people including (or especially) journalists.

It’s really not about political correctness. It’s about accuracy, precision, clarity.

Terms I tend to like:

  • West Asia
  • Southwest Asia
  • Central Asia
  • Eurasia
  • North Asia
  • East Asia
  • South Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • North Africa
  • West Africa
  • Central Africa
  • East Africa
  • Southern Africa
  • Northeastern Africa
  • Northwestern North America
  • Northeastern North America
  • Northeastern United States
  • Southeastern United States
  • Southwestern United States
  • Continental United States
  • Continental Europe
  • Southeastern Europe
  • South America

Term use I find just a bit tricky but still fit, for mostly historical reasons. I just wish they were more precise.

  • Americas
  • Europe
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Western Europe
  • Northern Europe
  • Southern Europe
  • Scandinavia
  • Baltic
  • Balkans
  • New England
  • North America
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • MidWest
  • The North
  • The South
  • Central America
  • Caribbean
  • Antilles
  • Oceania

I also get slightly annoyed at the reliance on country names, especially in mainstream media, but I do understand why they seem so important to journalists and news-guzzlers.

Terms which rapidly get problematic:

  • “America” (Is it the continent, the “United States of,” or the very concept of the “New World?”)
  • Bible Belt
  • Sunbelt
  • Rust Belt
  • Middle America
  • Orient
  • Occident
  • The West
  • Black Africa («Afrique Noire»)
  • Latin America
  • Levant
  • Far East
  • Near East
  • Middle East

Of course, “Middle East” is the one I find most problematic. Not only has its meaning shifted over the years but it’s one of those terms which hides more than it reveals. Oh, sure, I enjoy ambiguity. But I like ambiguity when it’s purposeful, obvious. Honest. The type of ambiguity afforded “Middle East” is more than Orientalism. It’s halfhearted neo-colonialism.

Ah, well.

Game, Drama, Fashion Show, Media Event?

Austin, my current hometown, was host last night to the kind of event which gets national coverage. This time, 43,436 people tried to attend the event but only a hundred of them got selected. There were also 400 tickets for around 18,000 UT students who had entered the lottery.

Contrary to what one might guess, the event was not about Longhorn Football. Although, one of the protagonists in last night’s event, a basketball player, did visit UT’s famous team.

The “post-game analysis” makes it sound like a match between two sports teams.

Interestingly enough, it’s a mixed sport, making it easy for journalists to use pronouns to distinguish players in the two teams. One source described the night’s event as possible end game for the team led by a woman:

After losing a string of contests to [him] over the last several weeks, she is running neck-and-neck with him in Texas, according to some polls, a state in which she previously had a commanding lead.

One might think it was a fashion show:

the gold piping on her raised black collar and pockets gave her a martial, commander-in-chief look (the very model of a modern major general)

But I also get the impression that it was a theater premiere, with one source describing one actor’s “classic ‘I-feel-your-pain’ finale” meant to go to watchers’ “heads and hearts.”

In the end, the event was mostly “media event.” By the media, for the media, of the media.

Most likely, it won’t change the dynamic of this race, though the true effect of it will be determined by the media coverage around it: Should it get replayed over and over on television, it just may have an impact on this race and could stand out as the debate’s most striking moment.

So, I’m a bit puzzled by the whole thing.

Les pieds dans la marge

En réponse à: / Rentrée radio-canadienne

Suis pas trop télé. Pour dire la franche vérité, ces temps-ci, les émissions qui me plaisent le plus passent surtout à Télé-Québec (y compris Méchant contraste et autres émissions à intérêt social, ce qui est important pour un anthropologue).
Hier, un peu par hasard, ma femme et moi avons regardé quelques émissions radio-canadiennes, dont Les pieds dans la marge. Retonti ici en faisant une recherche pour une comparaison avec Pop Citrouille. Content de voir que c’est une YulBlogueuse qui en parle.
Ça nous a pris quelques minutes pour nous habituer au style d’humour. On savait pas du tout à quoi s’attendre, à qui ça s’adressait. Une de mes premières réactions était que ça ressemblait vraiment à Pop Citrouille, presque une émission-culte de ma jeunesse. Mais avec un peu de Bruno Blanchette (N’ajustez pas votre sécheuse), du Phylactère Cola, du Dans une galaxie près de chez vous, et même un peu de Têtes à claques. D’ailleurs, parlant de TàC, les nouvelles de CBC avait un segment sur le passage possible des vidéos en-ligne les plus connus au Québec (autre que Lynda Tremblay décoration sur YouTube) à la langue anglaise. La lectrice de nouvelles, un peu pincée, qui nous dit que Têtes à claques est… difficile à décrire. Precious! 😉
Pour revenir aux Pieds. C’est très absurde, évidemment. Débridé. Flyé, même. Mais aussi pas mal gutsy. Un petit côté scato, mais pas extrême ni même inapproprié. Ça semble s’adresser à des jeunes ados, mais sans être vraiment puéril.
Ça faisait longtemps que j’avais pas vu des émissions du genre. Et, honnêtement, ça m’étonne un peu de RadCan qui semble se cantonner dans des émissions très structurées, voire stiff.
tk… Tout ça pour dire que j’ai bien aimé et que je suis content de voir que le parallèle avec la mythique Pop Citrouille est bien attesté.

Why Podcasting Doesn't Work (Reason #23)

Was listening to the latest episode of Scientific American’s ScienceTalk podcast (for Januray 3, 2007). As is often the case with some of my favourite podcasts, I wanted to blog about specific issues mentioned in this episode.

Here’s the complete “show notes” for this episode (22:31 running time).

In this episode, journalist Chip Walter, author of Thumbs, Toes and Tears, takes us on a tour of the physical traits that are unique to humans, with special attention to crying, the subject of his article in the current issue of Scientific American MIND. The University of Cambridge’s Gordon Smith discusses the alarming lack of any randomized, controlled trials to determine the efficacy of parachutes. Plus we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;;

AFAICT, there’s a direct link to the relevant MP3 file (which may be downloaded with a default name of “podcast.mp3” through a browser’s “save link as” feature),  an embedded media player to listen to the episode, some links to subscribe to podcast through RSS, My Yahoo, or iTunes, and a menu to browse for episodes by month. Kind of neat.

But what’s wrong with this picture?

In my mind, a few things. And these are pretty common for podcasts.

First, there are no clickable links in the show notes. Sure, anybody can copy/paste the URLs in a browser but there’s something just slightly frustrating about having to do that instead of just clicking on a link directly. In fact, these links are quite generic and would still require that people look for information themselves, instead of pinpointing exactly which scientific articles were featured in the podcast. What’s worse, the Chip Walter article discussed in the podcast isn’t currently found on the main page for the current issue of Scientific American’s Mind. To add insult to injury, the URL for that article is the mnemo-friendly:

Catchy! 😉

These are common issues with show notes and are easily solved. I should just write SciAm to comment on this. But there are deeper issues.

One reason blogging caught on so well is that it’s very easy to link and quote from one blog to another. In fact, most blogging platforms have bookmarklets and other tools to make it easy to create a blog entry by selecting text and/or images from any web page, clicking on the bookmarklet, adding a few comments, and pressing the “Publish” button. In a matter of seconds, you can have your blog entry ready. If the URL to the original text is static, readers of your blog are able to click on a link accompanying the quote to put it in context. In effect, those blog entries are merely tagging web content. But the implications are deeper. You’re associating something of yourself with that content. You’re applying some basic rules of attribution by providing enough information to identify the source of an idea. You’re making it easy for readers to follow streams of thought. If the original is a trackback-/ping-enabled blog system, you’re telling the original author that you’re refering to her piece. You’re creating new content that can, in itself, serve as the basis for something new. You might even create a pseudo-community of like-minded people. All with a few clicks and types.

Compare with the typical (audio) podcast episode. You listen to it while commuting or while doing some other low-attention activity. You suddenly want to talk about what you heard. Go out and reach someone. You do have a few options. You can go and look at the show notes if they exist and use the same bookmarklet procedure to create a blog entry. Or you can simply tell someone “hey, check out the latest ScienceTalk, from SciAm, it’s got some neat things about common sense and human choking.” If the podcast has a forum, you can go in the forum and post something to listeners of that podcast. If the show notes are in blog form, you may post comments for those who read the show notes. And you could do all sorts of things with the audio recording that you have, including bookmark it (depending on the device you use to listen to audio files). But all of these are quite limited.

You can’t copy/paste an excerpt from the episode. You can’t link to a specific segment of that episode. You can’t realistically expect most of your blog readers to access the whole podcast just to get the original tidbit. Blog readers may not easily process the original information further. In short, podcasts aren’t easily bloggable.

Podcast episodes are often big enough that it’s not convenient to keep them on your computer or media device.  Though it is possible to bookmark audio and video files, there’s no standard method to keep and categorize these bookmarks. Many podcasts make it very hard to find a specific episode. Some podcasts in fact make all but the most recent episodes unavailable for download. Few devices make it convenient to just skim over a podcast. Though speed listening seems to be very effective (like speed reading) at making informative content stick in someone’s head, few solutions exist for speed listening to podcasts. A podcast’s RSS entry may contain a useful summary but there’s no way to scale up or down the amount of information we get about different podcast segments like we can do with text-based RSS feeds in, say, Safari 2.0 and up. Audio files can’t easily be indexed, searched, or automatically summarized. Most data mining procedures don’t work with audio files. Few formats allow for direct linking from the audio file to other online content and those formats that do allow for such linking aren’t ubiquitous. Responding to a podcast with a podcast (or audio/video comment) is doable but is more time-consuming than written reactions to written content. Editing audio/video content is more involving than, say, proofreading a forum comment before sending it. Relatively few people respond in writing to blogs and forums and it’s quite likely that the proportion of people who would feel comfortable responding to podcasts with audio/video recordings is much smaller than blog/forum commenters.

And, of course, video podcasts (a big trend in podcasting) aren’t better than audio podcasts on any of these fronts.

Speech recognition technology and podcast-transcription services like podzinger may make some of these issues moot but they’re all far from perfect, often quite costly, and are certainly not in widespread use. A few podcasts (well, at least one) with very dedicated listeners have listeners effectively transcribe the complete verbal content of every podcast episode and this content can work as blog-ammo. But chances that such a practice may become common are slim to none.

Altogether,  podcasting is more about passive watching/listening than about active engagement in widespread dialogue. Similar to our good old friend (and compatriot) McLuhan described as “hot,” instead of “cool” media. (Always found the distinction counter-intuitive myself, but it fits, to a degree…)

Having said all of this, I recently embarked in my first real podcasting endeavor, having my lectures be distributed in podcast form, within the Moodle course management system. Lecturecasts have been on my mind for a while. So this is an opportunity for me to see, as a limited experiment, whether it can appropriately be integrated in my teaching.

As it turns out, I don’t have much to do to make the lecturecasts possible. Concordia University has a service to set it all up for me. They give me a wireless lapel microphone, record that signal, put the MP3 file on one of their servers, and add that file in Moodle as a tagged podcast episode (Moodle handles the RSS and other technical issues). Neat!

Moodle itself makes most of the process quite easy. And because the podcasts are integrated within the broader course management structure, it might be possible to alleviate some of the previously-mentioned issues.  In this case, the podcast is a complementary/supplementary component of the complete course. It might help students revise the content, spark discussions, invite reflections about the necessity of note-taking, enable neat montages, etc. Or it might have negative impacts on classroom attendance, send the message that note-taking isn’t important, put too much of the spotlight on my performance (or lack thereof) as a speaker, etc.

Still, I like the fact that I can try this out in the limited context of my own classes.

Building Ethics and Media

I sometimes have issues with moral entrepreneurs and other self-righteous “do what I preach or submit to my wrath” people. I certainly tolerate and respect them, but I do have some difficulties coping with their attitude.

On the other hand, I certainly salute initiatives which combine ethical values with self-empowerment, sustainable development, alter-globalization, sound economic principles, and pure, plain fun. I’m not an activist myself but I support and admire those who have the convictions of their strength.

Continue reading Building Ethics and Media