Category Archives: naïve

Yoga and Community in Contemporary North America

Last night, Matthew Remski’s chapter on yoga “culture” served as the basis for a conversation on yoga and communities. Roseanne Harvey had invited some panelists and like-minded people to join her at Andrew Gordon Middleton’s and Michael O’Brien’s Studio Flow Space in Verdun.

After the conversation, I started reading Remski’s chapter in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, the collected essays that Roseanne has edited with Carol Horton.

Several things transpired from this conversation and, though I’m still a yoga newbie, I thought I’d post a few thoughts.

Most important, to me, is the realization that yoga may be antithetical to community development. Remski’s chapter made some of this painfully clear and I had such a feeling of recognition while reading the first part of this chapter that I almost clapped. (It’d have been weird, since I was in the métro.)

Yoga, like transcendentalism, focuses on individualism. As Margaret Fuller with transcendentalism, I find something unsatisfying in this. While I can understand the value of therapeutic self-centredness, I can only handle it for short periods of time. As an extrovert, I need some level of social interaction, especially if I can help others. Navigating either Nietzsche or Thoreau, I quickly feel trapped in a limited world.

Which brings me to Catholicism. The topic ended up being a significant piece of the backdrop to last night’s conversation. Though I wasn’t baptized (and, therefore, not officially a member of the Catholic community), I was raised in a quickly-secularizing Catholic context (Québécois society during the Quiet Revolution). Culturally, I associate more directly with the Catholic Play Ethic (or with the Sensual Ethic) than with what Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). Sounds like Remski may be in a similar situation. And so were some participants in last night’s conversation. Not that no Catholic subscribes to PWE or that all Protestants are caught in it. But it’s remarkable how “key scenarios” may differ along such lines. I’d rather have a picnic with Manet (or Monet) or a food fight with Gwen Stefani and the band than a success story written by Horatio Alger. Just don’t get me started about the difference between Fellini and Bergman.

What does this have to do with yoga? Precious little. Yoga is about self-improvement and introspection… until it becomes about interdependence, intersubjectivity, and projecting the mind outside the self. Only then does yoga reach a sense of community. But this sense of community isn’t local, social, cultural, spatial. It’s sense of universal community of mind, beyond such pesky little things as families, cities, countries, and social movements. In “loving kindness” meditation, the shift from individuals to the Whole Earth doesn’t sound very gradual. Sure, “the community” can be there as a target for meditation. But the difference in kind between a neighbourhood community and, say, the community of spirit between humans and locusts affords little discussion, in such a context.

Playing the social scientist during yesterday’s convo, I couldn’t help but point out two key features of communities, from a social science perspective: sense of belonging and interdependency. Though they apply to any community, they may be especially useful in the yoga context. I don’t know enough about yoga to be sure about this, but comments made after I mentioned these two dimensions did sound like they resonated with my simple description.

Interdependency is a recent addition to my definition of community. A student in my “Cyberspace Sociology” course added it as a key feature, and it really helps to bring things in focus. One aspect of this dimension is that community isn’t necessarily something we choose. We may choose some of our neighbours but we may be affected by many community members who’d otherwise have “nothing to do with us”. Also, given issues surrounding our natural environment, the ecological principles behind communities are easy to describe: we can “do our part” but the system can still be dysfunctional if some people don’t. As both victims of climate change and perpetrators of pollution which takes part in it, we can perceive the implications of being dependent on one another. Not to mention that interdependence is an important concept in yoga.

The sense of belonging part may afford more unpacking. Sure, hippies have reappropriated “kumbaya” as the mushy version of belonging. That one fits in the “community of spirits” model. In anthropology, we tend to focus on the “community of experience” model (if not on the “community of practise” one). To do so, some of us refer to Victor Turner’s communitas, based on the liminal phase in initiation rituals. Through this concept, we identify a space for intense relationships among equals, typical of people subjected to a difficult experience together. The concept also involves a separation from the rest of the social system.

By extension, we can think about the divisive nature of social identity: if there’s an us, there’s also a them. Quite frequently, this them is a particular group, with which the community entertains a rivalry. Montreal may be Quebec City’s “Other”, even though Montrealers care very little about the “national capital”. Fans of the Maple Leafs may also perceive Montreal as the other, although I’ve heard more anti-Boston sentiment in my youth than anything about Toronto.

Yoga’s communities are peculiar. It sounds like it may be possible to create a sense of belonging through yoga retreats and other occasions for shared experiences. Yet the embedded hierarchy of many yoga instruction models may shift the communitas away from “practice”. Bonding works remarkably well when people have a common foe (an initiator causing harm would be an appropriate figure, here). However authoritative they may be, yoga instructors may not desire this type of antagonism.

Though (as was clear from last night’s discussion) some yoga studios enter in direct competition as businesses, yoga communities may not be ideal places for impassioned rivalries. The “slippery slope” from opposition between groups and outright conflict may make peace-loving yoginis and yogis think twice about this type of chants and cheers.

Which isn’t to say that the yoga world lacks distinction. In fact, yoga sociology has a lot to explore. From the outside, the internal structure of the North American yogasphere is fascinating. But that structure, it sounds like, rarely made explicit. It also sounds like it’s inward-looking, to a fairly large extent. The yogasphere includes all sorts of yoga practitioners, but it’s focused on yoga teachers and other experts, not necessarily on the local embedding of yoga practice. Yoga studios, in this model, are like havens of peace in a fastpaced world. The them group comprises a large number of people who don’t get yoga.

Personally, I’m more interested in how communities can appropriate yoga. Yes, it involves the adaptation of yoga practice, which implies some level of inauthenticity. Thanks to the association between yoga and New Age (a drone under 21st Century Yoga), yoga specialists may shy away from this type of reappropriation. Yet, empowering communities through yoga-inspired practice could be a worthy cause for yogactivists.

Yoga needs space. A key theme during yesterday’s discussion was space: studio rent, overhead, location, sense of place, neighbourhoods as markets… In North American cities, yoga doesn’t own much space, and that’s the crux of the problem.

This is where we can go back to Catholicism, where Remski started his essay on yoga “culture”. It was an underlying theme through the discussion. (Funnily enough, the conversation was structured by a key figure who invited four “evangelists” and we were eight “disciples”.)

The Catholic Church does own space. In fact, a large part of the “business model” for the Catholic clergy relates to real estate. As many of these properties are being sold, there may be opportunities for community ownership of prime space. In fact, I’m a research associate for a community organization involved in a community-based project surrounding the reappropriation of a church. Wasn’t thinking about yoga in that space, but I’m sure some other people have been. Last summer, Yoga en rouge was happening (led by Audrey Béliveau) in Parc Molson, next door to that church. And it’s clearly a grassroots community affair.

I’m not (officially) Catholic and I’m a n00b to yoga. I’m finally grokking the difficulties to develop community membership through yoga. So I’ll continue doing my yoga practice at home, by myself, away from other people’s gaze. Still feels good.

Concierge-Style Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Point is, the service sector is quite big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future of Learning Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s based on Flash.

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

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

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

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

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

Which eventually brings me back to learning and teaching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I envision is an improvement over PDFs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”, you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance (hypothetical example):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll  need to rethink a few things…

And Wesch sure has been thinking about learning.

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

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

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

Intimacy, Network Effect, Hype

Is “intimacy” a mere correlate of the network effect?

Can we use the network effect to explain what has been happening with Quora?

Is the Quora hype related to network effect?

I really don’t feel a need to justify my dislike of Quora. Oh, sure, I can explain it. At length. Even on Quora itself. And elsewhere. But I tend to sense some defensiveness on the part of Quora fans.

[Speaking of fans, I have blogposts on fanboism laying in my head, waiting to be hatched. Maybe this will be part of it.]

But the important point, to me, isn’t about whether or not I like Quora. It’s about what makes Quora so divisive. There are people who dislike it and there are some who defend it.

Originally, I was only hearing from contacts and friends who just looooved Quora. So I was having a “Ionesco moment”: why is it that seemingly “everyone” who uses it loves Quora when, to me, it represents such a move in the wrong direction? Is there something huge I’m missing? Or has that world gone crazy?

It was a surreal experience.

And while I’m all for surrealism, I get this strange feeling when I’m so unable to understand a situation. It’s partly a motivation for delving into the issue (I’m surely not the only ethnographer to get this). But it’s also unsettling.

And, for Quora at least, this phase seems to be over. I now think I have a good idea as to what makes for such a difference in people’s experiences with Quora.

It has to do with the network effect.

I’m sure some Quora fanbois will disagree, but it’s now such a clear picture in my mind that it gets me into the next phase. Which has little to do with Quora itself.

The “network effect” is the kind of notion which is so commonplace that few people bother explaining it outside of introductory courses (same thing with “group forming” in social psychology and sociology, or preferential marriage patterns in cultural anthropology). What someone might call (perhaps dismissively): “textbook stuff.”

I’m completely convinced that there’s a huge amount of research on the network effect, but I’m also guessing few people looking it up. And I’m accusing people, here. Ever since I first heard of it (in 1993, or so), I’ve rarely looked at explanations of it and I actually don’t care about the textbook version of the concept. And I won’t “look it up.” I’m more interested in diverse usage patterns related to the concept (I’m a linguistic anthropologist).

So, the version I first heard (at a time when the Internet was off most people’s radar) was something like: “in networked technology, you need critical mass for the tools to become truly useful. For instance, the telephone has no use if you’re the only one with one and it has only very limited use if you can only call a single person.” Simple to the point of being simplistic, but a useful reminder.

Over the years, I’ve heard and read diverse versions of that same concept, usually in more sophisticated form, but usually revolving around the same basic idea that there’s a positive effect associated with broader usage of some networked technology.

I’m sure specialists have explored every single implication of this core idea, but I’m not situating myself as a specialist of technological networks. I’m into social networks, which may or may not be associated with technology (however defined). There are social equivalents of the “network effect” and I know some people are passionate about those. But I find that it’s quite limiting to focus so exclusively on quantitative aspects of social networks. What’s so special about networks, in a social science perspective, isn’t scale. Social scientists are used to working with social groups at any scale and we’re quite aware of what might happen at different scales. But networks are fascinating because of different features they may have. We may gain a lot when we think of social networks as acephalous, boundless, fluid, nameless, indexical, and impactful. [I was actually lecturing about some of this in my “Intro to soci” course, yesterday…]

So, from my perspective, “network effect” is an interesting concept when talking about networked technology, in part because it relates to the social part of those networks (innovation happens mainly through technological adoption, not through mere “invention”). But it’s not really the kind of notion I’d visit regularly.

This case is somewhat different. I’m perceiving something rather obvious (and which is probably discussed extensively in research fields which have to do with networked technology) but which strikes me as missing from some discussions of social networking systems online. In a way, it’s so obvious that it’s kind of difficult to explain.

But what’s coming up in my mind has to do with a specific notion of “intimacy.” It’s actually something which has been on my mind for a while and it might still need to “bake” a bit longer before it can be shared properly. But, like other University of the Streets participants, I perceive the importance of sharing “half-baked thoughts.”

And, right now, I’m thinking of an anecdotal context which may get the point across.

Given my attendance policy, there are class meetings during which a rather large proportion of the class is missing. I tend to call this an “intimate setting,” though I’m aware that it may have different connotations to different people. From what I can observe, people in class get the point. The classroom setting is indeed changing significantly and it has to do with being more “intimate.”

Not that we’re necessarily closer to one another physically or intellectually. It needs not be a “bonding experience” for the situation to be interesting. And it doesn’t have much to do with “absolute numbers” (a classroom with 60 people is relatively intimate when the usual attendance is close to 100; a classroom with 30 people feels almost overwhelming when only 10 people were showing up previously). But there’s some interesting phenomenon going on when there are fewer people than usual, in a classroom.

Part of this phenomenon may relate to motivation. In some ways, one might expect that those who are attending at that point are the “most dedicated students” in the class. This might be a fairly reasonable assumption in the context of a snowstorm but it might not work so well in other contexts (say, when the incentive to “come to class” relates to extrinsic motivation). So, what’s interesting about the “intimate setting” isn’t necessarily that it brings together “better people.” It’s that something special goes on.

What’s going on, with the “intimate classroom,” can vary quite a bit. But there’s still “something special” about it. Even when it’s not a bonding experience, it’s still a shared experience. While “communities of practice” are fascinating, this is where I tend to care more about “communities of experience.” And, again, it doesn’t have much to do with scale and it may have relatively little to do with proximity (physical or intellectual). But it does have to do with cognition and communication. What is special with the “intimate classroom” has to do with shared assumptions.

Going back to Quora…

While an online service with any kind of network effect is still relatively new, there’s something related to the “intimate setting” going on. In other words, it seems like the initial phase of the network effect is the “intimacy” phase: the service has a “large enough userbase” to be useful (so, it’s achieved a first type of critical mass) but it’s still not so “large” as to be overwhelming.

During that phase, the service may feel to people like a very welcoming place. Everyone can be on a “first-name basis. ” High-status users mingle with others as if there weren’t any hierarchy. In this sense, it’s a bit like the liminal phase of a rite of passage, during which communitas is achieved.

This phase is a bit like the Golden Age for an online service with a significant “social dimension.” It’s the kind of time which may make people “wax nostalgic about the good ole days,” once it’s over. It’s the time before the BYT comes around.

Sure, there’s a network effect at stake.  You don’t achieve much of a “sense of belonging” by yourself. But, yet again, it’s not really a question of scale. You can feel a strong bond in a dyad and a team of three people can perform quite well. On the other hand, the cases about which I’m thinking are orders of magnitude beyond the so-called “Dunbar number” which seems to obsess so many people (outside of anthro, at least).

Here’s where it might get somewhat controversial (though similar things have been said about Quora): I’d argue that part of this “intimacy effect” has to do with a sense of “exclusivity.” I don’t mean this as the way people talk about “elitism” (though, again, there does seem to be explicit elitism involved in Quora’s case). It’s more about being part of a “select group of people.” About “being there at the time.” It can get very elitist, snobbish, and self-serving very fast. But it’s still about shared experiences and, more specifically, about the perceived boundedness of communities of experience.

We all know about early adopters, of course. And, as part of my interest in geek culture, I keep advocating for more social awareness in any approach to the adoption part of social media tools. But what I mean here isn’t about a “personality type” or about the “attributes of individual actors.” In fact, this is exactly a point at which the study of social networks starts deviating from traditional approaches to sociology. It’s about the special type of social group the “initial userbase” of such a service may represent.

From a broad perspective (as outsiders, say, or using the comparativist’s “etic perspective”), that userbase is likely to be rather homogeneous. Depending on the enrollment procedure for the service, the structure of the group may be a skewed version of an existing network structure. In other words, it’s quite likely that, during that phase, most of the people involved were already connected through other means. In Quora’s case, given the service’s pushy overeagerness on using Twitter and Facebook for recruitment, it sounds quite likely that many of the people who joined Quora could already be tied through either Twitter or Facebook.

Anecdotally, it’s certainly been my experience that the overwhelming majority of people who “follow me on Quora” have been part of my first degree on some social media tool in the recent past. In fact, one of my main reactions as I’ve been getting those notifications of Quora followers was: “here are people with whom I’ve been connected but with whom I haven’t had significant relationships.” In some cases, I was actually surprised that these people would “follow” me while it appeared like they actually weren’t interested in having any kind of meaningful interactions. To put it bluntly, it sometimes appeared as if people who had been “snubbing” me were suddenly interested in something about me. But that was just in the case of a few people I had unsuccessfully tried to engage in meaningful interactions and had given up thinking that we might not be that compatible as interlocutors. Overall, I was mostly surprised at seeing the quick uptake in my follower list, which doesn’t tend to correlate with meaningful interaction, in my experience.

Now that I understand more about the unthinking way new Quora users are adding people to their networks, my surprise has transformed into an additional annoyance with the service. In a way, it’s a repeat of the time (what was it? 2007?) when Facebook applications got their big push and we kept receiving those “app invites” because some “social media mar-ke-tors” had thought it wise to force people to “invite five friends to use the service.” To Facebook’s credit (more on this later, I hope), these pushy and thoughtless “invitations” are a thing of the past…on those services where people learnt a few lessons about social networks.

Perhaps interestingly, I’ve had a very similar experience with Scribd, at about the same time. I was receiving what seemed like a steady flow of notifications about people from my first degree online network connecting with me on Scribd, whether or not they had ever engaged in a meaningful interaction with me. As with Quora, my initial surprise quickly morphed into annoyance. I wasn’t using any service much and these meaningless connections made it much less likely that I would ever use these services to get in touch with new and interesting people. If most of the people who are connecting with me on Quora and Scribd are already in my first degree and if they tend to be people I have limited interactions, why would I use these services to expand the range of people with whom I want to have meaningful interactions? They’re already within range and they haven’t been very communicative (for whatever reason, I don’t actually assume they were consciously snubbing me). Investing in Quora for “networking purposes” seemed like a futile effort, for me.

Perhaps because I have a specific approach to “networking.”

In my networking activities, I don’t focus on either “quantity” or “quality” of the people involved. I seriously, genuinely, honestly find something worthwhile in anyone with whom I can eventually connect, so the “quality of the individuals” argument doesn’t work with me. And I’m seriously, genuinely, honestly not trying to sell myself on a large market, so the “quantity” issue is one which has almost no effect on me. Besides, I already have what I consider to be an amazing social network online, in terms of quality of interactions. Sure, people with whom I interact are simply amazing. Sure, the size of my first degree network on some services is “well above average.” But these things wouldn’t matter at all if I weren’t able to have meaningful interactions in these contexts. And, as it turns out, I’m lucky enough to be able to have very meaningful interactions in a large range of contexts, both offline and on. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m teaching addict. Part of it has to do with the fact that I’m a papillon social (social butterfly). It may even have to do with a stage in my life, at which I still care about meeting new people but I don’t really need new people in my circle. Part of it makes me much less selective than most other people (I like to have new acquaintances) and part of it makes me more selective (I don’t need new “friends”). If it didn’t sound condescending, I’d say it has to do with maturity. But it’s not about my own maturity as a human being. It’s about the maturity of my first-degree network.

There are other people who are in an expansionist phase. For whatever reason (marketing and job searches are the best-known ones, but they’re really not the only ones), some people need to get more contacts and/or contacts with people who have some specific characteristics. For instance, there are social activists out there who need to connect to key decision-makers because they have a strong message to carry. And there are people who were isolated from most other people around them because of stigmatization who just need to meet non-judgmental people. These, to me, are fine goals for someone to expand her or his first-degree network.

Some of it may have to do with introversion. While extraversion is a “dominant trait” of mine, I care deeply about people who consider themselves introverts, even when they start using it as a divisive label. In fact, that’s part of the reason I think it’d be neat to hold a ShyCamp. There’s a whole lot of room for human connection without having to rely on devices of outgoingness.

So, there are people who may benefit from expansion of their first-degree network. In this context, the “network effect” matters in a specific way. And if I think about “network maturity” in this case, there’s no evaluation involved, contrary to what it may seem like.

As you may have noticed, I keep insisting on the fact that we’re talking about “first-degree network.” Part of the reason is that I was lecturing about a few key network concepts just yesterday so, getting people to understand the difference between “the network as a whole” (especially on an online service) and “a given person’s first-degree network” is important to me. But another part relates back to what I’m getting to realize about Quora and Scribd: the process of connecting through an online service may have as much to do with collapsing some degrees of separation than with “being part of the same network.” To use Granovetter’s well-known terms, it’s about transforming “weak ties” into “strong” ones.

And I specifically don’t mean it as a “quality of interaction.” What is at stake, on Quora and Scribd, seems to have little to do with creating stronger bonds. But they may want to create closer links, in terms of network topography. In a way, it’s a bit like getting introduced on LinkedIn (and it corresponds to what biz-minded people mean by “networking”): you care about having “access” to that person, but you don’t necessarily care about her or him, personally.

There’s some sense in using such an approach on “utilitarian networks” like professional or Q&A ones (LinkedIn does both). But there are diverse ways to implement this approach and, to me, Quora and Scribd do it in a way which is very precisely counterproductive. The way LinkedIn does it is context-appropriate. So is the way Academia.edu does it. In both of these cases, the “transaction cost” of connecting with someone is commensurate with the degree of interaction which is possible. On Scribd and Quora, they almost force you to connect with “people you already know” and the “degree of interaction” which is imposed on users is disproportionately high (especially in Quora’s case, where a contact of yours can annoy you by asking you personally to answer a specific question). In this sense, joining Quora is a bit closer to being conscripted in a war while registering on Academia.edu is just a tiny bit more like getting into a country club. The analogies are tenuous but they probably get the point across. Especially since I get the strong impression that the “intimacy phase” has a lot to do with the “country club mentality.”

See, the social context in which these services gain much traction (relatively tech-savvy Anglophones in North America and Europe) assign very negative connotations to social exclusion but people keep being fascinating by the affordances of “select clubs” in terms of social capital. In other words, people may be very vocal as to how nasty it would be if some people had exclusive access to some influential people yet there’s what I perceive as an obsession with influence among the same people. As a caricature: “The ‘human rights’ movement leveled the playing field and we should never ever go back to those dark days of Old Boys’ Clubs and Secret Societies. As soon as I become the most influential person on the planet, I’ll make sure that people who think like me get the benefits they deserve.”

This is where the notion of elitism, as applied specifically to Quora but possibly expanding to other services, makes the most sense. “Oh, no, Quora is meant for everyone. It’s Democratic! See? I can connect with very influential people. But, isn’t it sad that these plebeians are coming to Quora without a proper knowledge of  the only right way to ask questions and without proper introduction by people I can trust? I hate these n00bz! Even worse, there are people now on the service who are trying to get social capital by promoting themselves. The nerve on these people, to invade my own dedicated private sphere where I was able to connect with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the industry.” No wonder Quora is so journalistic.

But I’d argue that there’s a part of this which is a confusion between first-degree networks and connection. Before Quora, the same people were indeed connected to these “influential people,” who allegedly make Quora such a unique system. After all, they were already online and I’m quite sure that most of them weren’t more than three or four degrees of separation from Quora’s initial userbase. But access to these people was difficult because connections were indirect. “Mr. Y Z, the CEO of Company X was already in my network, since there were employees of Company X who were connected through Twitter to people who follow me. But I couldn’t just coldcall CEO Z to ask him a question, since CEOs are out of reach, in their caves. Quora changed everything because Y responded to a question by someone ‘totally unconnected to him’ so it’s clear, now, that I have direct access to my good ol’ friend Y’s inner thoughts and doubts.”

As RMS might say, this type of connection is a “seductive mirage.” Because, I would argue, not much has changed in terms of access and whatever did change was already happening all over this social context.

At the risk of sounding dismissive, again, I’d say that part of what people find so alluring in Quora is “simply” an epiphany about the Small World phenomenon. With all sorts of fallacies caught in there. Another caricature: “What? It takes only three contacts for me to send something from rural Idaho to the head honcho at some Silicon Valley firm? This is the first time something like this happens, in the History of the Whole Wide World!”

Actually, I do feel quite bad about these caricatures. Some of those who are so passionate about Quora, among my contacts, have been very aware of many things happening online since the early 1990s. But I have to be honest in how I receive some comments about Quora and much of it sounds like a sudden realization of something which I thought was a given.

The fact that I feel so bad about these characterizations relates to the fact that, contrary to what I had planned to do, I’m not linking to specific comments about Quora. Not that I don’t want people to read about this but I don’t want anyone to feel targeted. I respect everyone and my characterizations aren’t judgmental. They’re impressionistic and, again, caricatures.

Speaking of what I had planned, beginning this post… I actually wanted to talk less about Quora specifically and more about other issues. Sounds like I’m currently getting sidetracked, and it’s kind of sad. But it’s ok. The show must go on.

So, other services…

While I had a similar experiences with Scribd and Quora about getting notifications of new connections from people with whom I haven’t had meaningful interactions, I’ve had a very different experience on many (probably most) other services.

An example I like is Foursquare. “Friendship requests” I get on Foursquare are mostly from: people with whom I’ve had relatively significant interactions in the past, people who were already significant parts of my second-degree network, or people I had never heard of. Sure, there are some people with whom I had tried to establish connections, including some who seem to reluctantly follow me on Quora. But the proportion of these is rather minimal and, for me, the stakes in accepting a friend request on Foursquare are quite low since it’s mostly about sharing data I already share publicly. Instead of being able to solicit my response to a specific question, the main thing my Foursquare “friends” can do that others can’t is give me recommendations, tips, and “notifications of their presence.” These are all things I might actually enjoy, so there’s nothing annoying about it. Sure, like any online service with a network component, these days, there are some “friend requests” which are more about self-promotion. But those are usually easy to avoid and, even if I get fooled by a “social media mar-ke-tor,” the most this person may do to me is give usrecommendation about “some random place.” Again, easy to avoid. So, the “social network” dimension of Foursquare seems appropriate, to me. Not ideal, but pretty decent.

I never really liked the “game” aspect and while I did play around with getting badges and mayorships in my first few weeks, it never felt like the point of Foursquare, to me. As Foursquare eventually became mainstream in Montreal and I was asked by a journalist about my approach to Foursquare, I was exactly in the phase when I was least interested in the game aspect and wished we could talk a whole lot more about the other dimensions of the phenomenon.

And I realize that, as I’m saying this, I may sound to some as exactly those who are bemoaning the shift out of the initial userbase of some cherished service. But there are significant differences. Note that I’m not complaining about the transition in the userbase. In the Foursquare context, “the more the merrier.” I was actually glad that Foursquare was becoming mainstream as it was easier to explain to people, it became more connected with things business owners might do, and generally had more impact. What gave me pause, at the time, is the journalistic hype surrounding Foursquare which seemed to be missing some key points about social networks online. Besides, I was never annoyed by this hype or by Foursquare itself. I simply thought that it was sad that the focus would be on a dimension of the service which was already present on not only Dodgeball and other location-based services but, pretty much, all over the place. I was critical of the seemingly unthinking way people approached Foursquare but the service itself was never that big a deal for me, either way.

And I pretty much have the same attitude toward any tool. I happen to have my favourites, which either tend to fit neatly in my “workflow” or otherwise have some neat feature I enjoy. But I’m very wary of hype and backlash. Especially now. It gets old very fast and it’s been going for quite a while.

Maybe I should just move away from the “tech world.” It’s the context for such hype and buzz machine that it almost makes me angry. [I very rarely get angry.] Why do I care so much? You can say it’s accumulation, over the years. Because I still care about social media and I really do want to know what people are saying about social media tools. I just wish discussion of these tools weren’t soooo “superlative”…

Obviously, I digress. But this is what I like to do on my blog and it has a cathartic effect. I actually do feel better now, thank you.

And I can talk about some other things I wanted to mention. I won’t spend much time on them because this is long enough (both as a blogpost and as a blogging session). But I want to set a few placeholders, for further discussion.

One such placeholder is about some pet theories I have about what worked well with certain services. Which is exactly the kind of thing “social media entrepreneurs” and journalists are so interested in, but end up talking about the same dimensions.

Let’s take Twitter, for instance. Sure, sure, there’s been a lot of talk about what made Twitter a success and probably-everybody knows that it got started as a side-project at Odeo, and blah, blah, blah. Many people also realize that there were other microblogging services around as Twitter got traction. And I’m sure some people use Twitter as a “textbook case” of “network effect” (however they define that effect). I even mention the celebrity dimensions of the “Twitter phenomenon” in class (my students aren’t easily starstruck by Bieber and Gaga) and I understand why journalists are so taken by Twitter’s “broadcast” mission. But something which has been discussed relatively rarely is the level of responsiveness by Twitter developers, over the years, to people’s actual use of the service. Again, we all know that “@-replies,” “hashtags,” and “retweets” were all emerging usage patterns that Twitter eventually integrated. And some discussion has taken place when Twitter changed it’s core prompt to reflect the fact that the way people were using it had changed. But there’s relatively little discussion as to what this process implies in terms of “developing philosophy.” As people are still talking about being “proactive” (ugh!) with users, and crude measurements of popularity keep being sold and bandied about, a large part of the tremendous potential for responsiveness (through social media or otherwise) is left untapped. People prefer to hype a new service which is “likely to have Twitter-like success because it has the features users have said they wanted in the survey we sell.” Instead of talking about the “get satisfaction” effect in responsiveness. Not that “consumers” now have “more power than ever before.” But responsive developers who refrain from imposing their views (Quora, again) tend to have a more positive impact, socially, than those which are merely trying to expand their userbase.

Which leads me to talk about Facebook. I could talk for hours on end about Facebook, but I almost feel afraid to do so. At this point, Facebook is conceived in what I perceive to be such a narrow way that it seems like anything I might say would sound exceedingly strange. Given the fact that it was part one of the first waves of Web tools with explicit social components to reach mainstream adoption, it almost sounds “historical” in timeframe. But, as so many people keep saying, it’s just not that old. IMHO, part of the implication of Facebook’s relatively young age should be that we are able to discuss it as a dynamic process, instead of assigning it to a bygone era. But, whatever…

Actually, I think part of the reason there’s such lack of depth in discussing Facebook is also part of the reason it was so special: it was originally a very select service. Since, for a significant period of time, the service was only available to people with email addresses ending in “.edu,” it’s not really surprising that many of the people who keep discussing it were actually not on the service “in its formative years.” But, I would argue, the fact that it was so exclusive at first (something which is often repeated but which seems to be understood in a very theoretical sense) contributed quite significantly to its success. Of course, similar claims have been made but, I’d say that my own claim is deeper than others.

[Bang! I really don’t tend to make claims so, much of this blogpost sounds to me as if it were coming from somebody else…]

Ok, I don’t mean it so strongly. But there’s something I think neat about the Facebook of 2005, the one I joined. So I’d like to discuss it. Hence the placeholder.

And, in this placeholder, I’d fit: the ideas about responsiveness mentioned with Twitter, the stepwise approach adopted by Facebook (which, to me, was the real key to its eventual success), the notion of intimacy which is the true core of this blogpost, the notion of hype/counterhype linked to journalistic approaches, a key distinction between privacy and intimacy, some non-ranting (but still rambling) discussion as to what Google is missing in its “social” projects, anecdotes about “sequential network effects” on Facebook as the service reached new “populations,” some personal comments about what I get out of Facebook even though I almost never spent any significant amount of time on it, some musings as to the possibility that there are online services which have reached maturity and may remain stable in the foreseeable future, a few digressions about fanboism or about the lack of sophistication in the social network models used in online services, and maybe a bit of fun at the expense of “social media expert marketors”…

But that’ll be for another time.

Cheers!

Minds of All Sizes Think Alike

Or «les esprits de toutes tailles se rencontrent».

This post is a response to the following post about Social Network Analysis (SNA), social change, and communication.

…My heart’s in Accra » Shortcuts in the social graph.

I have too many disparate things to say about that post to make it into a neat and tidy “quickie,” yet I feel like I should probably be working on other things. So we’ll see how this goes.

First, a bit of context..

[This “bit of context” may be a bit long so, please bear with me. Or you could get straight to the point, if you don’t think you can bear the context bit.]

I’ve never met Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ), who wrote the post to which I’m responding. And I don’t think we’ve had any extended conversation in the past. Further, I doubt that I’m on his radar. He’s probably seen my name, since I’ve commented on some of his posts and some of his contacts may have had references to me through social media. But I very much doubt that he’s ever mentioned me to anyone. I’m not noticeable to him.

I, on the other hand, have mentioned Zuckerman on several occasions. Latest time I remember was in class, a few weeks ago. It’s a course on Africa and I was giving students a list of online sources with relevance to our work. Zuckerman’s connection to Africa may not be his main thing, despite his blog’s name, but it’s part of the reason I got interested in his work, a few years ago.

In fact, there’s something embarrassing, here.. I so associate Zuckerman to Africa that my mind can’t help but link him to Erik Hersman, aka White African. I did meet Herman. [To be exact, I met Erik at BarCampAustin, which is quite possibly the conference-like event which has had the most influence on me, in the past few years (I go to a lot of these events).] When I did meet Hersman, I made a faux-pas in associating him with Zuckerman. Good-natured as he seemed to be, Hersman smiled as he corrected me.

EthanZ and I have other contacts in common. Jeremy Clarke, for instance, who co-organizes WordCamp Montreal and has been quite active in Montreal’s geek scene. Jeremy’s also a developer for Global Voices, a blogging community that Zuckerman co-founded. I’m assuming Clarke and Zuckerman know each other.

Another mutual contact is Christopher Lydon, host of Radio Open Source. Chris and I have exchanged a few emails, and Zuckerman has been on ROS on a few occasions.

According to Facebook, Zuckerman and I have four contacts in common. Apart from Clarke and Hersman, there’s P. Kerim Friedman and Gerd Leonhard. Kerim is a fellow linguistic anthropologist and we’ve collaborated on the official Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) site. I got in touch with Leonhard through “Music 2.0” issues, as he was interviewed by Charles McEnerney on Well-Rounded Radio.

On LinkedIn, Zuckerman is part of my third degree, with McEnerney as one of my first-degree contacts who could connect me to Zuckerman, through Zuckerman’s contacts.

(Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I haven’t name a single woman in this list. Nor someone who doesn’t write in English with some frequency, for that matter.)

By this time, my guess is that you may be either annoyed or confused. “Surely, he can’t be that obsessed with Zuckerman as to stalk him in every network.”

No, I’m not at all obsessed with Ethan Zuckerman in any way, shape, or form. Though I mention him on occasion and I might have a good conversation with him if the occasion arises, I wouldn’t go hang out in Cambridge just in case I might meet him. Though I certainly respect his work, I wouldn’t treat him as my “idol” or anything like that. In other words, he isn’t a focus in my life.

And that’s a key point, to me.

In certain contexts, when social networks are discussed, too much is made of the importance of individuals. Yet, there’s something to be said about relative importance.

In his “shortcuts” post, Zuckerman talks about a special kind of individuals. Those who are able to bypass something of a clustering effect happening in many human networks. Malcolm Gladwell (probably “inspired” by somebody else) has used “connectors” to label a fairly similar category of people and, given Gladwell’s notoriety in some circles, the name has resonance in some contexts (mostly “business-focused people,” I would say, with a clear idea in my mind of the groupthink worldview implied).

In one of my earliest blogposts, I talked about an effect happening through a similar mechanism, calling it the “Social Butterfly Effect” (SBE). I still like it, as a concept. Now, I admit that it focuses on a certain type of individuals. But it’s more about their position in “the grand scheme of things” than about who they are, though I do associate myself with this “type.”

The basic idea is quite simple. People who participate in different (sub)networks, who make such (sub)networks sparser, are having unpredictable and unmeasurable effects on what is transmitted through the network(s).

On one hand, it’s linked to my fragmentary/naïve understanding of the Butterfly Effect in the study of climate and as a component of Chaos Theory.

On the other hand, it’s related to Granovetter‘s well-known notion of “weak ties.” And it seems like Granovetter is making something of a comeback, as we discuss different mechanisms behind social change.

Interestingly, much of what is being said about weak ties, these past few weeks, relates to Gladwell’s flamebait apparent lack of insight in describing current social processes. Sounds like Gladwell may be too caught up in the importance of individuals to truly grok the power of networks.

Case in point.. One of the most useful pieces I’ve read about weak ties, recently, was Jonah Lehrer‘s direct response to Gladwell:

Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Reading Lehrer’s piece, one gets the clear impression that Gladwell hadn’t “done his homework” on Granovetter before launching his trolling “controversial” piece on activism.

But I digress. Slightly.

Like the Gladwell-specific coverage, Zuckerman’s blogpost is also about social change and he’s already responded to Gladwell. One way to put it is that, as a figure, Gladwell has shaped the discussion in a way similar to a magnetic field orienting iron filings around it. Since it’s a localized effect having to do with polarization, the analogy is fairly useful, as analogies go.

Which brings me to groupthink, the apparent target of Zuckerman’s piece.

Still haven’t read Irving Janis but I’ve been quite interested in groupthink for a while. Awareness of the concept is something I immediately recognize, praise, and associate with critical thinking.

In fact, it’s one of several things I was pleasantly surprised to find in an introductory sociology WikiBook I ended up using in my  “Intro. to Society” course, last year. Critical thinking was the main theme of that course, and this short section was quite fitting in the overall discussion.

So, what of groupthink and networks? Zuckerman sounds worried:

This is interesting to me because I’m intrigued – and worried – by information flows through social networks. If we’re getting more (not lots yet, but more) information through social networks and less through curated media like newspapers, do we run the risk of encountering only information that our friends have access to? Are we likely to be overinformed about some conversations and underinformed about others? And could this isolation lead to ideological polarization, as Cass Sunstein and others suggest? And if those fears are true, is there anything we can do to rewire social networks so that we’re getting richer, more diverse information?

Similar questions have animated many discussions in media-focused circles, especially in those contexts where the relative value (and meaning) of “old vs. new media” may be debated. At about the same time as I started blogging, I remember discussing things with a statistician friend about the polarization effect of media, strong confirmation bias in reading news stories, and political lateralization.

In the United States, especially, there’s a narrative (heard loud and clear) that people who disagree on some basic ideas are unable to hear one another. “Shockingly,” some say, “conservatives and liberals read different things.” Or “those on (the) two sides of (the) debate understand things in completely different ways.” It even reminds me of the connotations of Tannen’s booktitle, You Just Don’t Understand. Irreconciliable differences. (And the first time I mention a woman in this decidedly imbalanced post.)

While, as a French-Canadian ethnographer, my perspective is quite different from Zuckerman, I can’t help but sympathize with the feeling. Not that I associate groupthink with a risk in social media (au contraire!). But, like Zuckerman, I wish to find ways to move beyond these boundaries we impose on ourselves.

Zuckerman specifically discusses the attempt by Onnik Krikorian (@OneWMPhoto) to connect Armenians (at least those in Hayastan) and Azeris, with Facebook “affording” Krikorian some measure of success. This case is now well-known in media-centric circles and it has almost become shorthand for the power of social media. Given a personal interest in Armenians (at least in the Diaspora), my reaction to Krikorian’s success are less related to the media aspect than to the personal one.

At a personal level, boundaries may seem difficult to surmount but they can also be fairly porous and even blurry. Identity may be negotiated. Individuals crossing boundaries may be perceived in diverse ways, some of which have little to do with other people crossing the same boundaries. Things are lived directly, from friendships to wars, from breakups to reconciliations. Significant events happen regardless of the way  they’re being perceived across boundaries.

Not that boundaries don’t matter but they don’t necessarily circumscribe what happens in “personal lives.” To use an seemingly-arbitrary example, code-switching doesn’t “feel” strange at an individual level. It’s only when people insist on separating languages using fairly artificial criteria that alternance between them sounds awkward.

In other words, people cross boundaries all the time and “there’s nothing to it.”

Boundaries have quite a different aspect, at the macrolevel implied by the journalistic worldview (with nation-based checkbox democracy at its core and business-savvy professionalization as its mission). To “macros” like journos and politicos, boundaries look like borders, appearing clearly on maps (including mind ones) and implying important disconnects. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a boundary separating two groups and the conflicts between these two groups reify that boundary. Reaching out across the border is a diplomatic process and necessitates finding the right individuals for the task. Most of the important statuses are ascribed, which may sound horrible to some holding neoliberal ideas about freewill and “individual freedoms.”

Though it’s quite common for networked activities to be somewhat constrained by boundaries, a key feature of networks is that they’re typically boundless. Sure, there are networks which are artificially isolated from the rest. The main example I can find is that of a computer virology laboratory.

Because, technically, you only need one link between two networks to transform them into a single network. So, it’s quite possible to perceive Verizon’s wireless network as a distinct entity, limited by the national boundaries of the U.S. of A. But the simple fact that someone can use Verizon’s network to contact someone in Ségou shows that the network isn’t isolated. Simple, but important to point out.

Especially since we’re talking about a number of things happening on a single network: The Internet. (Yes, there is such a thing as Internet2 and there are some technical distinctions at stake. But we’re still talking about an interconnected world.)

As is well-known, there are significant clusters in this One Network. McLuhan’s once-popular “Global Village” fallacy used to hide this, but we now fully realize that language barriers, national borders, and political lateralization go with “low-bandwidth communication,” in some spots of The Network. “Gs don’t talk to Cs so even though they’re part of the same network, there’s a weak spot, there.” In a Shannon/Weaver view, it sounds quite important to identify these weak spots. “Africa is only connected to North America via a few lines so access is limited, making things difficult for Africans.” Makes sense.

But going back to weak ties, connectors, Zuckerman’s shortcuts, and my own social butterflies, the picture may be a little bit more fleshed out.

Actually, the image I have in mind has, on one side, a wire mesh serving as the floor of an anechoic chamber  and on the other some laser beams going in pseudorandom directions as in Entrapment or Mission Impossible. In the wire mesh, weaker spots might cause a person to fall through and land on those artificial stalagmites. With the laser beams, the pseudorandom structure makes it more difficult to “find a path through the maze.” Though some (engineers) may see the mesh as the ideal structure for any network, there’s something humanly fascinating about the pseudorandom structure of social networks.

Obviously, I have many other ideas in mind. For instance, I wanted to mention “Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America.” Or go back to that intro soci Wikibook to talk about some very simple and well-understood ideas about social movements, which often seem to be lacking in discussions of social change. I even wanted to recount some anecdotes of neat network effects in my own life, such as the serendipity coming from discuss disparate subjects to unlike people or the misleading impression that measuring individualized influence is a way to understand social media. Not to mention a whole part I had in my mind about Actor Network Theory, non-human actors, and material culture (the other course I currently teach).

But I feel like going back to more time-sensitive things.

Still, I should probably say a few words about this post’s title.

My mother and I were discussing parallel inventions and polygenesis with the specific theme of moving away from the focus on individualized credit. My favourite example, and one I wish Gladwell (!) had used in Outliers (I actually asked him about it) is that of Gregor Mendel and the “rediscovery” of his laws by de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak. A semi-Marxian version of the synchronous polygenesis part might hold that “ideas are in the air” or that the timing of such dicoveries and inventions has to do with zeitgeist. A neoliberal version could be the “great minds think alike” expression or its French equivalent «Les grands esprits se rencontrent» (“The great spirits meet each other”). Due to my reluctance in sizing up minds, I’d have a hard time using that as a title. In the past, I used a similar title to refer to another form of serendipity:

To me, most normally constituted minds are “great,” so I still could have used the expression as a title. But an advantage of tweaking an expression is that it brings attention to what it implies.

In this case, the “thinking alike” may be a form of groupthink.

 

In Phase

Lissajous curve
Lissajous curve

Something which happens to me on a rather regular basis (and about which I blogged before) is that I’ll hear about something right after thinking about it. For instance, if I think about the fact that a given tool should exist, it may be announced right at that moment.

Hey, I was just thinking about this!

The effect is a bit strange but it’s quite easy to explain. It feels like a “premonition,” but it probably has more to do with “being in phase.” In some cases, it may also be that I heard about that something but hadn’t registered the information. I know it happens a lot and  it might not be too hard to trace back. But I prefer thinking about phase.

And, yes, I am thinking about phase difference in waves. Not in a very precise sense, but the image still works, for me. Especially with the Lissajous representation, as above.

See, I don’t particularly want to be “ahead of the curve” and I don’t particularly mind being “behind the curve.” But when I’m right “in the curve,” something interesting happens. I’m “in the now.”

I originally thought about being “in tune” and it could also be about “in sync” or even “matching impedances.” But I still like the waves analogy. Especially since, when two waves are in phase, they reinforce one another. As analogies go, it’s not only a beautiful one, but a powerful one. And, yes, I do think about my sweetheart.

One reason I like the concept of phase difference is that I think through sound. My first exposure to the concept comes from courses in musical acoustics, almost twenty years ago. It wasn’t the main thing I’d remember from the course and it’s not something I investigated at any point since. Like I keep telling students, some things hit you long after you’ve heard about it in a course. Lifelong learning and “landminds” are based on such elements, even tiny unimportant ones. Phase difference is one such thing.

And it’s no big deal, of course. It’s not like I spent days thinking about these concepts. But I’ve been feeling like writing, lately, and this is as good an opportunity as any.

The trigger for this particular thing is rather silly and is probably explained more accurately, come to think of it, by “unconsciously registering” something before consciously registering it.

Was having breakfast and started thinking about the importance of being environmentally responsible, the paradox of “consumption as freedom,” the consequences of some lifestyle choices including carfree living, etc. This stream of thought led me, not unexpectedly, to the perspectives on climate change, people’s perception of scientific evidence, and the so-called ClimateGate. I care a lot about critical thinking, regardless of whether or not I agree with a certain idea, so I think the email controversy shows the importance of transparency. So far, nothing unexpected. Within a couple of minutes, I had covered a few of the subjects du jour. And that’s what struck me, because right then, I (over)heard a radio host introduce a guest whose talk is titled:

What is the role of climate scientists in the climate change debate?

Obviously, Tremblay addressed ClimateGate quite directly. So my thoughts were “in phase” with Tremblay’s.

A few minutes prior to (over)hearing this introduction, I (over)heard a comment about topics of social conversations at different points in recent history. According to screenwriter Fabienne Larouche, issues covered in the first seasons of her “flagship” tv series are still at the forefront in Quebec society today, fourteen years later. So I was probably even more “in tune” with the notion of being “in phase.” Especially with my society.

I said “(over)heard” because I wasn’t really listening to that radio show. It was just playing in the background and I wasn’t paying much attention. I don’t tend to listen to live radio but I do listen to some radio recordings as podcasts. One reason I like doing so is that I can pay much closer attention to what I hear. Another is that I can listen to what I want when I feel like listen to it, which means that I can prepare myself for a heady topic or choose some tech-fluff to wind down after a course. There’s also the serendipity of listening to very disparate programmes in the same listening session, as if I were “turning the dial” after each show on a worldwide radio (I often switch between French and English and/or between European and North American sources). For a while now, I’ve been listening to podcasts at double-speed, which helps me focus on what’s most significant.

(In Jazz, we talk about “top notes,” meaning the ones which are more prominent. It’s easier to focus on them at double-speed than at normal speed so “double-times” have an interesting cognitive effect.)

So, I felt “in phase.” As mentioned, it probably has much more to do with having passively heard things without paying attention yet letting it “seep into my brain” to create connections between a few subjects which get me to the same point as what comes later. A large part of this is well-known in psychology, especially in terms of cognition. We start noticing things when they enter into a schema we have in our mind. These things we start noticing were there all along so the “discovery” is only in our mind (in the sense that it wouldn’t be a discovery for others). When we learn a new word, for instance, we start hearing it everywhere.

But there are also words which start being used by everyone because they have been diffused largely at a given point in time. An actual neologism can travel quickly and a word in our passive vocabulary can also come to prominence, especially in mainstream media. Clearly, this is an issue of interest to psychologists, folklorists, and media analysts alike. I’m enough of a folklorist and media observer to think about the social processes behind the diffusion of terms regardless of what psychologists think.

A few months back, I got the impression that the word “nimble” had suddenly increased in currency after it was used in a speech by the current PotUS. Since I’m a non-native speaker of English, I’m likely to be accused of noticing the word because it’s part my own passive vocabulary. I have examples in French, though some are with words which were new to me, at the time («peoplisation», «battante»…). I probably won’t be able to defend myself from those who say that it’s just a matter of my own exposure to those terms. Though there are ways to analyze the currency of a given term, I’m not sure I trust this type of analysis a lot more than my gut feeling, at least in terms of realtime trends.

Which makes me think of “memetics.” Not in the strict sense that Dawkins would like us to use. But in the way popular culture cares about the propagation of “units of thought.” I recently read a fascinating blogpost (in French) about  memetics from this perspective, playing Dawkins against himself. As coincidences keep happening (or, more accurately, as I’m accutely tuned to find coincidences everywhere), I’ve been having a discussion about Mahir‘s personal homepage (aka “I kiss you”), who became an “Internet celebrity” through this process which is now called memetic. The reason his page was noticed isn’t that it was so unique. But it had this je ne sais quoi which captured the imagination, at the time (the latter part of the “Dot-Com Bubble”). As some literary critics and many other humanists teach us, it’s not the item itself which counts, it’s how we receive it (yes, I tend to be on the “reception” and “eye of the beholder” side of things). Mahir was striking because he was, indeed, “out of phase” with the times.

As I think about phase, I keep hearing the other acoustic analogy: the tuning of sine waves. When a sine wave is very slightly “out of tune” with another, we hear a very slow oscillation (interference beats) until they produce resonance. There’s a direct relationship between beat tones and phase, but I think “in tune” and “in phase” remain separate analogies.

One reason I like to think about waves for these analogies is that I tend to perceive temporal change through these concepts. If we think of historical change through cycles, being “in phase” is a matter of matching two change processes until they’re aligned but the cycles may be in harmonic relationships. One can move twice as fast as society and still be “in phase” with it.

Sure, I’m overextending the analogies, and there’s something far-fetched about this. But that’s pretty much what I like about analogical thinking. As I’m under the weather, this kind of rambling is almost therapeutic.

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).