Category Archives: readership

Megaphone red

The Magazine and Social Media

Megaphone red
Megaphone red by Adamantios (via Wikimedia Commons, (GFDL, CC-BY-SA)

The following is my App Store review of The Magazine, a Newsstand offering by Instapaper developer Marco Arment.

Though I like Marco Arment’s work and there’s nothing specifically wrong about this implementation of the magazine model, I don’t find the magazine model particularly useful, at this point. And, make no mistake. The Magazine is indeed a magazine.

Oh, sure, this format overcomes several of the limitations set by advertising-based models and hierarchical boards. But it maintains something of the magazine logic: a tight bundle of a few articles authored by people connected through the same “editorial intent”. It’s not a conversation with the public. In this first issue, it’s not even a conversation among co-authors.

The “linked list” aspect of the “Fireball Format” (from John Gruber’s Daring Fireball media property) is described in one of the pieces in this first issue. Other distinguishing factors of the “Fireball Format” aren’t discussed in that same piece. They include a “no comment” policy which has become rather common among high-profile blogs. Unlike most blogs of the pioneer era in social media, these blogs don’t allow readers to comment directly.

A justification for this policy is that comments can be posted elsewhere. And since most of these bloggers are active on microblogging platforms like App.net and Twitter, there’s a chance that a comment might be noticed by those authors. What’s missing, though, is the sense of belonging which bloggers created among themselves before MySpace.

In other words, now that there are large social networking services online, the social aspects of blogging have been deemphasized and authorial dimensions have come to prominence. Though Arment dislikes the word, blog authors have become “brands”. It still works when these authors are in conversation with one another, when there’s a likelihood of a “followup” (FU in 5by5 parlance), when authors are responsive.

None of that interaction potential seems to be part of the core model for The Magazine. You can scream at your iOS device all you want, Jason Snell will probably not respond to you in a future edition of The Magazine. You can attempt dialogue on Twitter, but any conversation you may succeed in starting there is unlikely to have any impact on The Magazine. You’re talking with authors, now, not with members of a community.

With The Magazine, the transition from social to authorial is almost complete. Not only are posts set apart from the conversation but the editorial act of bundling posts together brings back all the problems media scholars have been pointing out for the past several decades. The issue at stake isn’t merely the move to online delivery. It’s the structure of authority and the one-to-many broadcast-style transmission. We’ve taken a step back.

So, while The Magazine has certain technical advantages over old school magazines like The Daily and Wired, it represents a step away from social media and towards mass media. Less critical thinking, more pedestals.

A new model could emerge using the infrastructure and business model that Arment built. But it’d require significant work outside of the application. The Feature might contribute something to this new model, especially if the way posts are bundled together became more flexible.

So, all in all, I consider The Magazine to be a step in the wrong direction by someone whose work I respect.

Good thing we still have podcasts.

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian
Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

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

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

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

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

There, I said it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Year in Social Media

In some ways, this post is a belated follow-up to my last blogpost about some of my blog statistics:

Almost 30k « Disparate.

In the two years since I published that post, I’ve received over 100 000 visits on this blog and I’ve diversified my social media activities.

Altogether, 2008 has been an important year, for me, in terms of social media. I began the year in Austin, TX and moved back to Quebec in late April. Many things have happened in my personal life and several of them have been tied to my social media activities.

The most important part of my social media life, through 2008 as through any year, is the contact I have with diverse people. I’ve met a rather large number of people in 2008 and some of these people have become quite important in my life. In fact, there are people I have met in 2008 whose impact on my life makes it feel as though we have been friends for quite a while. Many of these contacts have happened through social media or, at least, they have been mediated online. As a “people person,” a social butterfly, a humanist, and a social scientist, I care more about these people I’ve met than about the tools I’ve used.

Obviously, most of the contacts I’ve had through the year were with people I already knew. And my relationship with many of these people has changed quite significantly through the year. As is obvious for anyone who knows me, 2008 has been an important year in my personal life. A period of transition. My guess is that 2009 will be even more important, personally.

But this post is about my social media activities. Especially about (micro)blogging and about social networking, in my case. I also did a couple of things in terms of podcasting and online video, but my main activities online tend to be textual. This might change a bit in 2009, but probably not much. I expect 2009 to be an “incremental evolution” in terms of my social media activities. In fact, I mostly want to intensify my involvement in social media spheres, in continuity with what I’ve been doing in 2008.

So it’s the perfect occasion to think back about 2008.

Perhaps my main highlight of 2008 in terms of social media is Twitter. You can say I’m a late adopter to Twitter. I’ve known about it since it came out and I probably joined Twitter a while ago but I really started using it in preparation for SXSWi and BarCampAustin, in early March of this year. As I wanted to integrate Austin’s geek scene and Twitter clearly had some importance in that scene, I thought I’d “play along.” Also, I didn’t have a badge for SXSWi but I knew I could learn about off-festival events through Twitter. And Twitter has become rather important, for me.

For one thing, it allows me to make a distinction between actual blogposts and short thoughts. I’ve probably been posting fewer blog entries since I became active on Twitter and my blogposts are probably longer, on average, than they were before. In a way, I feel it enhances my blogging experience.

Twitter also allows me to “take notes in public,” a practise I find surprisingly useful. For instance, when I go to some kind of presentation (academic or otherwise) I use Twitter to record my thoughts on both the event and the content. This practise is my version of “liveblogging” and I enjoy it. On several occasions, these liveblogging sessions have been rather helpful. Some “tweeps” (Twitter+peeps) dislike this kind of liveblogging practise and claim that “Twitter isn’t meant for this,” but I’ve had more positive experiences through liveblogging on Twitter than negative ones.

The device which makes all of this liveblogging possible, for me, is the iPod touch I received from a friend in June of this year. It has had important implications for my online life and, to a certain extent, the ‘touch has become my primary computer. The iTunes App Store, which opened its doors in July, has changed the game for me as I was able to get a number of dedicated applications, some of which I use several times a day. I’ve blogged about several things related to the iPod touch and the whole process has changed my perspective on social media in general. Of course, an iPhone would be an even more useful tool for me: SMS, GPS, camera, and ubiquitous Internet are all useful features in connection to social media. But, for now, the iPod touch does the trick. Especially through Twitter and Facebook.

One tool I started using quite frequently through the year is Ping.fm. I use it to post to: Twitter, Identi.ca, Facebook, LinkedIn, Brightkite, Jaiku, FriendFeed, Blogger, and WordPress.com (on another blog). I receive the most feedback on Facebook and Twitter but I occasionally get feedback through the other services (including through Pownce, which was recently sold). One thing I notice through this cross-posting practise is that, on these different services, the same activity has a range of implications. For instance, while I’m mostly active on Twitter, I actually get more out of Facebook postings (status updates, posted items, etc.). And reactions on different services tend to be rather different, as the relationships I have with people who provide that feedback tend to range from indirect acquaintance to “best friend forever.” Given my social science background, I find these differences quite interesting to think about.

One thing I’ve noticed on Twitter is that my “ranking among tweeps” has increased very significantly. On Twinfluence, my rank has gone as high as the 86th percentile (though it recently went down to the 79th percentile) while, on Twitter Grader, my “Twitter grade” is now at a rather unbelievable 98.1%. I don’t tend to care much about “measures of influence” but I find these ratings quite interesting. One reason is that they rely on relatively sophisticated concepts from social sciences. Another reason is that I’m intrigued by what causes increases in my ranking on those services. In this case, I think the measures give me way too much credit at this point but I also think that my “influence” is found outside of Twitter.

One “sphere of influence” which remained important for me through 2008 is Facebook. While Facebook had a more central role in my life through 2007, it now represents a stable part of my social media involvement. One thing which tends to happen is that first contacts happen through Twitter (I often use it as the equivalent of a business card during event) and Facebook represents a second step in the relationship. In a way, this distinction foregrounds the obvious concept of “intimacy” in social media. Twitter is public, ties are weak. Facebook is intimate, ties are stronger. On the other hand, there seems to be much more clustering among my tweeps than among my Facebook contacts, in part because my connection to local geek scenes in Austin and Montreal happens primarily through Twitter.

Through Facebook I was able to organize a fun little brunch with a few friends from elementary school. Though this brunch may not have been the most important event of 2008, for me, I’ve learnt a lot about the power of social media through contacting these friends, meeting them, and thinking about the whole affair.

In a way, Twitter and Facebook have helped me expand my social media activities in diverse directions. But most of the important events in my social media life in 2008 have been happening offline. Several of these events were unconferences and informal events happening around conferences.

My two favourite events of the year, in terms of social media, were BarCampAustin and PodCamp Montreal. Participating in (and observing) both events has had some rather profound implications in my social media life. These two unconferences were somewhat different but both were probably as useful, to me. One regret I have is that it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to attend BarCampAustinIV now that I’ve left Austin.

Other events have happened throughout 2008 which I find important in terms of social media. These include regular meetings like Yulblog, Yulbiz, and PodMtl. There are many other events which aren’t necessarily tied to social media but that I find interesting from a social media perspective. The recent Infopresse360 conference on innovation (with Malcolm Gladwell as keynote speaker) and a rather large number of informal meetups with people I’ve known through social media would qualify.

Despite the diversification of my social media life through 2008, blogging remains my most important social media activity. I now consider myself a full-fledged blogger and I think that my blog is representative of something about me.

Simply put, I’m proud to be a blogger. 

In 2008, a few things have happened through my blog which, I think, are rather significant. One is that someone who found me through Google contacted me directly about a contract in private-sector ethnography. As I’m currently going through professional reorientation, I take this contract to be rather significant. It’s actually possible that the Google result this person noticed wasn’t directly about my blog (the ranking of my diverse online profiles tends to shift around fairly regularly) but I still associate online profiles with blogging.

A set of blog-related occurences which I find significant has to do with the fact that my blog has been at the centre of a number of discussions with diverse people including podcasters and other social media people. My guess is that some of these discussions may lead to some interesting things for me in 2009.

Through 2008, this blog has become more anthropological. For several reasons, I wish to maintain it as a disparate blog, a blog about disparate topics. But it still participates in my gaining some recognition as an anthroblogger. One reason is that anthrobloggers are now more closely connected than before. Recently, anthroblogger Daniel Lende has sent a call for nominations for the best of the anthro blogosphere which he then posted as both a “round up” and a series of prizes. Before that, Savage Minds had organized an “awards ceremony” for an academic conference. And, perhaps the most important dimension of my ow blog being recognized in the anthroblogosphere, I have been discussing a number of things with Concordia-based anthrobloggers Owen Wiltshire and Maximilian Forte.

Still, anthropology isn’t the most prominent topic on this blog. In fact, my anthro-related posts tend to receive relatively little attention, outside of discussions with colleagues.

Since I conceive of this post as a follow-up on posts about statistics, I’ve gone through some of my stats here on Disparate.  Upgrades to  Wordpress.com also allow me to get a more detailed picture of what has been happening on this blog.

Through 2008, I’ve received over 55 131 hits on this blog, about 11% more than in 2007 for an average of 151 hits a day (I actually thought it was more but there are some days during which I receive relatively few hits, especially during weekends). The month I received the most hits was February 2007 with 5 967 hits but February and March 2008 were relatively close. The day I received the most hits was October 28, 2008, with 310 hits. This was the day after Myriade opened.

These numbers aren’t so significant. For one thing, hits don’t imply that people have read anything on my blog. Since all of my blogs are ad-free, I haven’t tried to increase traffic to this blog. But it’s still interesting to notice a few things.

The most obvious thing is that hits to rather silly posts are much more frequent than hits to posts I actually care about.

For instance, my six blogposts with the most hits:

Title Hits  
Facebook Celebs and Fakes 5 782 More stats
emachines Power Supply 4 800 More stats
Recording at 44.1 kHz, 16b with iPod 5G? 2 834 More stats
Blogspot v. WordPress.com, Blogger v. Wo 2 571 More stats
GERD and Stress 2 377 More stats
University Rankings and Diversity 2 219 More stats

And for 2008:

Title Hits  
Facebook Celebs and Fakes 3 984 More stats
emachines Power Supply 2 265 More stats
AT&T Yahoo Pro DSL to Belkin WiFi 1 527 More stats
GERD and Stress 1 430 More stats
Blogspot v. WordPress.com, Blogger v. Wo 1 151 More stats
University Rankings and Diversity 995 More stats

The Facebook post I wrote very quickly in July 2007. It was a quick reaction to something I had heard. Obviously, the post’s title  is the single reason for that post’s popularity. I get an average of 11 hits a day on that post for 4 001 hits in 2008. If I wanted to increase traffic, I’d post as many of these as possible.

The emachines post is my first post on this new blog (but I did import posts from my previous blog), back in January 2006. It seems to have helped a few people and gets regular traffic (six hits a day, in 2008). It’s not my most thoughtful post but it has its place. It’s still funny to notice that traffic to this blogpost increases even though one would assume it’s less relevant.

Rather unsurprisingly, my post about then-upcoming recording capabilities on the iPod 5G, from March 2006, is getting very few hits. But, for a while, it did get a number of hits (six a day in 2006) and I was a bit puzzled by that.

The AT&T post is my most popular post written in 2008. It was a simple troubleshooting session, like the aforementioned emachines post. These posts might be useful for some people and I occasionally get feedback from people about them. Another practical post regularly getting a few hits is about an inflatable mattress with built-in pump which came without clear instructions.

My post about blogging platform was in fact a repost of a comment I made on somebody else’s blog entry (though the original seems to be lost). From what I can see, it was most popular from June, 2007 through May, 2008. Since it was first posted, WordPress.com has been updated quite a bit and Blogger/Blogspot seems to have pretty much stalled. My comment/blogpost on the issue is fairly straightforward and it has put me in touch with some other bloggers.

The other two blogposts getting the most hits in 2008 are closer to things about which I care. Both entries were written in mid-2006 and are still relevant. The rankings post is short on content, but it serves as an “anchor” for some things I like to discuss in terms of educational institutions. The GERD post is among my most personal posts on this blog, especially in English. It’s one of the posts for which I received the most feedback. My perspective on the issue hasn’t changed much in the meantime.

Influence and Butterflies

Seems like “influence” is a key theme in social media, these days. An example among several others:

Influenceur, autorité, passeur de culture ou l’un de ces singes exubérants | Mario tout de go.

In that post, Mario Asselin brings together a number of notions which are at the centre of current discussions about social media. The core notion seems to be that “influence” replaces “authority” as a quality or skill some people have, more than others. Some people are “influencers” and, as such, they have a specific power over others. Such a notion seems to be widely held in social media and numerous services exist which are based on the notion that “influence” can be measured.
I don’t disagree. There’s something important, online, which can be called “influence” and which can be measured. To a large extent, it’s related to a large number of other concepts such as fame and readership, popularity and network centrality. There are significant differences between all of those concepts but they’re still related. They still depict “social power” which isn’t coercive but is the basis of an obvious stratification.
In some contexts, this is what people mean by “social capital.” I originally thought people meant something closer to Bourdieu but a fellow social scientist made me realise that people are probably using Putnam’s concept instead. I recently learnt that George W. Bush himself used “political capital” in a sense which is fairly similar to what most people seem to mean by “social capital.” Even in that context, “capital” is more specific than “influence.” But the core notion is the same.
To put it bluntly:
Some people are more “important” than others.
Social marketers are especially interested in such a notion. Marketing as a whole is about influence. Social marketing, because it allows for social groups to be relatively amorphous, opposes influence to authority. But influence maintains a connection with “top-down” approaches to marketing.
My own point would be that there’s another kind of influence which is difficult to pinpoint but which is highly significant in social networks: the social butterfly effect.
Yep, I’m still at it after more than three years. It’s even more relevant now than it was then. And I’m now able to describe it more clearly and define it more precisely.
The social butterfly effect is a social network analogue to the Edward Lorenz’s well-known “butterfly effect. ” As any analogy, this connection is partial but telling. Like Lorenz’s phrase, “social butterfly effect” is more meaningful than precise. One thing which makes the phrase more important for me is the connection with the notion of a “social butterfly,” which is both a characteristic I have been said to have and a concept I deem important in social science.
I define social butterflies as people who connect to diverse network clusters. Community enthusiast Christine Prefontaine defined social butterflies within (clustered) networks, but I think it’s useful to separate out network clusters. A social butterfly’s network is rather sparse as, on the whole, a small number of people in it have direct connections with one another. But given the topography of most social groups, there likely are clusters within that network. The social butterfly connects these clusters. When the social butterfly is the only node which can connect these clusters directly, her/his “influence” can be as strong as that of a central node in one of these clusters since s/he may be able to bring some new element from one cluster to another.
I like the notion of “repercussion” because it has an auditory sense and it resonates with all sorts of notions I think important without being too buzzwordy. For instance, as expressions like “ripple effect” and “domino effect” are frequently used, they sound like clichés. Obviously, so does “butterfly effect” but I like puns too much to abandon it. From a social perspective, the behaviour of a social butterfly has important “repercussions” in diverse social groups.
Since I define myself as a social butterfly, this all sounds self-serving. And I do pride myself in being a “connector.” Not only in generational terms (I dislike some generational metaphors). But in social terms. I’m rarely, if ever, central to any group. But I’m also especially good at serving as a contact between people from different groups.
Yay, me! :-)
My thinking about the social butterfly effect isn’t an attempt to put myself on some kind of pedestal. Social butterflies typically don’t have much “power” or “prestige.” Our status is fluid/precarious. I enjoy being a social butterfly but I don’t think we’re better or even more important than anybody else. But I do think that social marketers and other people concerned with “influence” should take us into account.
I say all of this as a social scientist. Some parts of my description are personalized but I’m thinking about a broad stance “from society’s perspective.” In diverse contexts, including this blog, I have been using “sociocentric” in at least three distinct senses: class-based ethnocentrism, a special form of “altrocentrism,” and this “society-centred perspective.” These meanings are distinct enough that they imply homonyms. Social network analysis is typically “egocentric” (“ego-centred”) in that each individual is the centre of her/his own network. This “egocentricity” is both a characteristic of social networks in opposition to other social groups and a methodological issue. It specifically doesn’t imply egotism but it does imply a move away from pre-established social categories. In this sense, social network analysis isn’t “society-centred” and it’s one reason I put so much emphasis on social networks.
In the context of discussions of influence, however, there is a “society-centredness” which needs to be taken into account. The type of “influence” social marketers and others are so interested in relies on defined “spaces.” In some ways, if “so-and-so is influential,” s/he has influence within a specific space, sphere, or context, the boundaries of which may be difficult to define. For marketers, this can bring about the notion of a “market,” including in its regional and demographic senses. This seems to be the main reason for the importance of clusters but it also sounds like a way to recuperate older marketing concepts which seem outdated online.
A related point is the “vertical” dimension of this notion of “influence.” Whether or not it can be measured accurately, it implies some sort of scale. Some people are at the top of the scale, they’re influencers. Those at the bottom are the masses, since we take for granted that pyramids are the main models for social structure. To those of us who favour egalitarianism, there’s something unpalatable about this.
And I would say that online contacts tend toward some form of egalitarianism. To go back to one of my favourite buzzphrases, the notion of attention relates to reciprocity:

It’s an attention economy: you need to pay attention to get attention.

This is one thing journalism tends to “forget.” Relationships between journalists and “people” are asymmetrical. Before writing this post, I read Brian Storm’s commencement speech for the Mizzou J-School. While it does contain some interesting tidbits about the future of journalism, it positions journalists (in this case, recent graduates from an allegedly prestigious school of journalism) away from the masses. To oversimplify, journalists are constructed as those who capture people’s attention by the quality of their work, not by any two-way relationship. Though they rarely discuss this, journalists, especially those in mainstream media, typically perceive themselves as influencers.

Attention often has a temporal dimension which relates to journalism’s obsession with time. Journalists work in time-sensitive contexts, news are timely, audiences spend time with journalistic contents, and journalists fight for this audience time as a scarce resource, especially in connection to radio and television. Much of this likely has to do with the fact that journalism is intimately tied to advertising.

As I write this post, I hear on a radio talk show a short discussion about media coverage of Africa. The topic wakes up the africanist in me. The time devoted to Africa in almost any media outside of Africa is not only very limited but spent on very specific issues having to do with Africa. In mainstream media, Africa only “matters” when major problems occur. Even though most parts of Africa are peaceful and there many fabulously interesting things occuring throughout the continent, Africa is the “forgotten” continent.

A connection I perceive is that, regardless of any other factor, Africans are taken to not be “influential.” What makes this notion especially strange to an africanist is that influence tends to be a very important matter throughout the continent. Most Africans I know or have heard about have displayed a very nuanced and acute sense of “influence” to the extent that “power” often seems less relevant when working in Africa than different elements of influence. I know full well that, to outsiders to African studies, these claims may sound far-fetched. But there’s a lot to be said about the importance of social networks in Africa and this could help refine a number of notions that I have tagged in this post.

Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.