Category Archives: social publishing

Bean Counters and Ecologists

[So many things in my drafts, but this one should be quick.]

Recently met someone who started describing their restaurant after calling it a “café”. The “pitch” revolved around ethical practices, using local products, etc. As both a coffee geek and ethnographer, my simple question was: “Which coffee do you use?” Turns out, they’re importing coffee from a multinational corporation. “Oh, but, they’re lending us an expensive espresso machine for free! And they have fair-trade coffee!”

Luckily, we didn’t start talking about “fair trade”. And this person was willing to reflect upon the practices involved, including about the analogy with Anheuser-Busch or Coca-Cola. We didn’t get further into the deeper consequences of the resto’s actions, but the “seed” has been planted.

Sure, it’s important to focus on your financials and there’s nothing preventing a business from being both socially responsible and profitable. It just requires a shift in mindset. Small, lean, nimble businesses are more likely to do it than big, multinational corporate empires…

…which leads me to Google.

Over the years since its IPO, Google has attracted its share of praise and criticism. Like any big, multinational corporate empire. In any sector.

Within the tech sector, the Goog‘ is often compared with Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. All of these corporate entities have been associated in some people’s minds with some specific issue, from child labour and failure to protect users’ privacy to anticompetitive practices (the tech equivalent of free fridges and espresso machines). The issues are distinct and tech enthusiast spend a large amount of time discussing which one is worse. Meanwhile, we’re forgetting a number of larger issues.

Twitter is an interesting example, here. The service took its value from being at the centre of an ecosystem. As with any ecosystem, numerous interactions among many different members produce unexpected and often remarkable results. As the story goes, elements like hashtags and “@-replies” were invented by users and became an important part of the system. Third-party developers were instrumental in Twitter’s reach outside of its original confines. Though most of the original actors have since left the company, the ecosystem has maintained itself over the years.

When Twitter started changing the rules concerning its API, it shook the ecosystem. Sure, the ecosystem will maintain itself, in the end. But it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will change. For people at Twitter, it must have been obvious that the first changes was a warning shot to scare away those they didn’t want in their ecosystem. But, to this day, there are people who depend on Twitter, one way or another.

Google Reader offers an interesting case. The decision to kill it might have been myopic and its death might have a domino effect.

The warning shot was ambiguous, but the “writing was on the wall”. Among potential consequences of the move, the death of RSS readers was to be expected. One might also expect users of feedreaders to be displeased. In the end, the ecosystem will maintain itself.

Chances are, feedreading will be even more marginalized than it’s been and something else might replace it. Already, many people have been switching from feedreading to using Twitter as a way to gather news items.

What’s not so well-understood is the set of indirect consequences, further down the line. Again, domino effect. Some dominoes are falling in the direction of news outlets which have been slow to adapt to the ways people create and “consume” news items. Though their ad-driven models may sound similar to Google’s, and though feedreading might not be a significant source of direct revenue, the death of feedreaders may give way to the birth of new models for news production and “consumption” which might destabilize them even further. Among the things I tag as #FoJ (“Future of Journalism”) are several pieces of a big puzzle which seems misunderstood by news organizations.

There are other big dominoes which might fall from the death of Google Reader. Partly because RSS itself is part of a whole ecosystem. Dave Winer and Aaron Swartz have been major actors in the technical specifications of RSS. But Chris Lydon and people building on calendar syndication are also part of the ecosystem. In business-speak, you might call them “stakeholders”. But thinking about the ecosystem itself leads to a deeper set of thoughts, beyond the individuals involved. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s premature death, it may be appropriate to point out that the ecosystem is more than the sum of its parts.

As I said on a service owned by another widely-criticized corporate empire:

Many of us keep saying that Google needs to listen to its social scientists. It also needs to understand ecology.

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.

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.

Open Letter: UnivCafé Testimonial

Here’s a slightly edited version of a message I sent about University of the Streets Café. I realize that my comments about it may sound strange for people who haven’t participated in one of their conversations. And there may be people who don’t like it as much as I do. But it’s remarkable how favourable people are to the program, once they participate in it.

Having taught at eight academic institutions in the United States and Canada, I have frequently gone on record to say that Concordia is my favourite context for teaching and learning. By a long stretch.

Concordia’s “University of the Streets Café” program is among the things I like the most about my favourite university.

Over the past few years, I have been a vocal participant at a rather large number of “UnivCafé” events and have been the guest at one of them. Each of these two-hour conversations has provided me with more stimulation than any seminar or class meeting in which I participated, as a teacher or as a student.

In fact, I have frequently discussed UnivCafé with diverse people (including several members of the Concordia community). As is clear to anyone who knows me, UnivCafé has had a strong impact on my life, both professionally and personally.

Given my experience elsewhere, I have a clear impression of what makes Concordia unique.

  • Emphasis on community development.
  • Strong social awareness.
  • Thoughtful approach to sustainability.
  • Seamless English/French bilingualism.
  • Inclusive attitude, embracing cultural and social diversity.
  • Ease of building organic social networks through informal events.

In a way, UnivCafé encapsulates Concordia’s uniqueness.

Yet it goes further than that. Though it may sound hyperbolic to outsiders, I would not hesitate to say that UnivCafé captures some of the Greek academia (Ἀκαδημία) while integrating dimensions of contemporary life. More pithily: ”UnivCafé is a social media version of Plato‘s Academy”.

It seems to me that academia is in a transition period. For instance, the tenure system could be rethought. With social and technological developments challenging many academic models, universities are often searching for new models. I sincerely hope that the UnivCafé model is a sign of things to come.

I have discussed this on several occasions with students and colleagues, and this notion is gaining ground.

There is something remarkable about how appropriate the UnivCafé model is, in the current context. To my mind, UnivCafé does all of the following:

  • Encourages critical thinking.
  • Gives voice to people who are rarely heard.
  • Exposes participants to a diversity of perspectives.
  • Brings together people who rarely get a chance to interact.
  • Integrates practical and theoretical concerns.
  • Allays fears of public speaking.
  • Builds valuable connections through the local community.
  • Brings academics outside the Ivory Tower.

As may be obvious, I could talk about UnivCafé for hours and would be happy to do so in any context.

In the meantime, may this testimonial serve as a token of appreciation for all the things I have gained from UnivCafé.

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.

I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.

Installing BuddyPress on a Webhost

[Jump here for more technical details.]

A few months ago, I installed BuddyPress on my Mac to try it out. It was a bit of an involved process, so I documented it:

WordPress MU, BuddyPress, and bbPress on Local Machine « Disparate.

More recently, I decided to get a webhost. Both to run some tests and, eventually, to build something useful. BuddyPress seems like a good way to go at it, especially since it’s improved a lot, in the past several months.

In fact, the installation process is much simpler, now, and I ran into some difficulties because I was following my own instructions (though adapting the process to my webhost). So a new blogpost may be in order. My previous one was very (possibly too) detailed. This one is much simpler, technically.

One thing to make clear is that BuddyPress is a set of plugins meant for WordPress µ (“WordPress MU,” “WPMU,” “WPµ”), the multi-user version of the WordPress blogging platform. BP is meant as a way to make WPµ more “social,” with such useful features as flexible profiles, user-to-user relationships, and forums (through bbPress, yet another one of those independent projects based on WordPress).

While BuddyPress depends on WPµ and does follow a blogging logic, I’m thinking about it as a social platform. Once I build it into something practical, I’ll probably use the blogging features but, in a way, it’s more of a tool to engage people in online social activities. BuddyPress probably doesn’t work as a way to “build a community” from scratch. But I think it can be quite useful as a way to engage members of an existing community, even if this engagement follows a blogger’s version of a Pareto distribution (which, hopefully, is dissociated from elitist principles).

But I digress, of course. This blogpost is more about the practical issue of adding a BuddyPress installation to a webhost.

Webhosts have come a long way, recently. Especially in terms of shared webhosting focused on LAMP (or PHP/MySQL, more specifically) for blogs and content-management. I don’t have any data on this, but it seems to me that a lot of people these days are relying on third-party webhosts instead of relying on their own servers when they want to build on their own blogging and content-management platforms. Of course, there’s a lot more people who prefer to use preexisting blog and content-management systems. For instance, it seems that there are more bloggers on WordPress.com than on other WordPress installations. And WP.com blogs probably represent a small number of people in comparison to the number of people who visit these blogs. So, in a way, those who run their own WordPress installations are a minority in the group of active WordPress bloggers which, itself, is a minority of blog visitors. Again, let’s hope this “power distribution” not a basis for elite theory!

Yes, another digression. I did tell you to skip, if you wanted the technical details!

I became part of the “self-hosted WordPress” community through a project on which I started work during the summer. It’s a website for an academic organization and I’m acting as the organization’s “Web Guru” (no, I didn’t choose the title). The site was already based on WordPress but I was rebuilding much of it in collaboration with the then-current “Digital Content Editor.” Through this project, I got to learn a lot about WordPress, themes, PHP, CSS, etc. And it was my first experience using a cPanel- (and Fantastico-)enabled webhost (BlueHost, at the time). It’s also how I decided to install WordPress on my local machine and did some amount of work from that machine.

But the local installation wasn’t an ideal solution for two reasons: a) I had to be in front of that local machine to work on this project; and b) it was much harder to show the results to the person with whom I was collaborating.

So, in the Fall, I decided to get my own staging server. After a few quick searches, I decided HostGator, partly because it was available on a monthly basis. Since this staging server was meant as a temporary solution, HG was close to ideal. It was easy to set up as a PayPal “subscription,” wasn’t that expensive (9$/month), had adequate support, and included everything that I needed at that point to install a current version of WordPress and play with theme files (after importing content from the original site). I’m really glad I made that decision because it made a number of things easier, including working from different computers, and sending links to get feedback.

While monthly HostGator fees were reasonable, it was still a more expensive proposition than what I had in mind for a longer-term solution. So, recently, a few weeks after releasing the new version of the organization’s website, I decided to cancel my HostGator subscription. A decision I made without any regret or bad feeling. HostGator was good to me. It’s just that I didn’t have any reason to keep that account or to do anything major with the domain name I was using on HG.

Though only a few weeks elapsed since I canceled that account, I didn’t immediately set out to transition to a new webhost. I didn’t go from HostGator to another webhost.

But having my own webhost still remained at the back of my mind as something which might be useful. For instance, while not really making a staging server necessary, a new phase in the academic website project brought up a sandboxing idea. Also, I went to a “WordPress Montreal” meeting and got to think about further WordPress development/deployment, including using BuddyPress for my own needs (both as my own project and as a way to build my own knowledge of the platform) instead of it being part of an organization’s project. I was also thinking about other interesting platforms which necessitate a webhost.

(More on these other platforms at a later point in time. Bottom line is, I’m happy with the prospects.)

So I wanted a new webhost. I set out to do some comparison shopping, as I’m wont to do. In my (allegedly limited) experience, finding the ideal webhost is particularly difficult. For one thing, search results are cluttered with a variety of “unuseful” things such as rants, advertising, and limited comparisons. And it’s actually not that easy to give a new webhost a try. For one thing, these hosting companies don’t necessarily have the most liberal refund policies you could imagine. And, switching a domain name between different hosts and registrars is a complicated process through which a name may remain “hostage.” Had I realized what was involved, I might have used a domain name to which I have no attachment or actually eschewed the whole domain transition and just try the webhost without a dedicated domain name.

Doh!
Live and learn. I sure do. Loving almost every minute of it.

At any rate, I had a relatively hard time finding my webhost.

I really didn’t need “bells and whistles.” For instance, all the AdSense, shopping cart, and other business-oriented features which seem to be publicized by most webhosting companies have no interest, to me.

I didn’t even care so much about absolute degree of reliability or speed. What I’m to do with this host is fairly basic stuff. The core idea is to use my own host to bypass some limitations. For instance, WordPress.com doesn’t allow for plugins yet most of the WordPress fun has to do with plugins.

I did want an “unlimited” host, as much as possible. Not because expect to have huge resource needs but I just didn’t want to have to monitor bandwidth.

I thought that my needs would be basic enough that any cPanel-enabled webhost would fit. As much as I could see, I needed FTP access to something which had PHP 5 and MySQL 5. I expected to install things myself, without use of the webhost’s scripts but I also thought the host would have some useful scripts. Although I had already registered the domain I wanted to use (through Name.com), I thought it might be useful to have a free domain in the webhosting package. Not that domain names are expensive, it’s more of a matter of convenience in terms of payment or setup.

I ended up with FatCow. But, honestly, I’d probably go with a different host if I were to start over (which I may do with another project).

I paid 88$ for two years of “unlimited” hosting, which is quite reasonable. And, on paper, FatCow has everything I need (and I bunch of things I don’t need). The missing parts aren’t anything major but have to do with minor annoyances. In other words, no real deal-breaker, here. But there’s a few things I wish I had realized before I committed on FatCow with a domain name I actually want to use.

Something which was almost a deal-breaker for me is the fact that FatCow requires payment for any additional subdomain. And these aren’t cheap: the minimum is 5$/month for five subdomains, up to 25$/month for unlimited subdomains! Even at a “regular” price of 88$/year for the basic webhosting plan, the “unlimited subdomains” feature (included in some webhosting plans elsewhere) is more than three times more expensive than the core plan.

As I don’t absolutely need extra subdomains, this is mostly a minor irritant. But it’s one reason I’ll probably be using another webhost for other projects.

Other issues with FatCow are probably not enough to motivate a switch.

For instance, the PHP version installed on FatCow (5.2.1) is a few minor releases behind the one needed by some interesting web applications. No biggie, especially if PHP is updated in a relatively reasonable timeframe. But still makes for a slight frustration.

The MySQL version seems recent enough, but it uses non-standard tools to manage it, which makes for some confusion. Attempting to create some MySQL databases with obvious names (say “wordpress”) fails because the database allegedly exists (even though it doesn’t show up in the MySQL administration). In the same vein, the URL of the MySQL is <username>.fatcowmysql.com instead of localhost as most installers seem to expect. Easy to handle once you realize it, but it makes for some confusion.

In terms of Fantastico-like simplified installation of webapps, FatCow uses InstallCentral, which looks like it might be its own Fantastico replacement. InstallCentral is decent enough as an installation tool and FatCow does provide for some of the most popular blog and CMS platforms. But, in some cases, the application version installed by FatCow is old enough (2005!)  that it requires multiple upgrades to get to a current version. Compared to other installation tools, FatCow’s InstallCentral doesn’t seem really efficient at keeping track of installed and released versions.

Something which is partly a neat feature and partly a potential issue is the way FatCow handles Apache-related security. This isn’t something which is so clear to me, so I might be wrong.

Accounts on both BlueHost and HostGator include a public_html directory where all sorts of things go, especially if they’re related to publicly-accessible content. This directory serves as the website’s root, so one expects content to be available there. The “index.html” or “index.php” file in this directory serves as the website’s frontpage. It’s fairly obvious, but it does require that one would understand a few things about webservers. FatCow doesn’t seem to create a public_html directory in a user’s server space. Or, more accurately, it seems that the root directory (aka ‘/’) is in fact public_html. In this sense, a user doesn’t have to think about which directory to use to share things on the Web. But it also means that some higher-level directories aren’t available. I’ve already run into some issues with this and I’ll probably be looking for a workaround. I’m assuming there’s one. But it’s sometimes easier to use generally-applicable advice than to find a custom solution.

Further, in terms of access control… It seems that webapps typically make use of diverse directories and .htaccess files to manage some forms of access controls. Unix-style file permissions are also involved but the kind of access needed for a web app is somewhat different from the “User/Group/All” of Unix filesystems. AFAICT, FatCow does support those .htaccess files. But it has its own tools for building them. That can be a neat feature, as it makes it easier, for instance, to password-protect some directories. But it could also be the source of some confusion.

There are other issues I have with FatCow, but it’s probably enough for now.

So… On to the installation process… ;-)

It only takes a few minutes and is rather straightforward. This is the most verbose version of that process you could imagine…

Surprised? 8-)

Disclaimer: I’m mostly documenting how I did it and there are some things about which I’m unclear. So it may not work for you. If it doesn’t, I may be able to help but I provide no guarantee that I will. I’m an anthropologist, not a Web development expert.

As always, YMMV.

A few instructions here are specific to FatCow, but the general process is probably valid on other hosts.

I’m presenting things in a sequence which should make sense. I used a slightly different order myself, but I think this one should still work. (If it doesn’t, drop me a comment!)

In these instructions, straight quotes (“”) are used to isolate elements from the rest of the text. They shouldn’t be typed or pasted.

I use “example.com” to refer to the domain on which the installation is done. In my case, it’s the domain name I transfered to FatCow from another registrar but it could probably be done without a dedicated domain (in which case it would be “<username>.fatcow.com” where “<username>” is your FatCow username).

I started with creating a MySQL database for WordPress MU. FatCow does have phpMyAdmin but the default tool in the cPanel is labeled “Manage MySQL.” It’s slightly easier to use for creating new databases than phpMyAdmin because it creates the database and initial user (with confirmed password) in a single, easy-to-understand dialog box.

So I created that new database, user, and password, noting down this information. Since that password appears in clear text at some point and can easily be changed through the same interface, I used one which was easy to remember but wasn’t one I use elsewhere.
Then, I dowloaded the following files to my local machine in order to upload them to my FatCow server space. The upload can be done through either FTP or FatCow’s FileManager. I tend to prefer FTP (via CyberDuck on the Mac or FileZilla on PC). But the FileManager does allow for easy uploads.
(Wish it could be more direct, using the HTTP links directly instead of downloading to upload. But I haven’t found a way to do it through either FTP or the FileManager.)
At any rate, here are the four files I transfered to my FatCow space, using .zip when there’s a choice (the .tar.gz “tarball” versions also work but require a couple of extra steps).
  1. WordPress MU (wordpress-mu-2.9.1.1.zip, in my case)
  2. Buddymatic (buddymatic.0.9.6.3.1.zip, in my case)
  3. EarlyMorning (only one version, it seems)
  4. EarlyMorning-BP (only one version, it seems)

Only the WordPress MU archive is needed to install BuddyPress. The last three files are needed for EarlyMorning, a BuddyPress theme that I found particularly neat. It’s perfectly possible to install BuddyPress without this specific theme. (Although, doing so, you need to install a BuddyPress-compatible theme, if only by moving some folders to make the default theme available, as I explained in point 15 in that previous tutorial.) Buddymatic itself is a theme framework which includes some child themes, so you don’t need to install EarlyMorning. But installing it is easy enough that I’m adding instructions related to that theme.

These files can be uploaded anywhere in my FatCow space. I uploaded them to a kind of test/upload directory, just to make it clear, for me.

A major FatCow idiosyncrasy is its FileManager (actually called “FileManager Beta” in the documentation but showing up as “FileManager” in the cPanel). From my experience with both BlueHost and HostGator (two well-known webhosting companies), I can say that FC’s FileManager is quite limited. One thing it doesn’t do is uncompress archives. So I have to resort to the “Archive Gateway,” which is surprisingly slow and cumbersome.

At any rate, I used that Archive Gateway to uncompress the four files. WordPress µ first (in the root directory or “/”), then both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning in “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes” (you can chose the output directory for zip and tar files), and finally EarlyMorning-BP (anywhere, individual files are moved later). To uncompress each file, select it in the dropdown menu (it can be located in any subdirectory, Archive Gateway looks everywhere), add the output directory in the appropriate field in the case of Buddymatic or EarlyMorning, and press “Extract/Uncompress”. Wait to see a message (in green) at the top of the window saying that the file has been uncompressed successfully.

Then, in the FileManager, the contents of the EarlyMorning-BP directory have to be moved to “/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning”. (Thought they could be uncompressed there directly, but it created an extra folder.) To move those files in the FileManager, I browse to that earlymorning-bp directory, click on the checkbox to select all, click on the “Move” button (fourth from right, marked with a blue folder), and add the output path: /wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning

These files are tweaks to make the EarlyMorning theme work with BuddyPress.

Then, I had to change two files, through the FileManager (it could also be done with an FTP client).

One change is to EarlyMorning’s style.css:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/earlymorning/style.css

There, “Template: thematic” has to be changed to “Template: buddymatic” (so, “the” should be changed to “buddy”).

That change is needed because the EarlyMorning theme is a child theme of the “Thematic” WordPress parent theme. Buddymatic is a BuddyPress-savvy version of Thematic and this changes the child-parent relation from Thematic to Buddymatic.

The other change is in the Buddymatic “extensions”:

/wordpress-mu/wp-content/themes/buddymatic/library/extensions/buddypress_extensions.php

There, on line 39, “$bp->root_domain” should be changed to “bp_root_domain()”.

This change is needed because of something I’d consider a bug but that a commenter on another blog was kind enough to troubleshoot. Without this modification, the login button in BuddyPress wasn’t working because it was going to the website’s root (example.com/wp-login.php) instead of the WPµ installation (example.com/wordpress-mu/wp-login.php). I was quite happy to find this workaround but I’m not completely clear on the reason it works.

Then, something I did which might not be needed is to rename the “wordpress-mu” directory. Without that change, the BuddyPress installation would sit at “example.com/wordpress-mu,” which seems a bit cryptic for users. In my mind, “example.com/<name>,” where “<name>” is something meaningful like “social” or “community” works well enough for my needs. Because FatCow charges for subdomains, the “<name>.example.com” option would be costly.

(Of course, WPµ and BuddyPress could be installed in the site’s root and the frontpage for “example.com” could be the BuddyPress frontpage. But since I think of BuddyPress as an add-on to a more complete site, it seems better to have it as a level lower in the site’s hierarchy.)

With all of this done, the actual WPµ installation process can begin.

The first thing is to browse to that directory in which WPµ resides, either “example.com/wordpress-mu” or ”example.com/<name>” with the “<name>” you chose. You’re then presented with the WordPress µ Installation screen.

Since FatCow charges for subdomains, it’s important to choose the following option: “Sub-directories (like example.com/blog1).” It’s actually by selecting the other option that I realized that FatCow restricted subdomains.

The Database Name, username and password are the ones you created initially with Manage MySQL. If you forgot that password, you can actually change it with that same tool.

An important FatCow-specific point, here, is that “Database Host” should be “<username>.fatcowmysql.com” (where “<username>” is your FatCow username). In my experience, other webhosts use “localhost” and WPµ defaults to that.

You’re asked to give a name to your blog. In a way, though, if you think of BuddyPress as more of a platform than a blogging system, that name should be rather general. As you’re installing “WordPress Multi-User,” you’ll be able to create many blogs with more specific names, if you want. But the name you’re entering here is for BuddyPress as a whole. As with <name> in ”example.com/<name>” (instead of ”example.com/wordpress-mu”), it’s a matter of personal opinion.

Something I noticed with the EarlyMorning theme is that it’s a good idea to keep the main blog’s name relatively short. I used thirteen characters and it seemed to fit quite well.

Once you’re done filling in this page, WPµ is installed in a flash. You’re then presented with some information about your installation. It’s probably a good idea to note down some of that information, including the full paths to your installation and the administrator’s password.

But the first thing you should do, as soon as you log in with “admin” as username and the password provided, is probably to the change that administrator password. (In fact, it seems that a frequent advice in the WordPress community is to create a new administrator user account, with a different username than “admin,” and delete the “admin” account. Given some security issues with WordPress in the past, it seems like a good piece of advice. But I won’t describe it here. I did do it in my installation and it’s quite easy to do in WPµ.

Then, you should probably enable plugins here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-options.php#menu

(From what I understand, it might be possible to install BuddyPress without enabling plugins, since you’re logged in as the administrator, but it still makes sense to enable them and it happens to be what I did.)

You can also change a few other options, but these can be set at another point.

One option which is probably useful, is this one:

Allow new registrations Disabled
Enabled. Blogs and user accounts can be created.
Only user account can be created.

Obviously, it’s not necessary. But in the interest of opening up the BuddyPress to the wider world without worrying too much about a proliferation of blogs, it might make sense. You may end up with some fake user accounts, but that shouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve.

Now comes the installation of the BuddyPress plugin itself. You can do so by going here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/plugin-install.php

And do a search for “BuddyPress” as a term. The plugin you want was authored by “The BuddyPress Community.” (In my case, version 1.1.3.) Click the “Install” link to bring up the installation dialog, then click “Install Now” to actually install the plugin.

Once the install is done, click the “Activate” link to complete the basic BuddyPress installation.

You now have a working installation of BuddyPress but the BuddyPress-savvy EarlyMorning isn’t enabled. So you need to go to “example.com/<name>/wp-admin/wpmu-themes.php” to enable both Buddymatic and EarlyMorning. You should then go to ”example.com/<name>/wp-admin/themes.php” to activate the EarlyMorning theme.

Something which tripped me up because it’s now much easier than before is that forums (provided through bbPress) are now, literally, a one-click install. If you go here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/admin.php?page=bb-forums-setup

You can set up a new bbPress install (“Set up a new bbPress installation”) and everything will work wonderfully in terms of having forums fully integrated in BuddyPress. It’s so seamless that I wasn’t completely sure it had worked.

Besides this, I’d advise that you set up a few widgets for the BuddyPress frontpage. You do so through an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface here:

example.com/<name>/wp-admin/widgets.php

I especially advise you to add the Twitter RSS widget because it seems to me to fit right in. If I’m not mistaken, the EarlyMorning theme contains specific elements to make this widget look good.

After that, you can just have fun with your new BuddyPress installation. The first thing I did was to register a new user. To do so, I logged out of my admin account,  and clicked on the Sign Up button. Since I “allow new registrations,” it’s a very simple process. In fact, this is one place where I think that BuddyPress shines. Something I didn’t explain is that you can add a series of fields for that registration and the user profile which goes with it.

The whole process really shouldn’t take very long. In fact, the longest parts have probably to do with waiting for Archive Gateway.

The rest is “merely” to get people involved in your BuddyPress installation. It can happen relatively easily, if you already have a group of people trying to do things together online. But it can be much more complicated than any software installation process… ;-)