Monthly Archives: June 2008

Another Point for Wikipedia: Rousseau’s Citizenship

Compare the following two articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau — Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

At the onset of the first entry, Rousseau is described unequivocally as a “French philosopher.” In the second entry, Rousseau is first described through his contributions to philosophy, literature, and music. The beginning of the biography section of that second entry contains a clear, straightforward, and useful statement about Rousseau’s citizenship. As this Wikipedia entry explains, and is clear in Rousseau’s work, the well-known French-speaking thinker considered himself a citizen of Geneva throughout his life (which ended during the Old Swiss Confederacy, before Geneva became a Canton of Switzerland). While Rousseau’s connections to France are clearly mentioned, nowhere in the body of this Wikipedia article is Rousseau himself called “French.” The article has been classified in diverse Wikipedia categories which do contain the word “French,” but this association is fairly indirect. Though it may sound like the same thing, there’s a huge difference between putting Rousseau in a list of “French philosophers” or “French memoirists” and describing Rousseau as a “French philosopher.” In fact, Rousseau is also listed among “Swiss educationists” and “Swiss music theorists.” These classifications aren’t  inaccurate as classifications. They wouldn’t be very precise as descriptions.

As a dual Swiss/Canadian citizen myself, I easily react to this type of imprecision, especially in formal contexts.

The Encyclopædia Britannica carries quite a bit of prestige and one would expect such issues as citizenship to be treated with caution. Seeing Rousseau mentioned in the “On This Day” bulletin, I accessed the Britannica entry on Rousseau via a single click. The first word of this entry was “French,” which did seem quite inappropriate, to me. In fact, I hoped that the rest of the entry would contain an explanation of this choice. Maybe I had missed the fact that Rousseau became a naturalized French citizen, at some point. Or maybe they just mean “French-speaker.” Or the descriptor was meant as a connection to philosophical trends associated with France…

Nope! Nothing like that.

Instead, a narrative on Rousseau’s life with lots of anecdotes, a few links to other entries, and some “peacock terms.” But no explanation of what is meant by “French philosopher.” This isn’t about accuracy as an absolute. The description could be accurate if it had been explained. But it wasn’t. Oh, there are some mentions of Rousseau’s “rights as a citizen” of Geneva, in connection with The Social Contract. But these statements are rather confusing, especially in the artificial context of an encyclopedia entry.

The Britannica entry was written by the late British economist Maurice Cranston. Given the fact that Cranston died in 1993, one is led to believe that the Britannica entry on Rousseau has been left unmodified in the past 15 years. The Wikipedia version has been modified hundreds of time in the last year. Now, many of these modifications were probably trivial, some are likely to have been inappropriate, and (without looking at the details of the changes) there’s no guarantee that the current version is the best possible one. The point here isn’t about the rate of change. It’s about the opportunities for modifying an encyclopedia entry. One would think that, during the last fifteen years, the brilliant people at Britannica may have had the time to include a clarification as to Rousseau’s citizenship. In fact, one might expect that a good deal of research on Rousseau’s work has happened in the meantime and it would make sense to say that the Britannica entry on the scholar could integrate some elements of that research.

Notice that I’m not, in fact, talking about factual accuracy as an abstract concept. I’m referring to the effects of encyclopedia entries on people’s understanding. In my mind, the Wikipedia entry on Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes it easy for readers to exercise their critical thinking. The Britannica entry on the same person makes it sound as though everything which could be said about Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be contained in a single narrative.

My guess is, Rousseau and his «Encyclopédistes» friends would probably prefer Wikipedia over Britannica.

But that’s just a guess.

Note-Taking on OSX iPhone

Attended Dan Dennett’s “From Animal to Person : How Culture Makes Up our Minds” talk, yesterday. An event hosted by UQAM’s Cognitive Science Institute. Should blog about this pretty soon. It was entertaining and some parts were fairly stimulating. But what surprised me the most had nothing to do with the talk: I was able to take notes efficiently using the onscreen keyboard on my iPod touch (my ‘touch).

As I blogged yesterday, in French, it took me a while to realize that switching keyboard language on the ‘touch also changed the dictionary used for text prediction. Very sensical but I hadn’t realized it. Writing in English with French dictionary predictions was rather painful. I basically had to click bypass the dictionary predictions on most words. Even “to” was transformed into “go” by the predictive keyboard, and I didn’t necessarily notice all the substitutions done. Really, it was a frustrating experience.

It may seem weird that it would take me a while to realize that I could get an English predictive dictionary in a French interface. One reason for the delay is that I expect some degree of awkwardness in some software features, even with some Apple products. Another reason is that I wasn’t using my ‘touch for much text entry, as I’m pretty much waiting for OSX iPhone 2.0 which should bring me alternative text entry methods such as Graffiti, MessagEase and, one can dream, Dasher. If these sound like excuses for my inattention and absent-mindedness, so be it. 😀

At any rate, I did eventually find out that I could switch back and forth between French and English dictionaries for predictive text entry on my ‘touch’s onscreen keyboard. And I’ve been entering a bit of text through this method, especially answers to a few emails.

But, last night, I thought I’d give my ‘touch a try as a note-taking device. I’ve been using PDAs for a number of years and note-taking has been a major component of my PDA usage pattern. In fact, my taking notes on a PDA has been so conspicuous that some people seem to associate me quite directly with this. It may even have helped garner a gadget-freak reputation, even though my attitude toward gadgets tends to be quite distinct from the gadget-freak pattern.

For perhaps obvious reasons, I’ve typically been able to train myself to efficiently use handheld text entry methods. On my NewtonOS MessagePad 130, I initially “got pretty good” at using the default handwriting recognition. This surprised a lot of people because human beings usually have a very hard deciphering my handwriting. Still on the Newton, switching to Graffiti, I became rather proficient at entering text using this shorthand method. On PalmOS devices (HandSpring Visor and a series of Sony Clié devices), I was usually doubling on Graffiti and MessagEase. In all of these cases, I was typically able to take rather extensive notes during different types of oral presentations or simply when I thought about something. Though I mostly used paper to take notes during classes I’ve attended during most of my academic coursework, PDA text entry was usually efficient enough that I could write down some key things in realtime. In fact, I’ve used PDAs rather extensively to take notes during ethnographic field research.

So, note taking was one of the intended uses for my iPod touch. But, again, I thought I would have to wait for text entry alternatives to the default keyboard before I could do it efficiently. So that’s why I was so surprised, yesterday, when I found out that I was able to efficiently take notes during Dennett’s talk using only the default OSX iPhone onscreen keyboard.

The key, here, is pretty much what someone at Apple was describing during some keynote session (might have been the “iPhone Roadmap” event): you need to trust the predictions. Yes, it sounds pretty “touchy-feely” (we’re talking about “touch devices,” after all 😉 ). But, well, it does work better than you would expect.

The difference is even more striking for me because I really was “fighting” the predictions. I couldn’t trust them because most of them were in the wrong language. But, last night, I noticed how surprisingly accurate the predictions could be, even with a large number of characters being mistyped. Part of it has to do with the proximity part of the algorithm. If I type “xartion,” the algorithm guesses that I’m trying to type “cartoon” because ‘x’ is close to ‘c’ and ‘i’ is close to ‘o’ (not an example from last night but one I just tried). The more confident you are that the onscreen keyboard will accurately predict what you’re trying to type, the more comfortably you can enter text.  The more comfortable you are at entering text, the more efficient you become at typing, which begins a feedback loop.

Because I didn’t care that specifically about the content of Dennett’s talk, it was an excellent occasion to practise entering text on my ‘touch. The stakes of “capturing” text were fairly low. It almost became a game. When you add characters to a string which is bringing up the appropriate suggestion and delete those extra characters, the suggestion is lost. In other words, using the example above, if I type “xartion,” I get “cartoon” as a suggestion and simply need to type a space or any non-alphabetic character to accept that suggestion. But if I go on typing “xartionu” and go back to delete the ‘u,’ the “cartoon” suggestion disappears. So I was playing a kind of game with the ‘touch as I was typing relatively long strings and trying to avoid extra characters. I lost a few accurate suggestions and had to retype these, but the more I trusted the predictive algorithm, the less frequently did I have to retype.

During a 90 minute talk, I entered about 500 words. While it may not sound like much, I would say that it captured the gist of what I was trying to write down. I don’t think I would have written down much more if I had been writing on paper. Some of these words were the same as the ones Dennett uttered but the bulk of those notes were my own thoughts on what Dennett was saying. So there were different cognitive processes going on at the same time, which greatly slows down each specific process. I would still say that I was able to follow the talk rather closely and that my notes are pretty much appropriate for the task.

Now, I still have some issues with entering text using the ‘touch’s onscreen keyboard.

  • While it makes sense to make it the default that all suggestions are accepted, there could be an easier way to refuse suggestions that tapping the box where that suggestion appears.
  • It might also be quite neat (though probably inefficient) if the original characters typed by the user were somehow kept in memory. That way, one could correct inaccurate predictions using the original string.
  • The keyboard is both very small for fingers and quite big for the screen.
  • Switching between alphabetic characters and numbers is somewhat inefficient.
  • While predictions have some of the same effect, the lack of a “spell as you type” feature decreases the assurance in avoiding typos.
  • Dictionary-based predictions are still inefficient in bilingual writing.
  • The lack of copy-paste changes a lot of things about text entry.
  • There’s basically no “command” or “macro” available during text entry.
  • As a fan of outliners, I’m missing the possibility to structure my notes directly as I enter them.
  • A voice recorder could do wonders in conjunction with text entry.
  • I really just wish Dasher were available on OSX iPhone.

All told, taking notes on the iPod touch is more efficient than I thought it’d be but less pleasant than I wish it can become.

Bilinguisme sur OSX iPhone

Peut-être un peu bête de ma part, mais j’avais pas compris qu’en changeant de clavier sur mon iPod touch, je changeais aussi de dictionaire pour les prédictions.

Comme le clavier canadien-français fonctionne aussi bien en anglais qu’en français, je n’avais configuré que ce clavier. Mais j’écris plus souvent en anglais qu’en français et toutes sortes de suggestions en français rendaient très difficile l’écriture en anglais.

Récemment, j’ai voulu taper le signe de dollar («$») sur mon iPod touch mais, à chaque fois que j’appuyais sur ce signe sur le clavier virtuel, c’était le signe d’euro qui apparaissait («€»). Très bizarre, surtout que c’est bel et bien un clavier canadien-français (QWERTY avec «é» dans le bas, à droite), et non un clavier français (AZERTY, chiffres avec touche majuscule…). J’ai alors ajouté un clavier U.S. à la configuration et non seulement m’est-il alors possible de taper le signe de dollar, mais les suggestions sont maintenant en anglais des États-Unis. Toujours pas idéal, mais très différent des suggestions françaises quand on écrit en anglais. D’ailleurs, j’imagine qu’il y a aussi un dictionaire personalisé qui ne dépend pas d’une langue spécifique puisque certains termes que je tape souvent apparaissent dans une langue comme dans l’autre.

J’espère vraiment que la mise à jour à OSX iPhone 2.0 va amener diverses amélioration côté «entrée de texte» (“text input”). Déjà, le support multilinguistique semble être intégré, surtout pour les langues d’Asie de l’est. Mais j’espère aussi qu’il va y avoir de nouvelles options pour insérer du texte. Personnellement, parce que je suis à l’aise avec ces systèmes, j’aimerais bien Graffiti, MessagEase et, ô merveille, Dasher. J’ai bon espoir pour les deux premiers, puisqu’ils existent déjà sur iPhone. Pour Dasher, comme c’est un projet en source ouverte, il «suffirait» peut-être d’avoir un développeur OSX iPhone intéressé par Dasher pour «porter» Dasher de Mac OS X à OSX iPhone. Si ça peut marcher, entrer du texte sur un iPod touch peut devenir agréable, efficace et utile. D’après moi, Dasher serait très approprié pour les appareils de type iPhone (ce que j’aime appeler des “touch devices”, incluant des appareils créés par d’autres entreprises qu’Apple).

Visualizing Touch Devices in Education

Took me a while before I watched this concept video about iPhone use on campus.

Connected: The Movie – Abilene Christian University

Sure, it’s a bit campy. Sure, some features aren’t available on the iPhone yet. But the basic concepts are pretty much what I had in mind.

Among things I like in the video:

  • The very notion of student empowerment runs at the centre of it.
  • Many of the class-related applications presented show an interest in the constructivist dimensions of learning.
  • Material is made available before class. Face-to-face time is for engaging in the material, not rehashing it.
  • The technology is presented as a way to ease the bureaucratic aspects of university life, relieving a burden on students (and, presumably, on everyone else involved).
  • The “iPhone as ID” concept is simple yet powerful, in context.
  • Social networks (namely Facebook and MySpace, in the video) are embedded in the campus experience.
  • Blended learning (called “hybrid” in the video) is conceived as an option, not as an obligation.
  • Use of the technology is specifically perceived as going beyond geek culture.
  • The scenarios (use cases) are quite realistic in terms of typical campus life in the United States.
  • While “getting an iPhone” is mentioned as a perk, it’s perfectly possible to imagine technology as a levelling factor with educational institutions, lowering some costs while raising the bar for pedagogical standards.
  • The shift from “eLearning” to “mLearning” is rather obvious.
  • ACU already does iTunes U.
  • The video is released under a Creative Commons license.

Of course, there are many directions things can go, from here. Not all of them are in line with the ACU dream scenario. But I’m quite hope judging from some apparently random facts: that Apple may sell iPhones through universities, that Apple has plans for iPhone use on campuses,  that many of the “enterprise features” of iPhone 2.0 could work in institutions of higher education, that the Steve Jobs keynote made several mentions of education, that Apple bundles iPod touch with Macs, that the OLPC XOXO is now conceived more as a touch handheld than as a laptop, that (although delayed) Google’s Android platform can participate in the same usage scenarios, and that browser-based computing apparently has a bright future.

Chilling Effect and Consensus

This write-up may sound a bit strong but the issue should, in fact, be discussed.

Making Light: The Associated Press wants to charge you $12.50 to quote five words from them

There are different ways to look at these, whether or not people are taking sides. My personal perspective is that these rules The AP is trying to set may contribute to a very important chilling effect and that, in the long run, AP publications will suffer. I also think that we should strive to reach some form of agreement as to rules involving copyright. Laws don’t come in a vacuum.

Judging Eastern Canadian Espresso

For an ethnographer, it’s always a treat to gain entry in a new group. These past few days, I was given a glimpse, and possibly even some new contacts, into an espresso scene which includes dedicated coffee professionals from diverse regions.

I was acting as a sensory judge for the Eastern Regional competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, right here in Montreal.

Part of this event was blogged:

» Blog Archive » Bravo Montreal!

Though the event was held on Sunday (June 15) and Monday (June 16), I haven’t been able to report back on the experience until today. And I still haven’t completely debriefed with myself about this.

A general comment I can make is that there does seem to be a move toward an enhanced espresso scene in Eastern Canada. And although this recent competition’s first place was given to a barista from Ottawa (sincere congratulations, Laura!), I maintain that Montreal can be at the centre of a coffee renaissance.

Of course, I’m completely biased. And I’ve been talking about this same issue for a while. What is new, for me, is direct experience in Montreal’s espresso scene. Participant-observation in a very literal sense.

As a personal aside: though it’s the furthest thing from what I try to be, some people tend to find me intimidating, in daily life. As a judge, I was apparently quite intimidating, even to people who already knew me. I usually feel weird when people find me intimidating but, given the context, the reaction seems quite appropriate. I had to maintain a straight face and to refrain from interacting with competitors throughout the competition. Though it was a bit hard to do at first, it seems to have worked. And I felt very consistent, fair, and impartial throughout the competition.

Also somewhat personal, but more directly related to the task at hand, being a judge required me to temporarily change my perspective on espresso. Specifically, I had to separate my personal taste from the competition calibration. This barista championship has some strict guidelines, taken from the World Barista Championship. We weren’t judging whether or not the espresso was flavourful or complex. We were assessing the degree to which baristas were able to produce espresso which responded to some very specific criteria. To this ethical hedonist, it was a challenge. But it wasn’t as difficult a challenge as I expected.

Since my approach to food and beverages is based on reflective olfaction, the fact that aromas weren’t part of the judging calibration seemed especially surprising to me.

Obviously, I observed a lot more. And I could blog about my perception of the competitors. Yet because I was acting as a judge, talking about specific competitors would seem unethical. On the other hand, I will have occasions to talk with some former competitors and give them my impression of their work. This should be quite fun.

So, overall, I’m quite grateful to everyone involved for an occasion to get a glimpse into a part of Eastern Canada’s espresso scene.

Should be fun during the national competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, which will be held on October 21 and 21, during the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Not sure I’ll be a judge then, but I’m convinced it’ll be a fine event.

The Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media (Draft)

[Been sitting on this one for a little while. Better RERO it, I guess.]

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

I think that participants in many technology-enthusiastic movements which carry the term “social” would do well to learn some social science. Furthermore, my guess is that ethnographic disciplines are very well-suited to the task of teaching participants in these movements something about social groups.


Despite the potentially provocative title and my explicitly stating a position, I mostly wish to think out loud about different things which have been on my mind for a while.

I’m not an “expert” in this field. I’m just a social scientist and an ethnographer who has been observing a lot of things online. I do know that there are many experts who have written many great books about similar issues. What I’m saying here might not seem new. But I’m using my blog as a way to at least write down some of the things I have in mind and, hopefully, discuss these issues thoughtfully with people who care.

Also, this will not be a guide on “what to do to be social-savvy.” Books, seminars, and workshops on this specific topic abound. But my attitude is that every situation needs to be treated in its own context, that cookie-cutter solutions often fail. So I would advise people interested in this set of issues to train themselves in at least a little bit of social science, even if much of the content of the training material seems irrelevant. Discuss things with a social scientist, hire a social scientist in your business, take a course in social science, and don’t focus on advice but on the broad picture. Really.


Though they are all different, enthusiastic participants in “social web,” “social marketing,” “social media,” and other “social things online” do have some commonalities. At the risk of angering some of them, I’m lumping them all together as “social * enthusiasts.” One thing I like about the term “enthusiast” is that it can apply to both professional and amateurs, to geeks and dabblers, to full-timers and part-timers. My target isn’t a specific group of people. I just observed different things in different contexts.


Shameless Self-Promotion

A few links from my own blog, for context (and for easier retrieval):

Shameless Cross-Promotion

A few links from other blogs, to hopefully expand context (and for easier retrieval):

Some raw notes

  • Insight
  • Cluefulness
  • Openness
  • Freedom
  • Transparency
  • Unintended uses
  • Constructivism
  • Empowerment
  • Disruptive technology
  • Innovation
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technology adoption
  • Early adopters
  • Late adopters
  • Forced adoption
  • Attitudes to change
  • Conservatism
  • Luddites
  • Activism
  • Impatience
  • Windmills and shelters
  • Niche thinking
  • Geek culture
  • Groupthink
  • Idea horizon
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Influence
  • Sphere of influence
  • Influence network
  • Social butterfly effect
  • Cog in a wheel
  • Social networks
  • Acephalous groups
  • Ego-based groups
  • Non-hierarchical groups
  • Mutual influences
  • Network effects
  • Risk-taking
  • Low-stakes
  • Trial-and-error
  • Transparency
  • Ethnography
  • Epidemiology of ideas
  • Neural networks
  • Cognition and communication
  • Wilson and Sperber
  • Relevance
  • Global
  • Glocal
  • Regional
  • City-State
  • Fluidity
  • Consensus culture
  • Organic relationships
  • Establishing rapport
  • Buzzwords
  • Viral
  • Social
  • Meme
  • Memetic marketplace
  • Meta
  • Target audience

Let’s Give This a Try

The Internet is, simply, a network. Sure, technically it’s a meta-network, a network of networks. But that is pretty much irrelevant, in social terms, as most networks may be analyzed at different levels as containing smaller networks or being parts of larger networks. The fact remains that the ‘Net is pretty easy to understand, sociologically. It’s nothing new, it’s just a textbook example of something social scientists have been looking at for a good long time.

Though the Internet mostly connects computers (in many shapes or forms, many of them being “devices” more than the typical “personal computer”), the impact of the Internet is through human actions, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Sure, we can talk ad nauseam about the technical aspects of the Internet, but these topics have been covered a lot in the last fifteen years of intense Internet growth and a lot of people seem to be ready to look at other dimensions.

The category of “people who are online” has expanded greatly, in different steps. Here, Martin Lessard’s description of the Internet’s Six Cultures (Les 6 cultures d’Internet) is really worth a read. Martin’s post is in French but we also had a blog discussion in English, about it. Not only are there more people online but those “people who are online” have become much more diverse in several respects. At the same time, there are clear patterns on who “online people” are and there are clear differences in uses of the Internet.

Groups of human beings are the very basic object of social science. Diversity in human groups is the very basis for ethnography. Ethnography is simply the description of (“writing about”) human groups conceived as diverse (“peoples”). As simple as ethnography can be, it leads to a very specific approach to society which is very compatible with all sorts of things relevant to “social * enthusiasts” on- and offline.

While there are many things online which may be described as “media,” comparing the Internet to “The Mass Media” is often the best way to miss “what the Internet is all about.” Sure, the Internet isn’t about anything (about from connecting computers which, in turn, connect human beings). But to get actual insight into the ‘Net, one probably needs to free herself/himself of notions relating to “The Mass Media.” Put bluntly, McLuhan was probably a very interesting person and some of his ideas remain intriguing but fallacies abound in his work and the best thing to do with his ideas is to go beyond them.

One of my favourite examples of the overuse of “media”-based concepts is the issue of influence. In blogging, podcasting, or selling, the notion often is that, on the Internet as in offline life, “some key individuals or outlets are influential and these are the people by whom or channels through which ideas are disseminated.” Hence all the Technorati rankings and other “viewer statistics.” Old techniques and ideas from the times of radio and television expansion are used because it’s easier to think through advertising models than through radically new models. This is, in fact, when I tend to bring back my explanation of the “social butterfly effect“: quite frequently, “influence” online isn’t through specific individuals or outlets but even when it is, those people are influential through virtue of connecting to diverse groups, not by the number of people they know. There are ways to analyze those connections but “measuring impact” is eventually missing the point.

Yes, there is an obvious “qual. vs. quant.” angle, here. A major distinction between non-ethnographic and ethnographic disciplines in social sciences is that non-ethnographic disciplines tend to be overly constrained by “quantitative analysis.” Ultimately, any analysis is “qualitative” but “quantitative methods” are a very small and often limiting subset of the possible research and analysis methods available. Hence the constriction and what some ethnographers may describe as “myopia” on the part of non-ethnographers.

Gone Viral

The term “viral” is used rather frequently by “social * enthusiasts” online. I happen to think that it’s a fairly fitting term, even though it’s used more by extension than by literal meaning. To me, it relates rather directly to Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” treatment of culture (see Explaining Culture) which may itself be perceived as resembling Dawkins’s well-known “selfish gene” ideas made popular by different online observers, but with something which I perceive to be (to use simple semiotic/semiological concepts) more “motivated” than the more “arbitrary” connections between genetics and ideas. While Sperber could hardly be described as an ethnographer, his anthropological connections still make some of his work compatible with ethnographic perspectives.

Analysis of the spread of ideas does correspond fairly closely with the spread of viruses, especially given the nature of contacts which make transmission possible. One needs not do much to spread a virus or an idea. This virus or idea may find “fertile soil” in a given social context, depending on a number of factors. Despite the disadvantages of extending analogies and core metaphors too far, the type of ecosystem/epidemiology analysis of social systems embedded in uses of the term “viral” do seem to help some specific people make sense of different things which happen online. In “viral marketing,” the type of informal, invisible, unexpected spread of recognition through word of mouth does relate somewhat to the spread of a virus. Moreover, the metaphor of “viral marketing” is useful in thinking about the lack of control the professional marketer may have on how her/his product is perceived. In this context, the term “viral” seems useful.

The Social

While “viral” seems appropriate, the even more simple “social” often seems inappropriately used. It’s not a ranty attitude which makes me comment negatively on the use of the term “social.” In fact, I don’t really care about the use of the term itself. But I do notice that use of the term often obfuscates what is the obvious social character of the Internet.

To a social scientist, anything which involves groups is by definition “social.” Of course, some groups and individuals are more gregarious than others, some people are taken to be very sociable, and some contexts are more conducive to heightened social interactions. But social interactions happen in any context.
As an example I used (in French) in reply to this blog post, something as common as standing in line at a grocery store is representative of social behaviour and can be analyzed in social terms. Any Web page which is accessed by anyone is “social” in the sense that it establishes some link, however tenuous and asymmetric, between at least two individuals (someone who created the page and the person who accessed that page). Sure, it sounds like the minimal definition of communication (sender, medium/message, receiver). But what most people who talk about communication seem to forget (unlike Jakobson), is that all communication is social.

Sure, putting a comment form on a Web page facilitates a basic social interaction, making the page “more social” in the sense of “making that page easier to use explicit social interaction.” And, of course, adding some features which facilitate the act of sharing data with one’s personal contacts is a step above the contact form in terms of making certain type of social interaction straightforward and easy. But, contrary to what Google Friend Connect implies, adding those features doesn’t suddenly make the site social. The site itself isn’t really social and, assuming some people visited it, there was already a social dimension to it. I’m not nitpicking on word use. I’m saying that using “social” in this way may blind some people to social dimensions of the Internet. And the consequences can be pretty harsh, in some cases, for overlooking how social the ‘Net is.

Something similar may be said about the “Social Web,” one of the many definitions of “Web 2.0” which is used in some contexts (mostly, the cynic would say, “to make some tool appear ‘new and improved'”). The Web as a whole was “social” by definition. Granted, it lacked the ease of social interaction afforded such venerable Internet classics as Usenet and email. But it was already making some modes of social interaction easier to perceive. No, this isn’t about “it’s all been done.” It’s about being oblivious to the social potential of tools which already existed. True, the period in Internet history known as “Web 2.0” (and the onset of the Internet’s sixth culture) may be associated with new social phenomena. But there is little evidence that the association is causal, that new online tools and services created a new reality which suddenly made it possible for people to become social online. This is one reason I like Martin Lessard’s post so much. Instead of postulating the existence of a brand new phenomenon, he talks about the conditions for some changes in both Internet use and the form the Web has taken.

Again, this isn’t about terminology per se. Substitute “friendly” for “social” and similar issues might come up (friendship and friendliness being disconnected from the social processes which underline them).

Adoptive Parents

Many “social * enthusiasts” are interested in “adoption.” They want their “things” to be adopted. This is especially visible among marketers but even in social media there’s an issue of “getting people on board.” And some people, especially those without social science training, seem to be looking for a recipe.

Problem is, there probably is no such thing as a recipe for technology adoption.

Sure, some marketing practises from the offline world may work online. Sometimes, adapting a strategy from the material world to the Internet is very simple and the Internet version may be more effective than the offline version. But it doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a recipe. It’s a matter of either having some people who “have a knack for this sort of things” (say, based on sensitivity to what goes on online) or based on pure luck. Or it’s a matter of measuring success in different ways. But it isn’t based on a recipe. Especially not in the Internet sphere which is changing so rapidly (despite some remarkably stable features).

Again, I’m partial to contextual approaches (“fully-customized solutions,” if you really must). Not just because I think there are people who can do this work very efficiently. But because I observe that “recipes” do little more than sell “best-selling books” and other items.

So, what can we, as social scientists, say about “adoption?” That technology is adopted based on the perceived fit between the tools and people’s needs/wants/goals/preferences. Not the simple “the tool will be adopted if there’s a need.” But a perception that there might be a fit between an amorphous set of social actors (people) and some well-defined tools (“technologies”). Recognizing this fit is extremely difficult and forcing it is extremely expensive (not to mention completely unsustainable). But social scientists do help in finding ways to adapt tools to different social situations.

Especially ethnographers. Because instead of surveys and focus groups, we challenge assumptions about what “must” fit. Our heads and books are full of examples which sound, in retrospect, as common sense but which had stumped major corporations with huge budgets. (Ask me about McDonald’s in Brazil or browse a cultural anthropology textbook, for more information.)

Recently, while reading about issues surrounding the OLPC’s original XO computer, I was glad to read the following:

John Heskett once said that the critical difference between invention and innovation was its mass adoption by users. (Niti Bhan The emperor has designer clothes)

Not that this is a new idea, for social scientists. But I was glad that the social dimension of technology adoption was recognized.

In marketing and design spheres especially, people often think of innovation as individualized. While some individuals are particularly adept at leading inventions to mass adoption (Steve Jobs being a textbook example), “adoption comes from the people.” Yes, groups of people may be manipulated to adopt something “despite themselves.” But that kind of forced adoption is still dependent on a broad acceptance, by “the people,” of even the basic forms of marketing. This is very similar to the simplified version of the concept of “hegemony,” so common in both social sciences and humanities. In a hegemony (as opposed to a totalitarian regime), no coercion is necessary because the logic of the system has been internalized by people who are affected by it. Simple, but effective.

In online culture, adept marketers are highly valued. But I’m quite convinced that pre-online marketers already knew that they had to “learn society first.” One thing with almost anything happening online is that “the society” is boundless. Country boundaries usually make very little sense and the social rules of every local group will leak into even the simplest occasion. Some people seem to assume that the end result is a cultural homogenization, thereby not necessitating any adaptation besides the move from “brick and mortar” to online. Others (or the same people, actually) want to protect their “business models” by restricting tools or services based on country boundaries. In my mind, both attitudes are ineffective and misleading.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto can somehow be summarized through concepts of freedom, openness, and transparency. These are all very obvious (in French, the book title is something close to “the evident truths manifesto”). They’re also all very social.

Social scientists often become activists based on these concepts. And among social scientists, many of us are enthusiastic about the social changes which are happening in parallel with Internet growth. Not because of technology. But because of empowerment. People are using the Internet in their own ways, the one key feature of the Internet being its lack of centralization. While the lack of centralized control may be perceived as a “bad thing” by some (social scientists or not), there’s little argument that the ‘Net as a whole is out of the control of specific corporations or governments (despite the large degree of consolidation which has happened offline and online).

Especially in the United States, “freedom” is conceived as a basic right. But it’s also a basic concept in social analysis. As some put it: “somebody’s rights end where another’s begin.” But social scientists have a whole apparatus to deal with all the nuances and subtleties which are bound to come from any situation where people’s rights (freedom) may clash or even simply be interpreted differently. Again, not that social scientists have easy, ready-made answers on these issues. But we’re used to dealing with them. We don’t interpret freedom as a given.

Transparency is fairly simple and relates directly to how people manage information itself (instead of knowledge or insight). Radical transparency is giving as much information as possible to those who may need it. Everybody has a “right to learn” a lot of things about a given institution (instead of “right to know”), when that institution has a social impact. Canada’s Access to Information Act is quite representative of the move to transparency and use of this act has accompanied changes in the ways government officials need to behave to adapt to a relatively new reality.

Openness is an interesting topic, especially in the context of the so-called “Open Source” movement. Radical openness implies participation by outsiders, at least in the form of verbal feedback. The cluefulness of “opening yourself to your users” is made obvious in the context of successes by institutions which have at least portrayed themselves as open. What’s in my mind unfortunate is that many institutions now attempt to position themselves on the openness end of the “closed/proprietary to open/responsive” scale without much work done to really open themselves up.


Mottoes, slogans, and maxims like “build it and they will come,” “there’s a sucker born every minute,” “let them have cake,” and “give them what they want” all fail to grasp the basic reality of social life: “they” and “we” are linked. We’re all different and we’re all connected. We all take parts in groups. These groups are all associated with one another. We can’t simply behave the same way with everyone. Identity has two parts: sense of belonging (to an “in-group”) and sense of distinction (from an “out-group”). “Us/Them.”

Within the “in-group,” if there isn’t any obvious hierarchy, the sense of belonging can take the form that Victor Turner called “communitas” and which happens in situations giving real meaning to the notion of “community.” “Community of experience,” “community of practise.” Eckert and Wittgenstein brought to online networks. In a community, contacts aren’t always harmonious. But people feel they fully belong. A network isn’t the same thing as a community.

The World Is My Oyster

Despite the so-called “Digital Divide” (or, more precisely, the maintenance online of global inequalities), the ‘Net is truly “Global.” So is the phone, now that cellphones are accomplishing the “leapfrog effect.” But this one Internet we have (i.e., not Internet2 or other such specialized meta-network) is reaching everywhere through a single set of compatible connections. The need for cultural awareness is increased, not alleviated by online activities.

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

The RERO principle is a multiple-pass system. Instead of waiting for the right moment to release a “perfect product” (say, a blogpost!), the “work in progress” is provided widely, garnering feedback which will be integrated in future “product versions.” The RERO approach can be unnerving to “product developers,” but it has proved its value in online-savvy contexts.

I use “product” in a broad sense because the principle applies to diverse contexts. Furthermore, the RERO principle helps shift the focus from “product,” back into “process.”

The RERO principle may imply some “emotional” or “psychological” dimensions, such as humility and the acceptance of failure. At some level, differences between RERO and “trial-and-error” methods of development appear insignificant. Those who create something should not expect the first try to be successful and should recognize mistakes to improve on the creative process and product. This is similar to the difference between “rehearsal” (low-stakes experimentation with a process) and “performance” (with responsibility, by the performer, for evaluation by an audience).

Though applications of the early/often concept to social domains are mostly satirical, there is a social dimension to the RERO principle. Releasing a “product” implies a group, a social context.

The partial and frequent “release” of work to “the public” relates directly to openness and transparency. Frequent releases create a “relationship” with human beings. Sure, many of these are “Early Adopters” who are already overrepresented. But the rapport established between an institution and people (users/clients/customers/patrons…) can be transfered more broadly.

Releasing early seems to shift the limit between rehearsal and performance. Instead of being able to do mistakes on your own, your mistakes are shown publicly and your success is directly evaluated. Yet a somewhat reverse effect can occur: evaluation of the end-result becomes a lower-stake rating at different parts of the project because expectations have shifted to the “lower” end. This is probably the logic behind Google’s much discussed propensity to call all its products “beta.”

While the RERO principle does imply a certain openness, the expectation that each release might integrate all the feedback “users” have given is not fundamental to releasing early and frequently. The expectation is set by a specific social relationship between “developers” and “users.” In geek culture, especially when users are knowledgeable enough about technology to make elaborate wishlists, the expectation to respond to user demand can be quite strong, so much so that developers may perceive a sense of entitlement on the part of “users” and grow some resentment out of the situation. “If you don’t like it, make it yourself.” Such a situation is rather common in FLOSS development: since “users” have access to the source code, they may be expected to contribute to the development project. When “users” not only fail to fulfil expectations set by open development but even have the gumption to ask developers to respond to demands, conflicts may easily occur. And conflicts are among the things which social scientists study most frequently.

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

In the past several years, ”monetization” (transforming ideas into currency) has become one of the major foci of anything happening online. Anything which can be a source of profit generates an immediate (and temporary) “buzz.” The value of anything online is measured through typical currency-based economics. The relatively recent movement toward ”social” whatever is not only representative of this tendency, but might be seen as its climax: nowadays, even social ties can be sold directly, instead of being part of a secondary transaction. As some people say “The relationship is the currency” (or “the commodity,” or “the means to an end”). Fair enough, especially if these people understand what social relationships entail. But still strange, in context, to see people “selling their friends,” sometimes in a rather literal sense, when social relationships are conceived as valuable. After all, “selling the friend” transforms that relationship, diminishes its value. Ah, well, maybe everyone involved is just cynical. Still, even their cynicism contributes to the system. But I’m not judging. Really, I’m not. I’m just wondering
Anyhoo, the “What are you selling anyway” question makes as much sense online as it does with telemarketers and other greed-focused strangers (maybe “calls” are always “cold,” online). It’s just that the answer isn’t always so clear when the “business model” revolves around creating, then breaking a set of social expectations.
Me? I don’t sell anything. Really, not even my ideas or my sense of self. I’m just not good at selling. Oh, I do promote myself and I do accumulate social capital. As social butterflies are wont to do. The difference is, in the case of social butterflies such as myself, no money is exchanged and the social relationships are, hopefully, intact. This is not to say that friends never help me or never receive my help in a currency-friendly context. It mostly means that, in our cases, the relationships are conceived as their own rewards.
I’m consciously not taking the moral high ground, here, though some people may easily perceive this position as the morally superior one. I’m not even talking about a position. Just about an attitude to society and to social relationships. If you will, it’s a type of ethnographic observation from an insider’s perspective.

Makes sense?