Category Archives: Anth

My Year in Social Media

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

Almost 30k « Disparate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance, my six blogposts with the most hits:

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

And for 2008:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnographic Disciplines

Just because this might be useful in the future…
I perceive a number of academic disciplines to be “ethnographic” in the sense that they use the conceptual and epistemic apparatus of “ethnography.” (“Ethnography” taken here as an epistemological position in human research, not as “the description of a people” in either literary or methodological uses.)

I don’t mean by this that practitioners are all expected to undertake ethnographic field research or that their methods are exclusively ethnographic. I specifically wish to point out that ethnography is not an “exclusive prerogative” of anthropology. And I perceive important connections between these disciplines.

In no particular order:

  • Ethnohistory
  • Ethnolinguistics (partly associated with Linguistic Anthropology)
  • Folkloristics
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Ethnocinematography (partly associated with Visual Anthropology)
  • Ethnology (Cultural Anthropology)

The following disciplines (the “micros”), while not ethnographic per se, often have ethnographic components at the present time.

  • Microhistory
  • Microsociology
  • Microeconomics

Health research and market research also make frequent use of ethnographic methods, these days (especially through “qualitative data analysis” software). But I’m not clear on how dedicated these researchers are to the epistemological bases for ethnography.

It may all sound very idiosyncratic. But I still think it works, as a way to provide working definitions for disciplines and approaches.

Thoughts, comments, suggestions, questions?

Student Engagement: The Gym Analogy (Updated: Credited)

Heard about this recently and probably heard it before. It’s striking me more now than before, for some reason.

[Update: I heard about this analogy through Peace Studies scholar Laurie Lamoureux Scholes (part-time faculty and doctoral candidate in Religion at Concordia University). Lamoureux Scholes’s colleague John Bilodeau is the intermediate source for this analogy and may have seen it on the RateYourStudents blog. There’s nothing like giving credit where credit is due and I’m enough of a folklorist to care about transmission. Besides, the original RYS gym-themed blog entry can be quite useful.]

Those of us who teach at universities and colleges (especially in North America and especially among English-speakers, I would guess) have encountered this “sense of entitlement” which has such deep implications in the ways some students perceive learning. Some students feel and say that, since they (or their parents) pay large sums for their post-secondary education, they are entitled to a “special treatment” which often involves the idea of getting high grades with little effort.

In my experience, this sense of entitlement correlates positively with the prestige of the institution. Part of this has to do with tuition fees required by those universities and colleges. But there’s also the notion that, since they were admitted to a program at such a selective school, they must be the “cream of the crop” and therefore should be treated with deference. Similarly, “traditional students” (18-25) are in my experience more likely to display a sense of entitlement than “non-traditional students” (older than 25) who have very specific reasons to attend a college or university.

The main statements used by students in relation to their sense of entitlement usually have some connection to tuition fees perceived to transform teaching into a hired service, regardless of other factors. “My parents pay a lot of money for your salary so I’m allowed to get what I want.” (Of course, those students may not realize that a tiny fraction of tuition fees actually goes in the pocket of the instructor, but that’s another story.) In some cases, the parents can easily afford that amount paid in tuitions but the statements are the same. In other cases, the statements come from the notion that parents have “worked very hard to put me in school.” The results, in terms of entitlement, are quite similar.

Simply put, those students who feel a strong sense of entitlement tend to “be there for the degree” while most other students are “there to learn.”

Personally, I tend to assume students want to learn and I value student engagement in learning processes very highly. As a result, I often have a harder time working with students with a sense of entitlement. I can adapt myself to work with them if I assess their positions early on (preferably, before the beginning of a semester) but it requires a good deal of effort for me to teach in a context in which the sense of entitlement is “endemic.” In other words, “I can handle a few entitled students” if I know in advance what to expect but I find it demotivating to teach a group of students who “are only there for the degree.”

A large part of my own position has to do with the types of courses I have been teaching (anthropology, folkloristics, and sociology) and my teaching philosophy also “gets in the way.” My main goal is a constructivist one: create an appropriate environment, with students, in which learning can happen efficiently. I’m rarely (if ever) trying to “cram ideas into students’ heads,” though I do understand the value of that type of teaching in some circumstances. I occasionally try to train students for a task but my courses have rarely been meant to be vocational in that sense (I could certainly do vocational training, in which case I would adapt my methods).

So, the gym analogy. At this point, I find it’s quite fitting as an answer to the “my parents paid for this course so I should get a high grade.”

Tuition fees are similar to gym membership: regardless of the amount you pay, you can only expect results if you make the effort.

Simple and effective.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. I think the “effort” emphasis is more fitting in physical training than in intellectual and conceptual training. But, thankfully, the analogy does not imply that students should “get grades for effort” more than athletes assume effort is sufficient to improve their physical skills.

One thing I like about this analogy is that it can easily resonate with a large category of students who are, in fact, the “gym type.” Sounds irrelevant but the analogy is precisely the type of thing which might stick in the head of those students who care about physical training (even if they react negatively at first) and many “entitled students” have a near Greek/German attitude toward their bodies. In fact, some of the students with the strongest sense of entitlement are high-profile athletes: some of them sound like they expect to have minions to take exams for them!

An important advantage of the gym analogy, in a North American context, is that it focuses on individual responsibility. While not always selfish, the sense of entitlement is self-centred by definition. Given the North American tendency toward independence training and a strong focus on individual achievement in North American academic institutions, the “individualist” character of the sense of entitlement shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, those “entitled students” are unlikely to respond very positively to notions of solidarity, group learning, or even “team effort.”

Beyond individual responsibility, the gym analogy can help emphasise individual goals, especially in comparison to team sports. In North America, team sports play a very significant role in popular culture and the distinction between a gym and a sports team can resonate in a large conceptual field. The gym is the locale for individual achievement while the sports team (which could be the basis of another analogy) is focused on group achievement.

My simplest definition of a team is as “a task-oriented group.” Some models of group development (especially Tuckman’s catchy “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing“) are best suited in relation to teams. Task-based groups connect directly with the Calvinistic ideology of progress (in a Weberian perspective), but they also embed a “community-building” notion which is often absent from the “social Darwinism” of some capital-driven discourse. In other words, a team sports analogy could have some of the same advantages as the gym analogy (such as a sense of active engagement) with the added benefit of bringing into focus the social aspects of learning.

Teamwork skills are highly valued in the North American workplace. In learning contexts, “teamwork” often takes a buzzword quality. The implicit notion seems to be that the natural tendency for individuals to work against everybody else but that teams, as unnatural as they may seem, are necessary for the survival of broad institutions (such as the typical workplace). In other words, “learning how to work well in teams” sounds like a struggle against “human nature.” This implicit perspective relates to the emphasis on “individual achievement” and “independence training” represented effectively in the gym analogy.

So, to come back to that gym analogy…

In a gym, everyone is expected to set her or his own goals, often with the advice of a trainer. The notion is that this selection of goals is completely free of outside influence save for “natural” goals related to general health. In this context, losing weight is an obvious goal (the correlation between body mass and health being taken as a given) but it is still chosen by the individual. “You can only succeed if you set yourself to succeed” seems to be a common way to put it. Since this conception is “inscribed in the mind” of some students, it may be a convenient tool to emphasise learning strategies: “you can only learn if you set yourself to learn.” Sounds overly simple, but it may well work. Especially if we move beyond the idea some students have that they’re so “smart” that they “don’t need to learn.”

What it can imply in terms of teaching is quite interesting. An instructor takes on the role of a personal trainer. Like a sports team’s coach, a trainer is “listened to” and “obeyed.” There might be a notion of hierarchy involved (at least in terms of skills: the trainer needs to impress), but the main notion is that of division of labour. Personally, I could readily see myself taking on the “personal trainer” role in a learning context, despite the disadvantages of customer-based approaches to learning. One benefit of the trainer role is that what students (or their parents) pay for is a service, not “learning as a commodity.”

Much of this reminds me of Alex Golub’s blogpost on “Factory, Lab, Guild, Studio” notions to be used in describing academic departments. Using Golub’s blogpost as inspiration, I blogged about departments, Samba schools, and the Medici Effect. In the meantime, my understanding of learning has deepened but still follows similar lines. And I still love the “Samba school” concept. I can now add the gym and the sports teams to my analogical apparatus to use in describing my teaching to students or anybody else.

Hopefully, any of these analogies can be used to help students engage themselves in the learning process.

That’s all I can wish for.

Son of an Anthropologist

Since Barack Obama’s electoral victory, I’ve been saying jokingly that since Barack’s mother (Ann Dunham) was an anthropologist, anthropology has won.

Not a very funny joke and not a joke which seems to carry something very deep. After all, talking about a politician’s mother’s disciplinary affiliations sounds about as absurd as assigning foreign policy experience to somebody who’s been living relatively close to a foreign country.

But I feel there is, in fact, something deeper about Obama’s connection to anthropology. And I say this as a son of an occupational therapist and a Piaget-trained pedagogue.

There’s a difference between experience, expertise, training, and what we call “enculturation,” in anthropology. Put simply, enculturation is the seamless way through which each of us learns how to behave in specific cultural contexts. Typical examples include things like gestures or some deeply-held beliefs. It’s a fairly simple concept to grasp but it has many implications, including in the endless nature/nurture debates, which are an oft-forgotten but still fundamental part of anthropology.

So the anthropological side of Obama I’m alluding to isn’t training as an anthropologist, expertise in the minutiae of current anthropological theory, or experience in the field. But it’s a little “nugget of anthropological awareness.” An attention to diversity which makes him sound, at times, like an anthropologist. Much has been made of Obama’s genes. But his mother also played a major role in his enculturation and Obama has been on the record in terms of his mother’s influence on his political ideas. I would claim that Obama’s “anthropology-ness” runs somehow deeper than even he might realize.

And it’s not so difficult to discuss.

In educational fields, it’s fairly common to talk about second-generation students, at least in terms of university education. The notion, especially in sociological circles in the U.S., is that children of people with a university background get some type of “headstart” in terms of their university career. One reason can simply be that parents with university degrees might value university training more than parents who didn’t obtain such degrees. There’s also a class argument, which runs very well in discussions about fairness and equity. But there might also be something about this kind of informal learning which can prepare people to be accepted as university students. There’s even something to be said about the basic behaviour of the typical university student and how conducive it might be for success in university contexts.

I’ve certainly felt something like this. I was “predestined” to university since: both of my parents and both of my step-brothers had obtained university degrees, my father was teaching in universities as part-time faculty, my mother’s first husband was a university professor, and most of my family’s friends were academia-savvy. Even through elementary and secondary education, I was perceived to be studious even though I only studied a handful of times before entering university. When I did enter university, I finally felt that I belonged. And things were relatively easy for me. The fact that I didn’t have to learn how to behave as a student had something to do with it.

Something similar is clearly at stake in terms of performing arts, where it may be confused with “talent.” The reason that Hollywood has seen so many multi-generational families of actors simply cannot be found in some “innate abilty to act.” In music, the proportion of musicians coming from “musical families” clearly has some social basis but it also has to do with informal training. Research on expertise, at least as it’s described to the outside world, seems to lead to similar ideas. Even without getting direct experience, children may “pick up” certain skills by virtue of being raised in an environment which gives prominence to those skills. Cognitively, it makes a lot of sense. Especially if we think about skill transfers.

A teacher might readily recognize something like “raw skills from enculturation.” I haven’t had many anthropology students whose parents were anthropologists but there’s something about people who already have an anthropological “background” before entering the field which is easy to spot. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier for these students, in the long run. Given the fact that the discipline changes continuously and that it’s already quite broad, “raw skills” in anthropology may even be a hindrance, at times. But something has “clicked,” for those who already have an anthropological background.

The “click” to which I’m referring relates to habits of thinking which tend to happen after some abduction- or epiphany-style moment of realization/conceptualization. In terms of educational theory, this “click” is surely linked to a “position” in Perry’s Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development, But I usually talk about it as “the moment at which everything starts to maken sense, in terms of basic anthropological issues and concepts.” It can’t be forced and it doesn’t seem to relate that directly to the way anthropology is taught. As I tend to say, “learning happens despite teachers.” This kind of learning moment is certainly a case in point.

Because anthropological approaches tend to be quite distinct from approaches typically used in other disciplines, this “clicking moment” is especially prominent in introductory courses in cultural anthropology. It often happens at different moments during the semester, for diverse students. There are some students for whom it never occurs. And there are students who enter such courses after the “click” had already happened.

To be honest, I simply assume that this “anthro click” has happened to Barack Obama a while ago and that if he did take introductory courses in cultural anthropology, things probably seemed to make sense to him without much effort. Not that it implies anything about grades he would have received, how much material he would have retained, or how pleasant he would have thought the course to be. But I can just imagine a young Obama in some kind of ANTH 101 course thinking that much of us is just common sense.

I certainly assume that GBN member (and well-known anthropologist) Mary Catherine Bateson experienced the click way before entering the field. The reason I’m singling her out is that she’s the daughter of two very prominent figures in cultural anthropology: Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Mead and Bateson constituted one of the best-known anthropological couples in the history of the discipline: some discussions they’ve had are a matter of disciplinary discussion (I remember one about the use of a tripod in field recordings). Also, Mead was specifically concerned with enculturation and probably thought about informal learning as she raised her daughter (apparently, Dr. Benjamin Spock was Margaret Mead’s pediatrician). Plus, Mary Catherine Bateson herself participated in her father’s work, even as a child. I don’t know how things went for her when she first entered the field of anthropology but it seems that she received her BA from Radcliffe at age 21 and her PhD from Harvard three years later. I know things were quite fast, in those days, but I’d still venture the guess that Bateson was among the younger people to receive a PhD in anthropology. What I’m wondering, though, is how she felt about her family background. She probably wrote about this in some of her books but I haven’t read them, yet.

Much of the reason I’m writing about this probably relates to the fact that I’ve once been told that I was relatively normal for the son of a psychologist. But I was also thinking about both Bateson and Obama for different reasons, so I took the opportunity to write about the both of them in the same post.

Besides, this is precisely the kind of blogpost I enjoy writing on a RERO basis.

The Issue Is Respect

As a creative generalist, I don’t tend to emphasize expert status too much, but I do see advantages in complementarity between people who act in different spheres of social life. As we say in French, «à chacun son métier et les vaches seront bien gardées» (“to each their own profession and cows will be well-kept”).

The diversity of skills, expertise, and interest is especially useful when people of different “walks of life” can collaborate with one another. Tolerance, collegiality, dialogue. When people share ideas, the potential is much greater if their ideas are in fact different. Very simple principle, which runs through anthropology as the study of human diversity (through language, time, biology, and culture).

The problem, though, is that people from different “fields” tend not to respect one another’s work. For instance, a life scientist and a social scientist often have a hard time understanding one another because they simply don’t respect their interlocutor’s discipline. They may respect each other as human beings but they share a distrust as to the very usefulness of the other person’s field.

Case in point: entomologist Paul R. Ehrlich, who spoke at the Seminar About Long Term Thinking (SALT) a few weeks ago.

The Long Now Blog » Blog Archive » Paul Ehrlich, “The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment”

Ehrlich seems to have a high degree of expertise in population studies and, in that SALT talk, was able to make fairly interesting (though rather commonplace) statements about human beings. For instance, he explicitly addressed the tendency, in mainstream media, to perceive genetic determinism where it has no place. Similarly, his discussion about the origins and significance of human language was thoughtful enough that it could lead other life scientists to at least take a look at language.

What’s even more interesting is that Ehrlich realizes that social sciences can be extremely useful in solving the environmental issues which concern him the most. As we learn during the question period after this talk, Ehrlich is currently talking with some economists. And, contrary to business professors, economists participate very directly in the broad field of social sciences.

All of this shows quite a bit of promise, IMVHAWISHIMVVVHO. But the problem has to do with respect, it seems.

Now, it might well be that Ehrlich esteems and respects his economist colleagues. Their methods may be sufficiently compatible with his that he actually “hears what they’re saying.” But he doesn’t seem to “extend this courtesy” to my own highly esteemed colleagues in ethnographic disciplines. Ehrlich simply doesn’t grok the very studies which he states could be the most useful for him.

There’s a very specific example during the talk but my point is broader. When that specific issue was revealed, I had already been noticing an interdisciplinary problem. And part of that problem was my own.

Ehrlich’s talk was fairly entertaining, although rather unsurprising in the typical “doom and gloom” exposé to which science and tech shows have accustomed us. Of course, it was fairly superficial on even the points about which Ehrlich probably has the most expertise. But that’s expected of this kind of popularizer talk. But I started reacting quite negatively to several of his points when he started to make the kinds of statements which make any warm-blooded ethnographer cringe. No, not the fact that his concept of “culture” is so unsophisticated that it could prevent a student of his from getting a passing grade in an introductory course in cultural anthropology. But all sorts of comments which clearly showed that his perspective on human diversity is severely restricted. Though he challenges some ideas about genetic determinism, Ehrlich still holds to a form of reductionism which social scientists would associate with scholars who died before Ehrlich was born.

So, my level of respect for Ehrlich started to fade, with each of those half-baked pronouncments about cultural diversity and change.

Sad, I know. Especially since I respect every human being equally. But it doesn’t mean that I respect all statements equally. As is certainly the case for many other people, my respect for a person’s pronouncements may diminish greatly if those words demonstrate a lack of understanding of something in which I have a relatively high degree of expertise. In other words, a heart surgeon could potentially listen to a journalist talk about “cultural evolution” without blinking an eye but would likely lose “intellectual patience” if, in the same piece, the journalist starts to talk about heart diseases. And this impatience may retroactively carry over to the discussion about “cultural evolution.” As we tend to say in the ethnography of communication, context is the thing.

And this is where I have to catch myself. It’s not because Ehrlich made statements about culture which made him appear clueless that what he said about the connections between population and environment is also clueless. I didn’t, in fact, start perceiving his points about ecology as misled for the very simple reason that we have been saying the same things, in ethnographic disciplines. But that’s dangerous: selectively accepting statements because they reinforce what you already know. Not what academic work is supposed to be about.

In fact, there was something endearing about Ehrlich. He may not understand the study of culture and he doesn’t seem to have any training in the study of society, but at least he was trying to understand. There was even a point in his talk when he something which would be so obvious to any social scientist that I could have gained a new kind of personal respect for Ehrlich’s openness, if it hadn’t been for his inappropriate statements about culture.

The saddest part is about dialogue. If a social scientist is to work with Ehrlich and she reacts the same way I did, dialogue probably won’t be established. And if Ehrlich’s attitude toward epistemological approaches different from his own are represented by the statements he made about ethnography, chances are that he will only respect those of my social science colleagues who share his own reductionist perspective.

It should be obvious that there’s an academic issue, here, in terms of inter-disciplinarity. But there’s also a personal issue. In my own life, I don’t want to restrict myself to conversations with people who think the same way I do.

Grisaille: littérature et éminence grises

La première fois que j’ai entendu le terme «littérature grise» (présentation de Daniel Gill au CÉFES de l’Université de Montréal), j’ai tout de suite été tenté d’étendre le terme au-delà de son usage original. Rien de très anormal, surtout en français.

En fait, je peux l’avouer, j’avais apparemment mal compris l’usage en question. Pas réellement honteux, surtout en français. Mais ça demande quand même un mea culpa. Je croyais qu’on parlait de ces textes qui, sans être académiques, pouvait quand même faire l’objet d’une lecture académique. Je pensais qu’il s’agissait d’un terme lié au sens critique, à la critique des sources.

Or, il appert que le concept de littérature grise ait une acception beaucoup plus étroite. Si je comprends mieux ce terme, grâce à Wikipedia, il semble surtout concentré autour du mode de publication. Un texte qui n’est pas publié formellement, par une maison d’édition, fait partie de la littérature grise. Tout texte à usage restreint, y compris les rapports internes, etc. Ce serait même la communauté de collecte de renseignements qui aurait inventé ce terme (en anglais). Il y a probablement une notion de confiance à la base de ce concept. Mais ce que je croyais y percevoir, côté sens critique ne semble pas être à la base de l’appellation littérature grise.

Où vais-je, avec ces élucubrations sur l’usage d’un terme apparemment aussi simple? Vers le rapport entre la tour d’ivoire et le monde réel.

Si si!

C’est que je pense à la «vulgarisation». À la «littérature populaire» en lien avec le milieu universitaire. Aux livres écrits pour un public large, mais avec une certaine dimension académique.

Souvent, la vulgarisation est décrite comme une version «populaire» d’une discipline existante («psychologie populaire» ou “pop psychology”). En anglais, “popularizer” correspond au rôle du vulgarisateur, bien que les connotations soient légèrement différentes.

C’est un peu comme ça que je définissais la «littérature grise». Un espace d’écriture qui n’est ni la publication académique arbitrée, ni la source primaire. Y compris une grande partie du journalisme (sans égard au prestige de la publication) et la plupart des livres à gros tirage. Ces textes qui doivent d’autant plus être «pris avec un grain de sel» que leurs buts ne sont pas toujours si directement liés à la simple dissémination d’idées ou à l’augmentation des connaissances.

Il y a de nombreux vulgarisateurs, de par ce vaste monde. Surtout parmi les Anglophones, d’ailleurs. Ils écrivent des tas de livres (et pas mal d’articles, dans certains cas). Certains de leurs livres sont des succès de librairie. Les vulgarisateurs deviennent alors des personnalités connues, on les invite à des émissions de télé, on demande leur avis à l’occasion, on leur donne certaines responsabilités. «On» désigne ici l’establishment médiatique et une des sources de la «culture populaire». Dans plusieurs milieux généralement anti-intellectuels, ce «on» est relativement restreint. Mais l’effet commercial demeure grand.

Même dans une région où le travail intellectuel est peu respecté, le genre d’activité médiatique que les vulgarisateurs peuvent entreprendre donne lieu à toute une entreprise, semble-t-il assez profitable.

Un truc à noter, avec le rôle de vulgarisateur, c’est qu’il s’agit davantage de servir de canal plutôt que de contribuer de façon significative à la connaissance académique. Bien sûr, les contributions de plusieurs vulgarisateurs sont loin d’être négligeables. Mais le rôle d’un vulgarisateur va alors au-delà du travail de vulgarisation.

Ce qui est assez facile à observer, c’est que les contributions des vulgarisateurs sont souvent surévaluées par leurs publics. Rien de très surprenant. On croit aisément que c’est le communicateur qui est la source ultime du message communiqué, surtout si ce message est vraiment nouveau pour nous. Et la zone médiatique qu’occupent si facilement les vulgarisateurs est obnubilée par la notion de la découverte individuelle, par le «génie» du chercheur, par le prestige de la recherche. Le vulgarisateur individuel représente la communauté académique dans son ensemble qui, elle, est souvent conçue comme ne devant pas donner trop d’importance à la personalité du chercheur.

Dans le milieu académique, les attitudes face aux vulgarisateurs sont assez variées. Il y a parfois un certain respect, parfois une certaine jalousie. Mais il y a aussi beaucoup de crainte que le travail académique soit galvaudé par la vulgarisation.

Il y a un ensemble de réactions qui viennent du fait que la vulgarisation du travail académique est souvent au cœur de ce que les enseignants universitaires doivent contrecarrer chez plusieurs étudiants. La tâche de remettre en cause ce que des vulgarisateurs ont dit peut donner lieu à des situations difficiles. Plusieurs sujets sont «sensibles» (“touhcy subjects”).

D’ailleurs, la sensibilité d’un sujet dépend souvent de la spécialisation disciplinaire. Une ingénieure peut avoir des réactions très fortes à propos d’un sujet qui lui tient à cœur, par exemple au sujet d’un langage de programmation. Au cours d’une discussion autour de ce type de sujet, cette ingénieure peut se plaindre de la vulgarisation, exiger de la rigueur, condescendre au sujet des connaissances des gens. Mais cette même ingénieure peut ne voir aucun problème à discuter de questions sociales d’une façon par trop simpliste et se surprendre des réactions des gens. La même situation se produit à l’inverse, bien sûr. Mais je me concerne plus d’être humain que de «génie»! 😉

Il y a un peu de mépris, dans tout ça. La discipline des autres semble toujours plus simple que la sienne et on s’y croit toujours meilleur qu’on ne l’est vraiment.

C’est un peu comme si un professeur d’histoire de l’art publiait un livre sur la biologie moléculaire (sans avoir de formation dans un domaine biologique quelconque) ou si le détenteur d’un prix Nobel de physique publiait des propos sur l’histoire de la littérature (sans avoir pris connaissance du domaine).

Puisque je suis surtout anthropologue, je peux utiliser l’exemple de l’anthropologie.

Comme beaucoup d’autres disciplines, l’anthropologie est très mal représentée dans le public en général ou même dans le milieu académique. D’ailleurs, nous avons parfois l’impression que notre discipline est moins bien représentée que celle des autres. Il y a probablement un biais normal là-dessous. Mais je crois qu’il y a quelque-chose que les gens qui n’ont jamais travaillé en tant qu’anthropologue ne saisissent pas très bien.

Nombreux sont les collègues qui se méprennent au sujet de notre discipline. Les commentaires au sujet de l’anthropologie prononcés par des chercheurs provenant d’autres disciplines sont aussi exacts que si on définissait la biologie comme la critique des relations de pouvoir et la sociologie comme l’étude des courants marins. Qui plus est, plusieurs de nos collègues nous traitent de façon condescendante même lorsque leurs propres disciplines ont largement bénéficié de recherches anthropologiques.

Le problème est moins aigu en anthropologie physique et en archéologie que parmi les «disciplines ethnographiques» (comme l’ethnolinguistique, l’ethnohistoire et l’ethnologie). L’anthropologie judiciaire, l’archéologie préhistorique, la paléontologie humaine et la primatologie sont généralement considérée comme assez “sexy” et, même si le travail effectué par les chercheurs dans ces domaines est très différent de l’idéal présenté au public, il y a un certain lien entre le personnage imaginé par le public et la personne affublée de ce personnage. Oh, bien sûr, on a toujours des étudiants qui intègrent l’anthropologie pour devenir Jane Goodall, Kathy Reichs ou Indiana Jones. Mais c’est plus facile de ramener les gens sur terre en leur montrant le vrai travail du chercheur (surtout si ces gens sont déjà passionés par le sujet) que de franchir le fossé qu’il y a entre l’idée (souvent exotique et/ou ésotérique) que les gens se font de l’ethnographe.

En anthropologie, un des vulgarisateurs qui nous donne du fil à retordre, c’est Jared Diamond. Probablement pas un mauvais bougre. Mais c’est un de ceux qui nous forcent à travailler à rebours. Certains le croient anthropologue (alors que c’est un physiologiste et biologiste travaillant en géographie). Certaines personnes découvrent, grâce à Diamond, certains aspects liés à l’anthropologie. Mais le travail de Diamond sur des questions anthropologiques semble peu approprié parmi la communauté des anthropologues.

En anthropologie linguistique, comme dans d’autres domaines d’étude du langage, nous sommes aux prises avec des gens comme Noam Chomsky et Steven Pinker. L’un comme l’autre peut, à juste titre, être considéré comme innovateur dans son domaine. D’ailleurs, Chomsky a été (individuellement) un personnage si important dans la l’histoire de la linguistique de la fin du siècle dernier qu’on peut parler de «dominance», voire d’hégémonie chomskyenne. Pinker est depuis longtemps une «étoile montante» de la science cognitive et plusieurs cognitivistes tiennent compte de ses recherches. Toutefois, ils occupent tous les deux unou deplace assez large dans «l’esprit du public» au sujet du langage. Pinker tient plus directement le rôle du vulgarisateur dans ses activités, mais Chomsky est tout aussi efficace en tant que «figure» de la linguistique. J’aurais aussi pu parler de Deborah Tannen ou de Robin Lakoff, qui abordent toutes deux des aspects du langage qui sont importants en anthropologie linguistique. Mais elles semblent bien moins connues que Pinker et Chomsky. Détail intéressant: sur Wikipédia en français, elles sont énumérées parmi les linguistes mais elles n’ont pas leurs propres articles. Pourtant, l’ex-époux de Robin Tolmach Lakoff, George Lakoff, fait l’objet d’un article relativement détaillé. Sur Wikipedia en anglais, Robin Lakoff a son propre article mais les liens sur “Lakoff” et même “Professor Lakoff” redirigent le lecteur vers le même George avec mention de «la sociolinguiste» pour disambiguer. C’est peut-être logique, normal ou prévisible. Mais ça reste amusant.

D’ailleurs, je me demande maintenant s’il n’y a pas un certain biais, un certain obstacle à la reconnaissance des femmes dans le domaine de la vulgarisation. Parmi les chercheures qui tiennent le rôle de vulgarisatrices, j’ai de la difficulté à penser à des femme très connues du public en général. Il y a bien eu Margaret Mead, mais son rôle était légèrement différent (entre autres à cause du développement de la discipline, à l’époque). Il y a aussi Jane Goodall et Kathy Reichs, mentionnées plus haut. Mais on semble les connaître plus par leurs vies ou leurs travaux de fiction que par leurs activités de vulgarisation académique comme tel. On se méprend moins à cause d’elles sur les buts de la recherche que l’on ne se méprend à cause de gens comme Diamond ou Pinker. Y a-t-il d’autres femmes dont les activités médiatiques et bibliographiques ont, présentement, le même type d’impact que celles de Pinker, Chomsky ou Diamond? J’espère bien mais, honnêtement, j’ai de la difficulté à en trouver. Reichs est une bonne candidate mais, à ce que je sache, elle a toujours publié des ouvrages de fiction et non le type de texte semi-académique auquel je donne (de façon inexacte) le nom de «littérature grise».

Peut-être ne suis-je que biaisé. Je vois les femmes comme mieux à même de «faire la part des choses» entre travail académique et activités médiatiques que les hommes dont je parle ici. Ou bien j’ai tout simplement de la difficulté à critiquer les femmes.

Toujours est-il que…

J’ai, personnellement, un rapport assez particulier à la vulgarisation. Je la considère importante et je respecte ceux qui la font. Mais j’ai des opinions assez mitigées par rapport aux travaux effectués par divers vulgarisateurs.

J’ai assisté à divers événements centrés sur certains d’entre eux. Entre autres, une présentation de Pinker liée au lancement d’un de ses livres. Bien que cette présentation ait été effectuée dans sa ville natale et au sein de l’université où il a débuté ses études, Pinker n’avait alors pas su adapter sa présentation à son public. Selon moi, un des critères servant à évaluer la performance d’un vulgarisateur, c’est sa capacité à travailler avec «son» public.

Douglas Hofstadter m’avait semblé intellectuellement imprudent, lors de sa participation à un colloque sur la cognition à l’Université d’Indiana (pendant ma scolarité de doctorat au sein de cette institution assoifée de prestige). Ses propos ressemblaient plus à ceux d’un auteur de science fiction qu’à ceux d’un cognitiviste. Faut dire que j’ai jamais été impressionné par ses textes.

Vendredi soir dernier, j’ai assisté à une présentation du philosophe Daniel Dennett. Cette présentation, organisée par l’Institut de sciences cognitives de l’UQÀM, faisait partie d’une conférence plus large. Mais je n’ai remarqué que la présentation de Dennett, dans le programme distribué par courriel.

C’est d’ailleurs cette présentation qui m’a motivé à écrire ce billet. Le titre de ce billet se veut être une espèce de jeu de mots un peu facile. Il y a un aspect zeugmatique, ce que j’aime bien. J’avais d’abord décidé de l’écrire en anglais et de le nommer “grey literature and grey beards”, en référence partielle à un commentaire, laissé par Valérie Bourdeau sur mon «mur» Facebook, au sujet des barbus au type académique présents lors de l’événement. Encore là, un petit coup de jeu de mots.

Faut dire que Dennett a beaucoup utilisé l’humour, lors de sa présentation. Entre autres, plusieurs commentaires ressemblaient à des «blagues d’initiés» pour ceux qui connaissent bien son œuvre. Ces blagues étaient un peu «faciles», mais elles n’étaient pas dénuée d’à propos.

Mes notes prises au cours de la présentation de Dennett à l’aide de mon iPod touch, portent plutôt sur la forme de cette présentation que sur son contenu. J’ai quand même relevé certains commentaires au sujet de Dan Sperber, dont j’ai lu certains travaux et qui me semble justement cerner certaines questions importantes à l’égard de la cognition en contexte social d’une façon plus profonde que celle de Dennett ou de son ami Dawkins. Ces commentaires de Dennett au sujet de Sperber m’ont semblé un peu «rapides», ne tenant pas vraiment en compte la teneur réelle des travaux de Sperber. Pas que je suis nécessairement un fan inconditionnel de Sperber, mais les contre-arguments semblaient un peu spécieux.

La présentation dans son ensemble était assez intéressante et, en mettant en parallèle plusieurs idées assez distinctes, peut avoir été stimulante pour plusieurs personnes. Et probablement assez efficace pour ce qui est de la vente de livres.

Pour dire la franche vérité, j’ai trouvé cette présentation plus utile que ce à quoi je m’attendais. Force m’est d’admettre que, malgré mon respect pour le travail de vulgarisation, je m’attendais à quelque-chose de très superficiel. Et même si Dennett n’a pas atteint de grandes profondeurs lors de cette présentation, il s’est montré capable de permettre aux membres de l’auditoire de conserver leurs sens critiques, ce qui est rare dans la sphère médiatique qu’occupe parfois Dennett (surtout au sujet du dogmatisme, religieux ou athée). En d’autres termes, Dennett ressemblait davantage à un bon prof qu’à un vulgarisateur typique. Puisqu’il enseigne à Tufts, établissement difficile pour l’enseignement, je trouve cette qualité encore plus remarquable.

Ce qui est aussi intéressant, c’est que Dennett a parlé lui-même de vulgarisation. Il semblait soit prendre parti pour la vulgarisation ou se défendre de simplifier à outrance les questions complexes dont il traitait. De plus, Dennet a su critiquer directement le réductionnisme, un sujet qui me tient particulièrement à cœur. Dans un certain monde «scientiste», la science est exhaustivement explicative et toute question est concevable comme une réduction à des facteurs simples. C’est, selon moi, une approche simpliste, source de méprise et de situations embarrassantes. Dennett semble avoir une perspective similaire et s’est prononcé à la fois contre le réductionnisme scientifique en général et contre le déterminisme génétique en particulier (une forme particulièrement populaire de réductionnisme, à l’heure actuelle).

Ce n’est qu’après avoir commencé la rédaction de ce billet que j’ai écouté l’entrevue (audio) accordée par Hubert Reeves à l’émission Les années lumière de Radio-Canada. Non seulement Hubert Reeves y parle-t-il de vulgarisation mais, comme Dennett, il se prononce directement contre le réductionnisme. Très agréable et utile.

Une des choses que les vulgarisateurs arrivent à faire c’est le pont entre diverses disciplines. Soit à l’intérieur d’un des grands champs du monde académique (arts, sciences humaines, sciences naturelles…) ou même entre ces grands champs d’investigation (typiquement, entre Art et Science). Il y a rarement une balance réelle. Il s’agit souvent d’un scientifique qui parle d’art ou de sciences sociales, parfois avec des résultats plutôt mitigés. Mais la tendance est déjà vers le «généralisme créatif», vers une épistémologie large qui intègre diverses approches et conserve son sens critique dans diverses situations. Il y a quelque-chose de «raffraîchissant», dans tout ça.

Ce que j’apprécie peut-être le plus des vulgarisateurs, et ce que j’entreprends à ma façon, c’est l’implication sociale. Un peu comme des Bourdieu ou Attali en France, les vulgarisateurs du monde anglophone réussissent à sortir de la tour d’ivoire et à s’intégrer à la communauté sociale.

Un truc qui m’embête un peu, dans tout ça, c’est que certaines de mes activités (entre autres, les blogues) sont assez proches de la «littérature grise» et de la vulgarisation. Ce n’est peut-être qu’un problème dans le système actuel qui domine le milieu académique. Mais je ressens parfois un certain malaise. D’autant plus que, contrairement aux grands vulgarisateurs, je ne suis pas très doué dans la vente de textes.

Mais, ça, c’est mon problème. Je n’ai peut-être que la barbe de grise, mais peut-être qu’un jour je me transformerai en éminence grise… 😀

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?

Learning Interviews and Ethnography

As an ethnographer, I care a fair bit about interviewing techniques and styles. Not that interviews are the only method we use. We do participant-observation, preliminary research, quantitative analysis, genealogy… But skills at conducting open-ended interviews come in handy in ethnographic disciplines.

It then follows that I enjoy finding examples of effective and ineffective interviewing. Typically, interviews in mainstream media (MSM) contain useful material on what not to do in an interview.

This is exactly what I consider yesterday’s Lacy-Zuckerberg “keynote” to be: an example of what should be avoided at all costs while doing an insightful interview. Not so bad if all you want to do is dig dirt. But abysmal in terms of insight.

Apparently, jscholars and media experts agree about the value of the Lacy-Zuck fiasco for learning moments:

Even though I’m local to SXSW, I wasn’t at the keynote (I don’t have a SXSWi badge). I mostly looked at live reactions after they had been posted and briefly discussed the session with someone who did attend. I’m still trying to make sense of what happened which is a bit difficult in the fickleness of media (“geek” or mainstream).

Some of the most impactful live reactions were posted on Twitter, with Robert Scoble as a central figure. Some of those reactions were rather harsh, even insulting. Given my cynicism toward MSM, I assumed that part of those reactions were exacerbated by the situation. And while I now think that the interview was even more inappropriate than I thought it had been, I still think part of the groaning was self-generated. After all, it’s not like MSM weren’t already filled with I-Show self-congratulatory interviews.

To be honest (and I can certainly be wrong): my guess is that what started as relatively mild disappointment at the way the interview was going transformed into audible/visible reactions as well as “tweets” (text updates on Twitter), which then caused a sort of feedback loop. Those who weren’t twittering at the point might still have reacted audibly and/or visibly. Since, as human beings, we’re quite clueful in terms of people’s paralanguage (“body language”), this scenario doesn’t sound as absurd as some attendees might assume.

In fact, people keep mentioning Sarah Lacy’s paralanguage (including proxemics and kinesics), which makes me suspect that the communication break may have spilled over from non-linguistic clues.

I sure hope the Language Log gang will pick this story up as it can make for a very interesting discussion among language scientists. Should probably send something to the Linguistic Anthropology blog.

The paralinguistic dimension reminds me of the history of televised debates, especially the Nixon-Kennedy case. Haven’t seen the Zuckerberg-Lacy transcript yet but it does sound like the verbal component of the interview was less problematic than the aural and visual dimensions. Maybe I’m too much of a fan of orality, but I’m looking forward to reading the complete transcript. And watching the complete video.

Interestingly, Lacy herself seems to focus on the “written” content, in response to the controversy. Quite clear in this video, even more so in her twittered reply. Both the video and the tweet are already (in)famous. Hopefully they can help people take a step back and look at the situation as a whole. The authority/legitimacy/jschool-cred angles are easy to follow. And the “in my book” comment is too funny in context to pass up (Lacy kept promoting her hardcopy book). The “high profile” comment is very intriguing. Maybe Lacy expected something more out of “South-by” than a chance to “moderate a keynote” in front of highly-involved participants.

Ah, well…

My motto remains: “Don’t get angry. Get a Clue!”

Hadn’t realized until just now that Sarah Lacy was the same journalist who wrote about her sour grapes over the TED conference. That one was another story I found interesting, especially in terms of the geek niche. Lacy, and others, seem to worry about “geek fame.” Reactions to her “Zuck” interview seem to imply she’s easily star-struck.

Which brings us to gender. Many people, including or even especially women, are referring to Lacy as a ditz. Many talk about her Valley Girl speech (part paralanguage, of course). Not to mention that her BusinessWeek column is called Valley Girl. Plus, the apparently-flirtatious behavior is clearly gendered. Not that her gender was the root cause of the fiasco. But the fiasco has an obvious gender dimension. A man acting the same way would probably not have fared much better but the reactions would have been quite different. Not kinder, just different.

The “mob mentality” and “flashmob” aspects can also lead to insight into geek culture. In simple terms, this is what anybody would call a “tough crowd.” “Lions in the arena” sounds like a fitting analogy. Was Lacy an amazone? Clearly, there are parallels to make with Michelle Madigan at DefCon. In that situation, a self-assured MSM journalist was shunned from a hacker conference for failing to play by the rules set by the audience. Sarah Lacy is being burnt partly because she failed to play to her audience.

The larger lesson is: context is key.


Optimism From OLPC

To say the least, I’ve been ambivalent about the One Laptop Per Child project. And I was not alone in my OLPC discomfort.

But now, I feel optimistic. Not about the OLPC project. But because that project is enabling something important.

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