Category Archives: Ethnography

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In no particular order:

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Actively Reading: Organic Ideas for Startups

Been using Diigo as a way to annotate online texts. In this case, I was as interested in the tone as in the text itself. At the same time, I kept thinking about things which seem to be missing from Diigo.

One thing I like about this text is its tone. There’s an honesty, an ingenuity that I find rare in this type of writing.

  • startup ideas
    • The background is important, in terms of the type of ideas about which we’re constructing something.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • My own itch has to do with Diigo, actually. There’s a lot I wish Diigo would make for me. I may be perceived as an annoyance, but I think my wishlist may lead to something bigger and possibly quite successful.
    • The difference between this question and the “scratch your own itch” principle seems significant, and this distinction may have some implications in terms of success: we’re already talking about others, not just running ideas in our own head.
  • what do you wish someone would make for you?
    • It’s somewhat different from the well-known “scratch your own itch” principle. In this difference might be located something significant. In a way, part of the potential for this version to lead to success comes from the fact that it’s already connected with others, instead of being about running ideas in your own mind.
  • grow organically
    • The core topic of the piece, put in a comparative context. The comparison isn’t the one people tend to make and one may argue about the examples used. But the concept of organic ideas is fascinating and inspiring.
  • you decide, from afar,
    • What we call, in anthropology, the “armchair” approach. Also known as “backbenching.” For this to work, you need to have a deep knowledge of the situation, which is part of the point in this piece. Nice that it’s not demonizing this position but putting it in context.
  • Apple
    was the first type
    • One might argue that it was a hybrid case. Although, it does sound like the very beginnings of Apple weren’t about “thinking from afar.”
  • class of users other than you
    • Since developers are part of a very specific “class” of people, this isn’t insignificant a way to phrase this.
  • They still rely on this principle today, incidentally.
    The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants.
    • Apple tends to be perceived in a different light. According to many people, it’s the “textbook example” of a company where decisions are made without concerns for what people need. “Steve Jobs uses a top-down approach,” “They don’t even use focus groups,” “They don’t let me use their tools the way I want to use them.” But we’re not talking about the same distinction between top-down and bottom-up. Though “organic ideas” seem to imply that it’s a grassroots/bottom-up phenomenon, the core distinction isn’t about the origin of the ideas (from the “top,” in both cases) but on the reasoning behind these ideas.
  • We didn’t need this software ourselves.
    • Sounds partly like a disclaimer but this approach is quite common and “there’s nothing wrong with it.”
  • comparatively old
    • Age and life experience make for an interesting angle. It’s not that this strategy needs people of a specific age to work. It’s that there’s a connection between one’s experience and the way things may pan out.
  • There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas,
    • Those in the “engineering worldview” might go nuts, at this point. I can hear the claims of “hand waving.” But we’re talking about something complex, here, not a merely complicated problem.
  • Apple type
    • One thing to note in the three examples here: they’re all made by pairs of guys. Jobs and Woz, Gates and Allen, Page and Brin. In many cases, the formula might be that one guy (or gal, one wishes) comes up with ideas knowing that the other can implement them. Again, it’s about getting somebody else to build it for you, not about scratching your own itch.
  • Bill Gates was writing something he would use
    • Again, Gates may not be the most obvious example, since he’s mostly known for another approach. It’s not inaccurate to say he was solving his own problem, at the time, but it may not be that convincing as an example.
  • Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google.
    • Although, the inception of the original ideas was academic in context. They weren’t solving a search problem or thinking about monetization. They were discovering the power of CitationRank.
  • generally preferable
    • Nicely relativistic.
  • It takes experience
    to predict what other people will want.
    • And possibly a lot more. Interesting that he doesn’t mention empirical data.
  • young founders
    • They sound like a fascinating group to observe. They do wonders when they open up to others, but they seem to have a tendency to impose their worldviews.
  • I’d encourage you to focus initially on organic ideas
    • Now, this advice sounds more like the “scratch your own itch” advocation. But there’s a key difference in that it’s stated as part of a broader process. It’s more of a “walk before you run” or “do your homework” piece of advice, not a “you can’t come up with good ideas if you just think about how people will use your tool.”
  • missing or broken
    • It can cover a lot, but it’s couched in terms of the typical “problem-solving” approach at the centre of the engineering worldview. Since we’re talking about developing tools, it makes sense. But there could be a broader version, admitting for dreams, inspiration, aspiration. Not necessarily of the “what would make you happy?” kind, although there’s a lot to be said about happiness and imagination. You’re brainstorming, here.
  • immediate answers
    • Which might imply that there’s a second step. If you keep asking yourself the same question, you may be able to get a very large number of ideas. The second step could be to prioritize them but I prefer “outlining” as a process: you shuffle things together and you group some ideas to get one which covers several. What’s common between your need for a simpler way to code on the Altair and your values? Why do you care so much about algorithms instead of human encoding?
  • You may need to stand outside yourself a bit to see brokenness
    • Ah, yes! “Taking a step back,” “distancing yourself,” “seeing the forest for the trees”… A core dimension of the ethnographic approach and the need for a back-and-forth between “inside” and “outside.” There’s a reflexive component in this “being an outsider to yourself.” It’s not only psychological, it’s a way to get into the social, which can lead to broader success if it’s indeed not just about scratching your own itch.
  • get used to it and take it for granted
    • That’s enculturation, to you. When you do things a certain way simply because “we’ve always done them that way,” you may not create these organic ideas. But it’s a fine way to do your work. Asking yourself important questions about what’s wrong with your situation works well in terms of getting new ideas. But, sometimes, you need to get some work done.
  • a Facebook
    • Yet another recontextualized example. Zuckerberg wasn’t trying to solve that specific brokenness, as far as we know. But Facebook became part of what it is when Zuck began scratching that itch.
  • organic startup ideas usually don’t
    seem like startup ideas at first
    • Which gets us to the pivotal importance of working with others. Per this article, VCs and “angel investors,” probably. But, in the case of some of cases cited, those we tend to forget, like Paul Allen, Narendra, and the Winklevosses.
  • end up making
    something of value to a lot of people
    • Trial and error, it’s an iterative process. So you must recognize errors quickly and not invest too much effort in a specific brokenness. Part of this requires maturity.
  • something
    other people dismiss as a toy
    • The passage on which Gruber focused and an interesting tidbit. Not that central, come to think of it. But it’s important to note that people’s dismissive attitude may be misled, that “toys” may hide tools, that it’s probably a good idea not to take all feedback to heart…
  • At this point, when someone comes to us with
    something that users like but that we could envision forum trolls
    dismissing as a toy, it makes us especially likely to invest.
  • the best source of organic ones
    • Especially to investors. Potentially self-serving… in a useful way.
  • they’re at the forefront of technology
    • That part I would dispute, actually. Unless we talk about a specific subgroup of young founders and a specific set of tools. Young founders tend to be oblivious to a large field in technology, including social tools.
  • they’re in a position to discover
    valuable types of fixable brokenness first
    • The focus on fixable brokenness makes sense if we’re thinking exclusively through the engineering worldview, but it’s at the centre of some failures like the Google Buzz launch.
  • you still have to work hard
    • Of the “inspiration shouldn’t make use forget perspiration” kind. Makes for a more thoughtful approach than the frequent “all you need to do…” claims.
  • I’d encourage anyone
    starting a startup to become one of its users, however unnatural it
    seems.
    • Not merely an argument for dogfooding. It’s deeper than that. Googloids probably use Google tools but they didn’t actually become users. They’re beta testers with a strong background in troubleshooting. Not the best way to figure out what users really want or how the tool will ultimately fail.
  • It’s hard to compete directly with open source software
    • Open Source as competition isn’t new as a concept, but it takes time to seep in.
  • there has to be some part
    you can charge for
    • The breach through which old-school “business models” enter with little attention paid to everything else. To the extent that much of the whole piece might crumble from pressure built up by the “beancounter” worldview. Good thing he acknowledges it.

Groupthink in Action

An interesting situation which, I would argue, is representative of Groupthink.

As a brief summary of the situation: a subgroup within a larger group is discussing the possibility of changing the larger group’s structure. In that larger group, similar discussions have been quite frequent, in the past. In effect, the smaller group is moving toward enacting a decision based on perceived consensus as to “the way to go.”

No bad intention on anyone’s part and the situation is far from tragic. But my clear impression is that groupthink is involved. I belong to the larger group but I feel little vested interest in what might happen with it.

An important point about this situation is that the smaller group seems to be acting as if the decision had already been made, after careful consideration. Through the history of the larger group, prior discussions on the same topic have been frequent. Through these discussions, clear consensus has never been reached. At the same time, some options have been gaining some momentum in the recent past, mostly based (in my observation) on accumulated frustration with the status quo and some reflection on the effectiveness of activities done by subgroups within the larger group. Members of that larger group (including participants in the smaller group) are quite weary of rehashing the same issues and the “rallying cry” within the subgroup has to do with “moving on.” Within the smaller group, prior discussions are described as if they had been enough to explore all the options. Weariness through the group as a whole seems to create a sense of urgency even though the group as a whole could hardly be described as being involved in time-critical activities.

Nothing personal about anyone involved and it’s possible that I’m off on this one. Where some of those involved would probably disagree is in terms of the current stage in the decision making process (i.e., they may see themselves as having gone through the process of making the primary decision, the rest is a matter of detail). I actually feel strange talking about this situation because it may seem like I’m doing the group a disservice. The reason I think it isn’t the case is that I have already voiced my concerns about groupthink to those who are involved in the smaller group. The reason I feel the urge to blog about this situation is that, as a social scientist, I take it as my duty to look at issues such as group dynamics. Simply put, I started thinking about it as a kind of “case study.”

Yes, I’m a social science geek. And proud of it, too!

Thing is, I have a hard time not noticing a rather clear groupthink pattern. Especially when I think about a few points in Janis‘s description of groupthink.

.

Antecedent Conditions Symptoms Decisions Affected

.

Insulation of the group Illusion of invulnerability Incomplete survey of alternatives

.

High group cohesiveness Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group Incomplete survey of objectives

.

Directive leadership Collective rationalization of group’s decisions Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

.

Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

.

Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms Poor information search

.

High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s) Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect) Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

.

Direct pressure on dissenters to conform Failure to work out contingency plans

.

Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

.

A PDF version, with some key issues highlighted.

Point by point…

Observable

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

Insulation of the group

A small subgroup was created based on (relatively informal) prior expression of opinion in favour of some broad changes in the structure of the larger group.

Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures

Methodical procedures about assessing the situation are either put aside or explicitly rejected.
Those methodical procedures which are accepted have to do with implementing the group’s primary decision, not with the decision making process.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect)

Agreement is stated as a fact, possibly based on private conversations outside of the small group.

Direct pressure on dissenters to conform

A call to look at alternatives is constructed as a dissenting voice.
Pressure to conform is couched in terms of “moving on.”

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Incomplete survey of alternatives

Apart from the status quo, no alternative has been discussed.
When one alternative model is proposed, it’s reduced to a “side” in opposition to the assessed consensus.

Incomplete survey of objectives

Broad objectives are assumed to be common, left undiscussed.
Discussion of objectives is pushed back as being irrelevant at this stage.

Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

Comments about possible risks (including the danger of affecting the dynamics of the existing broader group) are left undiscussed or dismissed as “par for the course.”

Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

Any alternative is conceived as having been tried in the past with the strong implication that it isn’t wort revisiting.

Poor information search

Information collected concerns ways to make sure that the primary option considered will work.

Failure to work out contingency plans

Comments about the possible failure of the plan, and effects on the wider group are met with “so be it.”

Less Obvious

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

High group cohesiveness

The smaller group is highly cohesive but so is the broader group.

Directive leadership

Several members of the smaller group are taking positions of leadership, but there’s no direct coercion from that leadership.

Positions of authority are assessed, in a subtle way, but this authority is somewhat indirect.

Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology

As with cohesiveness, homogeneity of social background can be used to describe the broader group as well as the smaller one.

High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)

External “threats” are mostly subtle but there’s a clear notion that the primary option considered may be met with some opposition by a proportion of the larger group.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of invulnerability

While “invulnerability” would be an exaggeration, there’s a clear sense that members of the smaller group have a strong position within the larger group.

Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group

Discussions don’t necessarily have a moral undertone, but the smaller group’s goals seem self-evident in the context or, at least, not really worth careful discussion.

Collective rationalization of group’s decisions

Since attempts to discuss the group’s assumed consensus are labelled as coming from a dissenting voice, the group’s primary decision is reified through countering individual points made about this decision.

Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents

The smaller group’s primary “outgroup” is in fact the broader group, described in rather simple terms, not a distinct group of people.
The assumption is that, within the larger group, positions about the core issue are already set.

Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms

Self-censorship is particularly hard to observe or assess but the group’s dynamics tends to construct criticism as “nitpicking,” making it difficult to share comments.

Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

As with leadership, the process of shielding the smaller group from negative information is mostly organic, not located in a single individual.
Because the smaller group is already set apart from the larger group, protection from external information is built into the system, to an extent.

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

Information brought into the discussion is treated as either reinforcing the group’s alleged consensus or taken to be easy to counter.
Examples from cases showing clear similarities are dismissed (“we have no interest in knowing what others have done”) and distant cases are used to demonstrate that the approach is sound (“there are groups in other contexts which work, so we can use the same approach”).


War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.


Langue de bois et ethnographie

J’ai récemment eu l’occasion de penser à ce qu’on appelle la «langue de bois». D’ailleurs, cette expression me motive à écrire ce billet en français. Je sais pas exactement comment dire la même chose en anglais, même si le concept est évidemment connu des Anglophones.

Ce qui m’a poussé à penser à la «langue de bois», c’est cette entrevue, réalisée par Jesse Brown de la baladodiffusion Search Engine de Radio-Canada anglais (CBC) avec un porte-parole de Telus:

Search Engine | CBC Radio | Podcast #16 is up .

D’après moi, cette entrevue est assez représentative de la «langue de bois». Telus fait un geste intéressant, en permettant à un de ses représentants de parler «ouvertement» dans le cadre d’une baladodiffusion. Mais le contenu et le ton de cette entrevue révèlent ce qui est, selon moi, un problème fondamental de certaines entreprises en ce qui a trait aux «relations publiques». Plutôt que d’admettre qu’il y a une différence d’opinion entre Telus (ou Bell) et les utilisateurs de messagerie sur cellulaire, ce porte-parole utilise une rhétorique que je considère tortueuse pour convaincre les auditeurs (et l’intervieweur) du bien-fondé des actions de son entreprise.

C’est, selon moi, une stratégie peu appropriée au domaine actuel. Ça ressemble étrangement à la politique de l’autruche et ça n’aide en rien au rétablissement de liens de confiances entre Telus et le public.

Je suis rarement aussi direct, dans mes propos au sujet d’une stratégie. En fait, mes propos sont probablement plus «forts» que ce que je crois vraiment. Outre la frustration par rapport au coût prohibitif des messages entrants sur Bell Mobilité (qui m’a poussé à cesser d’utiliser un cellulaire de Bell), je n’ai que peu d’intérêt réel pour la question précise des rapports entre Telus et ses clients. Mais j’accorde davantage d’importance aux relations publiques, intéressé comme je suis en ce qui a trait à la recherche auprès des consommateurs (“consumer research”).

C’est que je suis en pleine réorientation professionnelle. J’ai récemment obtenu un contrat auprès de la firme Idea Couture de Toronto en tant qu’«ethnographe francophone autonome» (“French-speaking freelance ethnographer”). Pour ce contrat, je fais affaire avec Morgan Gerard qui, en plus d’être ethnographe, est aussi blogueur. J’intègre désormais certaines de mes activités de média social avec mon expertise en tant qu’ethnographe. Je souhaite d’ailleurs renforcer ce lien et éventuellement obtenir divers contrats en tant qu’ethnographe spécialisé en média social. Ce premier contrat d’ethnographe autonome n’est pas directement lié au média social et la principale méthode de recherche utilisée est basée sur des visites à domicile, auprès de familles québécoises diverses. J’aimerais effectuer d’autres recherches du même type dans le futur mais je vois aussi certaines extensions plus près du média social.

En préparation à ce travail contractuel, je me suis lancé dans la lecture de certains textes liés à l’utilisation de l’anthropologie et/ou de l’ethnographie dans le contexte des études de marché ou autres sphères d’activités du domaine privé. C’est un peu une façon pour moi de me «baigner» dans l’anthropologie et l’ethnographie appliquées, de réellement devenir ce type de chercheur, d’«assumer mon statut» d’ethnographe autonome.

Un livre qui m’a été conseillé, et que j’ai lu dernièrement, est Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, de Sunderland et Denny. Je crois que l’aspect ethnolinguistique de cet ouvrage est ce qui a plu à John McCreery puisqu’il est, tout comme moi, actif dans l’étude ethnographique du langage. D’ailleurs, plusieurs dimensions de Doing Anthropology ont titillé non seulement mon sens de l’anthropologie linguistique mais aussi mon sens de la sémiotique. Ces chercheuses utilisent une approche très compatible avec la mienne puisqu’elle joint l’ethnographie à l’étude de la signifiance. McCreery aurait difficilement pu mieux tomber.

Ce livre me donne aussi un avant-goût des questions débattues par les ethnographes du domaine privé. Je perçois entre autres un sentiment d’incompréhension, de la part des ethnographes du milieu académique. Et un certain embarras face aux questions épineuses touchant à l’identité sociale, voire à la notion d’ethnicité. D’un point de vue ethnographique large, j’ai reconnu dans ce texte des sujets importants de l’ethnographie contemporaine. Au-delà de mon travail pour Idea Couture, j’ai trouvé des pistes pour m’aider à expliquer l’ethnographie à des gens d’autres sphères d’activité.

Et, pour terminer par un retour sur la «langue de bois» de Telus, j’y ai lu des choses très intéressantes au sujet de politiques inefficaces de relations publiques qui, tout comme ce porte-parole de Telus, se concentrent sur une rhétorique hermétique plutôt que de faire preuve de transparence et d’humilité.

Je reviendrai certainement à tout ça très bientôt.


Transparency and Secrecy

[Started working on this post on December 1st, based on something which happened a few days prior. Since then, several things happened which also connected to this post. Thought the timing was right to revisit the entry and finally publish it. Especially since a friend just teased me for not blogging in a while.]

I’m such a strong advocate of transparency that I have a real problem with secrecy.

I know, transparency is not exactly the mirror opposite of secrecy. But I think my transparency-radical perspective causes some problem in terms of secrecy-management.

“Haven’t you been working with a secret society in Mali?,” you ask. Well, yes, I have. And secrecy hasn’t been a problem in that context because it’s codified. Instead of a notion of “absolute secrecy,” the Malian donsow I’ve been working with have a subtle, nuanced, complex, layered, contextually realistic, elaborate, and fascinating perspective on how knowledge is processed, “transmitted,” managed. In fact, my dissertation research had a lot to do with this form of knowledge management. The term “knowledge people” (“karamoko,” from kalan+mogo=learning+people) truly applies to members of hunter’s associations in Mali as well as to other local experts. These people make a clear difference between knowledge and information. And I can readily relate to their approach. Maybe I’ve “gone native,” but it’s more likely that I was already in that mode before I ever went to Mali (almost 11 years ago).

Of course, a high value for transparency is a hallmark of academia. The notion that “information wants to be free” makes more sense from an academic perspective than from one focused on a currency-based economy. Even when people are clear that “free” stands for “freedom”/«libre» and not for “gratis”/«gratuit» (i.e. “free as in speech, not free as in beer”), there persists a notion that “free comes at a cost” among those people who are so focused on growth and profit. IMHO, most the issues with the switch to “immaterial economies” (“information economy,” “attention economy,” “digital economy”) have to do with this clash between the value of knowledge and a strict sense of “property value.”

But I digress.

Or, do I…?

The phrase “radical transparency” has been used in business circles related to “information and communication technology,” a context in which the “information wants to be free” stance is almost the basis of a movement.

I’m probably more naïve than most people I have met in Mali. While there, a friend told me that he thought that people from the United States were naïve. While he wasn’t referring to me, I can easily acknowledge that the naïveté he described is probably characteristic of my own attitude. I’m North American enough to accept this.

My dedication to transparency was tested by an apparently banal set of circumstances, a few days before I drafted this post. I was given, in public, information which could potentially be harmful if revealed to a certain person. The harm which could be done is relatively small. The person who gave me that information wasn’t overstating it. The effects of my sharing this information wouldn’t be tragic. But I was torn between my radical transparency stance and my desire to do as little harm as humanly possible. So I refrained from sharing this information and decided to write this post instead.

And this post has been sitting in my “draft box” for a while. I wrote a good number of entries in the meantime but I still had this one at the back of my mind. On the backburner. This is where social media becomes something more of a way of life than an activity. Even when I don’t do anything on this blog, I think about it quite a bit.

As mentioned in the preamble, a number of things have happened since I drafted this post which also relate to transparency and secrecy. Including both professional and personal occurrences. Some of these comfort me in my radical transparency position while others help me manage secrecy in a thoughtful way.

On the professional front, first. I’ve recently signed a freelance ethnography contract with Toronto-based consultancy firm Idea Couture. The contract included a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Even before signing the contract/NDA, I was asking fellow ethnographer and blogger Morgan Gerard about disclosure. Thanks to him, I now know that I can already disclose several things about this contract and that, once the results are public, I’ll be able to talk about this freely. Which all comforts me on a very deep level. This is precisely the kind of information and knowledge management I can relate to. The level of secrecy is easily understandable (inopportune disclosure could be detrimental to the client). My commitment to transparency is unwavering. If all contracts are like this, I’ll be quite happy to be a freelance ethnographer. It may not be my only job (I already know that I’ll be teaching online, again). But it already fits in my personal approach to information, knowledge, insight.

I’ll surely blog about private-sector ethnography. At this point, I’ve mostly been preparing through reading material in the field and discussing things with friends or colleagues. I was probably even more careful than I needed to be, but I was still able to exchange ideas about market research ethnography with people in diverse fields. I sincerely think that these exchanges not only add value to my current work for Idea Couture but position me quite well for the future. I really am preparing for freelance ethnography. I’m already thinking like a freelance ethnographer.

There’s a surprising degree of “cohesiveness” in my life, these days. Or, at least, I perceive my life as “making sense.”

And different things have made me say that 2009 would be my year. I get additional evidence of this on a regular basis.

Which brings me to personal issues, still about transparency and secrecy.

Something has happened in my personal life, recently, that I’m currently unable to share. It’s a happy circumstance and I’ll be sharing it later, but it’s semi-secret for now.

Thing is, though, transparency was involved in that my dedication to radical transparency has already been paying off in these personal respects. More specifically, my being transparent has been valued rather highly and there’s something about this type of validation which touches me deeply.

As can probably be noticed, I’m also becoming more public about some emotional dimensions of my life. As an artist and a humanist, I’ve always been a sensitive person, in-tune with his emotions. Specially positive ones. I now feel accepted as a sensitive person, even if several people in my life tend to push sensitivity to the side. In other words, I’ve grown a lot in the past several months and I now want to share my growth with others. Despite reluctance toward the “touchy-feely,” specially in geek and other male-centric circles, I’ve decided to “let it all loose.” I fully respect those who dislike this. But I need to be myself.


Gender and Culture

A friend sent me a link to the following video:

JC Penney: Beware of the Doghouse | Creativity Online.

In that video, a man is “sent to the doghouse” (a kind of prison for insensitive men) because he offered a vacuum cleaner to his wife. It’s part of a marketing campaign through which men are expected to buy diamonds to their wives and girlfriends.

The campaign is quite elaborate and the main website for the campaign makes interesting uses of social media.

For instance, that site makes use of Facebook Connect as a way to tap viewers’ online social network. FC is a relatively new feature (the general release was last week) and few sites have been putting it to the test. In this campaign’s case, a woman can use her Facebook account to connect to her husband or boyfriend and either send him a warning about his insensitivity to her needs (of diamonds) or “put him in the doghouse.” From a social media perspective, it can accurately be described as “neat.”

The site also uses Share This to facilitate the video‘s diffusion  through various social media services, from WordPress.com to Diigo. This tends to be an effective strategy to encourage “viral marketing.” (And, yes, I fully realize that I actively contribute to this campaign’s “viral spread.”)

The campaign could be a case study in social marketing.

But, this time, I’m mostly thinking about gender.

Simply put, I think that this campaign would fare rather badly in Quebec because of its use of culturally inappropriate gender stereotypes.

As I write this post, I receive feedback from Swedish ethnomusicologist Maria Ljungdahl who shares some insight about gender stereotypes. As Maria says, the stereotypes in this ad are “global.” But my sense is that these “global stereotypes” are not that compatible with local culture, at least among Québécois (French-speaking Quebeckers).

See, as a Québécois born and raised as a (male) feminist, I tend to be quite gender-conscious. I might even say that my gender awareness may be somewhat above the Québécois average and gender relationships are frequently used in definitions of Québécois identity.

In Québécois media, advertising campaigns portraying men as naïve and subservient have frequently been discussed. Ten or so years ago, these portrayals were a hot topic (searches for Brault & Martineau, Tim Hortons, and Un gars, une fille should eventually lead to appropriate evidence). Current advertising campaigns seem to me more subtle in terms of male figures, but careful analysis would be warranted as discussions of those portrayals are more infrequent than they have been in the past.

That video and campaign are, to me, very US-specific. Because I spent a significant amount of time in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, my initial reaction while watching the video had more to do with being glad that it wasn’t the typical macrobrewery-style sexist ad. This reaction also has to do with the context for my watching that video as I was unclear as to the gender perspective of the friend who sent me the link (a male homebrewer from the MidWest currently living in Texas).

By the end of the video, however, I reverted to my Québécois sensibility. I also reacted to the obvious commercialism, partly because one of my students has been working on engagement rings in our material culture course.

But my main issue was with the presumed insensitivity of men.

Granted, part of this is personal. I define myself as a “sweet and tendre man” and I’m quite happy about my degree of sensitivity, which may in fact be slightly higher than average, even among Québécois. But my hunch is that this presumption of male insensitivity may not have very positive effects on the perception of such a campaign. Québécois watching this video may not groan but they may not find it that funny either.

There’s a generational component involved and, partly because of a discussion of writing styles in a generational perspective, I have been thinking about “generations” as a useful model for explaining cultural diversity to non-ethnographers.

See, such perceived generational groups as “Baby Boomers” and “Generation X” need not be defined as monolithic, monadic, bounded entities and they have none of the problems associated with notions of “ethnicity” in the general public. “Generations” aren’t “faraway tribes” nor do they imply complete isolation. Some people may tend to use “generational” labels in such terms that they appear clearly defined (“Baby Boomers are those individuals born between such and such years”). And there is some confusion between this use of “historical generations” and what the concept of “generation” means in, say, the study of kinship systems. But it’s still relatively easy to get people to think about generations in cultural terms: they’re not “different cultures” but they still seem to be “culturally different.”

Going back to gender… The JC Penney marketing campaign visibly lumps together people of different ages. The notion seems to be that doghouse-worthy male insensitivity isn’t age-specific or related to inexperience. The one man who was able to leave the doghouse based on his purchase of diamonds is relatively “age-neutral” as he doesn’t really seem to represent a given age. Because this attempt at crossing age divisions seems so obvious, I would assume that it came in the context of perceived differences in gender relationships. Using the logic of those who perceive the second part of the 20th Century as a period of social emancipation, one might presume that younger men are less insensitive than older men (who were “brought up” in a cultural context which was “still sexist”). If there are wide differences in the degree of sensitivity of men of different ages, a campaign aiming at a broad age range needs to diminish the importance of these differences. “The joke needs to be funny to men of all ages.”

The Quebec context is, I think, different. While we do perceive the second part of the 20th Century (and, especially, the 1970s) as a period of social emancipation (known as the “Quiet Revolution” or «Révolution Tranquille»), the degree of sensitivity to gender issues appears to be relatively level, across the population. At a certain point in time, one might have argued that older men were still insensitive (at the same time as divorcées in their forties might have been regarded as very assertive) but it seems difficult to make such a distinction in the current context.

All this to say that the JC Penney commercial is culturally inappropriate for Québécois society? Not quite. Though the example I used was this JC Penney campaign, I’m thinking about broader contexts for Québécois identity (for a variety of personal reasons, including the fact that I have been back in Québec for several months, now).

My claim is…

Ethnographic field research would go a long way to unearth culturally appropriate categories which might eventually help marketers cater to Québécois.

Of course, the agency which produced that JC Penney ad (Saatchi & Saatchi) was targeting the US market (JC Penney doesn’t have locations in Quebec) and I received the link through a friend in the US. But it was an interesting opportunity for me to think and write about a few issues related to the cultural specificity of gender stereotypes.


My Problem With Journalism

I hate having an axe to grind. Really, I do. “It’s unlike me.” When I notice that I catch myself grinding an axe, I “get on my own case.” I can be quite harsh with my own self.

But I’ve been trained to voice my concerns. And I’ve been perceiving an important social problem for a while.

So I “can’t keep quiet about it.”

If everything goes really well, posting this blog entry might be liberating enough that I will no longer have any axe to grind. Even if it doesn’t go as well as I hope, it’ll be useful to keep this post around so that people can understand my position.

Because I don’t necessarily want people to agree with me. I mostly want them to understand “where I come from.”

So, here goes:

Journalism may have outlived its usefulness.

Like several other “-isms” (including nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and racism) journalism is counterproductive in the current state of society.

This isn’t an ethical stance, though there are ethical positions which go with it. It’s a statement about the anachronic nature of journalism. As per functional analysis, everything in society needs a function if it is to be maintained. What has been known as journalism is now taking new functions. Eventually, “journalism as we know it” should, logically, make way for new forms.

What these new forms might be, I won’t elaborate in this post. I have multiple ideas, especially given well-publicised interests in social media. But this post isn’t about “the future of journalism.”

It’s about the end of journalism.

Or, at least, my looking forward to the end of journalism.

Now, I’m not saying that journalists are bad people and that they should just lose their jobs. I do think that those who were trained as journalists need to retool themselves, but this post isn’t not about that either.

It’s about an axe I’ve been grinding.

See, I can admit it, I’ve been making some rather negative comments about diverse behaviours and statements, by media people. It has even become a habit of mine to allow myself to comment on something a journalist has said, if I feel that there is an issue.

Yes, I know: journalists are people too, they deserve my respect.

And I do respect them, the same way I respect every human being. I just won’t give them the satisfaction of my putting them on a pedestal. In my mind, journalists are people: just like anybody else. They deserve no special treatment. And several of them have been arrogant enough that I can’t help turning their arrogance back to them.

Still, it’s not about journalist as people. It’s about journalism “as an occupation.” And as a system. An outdated system.

Speaking of dates, some context…

I was born in 1972 and, originally,I was quite taken by journalism.

By age twelve, I was pretty much a news junkie. Seriously! I was “consuming” a lot of media at that point. And I was “into” media. Mostly television and radio, with some print mixed in, as well as lots of literary work for context: this is when I first read French and Russian authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I kept thinking about what was happening in The World. Back in 1984, the Cold War was a major issue. To a French-Canadian tween, this mostly meant thinking about the fact that there were (allegedly) US and USSR “bombs pointed at us,” for reasons beyond our direct control.

“Caring about The World” also meant thinking about all sorts of problems happening across The Globe. Especially poverty, hunger, diseases, and wars. I distinctly remember caring about the famine in Ethiopia. And when We Are the World started playing everywhere, I felt like something was finally happening.

This was one of my first steps toward cynicism. And I’m happy it occured at age twelve because it allowed me to eventually “snap out of it.” Oh, sure, I can still be a cynic on occasion. But my cynicism is contextual. I’m not sure things would have been as happiness-inducing for me if it hadn’t been for that early start in cynicism.

Because, you see, The World disinterested itself quite rapidly with the plight of Ethiopians. I distinctly remember asking myself, after the media frenzy died out, what had happened to Ethiopians in the meantime. I’m sure there has been some report at the time claiming that the famine was over and that the situation was “back to normal.” But I didn’t hear anything about it, and I was looking. As a twelve-year-old French-Canadian with no access to a modem, I had no direct access to information about the situation in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia still remained as a symbol, to me, of an issue to be solved. It’s not the direct cause of my later becoming an africanist. But, come to think of it, there might be a connection, deeper down than I had been looking.

So, by the end of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, I was “losing my faith in” journalism.

I clearly haven’t gained a new faith in journalism. And it all makes me feel quite good, actually. I simply don’t need that kind of faith. I was already training myself to be a critical thinker. Sounds self-serving? Well, sorry. I’m just being honest. What’s a blog if the author isn’t honest and genuine?

Flash forward to 1991, when I started formal training in anthropology. The feeling was exhilarating. I finally felt like I belonged. My statement at the time was to the effect that “I wasn’t meant for anthropology: anthropology was meant for me!” And I was learning quite a bit about/from The World. At that point, it already did mean “The Whole Wide World,” even though my knowledge of that World was fairly limited. And it was a haven of critical thinking.

Ideal, I tell you. Moan all you want, it felt like the ideal place at the ideal time.

And, during the summer of 1993, it all happened: I learnt about the existence of the “Internet.” And it changed my life. Seriously, the ‘Net did have a large part to play in important changes in my life.

That event, my discovery of the ‘Net, also has a connection to journalism. The person who described the Internet to me was Kevin Tuite, one of my linguistic anthropology teachers at Université de Montréal. As far as I can remember, Kevin was mostly describing Usenet. But the potential for “relatively unmediated communication” was already a big selling point. Kevin talked about the fact that members of the Caucasian diaspora were able to use the Internet to discuss with their relatives and friends back in the Caucasus about issues pertaining to these independent republics after the fall of the USSR. All this while media coverage was sketchy at best (sounded like journalism still had a hard time coping with the new realities).

As you can imagine, I was more than intrigued and I applied for an account as soon as possible. In the meantime, I bought at 2400 baud modem, joined some local BBSes, and got to chat about the Internet with several friends, some of whom already had accounts. Got my first email account just before semester started, in August, 1993. I can still see traces of that account, but only since April, 1994 (I guess I wasn’t using my address in my signature before this). I’ve been an enthusiastic user of diverse Internet-based means of communication since then.

But coming back to journalism, specifically…

Journalism missed the switch.

During the past fifteen years, I’ve been amazed at how clueless members of mainstream media institutions have been to “the power of the Internet.” This was during Wired Magazine’s first year as a print magazine and we (some friends and I) were already commenting upon the fact that print journalists should look at what was coming. Eventually, they would need to adapt. “The Internet changes everything,” I thought.

No, I didn’t mean that the Internet would cause any of the significant changes that we have seeing around us. I tend to be against technological determinism (and other McLuhan tendencies). Not that I prefer sociological determinism yet I can’t help but think that, from ARPAnet to the current state of the Internet, most of the important changes have been primarily social: if the Internet became something, it’s because people are making it so, not because of some inexorable technological development.

My enthusiastic perspective on the Internet was largely motivated by the notion that it would allow people to go beyond the model from the journalism era. Honestly, I could see the end of “journalism as we knew it.” And I’m surprised, fifteen years later, that journalism has been among the slowest institutions to adapt.

In a sense, my main problem with journalism is that it maintains a very stratified structure which gives too much weight to the credibility of specific individuals. Editors and journalists, who are part of the “medium” in the old models of communication, have taken on a gatekeeping role despite the fact that they rarely are much more proficient thinkers than people who read them. “Gatekeepers” even constitute a “textbook case” in sociology, especially in conflict theory. Though I can easily perceive how “constructed” that gatekeeping model may be, I can easily relate to what it entails in terms of journalism.

There’s a type of arrogance embedded in journalistic self-perception: “we’re journalists/editors so we know better than you; you need us to process information for you.” Regardless of how much I may disagree with some of his words and actions, I take solace in the fact that Murdoch, a key figure in today’s mainstream media, talked directly at this arrogance. Of course, he might have been pandering. But the very fact that he can pay lip-service to journalistic arrogance is, in my mind, quite helpful.

I think the days of fully stratified gatekeeping (a “top-down approach” to information filtering) are over. Now that information is easily available and that knowledge is constructed socially, any “filtering” method can be distributed. I’m not really thinking of a “cream rises to the top” model. An analogy with water sources going through multiple layers of mountain rock would be more appropriate to a Swiss citizen such as myself. But the model I have in mind is more about what Bakhtin called “polyvocality” and what has become an ethical position on “giving voice to the other.” Journalism has taken voice away from people. I have in mind a distributed mode of knowledge construction which gives everyone enough voice to have long-distance effects.

At the risk of sounding too abstract (it’s actually very clear in my mind, but it requires a long description), it’s a blend of ideas like: the social butterfly effect, a post-encyclopedic world, and cultural awareness. All of these, in my mind, contribute to this heightened form of critical thinking away from which I feel journalism has led us.

The social butterfly effect is fairly easy to understand, especially now that social networks are so prominent. Basically, the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory applied to social networks. In this context, a “social butterfly” is a node in multiple networks of varying degrees of density and clustering. Because such a “social butterfly” can bring things (ideas, especially) from one such network to another, I argue that her or his ultimate influence (in agregate) is larger than that of someone who sits at the core of a highly clustered network. Yes, it’s related to “weak ties” and other network classics. But it’s a bit more specific, at least in my mind. In terms of journalism, the social butterfly effect implies that the way knowledge is constructed needs not come from a singular source or channel.

The “encyclopedic world” I have in mind is that of our good friends from the French Enlightenment: Diderot and the gang. At that time, there was a notion that the sum of all knowledge could be contained in the Encyclopédie. Of course, I’m simplifying. But such a notion is still discussed fairly frequently. The world in which we now live has clearly challenged this encyclopedic notion of exhaustiveness. Sure, certain people hold on to that notion. But it’s not taken for granted as “uncontroversial.” Actually, those who hold on to it tend to respond rather positively to the journalistic perspective on human events. As should be obvious, I think the days of that encyclopedic worldview are counted and that “journalism as we know it” will die at the same time. Though it seems to be built on an “encyclopedia” frame, Wikipedia clearly benefits from distributed model of knowledge management. In this sense, Wikipedia is less anachronistic than Britannica. Wikipedia also tends to be more insightful than Britannica.

The cultural awareness point may sound like an ethnographer’s pipe dream. But I perceive a clear connection between Globalization and a certain form of cultural awareness in information and knowledge management. This is probably where the Global Voices model can come in. One of the most useful representations of that model comes from a Chris Lydon’s Open Source conversation with Solana Larsen and Ethan Zuckerman. Simply put, I feel that this model challenges journalism’s ethnocentrism.

Obviously, I have many other things to say about journalism (as well as about its corrolate, nationalism).

But I do feel liberated already. So I’ll leave it at that.


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?


I Am Not a Guru

“Nor do I play one online!”

The “I am not a ” phrase is often used as a disclaimer when one is giving advice. Especially in online contexts having to do with law, in which case the IANAL acronym can be used, and understood.
I’m not writing this to give advice. (Even though I could!) I’ve simply been thinking about social media a fair deal, recently, and thought I’d share a few thoughts.

I’ve been on the record as saying that I have a hard time selling my expertise. It’s not through lack of self-confidence (though I did have problems with this in the past), nor is it that my expertise is difficult to sell. It’s simply a matter of seeing myself as a friendly humanist, not as a brand to sell. To a certain extent, this post is an extension of the same line of thinking.

I’m also going back to my post about “the ‘social’ in ‘social media/marketing/web'” as I tend to position myself as an ethnographer and social scientist (I teach anthropology, sociology, and folkloristics). Simply put, I do participant-observation in social media spheres. Haven’t done formal research on the subject, nor have I taught in that field. But I did gain some insight in terms if what social media entails.

Again, I’m no guru. I’m just a social geek.

The direct prompt for this blogpost is a friend’s message in which he asked me for advice on the use of social media to market his creative work. Not that he framed his question in precisely those terms but the basic idea was there.

As he’s a friend, I answered him candidly, not trying to sell my social media expertise to him. But, after sending that message, I got to think about the fact that I’m not selling my social media expertise to anyone.

One reason is that I’m no salesman. Not only do I perceive myself as “too frank to be a salesman” (more on the assumptions later), but I simply do not have the skills to sell anything. Some people are so good at sales pitches that they could create needs where they is none (the joke about refrigerators and “Eskimos” is too much of an ethnic slur to be appropriate). I’ve been on the record saying that “I couldn’t sell bread for a penny” (to a rich yet starving person).

None of this means that I haven’t had any influence on any purchasing pattern. In fact, that long thread in which I confessed my lack of salesman skills was the impulse (direct or indirect) behind the purchase of a significant number of stovetop coffee devices and this “influence” has been addressed explicitly. It’s just that my influence tends to be more subtle, more “diffuse.” Influence based on participation in diverse groups. It’s one reason I keep talking about the “social butterfly effect.”

Coming back to social media and social marketing.

First, some working definitions. By “social media” I usually mean blogs, podcasts, social networking systems, and microblogs. My usage also involves any participatory use of the Internet and any alternative to “mainstream media” (MSM) which makes use of online contacts between human beings. “Social marketing” is, to me, the use of social media to market and sell a variety of things online, including “people as brands.” This notion connects directly to a specific meaning of “social capital” which, come to think of it, probably has more to do with Putnam than Bourdieu (PDF version of an atricle about both versions).

Other people, I admit, probably have much better ways to define those concepts. But those definitions are appropriate in the present context. I mostly wanted to talk about gurus.

Social Guru

I notice guru-like behaviour in the social media/marketing sphere.

I’m not targetting individuals, though the behaviour is adopted by specific people. Not every one is acting as a “social media guru” or “social marketing guru.” The guru-like behaviour is in fact quite specific and not as common as some would think.

Neither am I saying that guru-like behaviour is inappropriate. I’m not blaming anyone for acting like a guru. I’m mostly distancing myself from that behaviour. Trying to show that it’s one model for behaviour in the social media/marketing sphere.

It should go without saying: I’m not using the term “guru” in a literal sense it might have in South Asia. That kind of guru I might not distance myself from as quickly. Especially if we think about “teachers as personal trainers.” But I’m using “guru” in reference to an Anglo-American phenomenon having to do with expertise and prestige.

Guru-like behaviour, as noticed in the social media/marketing sphere, has to do with “portraying oneself as an expert holding a secret key which can open the doors to instant success.” Self-assurance is involved, of course. But there’s also a degree of mystification. And though this isn’t a rant against people who adopt this kind of behaviour, I must admit that I have negative reactions to any kind of mystification.

There’s a difference between mystery and mystification. Something that is mysterious is difficult to explain “by its very nature.” Mystification involves withholding information to prevent knowledge. As an academic, I have been trained to fight obscurantism of any kind. Mystification seems counterproductive. “Information Wants to be Free.”

This is not to say that I dislike ambiguity, double-entendres, or even secrets. In fact, I’m often using ambiguity in playful manner and, working with a freemasonry-like secret association, I do understand the value of the most restrictive knowledge management practises. But I find limited value in restricting information when knowledge can be beneficial to everyone. As in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, subversive ideas find their way out of attempts to hide them.

Another aspect of guru-like behaviour which tends to bother me is that I can’t help but find it empty. As some would say, “there needs to be a ‘there’ there.” With social media/marketing, the behaviour I’m alluding to seems to imply that there is, in fact, some “secret key to open all doors.” Yet, as I scratch beneath the surface, I find something hollow. (The image I have in mind is that of a chocolate Easter egg. But any kind of trompe-l’œil would work.)

Obviously, I’m not saying that there’s “nothing to” social media/marketing. Those who dismiss social media and/or social marketing sound to me like curmudgeons or naysayers. “There’s nothing new, here. It’s just the same thing as what it always was. Buy my book to read all about what nonsense this all is.” (A bit self-serving, don’t you think?)

And I’m not saying that I know what there is in social media and marketing which is worth using. That would not only be quite presumptuous but it would also represent social media and marketing in a more simplified manner than I feel it deserves.

I’m just saying that caution should be used with people who claim they know everything there is to know about social media and social marketing. In other words, “be careful when someone promises to make you succeed through the Internet.” Sounds obvious, but some people still fall prey to grandiose claims.

Having said this, I’ll keep on posting some of thoughts about social media and social marketing. I might be way off, so “don’t quote me on this.” (You can actually quote me but don’t give my ideas too much credit.)


Café à la montréalaise: introduction

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Tout d’abord, l’introduction.

Montréal est en passe de (re)devenir une destination pour le café. Mieux encore, la «Renaissance du café à Montréal» risque d’avoir des conséquences bénéfiques pour l’ensemble du milieu culinaire de la métropole québécoise.

Cette thèse peut sembler personnelle et je n’entends pas la proposer de façon dogmatique. Mais en me mêlant au milieu du café à Montréal, j’ai accumulé un certain nombre d’impressions qu’il me ferait plaisir de partager. Il y a même de la «pensée magique» dans tout ça en ce sens qu’il me semble plus facile de rebâtir la scène montréalaise du café si nous avons une idée assez juste de ce qui constitue la spécificité montréalaise.

Je ne tente pas de dire que Montréal devrait être la «capitale du café» ou que Montréal a de l’importance dans le domaine du café. Mais ma ville natale me sert de cas de figure dans l’observation d’une scène culinaire.

Qui suis-je?

D’ailleurs, qui suis-je pour parler ainsi? Essentiellement, un ethnographe montréalais et un avide amateur de café, un «geek de café».

Pour être clair: mon intérêt pour le café est très personnel mais il est fondamental dans ma vie. «Je vis le café». Par contre, je ne suis pas un professionnel du café en ce sens que je n’ai jamais été payé pour quelque activité que ce soit ayant trait au café. J’ai aujourd’hui 36 ans et je bois régulièrement du café depuis l’âge de quinze ans (donc, depuis 1987). Ce qui peut expliquer quelques références nostalgiques à mon adolescence… 😉

Ce qui est amusant, c’est que depuis quelques années j’ai acquis une certaine notoriété dans le milieu du café. Oh, c’est pas grand-chose! Les professionnels du café ne parlent pas de moi entre eux et je n’apparais pas dans des revues spécialisées. Mais mon expertise personnelle sur le café a été reconnue à certaines occasions. J’en tirerais une certaine fierté si ce n’était du fait que tout ce que j’ai fait dans le milieu du café était «tout naturel» pour moi.

Si j’explique tout ça, c’est pas du tout pour me mettre en valeur mais pour donner un certain contexte. Une espèce d’«avertissement» (au sens de “disclaimer“).

Ma formation en ethnographie provient de disciplines académiques (surtout l’anthropologie et la folkloristique) mais j’adopte ici un rôle d’«ethnographe public». Donc, si mes observations sont basées sur une formation académique, elles sont ici effectuées dans un contexte informel, exploratoire. Et c’est quoi, l’ethnographie? Le terme réfère à plusieurs choses mais, essentiellement, c’est un travail de description culturelle. Notre approche de base est l’«observation participante» et je peux dire que j’ai à la fois observé et participé à diverses activités de scènes du café.

Parlant de «scènes de café»… J’aime bien le concept, parce qu’il sous-entend une certaine cohérence sociale (un groupe de gens avec des intérêts communs, dans ce cas-ci) sans évoquer l’homogénéité. La scène montréalaise du café est d’ailleurs assez diversifiée.

Et c’est la base de ce que j’essaie de décrire: la spécificité montréalaise en matière de café passe beaucoup par la diversité.

Pour facilité la lecture, j’ai décidé de diviser ma description en sections.


Café à la montréalaise

Montréal est en passe de (re)devenir une destination pour le café. Mieux encore, la «Renaissance du café à Montréal» risque d’avoir des conséquences bénéfiques pour l’ensemble du milieu culinaire de la métropole québécoise.

Cette thèse peut sembler personnelle et je n’entends pas la proposer de façon dogmatique. Mais en me mêlant au milieu du café à Montréal, j’ai accumulé un certain nombre d’impressions qu’il me ferait plaisir de partager. Il y a même de la «pensée magique» dans tout ça en ce sens qu’il me semble plus facile de rebâtir la scène montréalaise du café si nous avons une idée assez juste de ce qui constitue la spécificité montréalaise.

Continue reading


Johannes Fabian on Blogs

via Johannes Fabian conference at Concordia « another anthro blog.

Congrats to Concordia anthroblogger (and anthroblogger researcher) Owen Wiltshire for getting Johannes Fabian to comment on his blog entry. Sounds like Fabian has a lot in common with those of us who push blogging, informal writing, and Open Access.

Not sure Fabian perceives public ethnography in the same light as academic ethnography, but he’s clearly interested in opening up dialogue beyond the strict limits of academic departments.


Buzz Factor

I have an ambivalent relationship with buzzwords and buzzphrases. I find them dangerous, especially when they contribute to groupthink, but I also like to play with them. Whether I try (perhaps clumsily) to create some or I find one to be useful in encapsulating insight.

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I participated in the PodCamp Montreal UnConference, giving a buzzphrase-laden presentation on social media and academia (or “social acamedia,” as I later called it).

I’ll surely revisit a number of notes I’ve taken (mostly through Twitter) during the unconference. But I thought I’d post something as a placeholder.

Some buzzphrases/-words I’ve been known to use should serve as the bases for explanations about a few things I’ve been rambling about the past few years.

Here are a few (some of which I’ve tried to coin):

Not that all of these paint a clear picture of what I’ve been thinking about. But they’re all part of a bigger framework through which I observe and participate in Geek Culture. One day, I might do a formal/academic ethnography of the Geek Crowd.


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.


Enthused Tech

Yesterday, I held a WiZiQ session on the use of online tech in higher education:

Enthusing Higher Education: Getting Universities and Colleges to Play with Online Tools and Services

Slideshare

(Full multimedia recording available here)

During the session, Nellie Deutsch shared the following link:

Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett Rogers (1995)

Haven’t read Rogers’s book but it sounds like a contextually easy to understand version of ideas which have been quite clear in Boasian disciplines (cultural anthropology, folkloristics, cultural ecology…) for a while. But, in this sometimes obsessive quest for innovation, it might in fact be useful to go back to basic ideas about the social mechanisms which can be observed in the adoption of new tools and techniques. It’s in fact the thinking behind this relatively recent blogpost of mine:

Technology Adoption and Active Reading

My emphasis during the WiZiQ session was on enthusiasm. I tend to think a lot about occasions in which, thinking about possibilities afforded technology relates to people getting “psyched up.” In a way, this is exactly how I can define myself as a tech enthusiast: I get easy psyched up in the context of discussions about technology.

What’s funny is that I’m no gadget freak. I don’t care about the tool. I just love to dream up possibilities. And I sincerely think that I’m not alone. We might even guess that a similar dream-induced excitement animates true gadget freaks, who must have the latest tool. Early adopters are a big part of geek culture and, though still small, geek culture is still a niche.

Because I know I’ll keep on talking about these things on other occasions, I can “leave it at that,” for now.

RERO‘s my battle cry.

TBC


Planting Landmines

The ever-thoughtful Carl Dyke graciously provided me with this expression as a way to talk about edubloggers might call “lifelong learning.” Part of teaching is about exposing students to some notions which may have radical effects later on in their lives. This is especially true for us in social sciences as some of the things we discuss not only go against the grain of some well-ingrained notions but also connect with very intimate ideas people may hold.

I think the example we were using was the construction of ideas about Nation-States/Countries, Citizenship, and Democracy. Lots of people (and, clearly, most of our students) assume that the ideas we have about States and governance are continuous and even equivalent with those held by any group at any point of history. Simply put, national identity is taken as a “natural” idea. Which makes it hard for some people to discuss such issues in a historical perspective. This is one reason I enjoyed Appiah’s “Golden Nugget” idea so much (not to mention that his talk was quite entertaining). It’s a way to put the very notion of “Civilization” in perspective (without using an evolutionary model). Carl also provided me with references to Eugen Weber and to the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone. We could even use scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (video). All of these things are, in my mind, landmines. Actually, “mind landmines” or, erm, “landminds.” (Should I get a trademark?)

Of course, literature on nationalism (Benedict Anderson, Terence Ranger, Eric Hobsbawm, etc.) can also be used. Personally, I tend to like work on similar subjects by ethnographers like Regina Bendix and Kelly Askew.

Those “landminds” are only triggered when people start really looking into issues lying underneath society and politics. But when they explode, these landminds can be quite transformative. As per the deadly effects of the explosives from which they’re inspired, these landminds destroy some apparently strong intellectual models.

So, although I see landmines as a major problem, I do see part of my work as “planting landminds.”

Much less positive than the usual “planting the seeds of knowledge” metaphors, but also much more powerful.


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.

Disclaimer

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.

Clarification

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.

Links

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
  • OLPC XO
  • OLPC XOXO
  • 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.

Communitas

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?


Manufacturing Taste

In a comment to my rant on naysaying, Carl Dyke posted the following link (to a Josh Ellis piece from 2003):

Mindjack – Taste Tribes

The piece itself is rather unremarkable. Although, it does contain comments about a few things which became important topics in the meantime such as recommendation systems and the importance of music listeners for individual artists. I’m not too concerned about the piece and I realize it’s “nothing new.” It mostly made me think about a number of things about which I’ve been meaning to blog.

I could react to the use of the term “tribe.” And there are obvious things to say in terms of social groups (family resemblance, community of experience, community of practice, communitas, homogamy, in-group knowledge, social network analysis, etc.).

But I guess my take is at the same time more personal and more cultural.

Contrary to what my Facebook profile may lead some people to believe, I am not a fan of anything or anyone. I’m not saying that I don’t like things or people. I do. In fact, I pretty much like everyone. But fandom isn’t my thing. Neither is fanboyism. So I don’t relate so well to Ellis’s description of networks based on appreciation of a band. Sure, in the past, I’ve participated in similar groups, such as online discussions about one of my favorite tv shows (which still has a fairly active online fanbase). And I did join several Facebook groups about things or people I like. But my personal attitude makes me react rather negatively to fanclubs and the kind of “taste-based community” Ellis so regrettably called “taste tribes.”

Nobody’s fault but my own. I just feel these groups tend to be too restrictive, too inward-looking and, well, too opinion-based.

I’m too much of a social butterfly to spend much time in any one of these groups. My engagement to a group of people can run deeply and my allegiance and faithfulness are sometimes rather strong. But I don’t like to restrict myself to certain groups.

Maybe I’m an “alpha socialiser” after all.

The cultural dimension also seems quite important to me, but it’s harder to explain without giving off the wrong signals. Not only do I react to what I perceive to be abuses of “pop culture references” (in part because I find them exclusionary), but I perceive a kind of culturally significant attachment to individual “cultural items” (“media,” as Ellis seems to call them) in “English-speaking North American popular culture.” I’m not saying that this tendency doesn’t exist in any other context. In fact, it’s likely a dimension of any “popular culture.” But this tendency is quite foreign to me. The fact that I conceive of myself as an outside observer to popular culture makes me associate the tendency with the common habits shared by a group I’m not a member of.

I’m sure I’ll post again about this. But my guess is that somewhat shorter blog entries encourage more discussion. Given the increasing number of comments I’m getting, it might be cool to tap my readership’s insight a bit more. One thing I’ve often noticed is that my more knee-jerk posts are often more effective.

So here goes.