Category Archives: audience

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.”

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Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon’s Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.

Anyhoo…

In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.


Development and Quality: Reply to Agile Diary

Former WiZiQ product manager Vikrama Dhiman responded to one of my tweets with a full-blown blogpost, thereby giving support to Matt Mullenweg‘s point that microblogging goes hand-in-hand with “macroblogging.”

My tweet:

enjoys draft æsthetics yet wishes more developers would release stable products. / adopte certains produits trop rapidement.

Vikrama’s post:

Good Enough Software Does Not Mean Bad Software « Agile Diary, Agile Introduction, Agile Implementation.

My reply:

“To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there’s no such thing as perfect.” (Alexander Calder)

Thanks a lot for your kind comments. I’m very happy that my tweet (and status update) triggered this.

A bit of context for my tweet (actually, a post from Ping.fm, meant as a status update, thereby giving support in favour of conscious duplication, «n’en déplaise aux partisans de l’action contre la duplication».)

I’ve been thinking about what I call the “draft æsthetics.” In fact, I did a podcast episode about it. My description of that episode was:

Sometimes, there is such a thing as “Good Enough.”

Though I didn’t emphasize the “sometimes” part in that podcast episode, it was an important part of what I wanted to say. In fact, my intention wasn’t to defend draft æsthetics but to note that there seems to be a tendency toward this æsthetic mode. I do situate myself within that mode in many things I do, but it really doesn’t mean that this mode should be the exclusive one used in any context.

That aforequoted tweet was thus a response to my podcast episode on draft æsthetics. “Yes, ‘good enough’ may work, sometimes. But it needs not be applied in all cases.”

As I often get into convoluted discussions with people who seem to think that I condone or defend a position because I take it for myself, the main thing I’d say there is that I’m not only a relativist but I cherish nuance. In other words, my tweet was a way to qualify the core statement I was talking about in my podcast episode (that “good enough” exists, at times). And that statement isn’t necessarily my own. I notice a pattern by which this statement seems to be held as accurate by people. I share that opinion, but it’s not a strongly held belief of mine.

Of course, I digress…

So, the tweet which motivated Vikrama had to do with my approach to “good enough.” In this case, I tend to think about writing but in view of Eric S. Raymond’s approach to “Release Early, Release Often” (RERO). So there is a connection to software development and geek culture. But I think of “good enough” in a broader sense.

Disclaimer: I am not a coder.

The Calder quote remained in my head, after it was mentioned by a colleague who had read it in a local newspaper. One reason it struck me is that I spend some time thinking about artists and engineers, especially in social terms. I spend some time hanging out with engineers but I tend to be more on the “artist” side of what I perceive to be an axis of attitudes found in some social contexts. I do get a fair deal of flack for some of my comments on this characterization and it should be clear that it isn’t meant to imply any evaluation of individuals. But, as a model, the artist and engineer distinction seems to work, for me. In a way, it seems more useful than the distinction between science and art.

An engineer friend with whom I discussed this kind of distinction was quick to point out that, to him, there’s no such thing as “good enough.” He was also quick to point out that engineers can be creative and so on. But the point isn’t to exclude engineers from artistic endeavours. It’s to describe differences in modes of thought, ways of knowing, approaches to reality. And the way these are perceived socially. We could do a simple exercise with terms like “troubleshooting” and “emotional” to be assigned to the two broad categories of “engineer” and “artist.” Chances are that clear patterns would emerge. Of course, many concepts are as important to both sides (“intelligence,” “innovation”…) and they may also be telling. But dichotomies have heuristic value.

Now, to go back to software development, the focus in Vikrama’s Agile Diary post…

What pushed me to post my status update and tweet is in fact related to software development. Contrary to what Vikrama presumes, it wasn’t about a Web application. And it wasn’t even about a single thing. But it did have to do with firmware development and with software documentation.

The first case is that of my Fonera 2.0n router. Bought it in early November and I wasn’t able to connect to its private signal using my iPod touch. I could connect to the router using the public signal, but that required frequent authentication, as annoying as with ISF. Since my iPod touch is my main WiFi device, this issue made my Fonera 2.0n experience rather frustrating.

Of course, I’ve been contacting Fon‘s tech support. As is often the case, that experience was itself quite frustrating. I was told to reset my touch’s network settings which forced me to reauthenticate my touch on a number of networks I access regularly and only solved the problem temporarily. The same tech support person (or, at least, somebody using the same name) had me repeat the same description several times in the same email message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was also told to use third-party software which had nothing to do with my issue. All in all, your typical tech support experience.

But my tweet wasn’t really about tech support. It was about the product. Thougb I find the overall concept behind the Fonera 2.0n router very interesting, its implementation seems to me to be lacking. In fact, it reminds me of several FLOSS development projects that I’ve been observing and, to an extent, benefitting from.

This is rapidly transforming into a rant I’ve had in my “to blog” list for a while about “thinking outside the geek box.” I’ll try to resist the temptation, for now. But I can mention a blog thread which has been on my mind, in terms of this issue.

Firefox 3 is Still a Memory Hog — The NeoSmart Files.

The blogpost refers to a situation in which, according to at least some users (including the blogpost’s author), Firefox uses up more memory than it should and becomes difficult to use. The thread has several comments providing support to statements about the relatively poor performance of Firefox on people’s systems, but it also has “contributions” from an obvious troll, who keeps assigning the problem on the users’ side.

The thing about this is that it’s representative of a tricky issue in the geek world, whereby developers and users are perceived as belonging to two sides of a type of “class struggle.” Within the geek niche, users are often dismissed as “lusers.” Tech support humour includes condescending jokes about “code 6”: “the problem is 6″ from the screen.” The aforementioned Eric S. Raymond wrote a rather popular guide to asking questions in geek circles which seems surprisingly unaware of social and cultural issues, especially from someone with an anthropological background. Following that guide, one should switch their mind to that of a very effective problem-solver (i.e., the engineer frame) to ask questions “the smart way.” Not only is the onus on users, but any failure to comply with these rules may be met with this air of intellectual superiority encoded in that guide. IOW, “Troubleshoot now, ask questions later.”

Of course, many users are “guilty” of all sorts of “crimes” having to do with not reading the documentation which comes with the product or with simply not thinking about the issue with sufficient depth before contacting tech support. And as the majority of the population is on the “user” side, the situation can be described as both a form of marginalization (geek culture comes from “nerd” labels) and a matter of elitism (geek culture as self-absorbed).

This does have something to do with my Fonera 2.0n. With it, I was caught in this dynamic whereby I had to switch to the “engineer frame” in order to solve my problem. I eventually did solve my Fonera authentication problem, using a workaround mentioned in a forum post about another issue (free registration required). Turns out, the “release candidate” version of my Fonera’s firmware does solve the issue. Of course, this new firmware may cause other forms of instability and installing it required a bit of digging. But it eventually worked.

The point is that, as released, the Fonera 2.0n router is a geek toy. It’s unpolished in many ways. It’s full of promise in terms of what it may make possible, but it failed to deliver in terms of what a router should do (route a signal). In this case, I don’t consider it to be a finished product. It’s not necessarily “unstable” in the strict sense that a software engineer might use the term. In fact, I hesitated between different terms to use instead of “stable,” in that tweet, and I’m not that happy with my final choice. The Fonera 2.0n isn’t unstable. But it’s akin to an alpha version released as a finished product. That’s something we see a lot of, these days.

The main other case which prompted me to send that tweet is “CivRev for iPhone,” a game that I’ve been playing on my iPod touch.

I’ve played with different games in the Civ franchise and I even used the FLOSS version on occasion. Not only is “Civilization” a geek classic, but it does connect with some anthropological issues (usually in a problematic view: Civ’s worldview lacks anthro’s insight). And it’s the kind of game that I can easily play while listening to podcasts (I subscribe to a number of th0se).

What’s wrong with that game? Actually, not much. I can’t even say that it’s unstable, unlike some other items in the App Store. But there’s a few things which aren’t optimal in terms of documentation. Not that it’s difficult to figure out how the game works. But the game is complex enough that some documentation is quite useful. Especially since it does change between one version of the game and another. Unfortunately, the online manual isn’t particularly helpful. Oh, sure, it probably contains all the information required. But it’s not available offline, isn’t optimized for the device it’s supposed to be used with, doesn’t contain proper links between sections, isn’t directly searchable, and isn’t particularly well-written. Not to mention that it seems to only be available in English even though the game itself is available in multiple languages (I play it in French).

Nothing tragic, of course. But coupled with my Fonera experience, it contributed to both a slight sense of frustration and this whole reflection about unfinished products.

Sure, it’s not much. But it’s “good enough” to get me started.


Actively Reading: OLPC Critique

Critical thinking has been on my mind, recently. For one thing, I oriented an  “intro. to sociology” course I teach toward critical skills and methods. To me, it’s a very important part of university education, going much beyond media literacy.
And media literacy is something about which I care a great deal. Seems to me that several journalists have been giving up on trying to help the general population increase and enhance their own media literacy skills. It’s almost as if they were claiming they’re the only ones who can reach a significant level of media literacy. Of course, many of them seem unable to have a critical approach to their own work. I’m with Bourdieu on this one. And I make my problem with journalism known.
As a simple example, I couldn’t help but notice a number of problems with this CBC coverage of a new citizenship guidebook. My approach to this coverage is partly visible in short discussions I’ve had on Aardvark about bylines.
A bit over a week ago, I heard about something interesting related to “making technology work,” on WTP (a technology podcast for PRI/BBC/Discovery The World, a bit like Search Engine from bigger media outlets). It was a special forum discussion related to issues broader than simply finding the right tool for the right task. In fact, it sounded like it could become a broad discussion of issues and challenges going way beyond the troubleshooting/problem-solving approach favoured by some technology enthusiasts. Given my ethnographic background, my interest in geek culture, and my passion for social media, I thought I’d give it a try.
The first thing I noticed was a link to a critique of the OLPC project. I’ve personally been quite critical of that project, writing several blogposts about it. So I had to take a look.
And although I find the critical stance of this piece relatively useful (there was way too much groupthink with the original coverage of the OLPC), I couldn’t help but use my critical sense as I was reading this piece.
Which motivated me to do some Diigo annotations on it. For some reason, there are things that I wanted to highlight which aren’t working and I think I may have lost some annotations in the process. But the following is the result of a relatively simple reading of this piece. True to the draft aesthetics, I made no attempt to be thorough, clean, precise, or clear.
  • appealing
  • World Economic Forum
  • 50 percent of staff were being laid off and a major restructuring was under way
    • The dramatic version which sends the message: OLPC Inc. was in big trouble. (The fact that it’s allegedly a non-profit is relatively irrelevant.)
  • the project seems nearly dead in the water
    • A strong statement. Stronger than all those “beleaguered company” ones made about Apple in the mid90s before Jobs went back.
  • And that may be great news for children in the developing world.
    • Tadaa! Here’s the twist! The OLPC is dead, long live the Child!
  • lobbied national governments and international agencies
    • Right. The target was institutional. Kind of strange for a project which was billed as a way to get tools in the hands of individual children. And possibly one of the biggest downfalls of the project.
  • Negroponte and other techno-luminati
    • Oh, snap!
      It could sound relatively harmless an appellation. But the context and the piece’s tone make it sound like a rather deep insult.
  • Innovate
    • Ah, nice! Not “create” or “build.” But “innovate.” Which is something the project has been remarkably good at. It was able to achieve a number of engineering feats. Despite Negroponte’s repeated claims to the contrary, the OLPC project can be conceived as an engineering project. In fact, it’s probably the most efficient way to shed the most positive light on it. As an engineering project, it was rather successful. As an “education project” (as Negroponte kept calling it), it wasn’t that successful. In fact, it may have delayed a number of things which matter in terms of education.
  • take control of their education
    • Self-empowerment, at the individual level. In many ways, it sounds like a very Protestant ideal. And it’s clearly part of the neoliberal agenda (or the neoconservative one, actually). Yet it doesn’t sound strange at all. It sounds naturally good and pure.
  • technology optimists
    • Could be neutral in denotation but does connote a form of idealistic technological determinism.
  • Child
  • school attendance
    • “Children who aren’t in school can’t be learning anything, right?”
  • trending dramatically upward
    • Fascinating choice of words.
  • tens of millions of dollars
  • highly respected center
    • Formulas such as these are often a way to prevent any form of source criticism. Not sure Wikipedians would consider these “peacock terms,” but they don’t clearly represent a “neutral point of view.”
  • they don’t seem to be learning much
    • Nothing which can be measured with our tools, at least. Of course, nothing else matters. But still…
  • international science exam
    • Of course, these tend to be ideally suited for most learning contexts…
  • There’s no question that improving education in the developing world is necessary.
    • Although, there could be a question or two about this. Not politically expedient, perhaps. But still…
  • powerful argument
    • Tools in a rhetorical process.
  • instinctive appeal
    • Even the denotative sense is polarized.
  • precious little evidence
    • Switching to the “studies have shown” mode. In this mode, lack of proof is proof of lack, critical thinking is somewhat discouraged, and figures are significant by themselves.
  • circumstantial evidence
    • The jury isn’t out, on this one.
  • co-founder of J-PA
    • Did Esther co-write the article? Honest question.
  • the technology didn’t work any better than a normal classroom teacher
    • A very specific point. If the goal of tool use is to improve performance over “regular teaching,” it’s a particular view of technology. One which, itself, is going by the wayside. And which has been a large part of the OLPC worldview.
  • the goal is improving education for children in the developing world, there are plenty of better, and cheaper, alternatives.
    • A core belief, orienting the piece. Cost is central. The logic is one of “bang for the buck.”
  • the teachers simply weren’t using the computers
    • We’re touching on something, here. People have to actually use the computers for the “concept” to work. Funny that there’s rarely a lot of discussion on how that works. A specific version of “throwing money at a problem” is to “throw technology at” people.
  • few experimental studies to show a positive impact from the use of computers
    • Is the number of studies going one way or another the main issue, here? Can’t diverse studies look at different things and be understood as a way to describe a more complex reality than “technology is good and/or bad?”
  • substituting computers for teachers
    • Still oriented toward the “time to task” approach. But that’s good enough for cognitive science, which tends to be favourably viewed in educational fields.
  • supplement
    • Kept thinking about the well-known Hawthorne effect. In this case, the very idea that providing students with supplementary “care” can be seen as an obvious approach which is most often discussed in the field instead of at the higher levels of decision-making.
  • The OLPC concept has been pioneered in a number of school districts in the United States over the last decade
    • From a 2005 project targeting “countries with inconsistent power grids,” we get to a relatively long series of initiatives in individual school districts in the USofA since last century. Telescoping geographical and temporal scales. And, more importantly, assigning the exact same “concept” to diverse projects.
  • Negroponte has explicitly derided
    • Not the only thing Negroponte derides. He’s been a professional derider for a while, now.
      Negroponte’s personality is part of the subtext of any OLPC-related piece. It’d be interesting to analyse him in view of the “mercurial CEO” type which fascinates a number of people.
  • It must be said
    • Acknowledging the fact that there is more to the situation than what this piece is pushing.
  • academic
    • In this context, “academic” can have a variety of connotations, many of which are relatively negative.
  • teachers limited access to the computers
    • Typically, teachers have relatively little control in terms of students’ access to computers so it sounds likely that the phrase should have read “had limited access.” But, then again, maybe teachers in Hollow’s research were in fact limiting access to computers, which would be a very interesting point to bring and discuss. In fact, part of what is missing in many of those pieces about technology and learning is what access really implies. Typically, most discussions on the subject have to do with time spent alone with such a tool, hence the “one…per child” part of the OLPC approach. But it’s hard to tell if there has been any thought about the benefits of group access to tools or limited access to such tools.
      To go even further, there’s a broad critique of the OLPC approach, left unaddressed in this piece, about the emphasis on individual ownership of tools. In the US, it’s usually not ok for neighbours to ask about using others’ lawnmowers and ladders. It’s unsurprising that pushing individual ownership would seem logical to those who design projects from the US.
  • had not been adequately trained
    • In the OLPC context, it has been made as a case for the dark side of constructionism. The OLPC project might have been a learning project, but it wasn’t a teaching one. Some explicit comments from project members were doing little to dispel the notion that constructivism isn’t about getting rid of teachers. Even documentation for the OLPC XO contained precious little which could help teachers. Teachers weren’t the target audience. Children and governments were.
  • not silver bullets
    • Acknowledging, in an oblique way, that the situation is more complex.
  • surveys of students
    • With a clear Hawthorne effect.
  • parents rolling their eyes
    • Interesting appeal to parenting experience. Even more than teachers, they’re absent from many of these projects. Not a new pattern. Literacy projects often forget parents and the implications in terms of a generation gap. But what is perhaps more striking is that parents are also invisible in coverage of many of these issues. Contrary to “our” children, children in “those poor countries over there” are “ours to care for,” through development projects, adoptions, future immigration, etc.
  • evaluation of an OLPC project in Haiti
    • Sounds more like a pilot project than like field research. But maybe it’s more insightful.
  • Repeated calls and e-mails to OLPC and Negroponte seeking comment on OLPC did not receive a response
    • Such statements are “standard procedure” for journalists. But what is striking about this one is where it’s placed in the piece. Not only is it near the end of the argumentation but it’s in a series of comments about alternative views on the OLPC project. Whether or not it was done on purpose, the effect that we get is that there are two main voices, pro and con. Those on the con side can only have arguments in the same line of thought (about the project’s cost and “efficacy,” with possible comments about management). Those on the pro side are put in a defensive position.
      In such cases, responsiveness is often key. Though Negroponte has been an effective marketer of his pet project, the fact that he explicitly refuses to respond to criticisms and critiques makes for an even more constrained offense/defense game.
  • ironic
    • Strong words, in such a context. Because it’s not the situation which is ironic. It’s a lack of action in a very specific domain.
  • the Third World
    • Interesting that the antiquated “Third World” expression comes in two contexts: the alleged target of the OLPC project (with little discussion as to what was meant by that relationship) and as the J-PAL field of expertise.
  • a leader in
    • Peacock terms or J-PAL are on the Miller-McCune lovelist?
  • There are
    • This is where the piece switches. We’re not talking about the OLPC, anymore. We reduce OLPC to a single goal, which has allegedly not been met, and propose that there are better ways to achieve this goal. Easy and efficient technique, but there still seems to be something missing.
  • etting children in developing countries into school and helping them learn more while they are there
    • A more specific goal than it might seem, at first blush.
      For a very simple example: how about homeschooling?
  • proven successful
    • “We have proof!”
  • cheap
    • One might have expected “inexpensive,” here, instead of “cheap.” But, still, the emphasis is on cost.
  • deworming
    • Sounds a little bit surprising a switch from computer tech to public health.
  • 50 cents per child per year
  • $4 per student per year
  • 30 percent increase in lifetime earnings
  • technology-based approaches to improving student learning in the developing world
    • Coming back to technology, to an extent, but almost in passing. Technology, here, can still be a saviour. The issue would be to find the key technology to solve that one problem (student learning in the developing world needs calls for improvement). Rather limited in scope, depth, insight.
  • show more promise than one laptop per child
    • Perhaps the comment most directly related to opinions. “Showing promise” is closer to “instinctive appeal” but, in this case, it’s a positive. We don’t need to apply critical thinking to something which shows promise. It’s undeniably good. Right?
  • the J-PAL co-founder
    • There we are!
  • $2.20
  • Remedial education
  • A study in Kenya
    • Reference needed.
  • it didn’t matter
    • Sounds like a bold statement, as it’s not expressly linked to the scope of the study. It probably did matter. Just not in terms of what was measured. Mattering has to do with significance in general, not just with statistical significance.
  • expensive
    • Cost/benefits are apparently the only two “factors” to consider.
  • quarter of the cost
  • cheaper
  • $2 per month
  • $3 per month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Social Networks and Microblogging

Microblogging (Laconica, Twitter, etc.) is still a hot topic. For instance, during the past few episodes of This Week in Tech, comments were made about the preponderance of Twitter as a discussion theme: microblogging is so prominent on that show that some people complain that there’s too much talk about Twitter. Given the centrality of Leo Laporte’s podcast in geek culture (among Anglos, at least), such comments are significant.

The context for the latest comments about TWiT coverage of Twitter had to do with Twitter’s financials: during this financial crisis, Twitter is given funding without even asking for it. While it may seem surprising at first, given the fact that Twitter hasn’t publicized a business plan and doesn’t appear to be profitable at this time, 

Along with social networking, microblogging is even discussed in mainstream media. For instance, Médialogues (a media critique on Swiss national radio) recently had a segment about both Facebook and Twitter. Just yesterday, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart made fun of compulsive twittering and mainstream media coverage of Twitter (original, Canadian access).

Clearly, microblogging is getting some mindshare.

What the future holds for microblogging is clearly uncertain. Anything can happen. My guess is that microblogging will remain important for a while (at least a few years) but that it will transform itself rather radically. Chances are that other platforms will have microblogging features (something Facebook can do with status updates and something Automattic has been trying to do with some WordPress themes). In these troubled times, Montreal startup Identi.ca received some funding to continue developing its open microblogging platform.  Jaiku, bought by Google last year, is going open source, which may be good news for microblogging in general. Twitter itself might maintain its “marketshare” or other players may take over. There’s already a large number of third-party tools and services making use of Twitter, from Mahalo Answers to Remember the Milk, Twistory to TweetDeck.

Together, these all point to the current importance of microblogging and the potential for further development in that sphere. None of this means that microblogging is “The Next Big Thing.” But it’s reasonable to expect that microblogging will continue to grow in use.

(Those who are trying to grok microblogging, Common Craft’s Twitter in Plain English video is among the best-known descriptions of Twitter and it seems like an efficient way to “get the idea.”)

One thing which is rarely mentioned about microblogging is the prominent social structure supporting it. Like “Social Networking Systems” (LinkedIn, Facebook, Ning, MySpace…), microblogging makes it possible for people to “connect” to one another (as contacts/acquaintances/friends). Like blogs, microblogging platforms make it possible to link to somebody else’s material and get notifications for some of these links (a bit like pings and trackbacks). Like blogrolls, microblogging systems allow for lists of “favourite authors.” Unlike Social Networking Systems but similar to blogrolls, microblogging allow for asymmetrical relations, unreciprocated links: if I like somebody’s microblogging updates, I can subscribe to those (by “following” that person) and publicly show my appreciation of that person’s work, regardless of whether or not this microblogger likes my own updates.

There’s something strangely powerful there because it taps the power of social networks while avoiding tricky issues of reciprocity, “confidentiality,” and “intimacy.”

From the end user’s perspective, microblogging contacts may be easier to establish than contacts through Facebook or Orkut. From a social science perspective, microblogging links seem to approximate some of the fluidity found in social networks, without adding much complexity in the description of the relationships. Subscribing to someone’s updates gives me the role of “follower” with regards to that person. Conversely, those I follow receive the role of “following” (“followee” would seem logical, given the common “-er”/”-ee” pattern). The following and follower roles are complementary but each is sufficient by itself as a useful social link.

Typically, a microblogging system like Twitter or Identi.ca qualifies two-way connections as “friendship” while one-way connections could be labelled as “fandom” (if Andrew follows Betty’s updates but Betty doesn’t follow Andrew’s, Andrew is perceived as one of Betty’s “fans”). Profiles on microblogging systems are relatively simple and public, allowing for low-involvement online “presence.” As long as updates are kept public, anybody can connect to anybody else without even needing an introduction. In fact, because microblogging systems send notifications to users when they get new followers (through email and/or SMS), subscribing to someone’s update is often akin to introducing yourself to that person. 

Reciprocating is the object of relatively intense social pressure. A microblogger whose follower:following ratio is far from 1:1 may be regarded as either a snob (follower:following much higher than 1:1) or as something of a microblogging failure (follower:following much lower than 1:1). As in any social context, perceived snobbery may be associated with sophistication but it also carries opprobrium. Perry Belcher  made a video about what he calls “Twitter Snobs” and some French bloggers have elaborated on that concept. (Some are now claiming their right to be Twitter Snobs.) Low follower:following ratios can result from breach of etiquette (for instance, ostentatious self-promotion carried beyond the accepted limit) or even non-human status (many microblogging accounts are associated to “bots” producing automated content).

The result of the pressure for reciprocation is that contacts are reciprocated regardless of personal relations.  Some users even set up ways to automatically follow everyone who follows them. Despite being tricky, these methods escape the personal connection issue. Contrary to Social Networking Systems (and despite the term “friend” used for reciprocated contacts), following someone on a microblogging service implies little in terms of friendship.

One reason I personally find this fascinating is that specifying personal connections has been an important part of the development of social networks online. For instance, long-defunct SixDegrees.com (one of the earliest Social Networking Systems to appear online) required of users that they specified the precise nature of their relationship to users with whom they were connected. Details escape me but I distinctly remember that acquaintances, colleagues, and friends were distinguished. If I remember correctly, only one such personal connection was allowed for any pair of users and this connection had to be confirmed before the two users were linked through the system. Facebook’s method to account for personal connections is somewhat more sophisticated despite the fact that all contacts are labelled as “friends” regardless of the nature of the connection. The uniform use of the term “friend” has been decried by many public commentators of Facebook (including in the United States where “friend” is often applied to any person with whom one is simply on friendly terms).

In this context, the flexibility with which microblogging contacts are made merits consideration: by allowing unidirectional contacts, microblogging platforms may have solved a tricky social network problem. And while the strength of the connection between two microbloggers is left unacknowledged, there are several methods to assess it (for instance through replies and republished updates).

Social contacts are the very basis of social media. In this case, microblogging represents a step towards both simplified and complexified social contacts.

Which leads me to the theme which prompted me to start this blogpost: event-based microblogging.

I posted the following blog entry (in French) about event-based microblogging, back in November.

Microblogue d’événement

I haven’t received any direct feedback on it and the topic seems to have little echoes in the social media sphere.

During the last PodMtl meeting on February 18, I tried to throw my event-based microblogging idea in the ring. This generated a rather lengthy between a friend and myself. (Because I don’t want to put words in this friend’s mouth, who happens to be relatively high-profile, I won’t mention this friend’s name.) This friend voiced several objections to my main idea and I got to think about this basic notion a bit further. At the risk of sounding exceedingly opinionated, I must say that my friend’s objections actually comforted me in the notion that my “event microblog” idea makes a lot of sense.

The basic idea is quite simple: microblogging instances tied to specific events. There are technical issues in terms of hosting and such but I’m mostly thinking about associating microblogs and events.

What I had in mind during the PodMtl discussion has to do with grouping features, which are often requested by Twitter users (including by Perry Belcher who called out Twitter Snobs). And while I do insist on events as a basis for those instances (like groups), some of the same logic applies to specific interests. However, given the time-sensitivity of microblogging, I still think that events are more significant in this context than interests, however defined.

In the PodMtl discussion, I frequently referred to BarCamp-like events (in part because my friend and interlocutor had participated in a number of such events). The same concept applies to any event, including one which is just unfolding (say, assassination of Guinea-Bissau’s president or bombings in Mumbai).

Microblogging users are expected to think about “hashtags,” those textual labels preceded with the ‘#’ symbol which are meant to categorize microblogging updates. But hashtags are problematic on several levels.

  • They require preliminary agreement among multiple microbloggers, a tricky proposition in any social media. “Let’s use #Bissau09. Everybody agrees with that?” It can get ugly and, even if it doesn’t, the process is awkward (especially for new users).
  • Even if agreement has been reached, there might be discrepancies in the way hashtags are typed. “Was it #TwestivalMtl or #TwestivalMontreal, I forgot.”
  • In terms of language economy, it’s unsurprising that the same hashtag would be used for different things. Is “#pcmtl” about Podcamp Montreal, about personal computers in Montreal, about PCM Transcoding Library…?
  • Hashtags are frequently misunderstood by many microbloggers. Just this week, a tweep of mine (a “peep” on Twitter) asked about them after having been on Twitter for months.
  • While there are multiple ways to track hashtags (including through SMS, in some regions), there is no way to further specify the tracked updates (for instance, by user).
  • The distinction between a hashtag and a keyword is too subtle to be really useful. Twitter Search, for instance, lumps the two together.
  • Hashtags take time to type. Even if microbloggers aren’t necessarily typing frantically, the time taken to type all those hashtags seems counterproductive and may even distract microbloggers.
  • Repetitively typing the same string is a very specific kind of task which seems to go against the microblogging ethos, if not the cognitive processes associated with microblogging.
  • The number of character in a hashtag decreases the amount of text in every update. When all you have is 140 characters at a time, the thirteen characters in “#TwestivalMtl” constitute almost 10% of your update.
  • If the same hashtag is used by a large number of people, the visual effect can be that this hashtag is actually dominating the microblogging stream. Since there currently isn’t a way to ignore updates containing a certain hashtag, this effect may even discourage people from using a microblogging service.

There are multiple solutions to these issues, of course. Some of them are surely discussed among developers of microblogging systems. And my notion of event-specific microblogs isn’t geared toward solving these issues. But I do think separate instances make more sense than hashtags, especially in terms of specific events.

My friend’s objections to my event microblogging idea had something to do with visibility. It seems that this friend wants all updates to be visible, regardless of the context. While I don’t disagree with this, I would claim that it would still be useful to “opt out” of certain discussions when people we follow are involved. If I know that Sean is participating in a PHP conference and that most of his updates will be about PHP for a period of time, I would enjoy the possibility to hide PHP-related updates for a specific period of time. The reason I talk about this specific case is simple: a friend of mine has manifested some frustration about the large number of updates made by participants in Podcamp Montreal (myself included). Partly in reaction to this, he stopped following me on Twitter and only resumed following me after Podcamp Montreal had ended. In this case, my friend could have hidden Podcamp Montreal updates and still have received other updates from the same microbloggers.

To a certain extent, event-specific instances are a bit similar to “rooms” in MMORPG and other forms of real-time many-to-many text-based communication such as the nostalgia-inducing Internet Relay Chat. Despite Dave Winer’s strong claim to the contrary (and attempt at defining microblogging away from IRC), a microblogging instance could, in fact, act as a de facto chatroom. When such a structure is needed. Taking advantage of the work done in microblogging over the past year (which seems to have advanced more rapidly than work on chatrooms has, during the past fifteen years). Instead of setting up an IRC channel, a Web-based chatroom, or even a session on MSN Messenger, users could use their microblogging platform of choice and either decide to follow all updates related to a given event or simply not “opt-out” of following those updates (depending on their preferences). Updates related to multiple events are visible simultaneously (which isn’t really the case with IRC or chatrooms) and there could be ways to make event-specific updates more prominent. In fact, there would be easy ways to keep real-time statistics of those updates and get a bird’s eye view of those conversations.

And there’s a point about event-specific microblogging which is likely to both displease “alpha geeks” and convince corporate users: updates about some events could be “protected” in the sense that they would not appear in the public stream in realtime. The simplest case for this could be a company-wide meeting during which backchannel is allowed and even expected “within the walls” of the event. The “nothing should leave this room” attitude seems contradictory to social media in general, but many cases can be made for “confidential microblogging.” Microblogged conversations can easily be archived and these archives could be made public at a later date. Event-specific microblogging allows for some control of the “permeability” of the boundaries surrounding the event. “But why would people use microblogging instead of simply talking to another?,” you ask. Several quick answers: participants aren’t in the same room, vocal communication is mostly single-channel, large groups of people are unlikely to communicate efficiently through oral means only, several things are more efficiently done through writing, written updates are easier to track and archive…

There are many other things I’d like to say about event-based microblogging but this post is already long. There’s one thing I want to explain, which connects back to the social network dimension of microblogging.

Events can be simplistically conceived as social contexts which bring people together. (Yes, duh!) Participants in a given event constitute a “community of experience” regardless of the personal connections between them. They may be strangers, ennemies, relatives, acquaintances, friends, etc. But they all share something. “Participation,” in this case, can be relatively passive and the difference between key participants (say, volunteers and lecturers in a conference) and attendees is relatively moot, at a certain level of analysis. The key, here, is the set of connections between people at the event.

These connections are a very powerful component of social networks. We typically meet people through “events,” albeit informal ones. Some events are explicitly meant to connect people who have something in common. In some circles, “networking” refers to something like this. The temporal dimension of social connections is an important one. By analogy to philosophy of language, the “first meeting” (and the set of “first impressions”) constitute the “baptism” of the personal (or social) connection. In social media especially, the nature of social connections tends to be monovalent enough that this “baptism event” gains special significance.

The online construction of social networks relies on a finite number of dimensions, including personal characteristics described in a profile, indirect connections (FOAF), shared interests, textual content, geographical location, and participation in certain activities. Depending on a variety of personal factors, people may be quite inclusive or rather exclusive, based on those dimensions. “I follow back everyone who lives in Austin” or “Only people I have met in person can belong to my inner circle.” The sophistication with which online personal connections are negotiated, along such dimensions, is a thing of beauty. In view of this sophistication, tools used in social media seem relatively crude and underdeveloped.

Going back to the (un)conference concept, the usefulness of having access to a list of all participants in a given event seems quite obvious. In an open event like BarCamp, it could greatly facilitate the event’s logistics. In a closed event with paid access, it could be linked to registration (despite geek resistance, closed events serve a purpose; one could even imagine events where attendance is free but the microblogging backchannel incurs a cost). In some events, everybody would be visible to everybody else. In others, there could be a sort of ACL for diverse types of participants. In some cases, people could be allowed to “lurk” without being seen while in others radically transparency could be enforced. For public events with all participants visible, lists of participants could be archived and used for several purposes (such as assessing which sessions in a conference are more popular or “tracking” event regulars).

One reason I keep thinking about event-specific microblogging is that I occasionally use microblogging like others use business cards. In a geek crowd, I may ask for someone’s Twitter username in order to establish a connection with that person. Typically, I will start following that person on Twitter and find opportunities to communicate with that person later on. Given the possibility for one-way relationships, it establishes a social connection without requiring personal involvement. In fact, that person may easily ignore me without the danger of a face threat.

If there were event-specific instances from microblogging platforms, we could manage connections and profiles in a more sophisticated way. For instance, someone could use a barebones profile for contacts made during an impersonal event and a full-fledged profile for contacts made during a more “intimate” event. After noticing a friend using an event-specific business card with an event-specific email address, I got to think that this event microblogging idea might serve as a way to fill a social need.

 

More than most of my other blogposts, I expect comments on this one. Objections are obviously welcomed, especially if they’re made thoughtfully (like my PodMtl friend made them). Suggestions would be especially useful. Or even questions about diverse points that I haven’t addressed (several of which I can already think about).

So…

 

What do you think of this idea of event-based microblogging? Would you use a microblogging instance linked to an event, say at an unconference? Can you think of fun features an event-based microblogging instance could have? If you think about similar ideas you’ve seen proposed online, care to share some links?

 

Thanks in advance!


Influence and Butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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