Category Archives: knowledge management

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.”


Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.


I Hate Books

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

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

Apparently, no, not in this case.

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

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

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

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

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

So, back to books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…


Sharing Tool Wishlist

The following is an edited version of a wishlist I had been keeping on the side. The main idea is to define what would be, in my mind, the “ultimate social bookmarking system.” Which, obviously, goes way beyond social bookmarking. In a way, I even conceive of it as the ultimate tool for sharing online content. Yes, it’s that ambitious. Will it ever exist? Probably not. Should it exist? I personally think so. But I may be alone in this. Surely, you’ll tell me that I am indeed alone, which is fine. As long as you share your own wishlist items.

The trigger for my posting this is that someone contacted me, asking for what I’d like in a social bookmarking system. I find this person’s move quite remarkable, as a thoughtful strategy. Not only because this person contacted me directly (almost flattering), but because such a request reveals an approach to listening and responding to people’s needs that I find lacking in some software development circles.

This person’s message served as a prompt for my blogging this, but I’ve been meaning to blog this for a while. In fact, my guess is that I created a first version of this wishlist in 2007 after having it on my mind for a while before that. As such, it represents a type of “diachronic” or “longitudinal” view of social bookmarking and the way it works in the broader scheme of social media.

Which also means that I wrote this before I heard about Google Wave. In fact, I’m still unclear about Google Wave and I’ll need to blog about that. Not that I expect Wave to fulfill all the needs I set up for a sharing tool, but I get the impression that Google is finally putting some cards on the table.

The main part of this post is in outline form. I often think through outlines, especially with such a type of notes. I fully realize that it may not be that clear, as a structure, for other people to understand. Some of these bullet points cover a much broader issue than what they look like. But the overall idea might be fairly obvious to grasp, even if it may sound crazy to other people.

I’m posting this to the benefit of anyone who may wish to build the killer app for social media. Of course, it’s just one man’s opinion. But it’s my entitled opinion.

Concepts

What do we share online?

  • “Link”
  • “Page”
  • Identified content
  • Text
    • Narrative
    • Contact information
    • Event description
  • Contact information
  • Event invitation
  • Image
  • Recording
  • Structured content
  • Snippet
  • Access to semi-private content
  • Site’s entry point

Selective sharing

Private
  • Archiving
  • Cloud access
Individually shared
  • “Check this out”
  • Access to address book
  • Password protection
  • Specialization/expertise
  • Friendship
Group shared
  • Shared interests (SIG)
  • Collaboration (task-based)
Shared through network
  • Define identity in network
  • Semi-public
Public
  • Publishing
  • Processed
  • Reading lists

Notetaking

  • Active reading
  • Anchoring text
  • Ad hoc list of bookmarks
  • “Empty URL”
    • Create container/page
    • Personal notes

Todos

  • To read
  • To blog
  • To share
  • To update
  • Projects
    • GTD
    • Contexts
  • Add to calendar (recognized as event)

Outlining/Mindmapping

  • Manage lists of links
  • Prioritize
  • Easily group

Social aspects of sharing

  • Gift economy
  • Personal interaction
  • Trust
  • Hype
  • Value
  • Customized

Cloud computing

  • Webware
  • “Online disk”
  • Without download
  • Touch devices
  • Edit online

Personal streaming

  • Activities through pages
  • Logging
  • Flesh out personal profile

Tagging

  • “Folksonomy”
  • Enables non-hierarchical structure
  • Semantic fields
  • Related tags
  • Can include hierarchy
  • Tagclouds define concept map

Required Features

Crossplatform, crossbrowser

  • Browser-specific tools
  • Bookmarklets
  • Complete access through cloud
Keyboard shortcuts
  • Quick add (to account)
  • Vote
  • Bookmark all tabs (à la Flock)
  • Quick tags

Related pages

Recommended
  • Based on social graph
  • Based on tags
  • Based on content
  • Based on popularity
  • Pointing to this page

Quickly enter links

  • Add in place (while editing)
  • Similar to “spell as you type”
  • Incremental search
  • Add full link (title, URL, text, metadata)

Archiving

  • Prevent linkrot
  • Prepare for post-processing (offline reading, blogging…)
  • Enable bulk processing
  • Maintain version history
  • Internet Archive

Automatic processing

  • Tags
  • Summary
  • Wordcount
  • Reading time
  • Language(s)
  • Page structure analysis
  • Geotagging
  • Vote

Thread following

  • Blog comments
  • Forum comments
  • Trackbacks
  • Pings

Exporting

All
  • Archiving
  • Prepare for import
  • Maintain hierarchy
Selected
  • Tag
  • Category
  • Recently used
  • Shared
  • Site homepage
  • Blogroll
  • Blogs
Formats
  • Other services
  • HTML
  • RSS
  • OPML
  • Widget
Features
  • Comments
  • Tags
  • Statistics
  • Content

Offline processing

  • Browser-based
  • Device based
  • Offline archiving
  • Include content
  • Synchronization

Microblogging support

  • Laconi.ca/Identi.ca
  • Twitter
  • Ping.fm
  • Jaiku

Fixed/Static URL

  • Prevent linkrot
  • Maintain list for same page
  • Short URLs
  • Automatically generated
  • Expansion on mouseover
  • Statistics

Authentication

  • Use of resources
  • Identify
  • Privacy
  • Unnecessary for basic processing
  • Sticks (no need to login frequently)
  • Access to contacts and social graph
  • Multiple accounts
    • Personal/professional
    • Contexts
    • Group accounts
  • Premium accounts
    • Server space
    • Usage statistics
    • Promotion
  • Support
    • OpenID
      • As group login
    • Google Accounts
    • Facebook Connect
    • OAuth

Integration

  • Web history
  • Notebook
  • Blogging platform
  • Blog editor
  • Microblogging platform
  • Logbook
  • General purpose content editor
  • Toolbar
  • URL shortening
  • Address book
  • Social graph
  • Personal profile
  • Browser
    • Bookmarks
    • History
    • Autocomplete
  • Analytics
  • Email
  • Search
    • Online
    • Offline

Related Tools

  • Diigo
  • WebCitation
  • Ping.fm
  • BackType
  • Facebook share
  • Blog This
  • Link This
  • Share this
  • Digg
  • Plum
  • Spurl
  • CoComments
  • MyBlogLog
  • TwtVite
  • Twistory
  • Windows Live Writer
  • Magnolia
  • Stumble Upon
  • Delicious
  • Google Reader
  • Yahoo Pipes
  • Google Notebook
  • Zoho Notebook
  • Google Browser Sync
  • YouTube
  • Flock
  • Zotero

Relevant Blogposts


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.


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.


Privilege: Library Edition

When I came out against privilege, over a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about libraries. But, last week, while running some errands at three local libraries (within an hour), I got to think about library privileges.

During that day, I first started thinking about library privileges because I was renewing my CREPUQ card at Concordia. With that card, graduate students and faculty members at a university in Quebec are able to get library privileges at other universities, a nice “perk” that we have. While renewing my card, I was told (or, more probably, reminded) that the card now gives me borrowing privileges at any university library in Canada through CURBA (Canadian University Reciprocal Borrowing Agreement).

My gut reaction: “Aw-sum!” (I was having a fun day).

It got me thinking about what it means to be an academic in Canada. Because I’ve also spent part of my still short academic career in the United States, I tend to compare the Canadian academe to US academic contexts. And while there are some impressive academic consortia in the US, I don’t think that any of them may offer as wide a set of library privileges as this one. If my count is accurate, there are 77 institutions involved in CURBA. University systems and consortia in the US typically include somewhere between ten and thirty institutions, usually within the same state or region. Even if members of both the “UC System” and “CalState” have similar borrowing privileges, it would only mean 33 institutions, less than half of CURBA (though the population of California is about 20% more than that of Canada as a whole). Some important university consortia through which I’ve had some privileges were the CIC (Committee on Institutional Cooperation), a group of twelve Midwestern universities, and the BLC (Boston Library Consortium), a group of twenty university in New England. Even with full borrowing privileges in all three groups of university libraries, an academic would only have access to library material from 65 institutions.

Of course, the number of institutions isn’t that relevant if the libraries themselves have few books. But my guess is that the average size of a Canadian university’s library collection is quite comparable to its US equivalents, including in such well-endowed institutions as those in the aforementioned consortia and university systems. What’s more, I would guess that there might be a broader range of references across Canadian universities than in any region of the US. Not to mention that BANQ (Quebec’s national library and archives) are part of CURBA and that their collections overlap very little with a typical university library.

So, I was thinking about access to an extremely wide range of references given to graduate students and faculty members throughout Canada. We get this very nice perk, this impressive privilege, and we pretty much take it for granted.

Which eventually got me to think about my problem with privilege. Privilege implies a type of hierarchy with which I tend to be uneasy. Even (or especially) when I benefit from a top position. “That’s all great for us but what about other people?”

In this case, there are obvious “Others” like undergraduate students at Canadian institutions,  Canadian non-academics, and scholars at non-Canadian institutions. These are very disparate groups but they are all denied something.

Canadian undergrads are the most direct “victims”: they participate in Canada’s academe, like graduate students and faculty members, yet their access to resources is severely limited by comparison to those of us with CURBA privileges. Something about this strikes me as rather unfair. Don’t undegrads need access as much as we do? Is there really such a wide gap between someone working on an honour’s thesis at the end of a bachelor’s degree and someone starting work on a master’s thesis that the latter requires much wider access than the former? Of course, the main rationale behind this discrepancy in access to library material probably has to do with sheer numbers: there are many undergraduate students “fighting for the same resources” and there are relatively few graduate students and faculty members who need access to the same resources. Or something like that. It makes sense but it’s still a point of tension, as any matter of privilege.

The second set of “victims” includes Canadians who happen to not be affiliated directly with an academic institution. While it may seem that their need for academic resources are more limited than those of students, many people in this category have a more unquenchable “thirst for knowledge” than many an academic. In fact, there are people in this category who could probably do a lot of academically-relevant work “if only they had access.” I mostly mean people who have an academic background of some sort but who are currently unaffiliated with formal institutions. But the “broader public” counts, especially when a specific topic becomes relevant to them. These are people who take advantage of public libraries but, as mentioned in the BANQ case, public and university libraries don’t tend to overlap much. For instance, it’s quite unlikely that someone without academic library privileges would have been able to borrow Visual Information Processing (Chase, William 1973), a proceedings book that I used as a source for a recent blogpost on expertise. Of course, “the public” is usually allowed to browse books in most university libraries in North America (apart from Harvard). But, depending on other practical factors, borrowing books can be much more efficient than browsing them in a library. I tend to hear from diverse people who would enjoy some kind of academic status for this very reason: library privileges matter.

A third category of “victims” of CURBA privileges are non-Canadian academics. Since most of them may only contribute indirectly to Canadian society, why should they have access to Canadian resources? As any social context, the national academe defines insiders and outsiders. While academics are typically inclusive, this type of restriction seems to make sense. Yet many academics outside of Canada could benefit from access to resources broadly available to Canadian academics. In some cases, there are special agreements to allow outside scholars to get temporary access to local, regional, or national resources. Rather frequently, these agreements come with special funding, the outside academic being a special visitor, sometimes with even better access than some local academics.  I have very limited knowledge of these agreements (apart from infrequent discussions with colleagues who benefitted from them) but my sense is that they are costly, cumbersome, and restrictive. Access to local resources is even more exclusive a privilege in this case than in the CURBA case.

Which brings me to my main point about the issue: we all need open access.

When I originally thought about how impressive CURBA privileges were, I was thinking through the logic of the physical library. In a physical library, resources are scarce, access to resources need to be controlled, and library privileges have a high value. In fact, it costs an impressive amount of money to run a physical library. The money universities invest in their libraries is relatively “inelastic” and must figure quite prominently in their budgets. The “return” on that investment seems to me a bit hard to measure: is it a competitive advantage, does a better-endowed library make a university more cost-effective, do university libraries ever “recoup” any portion of the amounts spent?

Contrast all of this with a “virtual” library. My guess is that an online collection of texts costs less to maintain than a physical library by any possible measure. Because digital data may be copied at will, the notion of “scarcity” makes little sense online. Distributing millions of copies of a digital text doesn’t make the original text unavailable to anyone. As long as the distribution system is designed properly, the “transaction costs” in distributing a text of any length are probably much less than those associated with borrowing a book.  And the differences between “browsing” and “borrowing,” which do appear significant with physical books, seem irrelevant with digital texts.

These are all well-known points about online distribution. And they all seem to lead to the same conclusion: “information wants to be free.” Not “free as in beer.” Maybe not even “free as in speech.” But “free as in unchained.”

Open access to academic resources is still a hot topic. Though I do consider myself an advocate of “OA” (the “Open Access movement”), what I mean here isn’t so much about OA as opposed to TA (“toll-access”) in the case of academic journals. Physical copies of periodicals may usually not be borrowed, regardless of library privileges, and online resources are typically excluded from borrowing agreements between institutions. The connection between OA and my perspective on library privileges is that I think the same solution could solve both issues.

I’ve been thinking about a “global library” for a while. Like others, the Library of Alexandria serves as a model but texts would be online. It sounds utopian but my main notion, there, is that “library privileges” would be granted to anyone. Not only senior scholars at accredited academic institutions. Anyone. Of course, the burden of maintaining that global library would also be shared by anyone.

There are many related models, apart from the Library of Alexandria: French «Encyclopédistes» through the Englightenment, public libraries, national libraries (including the Library of Congress), Tim Berners-Lee’s original “World Wide Web” concept, Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Google Books, etc. Though these models differ, they all point to the same basic idea: a “universal” collection with the potential for “universal” access. In historical perspective, this core notion of a “universal library” seems relatively stable.

Of course, there are many obstacles to a “global” or “universal” library. Including issues having to do with conflicts between social groups across the Globe or the current state of so-called “intellectual property.” These are all very tricky and I don’t think they can be solved in any number of blogposts. The main thing I’ve been thinking about, in this case, is the implications of a global library in terms of privileges.

Come to think of it, it’s possible that much of the resistance to a global library have to do with privilege: unlike me, some people enjoy privilege.


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.


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.


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?


Actively Reading Open Access

Open Access

I’ve been enthusiastic about OA (open access to academic texts) for a number of years. I don’t tend to be extremely active in the OA milieu but I do use every opportunity I can to talk about OA, both in formal academic contexts and in more casual and informal conversation.

My own views about Open Access are that it should be plain common-sense, for both scholars and “the public.” Not that OA is an ultimate principle, but it seems so obvious to me that OA can be beneficial in a large range of contexts. In fact, I tend to conceive of academia in terms of Open Access. In my mind, a concept related to OA runs at the very core of the academic enterprise and helps distinguish it from other types of endeavours. Simply put, academia is the type of “knowledge work ” which is oriented toward openness in access and use.

Historically, this connection between academic work and openness has allegedly been the source of the so-called “Open Source movement” with all its consequences in computing, the Internet, and geek culture.

Quite frequently, OA advocates focus (at least in public) on specific issues related to Open Access. An OA advocate put it in a way that made me think it might have been a precaution, used by OA advocates and activists, to avoid scaring off potential OA enthusiasts. As I didn’t involve myself as a “fighter” in the OA-related discussions, I rarely found a need for such precautions.

I now see signs that the Open Access movement is finally strong enough that some of these precautions might not even be needed. Not that OA advocates “throw caution to the wind.” But I really sense that it’s now possible to openly discuss broader issues related to Open Access because “critical mass has been achieved.”

Suber’s Newsletter

Case in point, for this sense of a “wind of change,” the latest issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter.

Suber’s newsletter is frequently a useful source of information about Open Access and I often get inspired by it. But because my involvement in the OA movement is rather limited, I tend to skim those newsletter issues, more than I really read them. I kind of feel bad about this but “we all need to choose our battles,” in terms of information management.

But today’s issue “caught my eye.” Actually, it stimulated a lot of thoughts in me. It provided me with (tasty) intellectual nourishment. Simply put: it made me happy.

It’s all because Suber elaborated an argument about Open Access that I find particularly compelling: the epistemological dimension of Open Acces. Because of my perspective, I respond much more favourably to this epistemological argument than I would with most practical and ethical arguments. Maybe that’s just me. But it still works.

So I read Suber’s newsletter with much more attention than usual. I savoured it. And I used this new method of actively reading online texts which is based on the Diigo.com social bookmarking service.

Active Reading

What follows is a slightly edited version of my Diigo annotations on Suber’s text.

Peter Suber, SPARC Open Access Newsletter, 6/2/08

Annotated

June 2008 issue of Peter Suber’s newsletter on open access to academic texts (“Open Access,” or “OA”).

tags: toblog, Suber, Open Access, academia, publishing, wisdom of crowds, crowdsourcing, critical thinking

General comments

  • Suber’s newsletters are always on the lengthy side of things but this one seems especially long. I see this as a good sign.
  • For several reasons, I find this issue of Suber’s newsletter is particularly stimulating. Part of my personal anthology of literature about Open Access.

Quote-based annotations and highlights.

Items in italics are Suber’s, those in roman are my annotations.

  • Open access and the self-correction of knowledge

    • This might be one of my favourite arguments for OA. Yes, it’s close to ESR’s description of the “eyeball” principle. But it works especially well for academia.
  • Nor is it very subtle or complicated
    • Agreed. So, why is it so rarely discussed or grokked?
  • John Stuart Mill in 1859
    • Nice way to tie the argument to something which may thought-provoke scholars in Humanities and Social Sciences.
  • OA facilitates the testing and validation of knowledge claims
    • Neat, clean, simple, straightforward… convincing. Framing it as hypothesis works well, in context.
  • science is self-correcting
    • Almost like “talking to scientists’ emotions.” In an efficient way.
  • reliability of inquiry
    • Almost lingo-like but resonates well with academic terminology.
  • Science is special because it’s self-correcting.
    • Don’t we all wish this were more widely understood?
  • scientists eventually correct the errors of other scientists
    • There’s an important social concept, here. Related to humility as a function of human interaction.
  • persuade their colleagues
  • new professional consensus
  • benefit from the perspectives of others
    • Tying humility, intellectual honesty, critical thinking, ego-lessness, and even relativist ways of knowing.
  • freedom of expression is essential to truth-seeking
  • opening discussion as widely as possible
    • Perhaps my favourite argument ever for not only OA but for changes in academia generally.
  • when the human mind is capable of receiving it
    • Possible tie-in with the social level of cognition. Or the usual “shoulders of giants.”
  • public scrutiny
    • Emphasis on “public”!
  • protect the freedom of expression
    • The problem I have with the way this concept is applied is that people rely on pre-established institutions for this protection and seem to assume that, if the institution is maintained, so is the protection. Dangerous!
  • If the only people free to speak their minds are people like the author, or people with a shared belief in current orthodoxy, then we’d rarely hear from people in a position to recognize deficiencies in need of correction.
    • This, I associate with “groupthink” in the “highest spheres” (sphere height being giving through social negotiation of prestige).
  • But we do have to make our claims available to everyone who might care to read and comment on them.
    • Can’t help but think that *some* of those who oppose or forget this mainly fear the social risks associated with our positions being questioned or invalidated.
  • For the purposes of scientific progress, a society in which access to research is limited, because it’s written in Latin, because authors are secretive, or because access requires travel or wealth, is like a society in which freedom of expression is limited.
  • scientists who are free to speak their minds but lack access to the literature have no advantage over scientists without the freedom to speak their minds
  • many-eyeballs theory
  • many voices from many perspectives
  • exactly what scientists must do to inch asymptotically toward certainty
  • devil’s advocate
  • enlisting as much help
  • validate knowledge claims in public
  • OA works best of all
    • My guess is that those who want to argue against this hypothesis are reacting in a knee-jerk fashion, perhaps based on personal motives. Nothing inherently wrong there, but it remains as a potential bias.
  • longevity in a free society
    • Interesting way to put it.
  • delay
  • the friction in a non-OA system
    • The academic equivalent of cute.
  • For scientific self-correction, OA is lubricant, not a precondition.
    • Catalyst?
  • much of the scientific progress in the 16th and 17th centuries was due to the spread of print itself and the wider access it allowed for new results
    • Neat way to frame it.
  • Limits on access (like limits on liberty) are not deal-breakers, just friction in the system
    • “See? We’re not opposed to you. We just think there’s a more efficient way to do things.”
  • OA can affect knowledge itself, or the process by which knowledge claims become knowledge
  • pragmatic arguments
    • Pretty convincing ones.
  • The Millian argument for OA is not the “wisdom of crowds”
    • Not exclusively, but it does integrate the diversity of viewpoints made obvious through crowdsourcing.
  • without attempting to synthesize them
    • If “wisdom of crowds” really is about synthesis, then it’s nothing more than groupthink.
  • peer review and the kind of empirical content that underlies what Karl Popper called falsifiability
    • I personally hope that a conversation about these will occur soon. What OA makes possible, in a way, is to avoid the dangers which come from the social dimension of “peerness.” This was addressed earlier, and I see a clear connection with “avoiding groupthink.” But the assumption that peer-review, in its current form, has reached some ultimate and eternal value as a validation system can be questioned in the context of OA.
  • watchdogs
  • Such online watchdogs were among those who first identified problems with images and other data in a cloning paper published in Science by Woo Suk Hwang, a South Korean researcher. The research was eventually found to be fraudulent, and the journal retracted the paper….
    • Not only is it fun as a “success story” (CHE’s journalistic bent), but it may help some people understand that there is satisfaction to be found in fact-checking. In fact, verification can be self-rewarding, in an appropriate context. Seems obvious enough to many academics but it sounds counterintuitive to those who think of academia as waged labour.

Round-up

Really impressive round-up of recent news related to Open Access. What I tend to call a “linkfest.”

What follows is my personal selection, based on diverse interests.


And We’re Still Lecturing

Forty years ago this month, students in Paris started a movement of protests and strikes. May ’68.

Among French-speakers, the events are remembered as the onset of a cultural revolution of sorts (with both negative and positive connotations). As we reached the 40 year anniversary of those events, some journalists and commentators have looked back at the social changes associated with the Paris student revolts of May, 1968.

The May ’68 movement also had some pedagogical bases. Preparing an online course, these days, I get to think about learning. And to care about students.

As I was yet to be born at the time, May ’68 resonates more for generational reasons than pedagogical ones. But a Montreal journalist who observed some of those events 40 years ago has been talking about what she perceived as irrationality surrounding such issues as abolishing lecture-based courses («cours magistraux»).

This journalist’s reaction and a cursory comparison of the present situation with what I’ve heard of pre-1968 teaching both lead me on a reflection path about learning. Especially in terms of lecturing.

As a social constructivist, I have no passion for “straight lectures.” On occasion, I bemoan the fact that lecturing is (still) the primary teaching mode in many parts of the world. The pedagogical ideas forcefully proposed more than a generation ago are apparently not prevalent in most mainstream educational systems.

What happened?

This is an especially difficult question for an idealist like me. We wish for change. Change happens. Then, some time later, changes have been reversed. Maybe more progressively. But, it seems, inexorably.

Sisyphean. Or, maybe, buddhist.

Is it really the way things work?

Possibly. But I prefer to maintain my idealism.

So… Before I was born, some baby-booming students in Paris revolted against teaching practises. We still talk about it. Nowadays, these teaching practises against which students revolted are apparently quite common in Paris universities. As they are in many other parts of the world. But not exactly everywhere.

Online learning appears more compatible with teaching methods inspired by social constructivism (and constructionism) than with “straight lecturing.” My idealism for alternative learning methods is fed partly by online learning.

Online lectures are possible. Yet the very structure of online communication implies some freedoms in the way lecture attendees approach these “teachings.”

At the very least, online lectures make few requirements in terms of space. Technically, a student could be watching online lectures while laying down on a beach. Beaches sound like a radically different context from the large lecture halls out of which some ’68ers decided to “take to the streets.”

Contrary to classroom lectures, online lectures may allow time-shifting. In some cases, prerecorded lectures (or podcasts) may be paused, rewinded, fastforwarded, etc. Learning for the TiVo generation?

Online lectures also make painfully obvious the problems with straight lecturing. The rigid hierarchy. Students’ relative facelessness. The lack of interactivity. The content focus. All these work well for “rote learning.” But there are other ways to learn.

Not that memorization plays no part in learning or that there is no value in the “retention of [a text’s] core information” (Schaefer 2008: xxi). It’s just that… Many of us perceive learning to be more than brain-stuffing.

As should be obvious from my tone and previous posts, I count myself as one of those who perceive lectures to be too restrictive. Oh, sure, I’ve lectured to large and medium-sized classrooms. In fact, I even enjoy lecturing when I get to do it. And I fully realize that there are many possible approaches to teaching. In fact, my observation is that teaching methods are most effective when they are adapted to a specific situation, not when they follow some set of general principles. In this context, lecturing may work well when “lecturer and lecturees are in sync.” When students and teacher are “on the same page,” lectures can be intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking, challenging, useful. Conversely, alternative teaching methods can have disastrous consequences when they are applied haphazardly by people who were trained with “straight lecturing” in mind. In fact, my perception is that many issues with Quebec’s most recent education reform (the “competency based program” about which Quebec parents have been quite vocal) are associated with the indiscriminate application of constructivist/constructionist principles to all learning contexts in the province. IMHO, a more flexible application of the program coupled with considerate teacher training might have prevented several of the problems which plagued Quebec’s reform.

Unlike ’68ers, I don’t want to abolish lectures. I just hope we can adopt a diversity of methods in diverse contexts.

Back in 1968, my father was a student of Jean Piaget, in Geneva. Many of Piaget’s ideas about learning were quite compatible with what Parisian students were clamoring for.

Beyond the shameless name-dropping, my mentioning Piaget relates to something I perceive as formative. Both in my educational and in my personal lives. My mother had much more of an impact on my life. But my father supplied me with something of the Piaget spirit. And this spirit is found in different places. Including online.

The compatibility between online learning and lecture-less teaching methods seems to be a topic for frequent discussions among eLearning circles including LearnHubNing, and the Moodle community. Not that online technology determines pedagogical methods. But the “fit” of online technology with different approaches to learning and teaching is the stuff constructionist teachers’ dreams are made of.

One dimension of the “fit” is in terms of flexibility. Online, learners may (and are sometimes forced to) empower themselves using personal methods. Not that learners are left to their own devices. But the Internet is big and “wild” enough to encourage survival strategies in learning contexts. Perhaps more than the lecture hall, the online world makes critical thinking vital. And critical thinking may lead to creative and innovative solutions.
Another dimension to the fit, and one which may be more trivial than some EdTech enthusiasts seem to assume, is the “level of interactivity” afforded diverse online tools. You know, the Flash-based or other learning objects which should make learning fun and effective. I personally like the dancing mice a lot. But my impression is that these cool tools require too much effort for their possible learning outcomes. I do, however, have high hopes for the kind of interactivity common to the “social platform” sometimes known (perhaps abusively) as “Web 2.0.” Putting things online is definitely not a panacea for adequate pedagogical practise. And while “School 2.0” is an interesting concept, the buzzwordiness of some of these concepts makes me take pause. But, clearly, some students are using adequate learning strategies through the interactive character of online communication.

As I’ll be teaching online for several weeks, I’ll surely have many other things to say about these learning issues in a pseudo-historical context. In the meantime, I assume that this blogpost may bring me some thoughtful comments. 😉


“To Be Verified”: Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.


Learning Systems Wishlist

In a blogpost, Learning Systems ’08 host Elliott Masie lists 12 features learning management systems could/should have.
Elliott Masie’s Learning TRENDS – Learning TRENDS – 12 Wishes for Our LMS and LCMS

A summary:

  1. Focus on the Learner
  2. Content, Content and Content
  3. Ratings, Please
  4. More Context
  5. Performance Support Tools
  6. Social Knowledge
  7. Learning Systems as Components
  8. Focus on the Role
  9. UserContent Authoring
  10. Learning Systems as Service
  11. The Lifecycle of Learning Systems
  12. Learning Systems as Human Capital/Talent Systems

While Masie’s focus is on training and learning in corporate situations, many of these ideas are discussed in other types of learning contexts, including higher education. Some of the most cynical of university professors might say that the reason this list could apply to both corporate and university environments is that university are currently being managed like businesses. Yet, there are ways to adapt to some of the current “customer-based” approaches to learning while remain critical of their effects.

Personally, I think that the sixth point (about “social knowledge”) is particularly current. Not only are “social” dimensions of technology past the buzzword phase but discussing ways to make learning technology more compatible with social life is an efficient way to bring together many issues relating to technology and learning in general.

Masie’s description of his “social knowledge” wish does connect some of these issues:

Learning Systems will need to include and be integrated with Social Networking Systems. Some of the best and most important knowledge will be shared person-to-person in an organization. The learner wants to know, “Who in this organization has any experience that could help me as a learner/worker?” In addition to the LMS pointing to a module or course, we need to be able to link to a colleague who may have the perfect, relevant experience based on their work from 2 jobs ago. The social dimension of learning needs to be harvested and accelerated by a new vision of our Learning Systems.

Throughout the past year, I’ve been especially intrigued about the possibilities opened by making a “learning system” like Moodle more of a social networking platform. I’ve discussed this at the end of a longish wishlist for Moodle’s support of collaborative learning:

  • Another crazy idea: groups working a bit like social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). You get “friends” with whom you can share “stuff” (images, comments, chats, etc.). Those groups can go beyond the limits of a single course so that you would use it as a way to communicate with people at school. The group could even have a public persona beyond the school and publish some information about itself and its projects. Moodle could then serve as a website-creator for students. To make it wackier, students could even maintain some of these contacts after they leave the school.
  • Or Moodle could somehow have links to Facebook profiles.

My curiosity was later piqued by fellow anthropologist Michael Wesch’s comments about the use of Facebook in university learning and teaching. And the relevance of social networking systems for learning strategies has been acknowledged in diverse contexts through the rest of 2007.
One thing I like about Masie’s description is the explicit connection made between social networking and continuity. It’s easy to think of social networks as dynamic, fluid, and “in the now.” Yet, one of their useful dimensions is that they allow for a special type of direct transmission which is different from the typical “content”-based system popular in literacy-focused contexts. Not only do large social networking systems allow for old friends to find another but social networks (including the Internet itself) typically emphasize two-way communication as a basis for knowledge transmission. In other words, instead of simply reading a text about a specific item one wants to learn, one can discuss this item with someone who has more experience with that item. You don’t read an instruction manual, you “call up” the person who knows how to do it. Nothing new about this emphasis on two-way transmission (similar to “collaborative learning”). “Social” technology merely helps people realize the significance of this emphasis.

I’m somewhat ambivalent as to the importance of ratings (Masie’s third point). I like the Digg/Slashdot model as much as the next wannabe geek but I typically find ratings systems to be less conducive to critical thinking and “polyphony” (as multiplicity of viewpoints) than more “organic” ways to deal with content. Of course, I could see how it would make sense to have ratings systems in a corporate environment and ratings could obviously be used as peer-assessment for collaborative learning. I just feel that too much emphasis on ratings may detract us from the actual learning process, especially in environments which already make evaluation their central focus (including many university programs).

Overall, Masie’s wishlist makes for a fine conversation piece.


Classifying Information: Foucault to Librarians

No, I don’t mean “classified information” as in “restricted access.” I mean, ways to classify data, content, pieces of information, books, tracks…

Listened, a few days ago, to two podcasts in a row which gave special attention to information processing in relationship with library systems. The more I learn about them, the more librarians fascinate me.

The first podcast was a ROS episode similar in insight to Foucault’s The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses). Less historical emphasis, but some look into classifier authority. Lydon seemed surprised by the concept of “folksonomy,” which came to refer to community-based taxonomies during the “Web 2.0” era.

In the second podcast, Jon Udell’s Interviews with Innovators, Art Rhyno was reestablishing information-based authority, to a certain extent. Thanks in part to this show, I now have a better grasp of my own attitude toward authority in information and knowledge management (the description of which will have to wait for another post).


Medici and Innovation

First encountered the notion of the Medici effect through this interview with Frans Johansson in Ubiquity, a journal frequently mentioned on the Humanist Discussion Group.
A recent article about important changes coming from simple ideas made me post a short blog entry about changes from simple ideas. Interestingly enough, Johansson himself posted a comment to that entry.
This is in fact a frequent stream of thought, for me. In both business and academia, we tend to live through ideas. Specific ideas. Especially those which can generate money or research projects. An important dimension of the “Medici Effect” seems to be that simple ideas can lead to great accomplishments. Another important dimension is that ideas are both generated in and implemented by groups. Some social contexts seem especially conducive to new ideas. This perspective is well-known enough that even Denys Arcand’s Invasions Barbares had something to say about it.
There’s a lot of directions one could take to talk about innovation from that point. Among the possible threads: artistic creativity, personal innovation, sense of discovery, the economies of ideas, ideas come from the people, “intellectual property,” fluid/organic innovation, boundless ideas, innovation through links between ideas, Lavoisier on ideas (nothing is created or lost, everything is transformed, including ideas), and so on and so forth.
My personal feeling is that the very concept of innovation has become something of a “core value” for a number of people, especially in industrialized society. The type of “newer is better” view of “progress” in both society and technology.
In my mind, the best thing to do is simply to bring ideas together, a “shock of ideas” («le choc des idées»). Hence the long list of tags… 😉