Category Archives: Marshall McLuhan

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.

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Why Is PRI’s The World Having Social Media Issues?

Some raw notes on why PRI’S The World (especially “The World Tech Podcast” or WTP) is having issues with social media. It may sound bad, for many reasons. But I won’t adapt the tone.

No offense intended.

Thing is, I don’t really care about WTP, The World, or even the major media outlets behind them (PRI, BBC, Discovery).

Reason for those notes: WTP host Clark Boyd mentioned that their social media strategy wasn’t working as well as they expected. Seemed like a nice opportunity to think about social media failures from mainstream media outlets.

My list of reasons is not exhaustive and it’s not really in order of importance.

Social media works best when people contribute widely. In other words, a podcaster (or blogger, etc.) who contributes to somebody else’s podcast (blog, etc.) is likely to attract the kind of mindshare afforded social media outlets. Case in point, I learnt about WTP through Erik Hersman because Afrigadget was able to post WTP content. A more efficient strategy is to actually go and contribute to other people’s social media.

The easiest way to do it is to link to other people, especially other blogs. Embedding a YouTube video can have some effects but a good ol’ trackback is so much more effective. In terms of attention economy, the currency is, well, attention: you need to pay attention to others!

Clark Boyd says WTP isn’t opposed to interacting with listeners. Nice… Yet, there hasn’t been any significant move toward interaction with listeners. Not even “letters to the editor” which could be read on the radio programme. No button to leave audio feedback. Listeners who feel they’re recognized as being interesting are likely to go the social media route.

While it’s a technology podcast, WTP is formatted as a straightforward radio news bulletin. “Stories” are strung together in a seamless fashion, most reports follow a very standard BBC format, there are very few “conversations” with non-journalists (interviews don’t count as conversations)… Such shows tend not to attract the same crowd as typical social media formats do. So WTP probably attracts a radio crowd and radio crowds aren’t necessarily that engaged in social media. Unless there’s a compelling reason to engage, but that’s not the issue I want to address.

What’s probably the saddest part is that The World ostensibly has a sort of global mission. Of course, they’re limited by language. But their coverage is even more Anglo-American than it needs to be. A far cry from Global Voices (and even GV tends to be somewhat Anglophone-centric).

The fact that WTP is part of The World (which is itself produced/supported by PRI, BBC, and Discovery) is an issue, in terms of social media. Especially given the fact that WTP-specific information is difficult to find. WTP is probably the one part of The World which is savvy to social media so the difficulty of finding WTP is made even more noticeable by the lack of a dedicated website.

WTP does have its own blog. But here’s how it shows up:

Discovery News: Etherized.

The main URL given for this blog? <tinyurl.com/wtpblog> Slightly better than <http://tinyurl.com/6g3me9&gt; (which also points to the same place). But very forgettable. No branding, no notion of an autonomous entity, little personality.

Speaking of personality, the main show’s name sounds problematic: The World. Not the most unique name in the world! 😉 On WTP, correspondents and host often use “the world” to refer to their main show. Not only is it confusing but it tends to sound extremely pretentious. And pretention is among the trickiest attitudes in social media.

A strange dimension of WTP’s online presence is that it isn’t integrated. For instance, their main blog doesn’t seem to have direct links to its Twitter and Facebook profiles. As we say in geek circles: FAIL!

To make matters worse, WTP is considering pulling off its Facebook page. As Facebook pages require zero maintenance and may bring help listeners associate themselves with the show, I have no idea why they would do such a thing. I’m actually having a very hard time finding that page, which might explain why it has had zero growth in the recent past. (Those who found it originally probably had friends who were adding it. Viral marketing works in bursts.) WTP host Clark Boyd doesn’t seem to have a public profile on Facebook. Facebook searches for WTP and “The World Tech Podcast” don’t return obvious results. Oh! There you go. I found the link to that Facebook page: <http://www.new.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=2411818715&ref=ts&gt;. Yes, the link they give is directly to the new version of Facebook. Yes, it has extra characters. No, it’s not linked in an obvious fashion.

That link was hidden in the August 22 post on WTP’s blog. But because every post has a link with “Share on Facebook” text, searching the page for “Facebook” returns all blogposts on the same page (not to mention the “Facebook” category for posts, in the right-hand sidebar). C’mon, folks! How about a Facebook badge? It’s free and it works!

Oh, wait! It’s not even a Facebook page! It’s a Facebook group! The difference between group and page seems quite small to the naked eye but ever since Fb came out with pages (a year or so ago), most people have switched from groups to pages. That might be yet another reason why WTP isn’t getting its “social media cred.” Not to mention that maintaining a Facebook group implies just a bit of time and doesn’t tend to provide direct results. Facebook groups may work well with preestablished groups but they’re not at all effective at bringing together disparate people to discuss diverse issues. Unless you regularly send messages to group members which is the best way to annoy people and generate actual animosity against the represented entity.

On that group, I eventually learn that WTP host Clark Boyd has his own WTP-themed blog. In terms of social media, the fact that I only found that blog after several steps indicates a broader problem, IMHO.

And speaking of Clark Boyd… He’s most likely a great person and an adept journalist. But is WTP his own personal podcast with segments from his parent entity or is WTP, like the unfortunately defunct Search Engine, a work of collaboration? If the latter is true, why is Boyd alone between segments in the podcast, why is his picture the only one of the WTP blog, and why is his name the domain for the WTP-themed blog on WordPress.com?

Again, no offence. But I just don’t grok WTP.

There’s one trap I’m glad WTP can avoid. I won’t describe it too much for fear that it will represent the main change in strategy. Not because I get the impression I may have an impact. But, in attention economy, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Oops! I said too much… 😦

I said I don’t care about WTP. It’s still accurate. But I do care about some of the topics covered by WTP. I wish there were more social media with a modicum of cultural awareness. In this sense, WTP is a notch above Radio Open Source and a few notches below Global Voices. But the podcast for Global Voices may have podfaded and Open Source sounds increasingly U.S.-centric.

Ah, well…


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?


Spending Time on Media

Seems like the August lull in news coverage is accompanied by interesting news about news (how meta). For instance, Google announcing plans to let “newsmakers” respond to news items about them. Such plans could have important ramifications for people  with an interest in critical thinking and media literacy.

Another “metanews” item, the ‘Net is getting more timeshare than newspapers or recorded music.

Study: More time spent on Web than newspapers | CNET News.com

Rutherfurd also pointed to a potentially worrisome development for the media industry–the overall time spent with media declined slightly last year, a spillover effect of the consumer shift away from newspapers and other traditional sources of news and entertainment.

For the first time in a decade, the study found, consumers spent less time with media in 2006 than they did in the previous year. Usage per person dropped 0.5 percent to 3,530 hours annually, according to the study, which said digital media typically requires less time than traditional media.

Maybe I’m missing something (and I should read the original report) but it doesn’t seem to me that the decrease in “overall time spent with media” could be worrisome to the media industry. Unless they only measure effectiveness in the time spent with media, the data may more readily show that people are increasingly becoming savvy media processors instead of passively ingesting whatever is in the media. I’m not cynical enough to see this as a bad thing.


How Flame Wars Get Started

Please, don’t flame me! 😉

Though there is a specific context for this post, I prefer not talking about it. For once, context seems to matter less! 😉

Flame wars (FWs) are those personal confrontations which happen so frequently online. FWs are seen as the bane of the online world. I don’t find them particularly appealing myself. Some FWs have been at the centre of the collapse of some online communities. FWs may even be related to some people’s fears of communicating online (or offline!).

There’s a wealth of literature on FWs. This post is mainly based on my experience on (literally hundreds of) mailing-lists, forums, discussion boards, and blogs since 1993. I did read some of the research on FWs but this post is more about my own thinking.

Though it will probably sound more general than it should be, it’s based on something similar to an ethnography of online communication. As such, I don’t think so much on direct causalities but on different patterns, linking FWs with other dimensions of the culture of online groups.

Let’s go.

Ostensibly, FWs come from breakdowns in communication. Moments in which communication ceases to work properly. Note that the notion that communication is a direct transmission of a signal is a very schematic model and that I tend to prefer models which take into account diverse goals of diverse participants as well as inter-subjectivity. Authors that have influenced my thinking about those models include Gadamer, Hymes, Jakobson, Goffman, Sperber, and Molino. (Luckily, all of these authors are easy to find by their last names! Unfortunately, all of these names refer to male speakers of European languages…)

Communication breakdowns (CBs) happen in a variety of contexts and seem to be related to a large variety of factors. Differences in communication norms are quite common, even in contexts which seem to be fairly homogeneous in terms of “communities of communication” (or “speech communities”). According to some, there are speech communities in which gender differences imply such discrepancies in communication norms, causing the “You Just Don’t Understand!” principle. Quite often, a communication event will break down when the goals and expectations of different participants clash on the very possibility of communicating (“We just can’t be having this conversation!”). In my experience, rarely does CB happen when people simply disagree on a specific topic. There are many online groups in which it is quite common to take disagreement “the wrong way,” and get angry because of what appears to be much of a challenge. Though such a perspective on disagreement may contribute to communication breakdowns, my observation is that disagreement alone doesn’t cause CB. Though the term “misunderstanding” («malentendu», «quiproquo») may seem to apply to any CB, it could also be used more specifically to refer to the (very frequent) cases in which discrepancies in the way specific utterances are understood. The whole “this is not what I meant by my use of the word ‘banana’ in this post on electrical conductivity!” and other (funny to the outsider) examples of miscommunication.

In my experience, CBs are more the norm than the exception, in many contexts. Especially in verbal-intensive contexts like discussions among colleagues or fans of different teams. Quite clearly to me, online communication is also verbal-intensive and a talkative (garrulous?) guy like me takes to online communication like a fish to water.

Come to think of it, it’s really an extraordinary event (literally!) when two people fully understand each other, in a conversation. I mean, when each of them really groks what the other is saying. On average, people probably get compatible understandings of the communication content, but the kind of “merging of horizons” characterising true inter-subjectivity is quite uncommon, I think. Notice that I’m not talking about people agreeing with each other. As you probably notice, people often misunderstand each other more when they strive to make sure that they agree on everything. In fact, such a “conflict avoidance” attitude toward communication is quite common in certain speech communities while it’s ridiculed by members of other speech communities (some people probably can think of examples… :-D). Some communication scientists probably disagree with me on this matter (especially if they apply a strict Shannon-Weaver view of communication or if they hold McLuhan’s view too dearly). But, in the speech communities to which I belong most directly, disagreement is highly valued. 😉

If miscommunication is so common, it’s difficult to think of CB as the “root cause” of FWs. As so many people have been saying, since the explosion in online communication in the early 1990s, written language can be especially inefficient at transmitting “tone” and other important features of a person’s communicative intention. Online communication is mostly written but attempts to fulfill some of the same goals as oral communication. Instant Messaging (IM) and other systems of synchronous, typed communication constitute an excellent set of examples for the oral-like character of online communication. They also constitute a domain in which communication norms may differ greatly. Usually based on comparative age (most IMers are relatively young, which may cause a “generation gap”) and not, as far as I know, based on gender (i.e., younger women and younger men seem to hold fairly similar norms of communication in IM contexts). More interesting to me than the tired tirade about the “poor quality” of IM language is the fact that IMers appear quite efficient at transmitting more than just information through a rather limited medium.

So, now, how do FWs get started? Is it just that older people don’t know how to communicate efficiently? Don’t younger people have FWs? Aren’t FWs caused by (other) people’s inability to understand simple concepts? 😉

To me, FWs happen mostly in difficulties in recuperating from CBs. When a CB happens in face-to-face communication, there are well-known (and somewhat efficient) methods of preventing an outright confrontation. In some speech communities, much of those methods centre on “saving face.” At least, if we are to agree with Brown and Levinson. Whatever the method, preventing confrontation is often easy enough a task that we don’t even notice it. Even in offline written communication, many speech communities have well-established norms (including genre-specific textual structures) which make confrontation-avoidance an easier task than it can be online. To me, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that part of the issue with FWs is that specific strategies to defuse conflict are not shared very widely. Some would probably say that this lack of standardisation came with the democratisation of writing (in Euro-America, a larger proportion of the population writes regularly than was the case in the era of scribes). Not sure about that. Given the insistence of some to maintain online the rules of “étiquette” which were deemed appropriate for epistolary writing in the tradition they know best, I simply assume that there are people who think online writing had a negative impact when people forgot the “absolutely minimal” rules of étiquette.

What happens online is quite complex, in my humble opinion. Part of the failure to recover from CB may relate to the negotiation of identity. Without going so much into labeling theory, there’s something to be said about the importance of the perception by others in the construction of an online persona. Since online communication is often set in the context of relatively amorphous social networks, negotiation of identity is particularly important in those cases. Typical of Durkheimian anomie, many online networks refrain from giving specific roles to most of the individual members of the network (although some individuals may have institutionalised roles in some networks). One might even say that the raison d’être for many an online community is in fact this identity negotiation. There might be no direct relationship between an online persona and social identity in (offline) daily life, but the freedom of negotiating one’s identity is part of the allure of several online groups, especially those targeted towards younger people.

In a context of constant identity negotiation, face-saving (and recovering from face threatening acts) may seem scary, especially when relative anonymity isn’t preserved. To those who “live online” (“netizens”) losing face in online communication can be very detrimental indeed. “Netizens” do hide behind nicknames and avatars but when these are linked to a netizen’s primary online identity, the stakes of face management are quite high. Given the association between online communication and speech communities which give prominence to face (and even prestige) as well as the notion of communication as information transmission, it is unsurprising to see such a pattern.

In my personal experience as a netizen, FWs are quite easy to avoid when everyone remains relatively detached from the communication event. The norms with which I tend to live (online or offline) have a lot to do with a strategy of “not taking things too personal.” Sure, I can get hurt on occasion, especially when I think I hurt someone else. But, on average, I assume that the reasons people get angry has little to do with my sense of self. Not that I have no responsibility in CBs and other FW-related events. But I sincerely believe (and would be somewhat unwilling to be proven wrong) that taking something as a personal attack is the most efficient method to getting involved in a FW. As I want to avoid FWs as much as possible, my strategy can be measured for efficiency. No idea what the usual average is for most people but given the very large number of online discussions in which I have participated in the last fourteen years, I feel that I have been involved in relatively few FWs. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I’m just oblivious to the FWs I cause. Maybe I’m just naïve. But I live happily, online and offline.