Category Archives: prestige

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.


Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading


Intello-Bullying

A topic which I’ll revisit, to be sure. But while I’m at it…
I tend to react rather strongly to a behaviour which I consider the intellectual equivalent of schoolyard bullying.
Notice that I don’t claim to be above this kind of behaviour. I’m not. In fact, one reason for my blogging this is that I have given some thought to my typical anti-bullying reaction. Not that I feel bad about it. But I do wonder if it might not be a good idea to adopt a variety of mechanisms to respond to bullying, in conjunction with my more “gut response” knee-jerk reactions and habits.
Notice also that i’m not describing individual bullies. I’m not complaining about persons. I’m thinking about behaviour. Granted, certain behaviours are typically associated with certain people and bullying is no exception. But instead of blaming, I’d like to assess, at least as a step in a given direction. What can I do? I’m an ethnographer.
Like schoolyardb bullying, intello-bullying is based on a perceived strength used to exploit and/or harm those who perceived as weaker. Like physical strength, the perception of “intellectual strength” on which intello-bullying is based needs not have any objective validity. We’re in subjectivity territory, here. And subjects perceive in patterned but often obscure ways. Those who think of themselves as “strong” in intellectual as well as physical senses, are sometimes the people who are insecure as to their overall strengths and weaknesses.
Unlike schoolyard bullying, intello-bullying can be, and often is, originated by otherwise reasonably mature people. In fact, some of the most agressive intello-bullying comes from well-respected “career intellectuals” who “should know better.” Come to think of it, this type of bullying is probably the one I personally find the most problematic. But, again, I’m not talking about bullies. I’m not describing people. I’m talking about behaviour. And implications if behaviour.
My personal reactions may come from remnants of my impostor syndrome. Or maybe they come from a non-exclusive sense of self-worth that I found lying around in my life, as I was getting my happiness back. As much I try, I can’t help but feel that intello-bullying is a sign of intellectual self-absorption, which eventually link to weakness. Sorry, folks, but it seems to me that if you feel the need, even temporarily, to impose your intellectual strength on those you perceive as intellectually weak, I’ll assume you may “have issues to solve.” in fact, I react the same way when I perceive my own behaviour as tantamount to bullying. It’s the behaviour I have issues with. Not the person.
And this is the basis of my knee-jerks: when I witness bullying, I turn into a bully’s bully. Yeah, pretty dangerous. And quite unexpected for a lifelong pacifist like yours truly. But, at least I can talk and think about it. Unapologetically.
You know, this isn’t something I started doing yesterday. In fact, it may be part of a long-standing mission of mine. Half-implicit at first. Currently “assumed,” assessed, acknowledged. Accepted.
Before you blame me for the appearance of an “avenger complex” in this description, please give some more thought to bullying in general. My hunch is that many of you will admit that you value the existence of anti-bullies in schoolyards or in other contexts. You may prefer it if cases of bullying are solved through other means (sanction by school officials or by parents, creation of safe zones…). But I’d be somewhat surprised if your thoughts about anti-bullying prevention left no room for non-violent but strength-based control by peers. If it is the case, I’d be very interested in your comments on the issue. After all, I may be victim of some idiosyncratic notion of justice which you find inappropriate. I’m always willing to relativize.
Bear in mind that I’m not talking about retaliation. Though it may sound like it, this is no “eye for an eye” rule. Nor is it “present the left cheek.” it’s more like crowd control. Or this form of “non-abusive” technique used by occupational therapists and others while helping patients/clients who are “disorganizing.” Basically, I’m talking about responding to (intello-)bullying with calm but some strength being asserted. In the case of “fighting with words,” in my case, it may sound smug and even a bit dismissive. But it’s a localized smugness which I have a hard time finding unhealthy.
In a sense, I hope I’m talking about “taking the high road.” With a bit of self-centredness which has altruistic goals. “”I’ll act as if I were stronger than you, because you used your perceived strength to dominate somebody else. I don’t have anything against you but I feel you should be put in your place. Don’t make me go to the next step through which I can make you weep.”
At this point, I’m thinking martial arts. I don’t practise any martial art but, as an outsider, I get the impression this thinking goes well with some martial arts. Maybe judo, which allegedly relies on using your opponent’s strength. Or Tae Kwon Do, which always sounded “assertive yet peaceful” when described by practitioners.
The corrolary of all this is my attitude toward those who perceive themselves as weak. I have this strong tendency to want them to feel stronger. Both out of this idiosyncratic atttude toward justice and because of my compulsive empathy. So, when someone says something like “I’m not that smart” or “I don’t have anything to contribute,” I switch to the “nurturing mode” that I may occasionally use in class or with children. I mean not to patronize, though it probably sounds paternalistic to outside observers. It’s just a reaction I have. I don’t even think its consequences are that negative in most contexts.
Academic contexts are full of cases of intello-bullying. Classrooms, conferences, outings… Put a group of academics in a room and unless there’s a strong sense of community (Turner would say “communitas”), intello-bullying is likely to occur. At the very least, you may witness posturing, which I consider a mild form of bullying. It can be as subtle as a tricky question ask to someone who is unlikely to provide a face-saving answer and it can be as aggressive as questioning someone’s inteligence directly or claiming to have gone much beyond what somebody else has said.
In my mind, the most extreme context for this type of bullying is the classroom and it involves a teacher bullying a learner. Bullying between isn’t much better but, as a teacher, I’m even more troubled by the imposong authority structure based on status.

I put “cyber-bullying” as a tag because, in my mind, cyber-bullying (like trolling, flamebaiting and other agressive behaviours online) is a form of intello-bullying. It’s using a perceived “intellectual strength” to dominate. It’s very close to schoolyard bullying but because it may not rely on a display of physical strength, I tend to associate it with mind-based behaviour.
As I think about these issues, I keep thinking of snarky comments. Contrary to physical attacks, snarks necessitate a certain state of mind to be effective. They need to tap on some insecurity, some self-perceived weakness in the victim. But they can be quite dangerous in the right context.
As I write this, I think about my own snarky comments. Typically, they either come after some escalation or they will be as indefinite as possible. But they can be extremely insulting if they’re internalized by some people.
Two come from a fairly known tease/snark. Namely

If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

(With several variants.)

I can provide several satisfactory answers to what is ostensibly a question. But, as much as I try, I can’t relate to the sentiment behind this rhetorical utterance, regardless of immediate context (but regardful of the broader social context). This may have to do with the fact that “getting rich” really isn’t my goal in life. Not only do I agree with the statement that “money can’t buy happiness” and do I care more about happiness than more easily measurable forms of success, but my high empathy levels do include a concept of egalitarianism and solidarity which makes this emphasis on wealth sound counter-productive.

Probably because of my personal reactions to that snark, I have created at least two counter-snarks. My latest one, and the one which may best represent my perspective, is the following:

If you’re so smart, why ain’t you happy?

With direct reference to the original “wealth and intelligence” snark, I wish to bring attention to what I perceive to be a more appropriate goal in life (because it’s my own goal): pursuit of happiness. What I like about this “rhetorical question” is that it’s fairly ambiguous yet has some of the same effects as the “don’t think about pink elephants” illocutionary act. As a rhetorical question, it needs not be face-threatening. Because the “why aren’t you happy?” question can stand on its own, the intelligence premise “dangles.” And, more importantly, it represents one of my responses to what I perceive as a tendency (or attitude and “phase”) associating happiness with lack of intelligence. The whole “ignorance is bliss” and «imbécile heureux» perspective. Voltaire’s Candide and (failed) attempts to discredit Rousseau. Uses of “touchy-feely” and “warm and fuzzy” as insults. In short, the very attitude which makes most effectively tricks out intellectuals in the “pursuit of happiness.”

I posted my own snarky comment on micro-blogs and other social networks. A friend replied rather negatively. Though I can understand my friend’s issues with my snark, I also care rather deeply about delinking intelligence and depression.

A previous snark of mine was much more insulting. In fact, I would never ever use it with any individual, because I abhor insulting others. Especially about their intelligence. But it does sound to me like an efficient way to unpack the original snark. Pretty obvious and rather “nasty”:

If you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?

Again, I wouldn’t utter this to anyone. I did post it through social media. But, like the abovementioned snark on happiness, it wasn’t aimed at any specific person. Though I find it overly insulting, I do like its “counterstrike” power in witticism wars.

As announced through the “placeholder” tag and in the prefacing statement (or disclaimer), this post is but a draft. I’ll revisit this whole issue on several occasions and it’s probably better that I leave this post alone. Most of it was written while riding the bus from Ottawa to Montreal (through the WordPress editor available on the App Store). Though I’ve added a few things which weren’t in this post when I arrived in Montreal (e.g., a link to NAPPI training), I should probably leave this as a “bus ride post.”

I won’t even proofread this post.

RERO!


Bookish Reference

Thinking about reference books, these days.

Are models inspired by reference books (encyclopedias, dictionaries, phonebooks, atlases…) still relevant in the context of almost-ubiquitous Internet access?

I don’t have an answer but questions such as these send me on streams of thought. I like thought streaming.

One stream of thought relates to a discussion I’ve had with fellow Yulblogger Martin Lessard about “trust in sources.” IIRC, Lessard was talking more specifically about individuals but I tend to react the same way about “source credibility” whether the source is a single human being, an institution, or a piece of writing. Typically, my reaction is a knee-jerk one: “No information is to be trusted, regardless of the source. Critical thinking and the scientific method both imply that we should apply the same rigorous analysis to any piece of information, regardless of the alleged source.” But this reasoned stance of mine is confronted with the reality of people (including myself and other vocal proponents of critical thinking) acting, at least occasionally, as if we did “trust” sources differentially.

I still think that this trusty attitude toward some sources needs to be challenged in contexts which give a lot of significance to information validity. Conversely, maybe there’s value in trust because information doesn’t always have to be that valid and because it’s often more expedient to trust some sources than to “apply the same rigorous analysis to information coming from any source.”

I also think that there are different forms of trust. From a strong version which relates to faith, all the way to a weak version, tantamount to suspension of disbelief. It’s not just a question of degree as there are different origins for source-trust, from positive prior experiences with a given source to the hierarchical dimensions of social status.

A basic point, here, might be that “trust in source” is contextual, nuanced, changing, constructed… relative.

Second stream of thought: popular reference books. I’m still afraid of groupthink, but there’s something deep about some well-known references.

Just learnt, through the most recent issue of Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access newsletter, some news about French reference book editor Larousse (now part of Hachette, which is owned by Lagardère) making a move toward Open Access. Through their Larousse.fr site, Larousse is not only making some of its content available for open access but it’s adding some user-contributed content to its site. As an Open Access enthusiast, I do find the OA angle interesting. But the user-content angle leads me in another direction having to do with reference books.

What may not be well-known outside of Francophone contexts is that Larousse is pretty much a “household name” in many French-speaking homes. Larousse dictionaries have been commonly used in schools and they have been selling quite well through much of the editor’s history. Not to mention that some specialized reference books published by Larousse, are quite unique.

To make this more personal: I pretty much grew up on Larousse dictionaries. In my mind, Larousse dictionaries were typically less “stuffy” and more encyclopedic in approach than other well-known French dictionaries. Not only did Larousse’s flagship Petit Larousse illustré contain numerous images, but some aspect of its supplementary content, including Latin expressions and proverbs, were very useful and convenient. At the same time, Larousse’s fairly extensive line of reference books could retain some of the prestige afforded its stuffier and less encyclopedic counterparts in the French reference book market. Perhaps because I never enjoyed stuffiness, I pretty much associated my view of erudition with Larousse dictionaries. Through a significant portion of my childhood, I spent countless hours reading disparate pieces of Larousse dictionaries. Just for fun.

So, for me, freely accessing and potentially contributing to Larousse feels strange. Can’t help but think of our battered household copies of Petit Larousse illustré. It’s a bit as if a comics enthusiast were not only given access to a set of Marvel or DC comics but could also go on the drawing board. I’ve never been “into” comics but I could recognize my childhood self as a dictionary nerd.

There’s a clear connection in my mind between my Larousse-enhanced childhood memories and my attitude toward using Wikipedia. Sure, Petit Larousse was edited in a “closed” environment, by a committee. But there was a sense of discovery with Petit Larousse that I later found with CD-ROM and online encyclopedias. I used a few of these, over the years, and I eventually stuck with Wikipedia for much of this encyclopedic fun. Like probably many others, I’ve spent some pleasant hours browsing through Wikipedia, creating in my head a more complex picture of the world.

Which is not to say that I perceive Larousse as creating a new Wikipedia. Describing the Larousse.fr move toward open access and user-contributed content, the Independent mostly compares Larousse with Wikipedia. In fact, a Larousse representative seems to have made some specific statements about trying to compete with Wikipedia. Yet, the new Larousse.fr site is significantly different from Wikipedia.

As Suber says, Larousse’s attempt is closer to Google’s knols than to Wikipedia. In contrast with the Wikipedia model but as in Google’s knol model, content contributed by users on the Larousse site preserves an explicit sense of authorship. According to the demo video for Larousse.fr, some specific features have been implemented on the site to help users gather around specific topics. Something similar has happened informally with some Wikipedians, but the Larousse site makes these features rather obvious and, as some would say, “user-friendly.” After all, while many people do contribute to Wikipedia, some groups of editors function more like tight-knit communities or aficionados than like amorphous groups of casual users. One interesting detail about the Larousse model is that user-contributed and Larousse contents run in parallel to one another. There are bridges in terms of related articles, but the distinction seems clear. Despite my tendency to wait for prestige structures to “just collapse, already,” I happen to think this model is sensible in the context of well-known reference books. Larousse is “reliable, dependable, trusty.” Like comfort food. Or like any number of items sold in commercials with an old-time feel.

So, “Wikipedia the model” is quite different from the Larousse model but both Wikipedia and Petit Larousse can be used in similar ways.

Another stream of thought, here, revolves around the venerable institution known as Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica recently made it possible for bloggers (and other people publishing textual content online) to apply for an account giving them access to the complete online content of the encyclopedia. With this access comes the possibility to make specific articles available to our readers via simple linking, in a move reminiscent of the Financial Times model.

Since I received my “blogger accreditation to Britannica content,” I did browse some article on Britannica.com. I receive Britannica’s “On This Day” newsletter of historical events in my inbox daily and it did lead me to some intriguing entries. I did “happen” on some interesting content and I even used Britannica links on my main blog as well as in some forum posts for a course I teach online.

But, I must say, Britannica.com is just “not doing it for me.”

For one thing, the site is cluttered and cumbersome. Content is displayed in small chunks, extra content is almost dominant, links to related items are often confusing and, more sadly, many articles just don’t have enough content to make visits satisfying or worthwhile. Not to mention that it is quite difficult to link to a specific part of the content as the site doesn’t use page anchors in a standard way.

To be honest, I was enthusiastic when I first read about Britannica.com’s blogger access. Perhaps because of the (small) thrill of getting “privileged” access to protected content, I thought I might find the site useful. But time and again, I had to resort to Wikipedia. Wikipedia, like an old Larousse dictionary, is dependable. Besides, I trust my sense of judgement to not be too affect by inaccurate or invalid information.

One aspect of my deception with Britannica relates to the fact that, when I write things online, I use links as a way to give readers more information, to help them exercise critical thinking, to get them thinking about some concepts and issues, and/or to play with some potential ambiguity. In all of those cases, I want to link to a resource which is straightforward, easy to access, easy to share, clear, and “open toward the rest of the world.”

Britannica is not it. Despite all its “credibility” and perceived prestige, Britannica.com isn’t providing me with the kind of service I’m looking for. I don’t need a reference book in the traditional sense. I need something to give to other people.

After waxing nostalgic about Larousse and ranting about Britannica, I realize how funny some of this may seem, from the outside. In fact, given the structure of the Larousse.fr site, I already think that I won’t find it much more useful than Britannica for my needs and I’ll surely resort to Wikipedia, yet again.

But, at least, it’s all given me the opportunity to stream some thoughts about reference books. Yes, I’m enough of a knowledge geek to enjoy it.


Performance, Expertise, Ingenuity

Wow!

Haven’t read Dr. Atul Gawande’s Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance yet, but from an interview with Gawande on the Science Talk Podcast, it seems that his “systems” approach to his field is almost anthropological. In fact, much of the interview sounded like they would fit in discussions among medical anthropologists, including the importance of ingenuity in medical practise, local conceptions of health, social responsibility, etc.

It also goes well with a previous Science Talk interview with Dr. Christopher Cowley about which I previously blogged. That one had to do with a polemical article on medical ethics published (available as PDF). In that article, Cowley called for open discussion on medical training by making a few recommendations, some of which having to do with giving physicians a broader training. As could be expected, that article generated strong reaction, especially on the part of medical doctors. I sincerely hope that Gawande’s book will generate thoughtful discussion but I get the impression that medical specialists tend to react very strongly at the suggestion that some of the things they do could be improved outside of the strict training they receive. In other words, it seems that physicians and surgeons are unwilling to challenge some broad ideas about their fields. Of course, they’re strongly motivated to improve their practise and enhance their expertise. But it seems rare, in medical fields, to be taking a step back from practise and look at the broad picture.

To me, this is related to both extreme specialisation and to the social status afforded medical professionals.

Some anecdotal examples relating to my thinking about medical fields.

A friend of mine who’s whose [doh!] girlfriend is a student in medicine keeps teasing doctors by calling medicine a “technique.” Another friend, herself a student in medicine, says that it is frequent at the medical school where she is to portray medical students as an intellectual elite («crème de la crème»). Health professionals I know frequently say that one problem in the health system (especially in Quebec) is that physicians and surgeons have too much power. And, in my own experience, those physicians who have been best able to help me were those who took a broader view of health, outside of the strict application of well-remembered guidelines.

One argument against such discussions of what medicine could be revolve around the idea that “a good doctor is someone who has been well-trained.” Often phrased in the “if you had to go through surgery, wouldn’t you want the best surgeon to perform the operation?” (with the assumption that “the best surgeon” is someone who has the most credentials). This perspective is quite common in North America and it relates to a whole ideology of evaluation. Something similar is said about “the best students” (who are likely to be the ones getting “good grades”). What’s missing from it, IMHO, is mostly a notion of appropriateness, flexibility, ingenuity.

So Gawande’s book is sure to stir up some interesting ideas. Especially if medical professionals stop foaming at the mouth and actually spend a few hours thinking in a broader frame about the things they do.


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.