Monthly Archives: March 2009

My own domain

Hopefully, nobody has noticed, but today I’ve changed the domain of this blog. Now it is no longer in a sub-sub-directory of my father’s domain, but rather on a domain of my own, which I hope I can keep for a long, long time.

I’ve also set a permanent 301 .htaccess redirect, updated my RSS feed with Feedburner (now, when did Google acquire them?), Technorati and – hopefully – mumbled all the words of relevant ritual incantations correctly (Klaatu, Verata, Nectarine… right?), so nobody will lose their way trying to catch up on the latest ponderings from this blog. But if you have had troubles, please do let me know so I can fix it.

As I am wont to do, I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering what the name of my domain should be. And in the end, I ended up with my boring ol’ name. Why? Well, mostly because it’s a name that I’m not very likely to change. I also considered renaming the blog (and updating the theme and all that jazz) to celebrate the new domain – but really, I can’t be bothered right now.

A story club is born

I love stories. There are stories everywhere. Stories can be tiny and innocent, violent and unsettling, wondrous and magic, or even so monumental that they change our lives. But even so, we rarely find the time and the place to share the wonder and insight of the stories, which we hear, read, or experience ourselves.

So in order to share our stories with others, we (Anne, Mette and I) held a Story Club in our commune last night. Story Club is a fairly simple concept: Bring a group of people together in a cozy, informal, and unrushed place. Make them all feel comfortable and at home (as my dear grandmother always quotes her father for saying: “Make yourself at home, otherwise we’ll wish you were!”), and let them tell stories.

We had spent some time thinking about how to create the best possible setting for telling stories, and we ended up with a few rules (partially inspired by Fight Club):

1) You can tell stories based on experiences – personal or secondhand. You can read aloud a text – poems, speeches, short stories, essays, or whatever else you find moving, interesting, or thought-provoking. The important thing is that the text you relates to a story that is important to you.

2) Those listening to the story may offer to kinds of criticism: Positive and constructive. Both, if possible.

3) Everybody attending story club has to tell a story.
(originally, this was “If it is your first night at story club, you have to tell a story” – but in evaluating our first story club, we found that when everybody shared their stories on equal terms, it helped bring about a sense of openness and intimacy that wouldn’t have been possible if only some were sharing their stories).

It turned out to be a great evening. We were seven people, eating Triple Choc Cookies and drinking hot cocoa with marshmellows (and a few beers to get rid of any initial nervousness – I was the only one who knew everybody present, and it’s always a bit weird to tell stories to people you’ve never met before). We began by playing a little fun game to get going (as Anne wisely says, you relax a lot more when you’ve shared a few laughs), and then dove into the stories. Everybody had spent some time thinking about the stories they’d like to tell. There were short stories and opinion pieces, a few had dug out some of their old writing, and there were stories, reflections, and questions, which sparked more stories and reflections.

There were stories of spending time in airports, of unlikely travels, of disappearing turtles, of visions of the future, and of the flow of everyday life in the Facebook status updates. There were stories asking questions and stories offering explanations. And lots, lots, more.

The stories were good, the atmosphere was excellent – enchanting, even – but the best part for me was getting to know people in wholly different way: Through the stories they tell, and the reflections and associations that those stories bring with them within the group.

In short, it is definitely something that we’ll be doing again, and it is something that I can only recommend for others to try. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, just the good intentions of the people participating. If you’re interested in knowing more, feel free to get in touch.

Norms, habits, history, memory

Norms relate to habits in the same way as history relates to memory.

To explain:

History is the ever-changing, collectively negotiated understanding of the past.

Memory is the same on an individual level.

Habits are the unthinking actions and reactions shaped by the wear of individual daily life.

Norms are the same on a collective level.

On social objects

Working at Socialsquare, I’ve been introduced to some very practical thinkers in the realm of digital sociality. These are the people who are concerned with connecting the technical ‘how’ with the social ‘how’ to build new web services that help redefine digital sociality. One of the more thoughtful of these thinkers is Jyri Engeström.

Jyri is a Finnish entrepreneur with a Ph.D in sociology, and in his work, he combines his social science background with experience developing applications for web and mobile platforms. The most prominent result of this is Jaiku, a micro-blogging service very similar to Twitter. But with much more balanced design focused on conversation.

One of the main reasons why Jaiku comes across as a much more well-defined web service compared to Twitter is the way it was conceived. As Engeströmi explains in this interview with Brian Oberkirch, when Web 2.0 developers sought to define the functionality of their service, they thought of the social network they were building in the terms of traditional social network theory that claims that networks consist of nodes (people) connected by lines (relations).

Engeström found this theoretical framework to be lacking. Inspired by sociologists of science such as Karina Knorr Cetina and Bruno Latour, he argues that people are always connected by objects, and by focusing on the role of objects in social relationships, we can see how these objects often provide context in which these relationships come to make sense. This makes sense for us in our daily lives where we the contexts of situations to be self-evident. We’re very good at figuring out what the centre of attention is – depending on whether we’re attending a birthday party, a funeral, a baby shower, or a barn raising.

Engeström’s point is that these centres of attention are social objects that we use to connect with one another. Social objects offer us a vital context to make sense of how we ought to behave in a given situation. This is even more important in an online setting, where there is much less social context to draw upon. As human beings, we tend to adjust our behaviour according to the people around us, but if we can’t see how others act and interpret a given online social space, how can we make sense of it?

As Engeström argues, we can do this by defining a clear social object for a social web site. Consider the difference between how you’d present yourself and who you’d connect with through a web site offering to help you find jobs, and a web site offering to help you find dates. In both cases, the social object shapes how you will interact with it – and indeed, whether you will interact with it. Engeström argues that social services with an ill-defined social object tend to not do so well.

In this presentation, Engeström offers some tentative explanations of the power of social objects:

When you begin to examine social web services and look for social objects, they’re often easy to find: Delicious focuses on bookmarks. LinkedIn focuses on jobs. Dogster focuses on dogs. Upcoming focuses on events. Flickr focuses on photos. Youtube focuses on videos. Amazon focuses on books. eBay focuses on auctions. Craigslists focuses on classifieds. Myspace tends to focus on music. And so on. The real magic of Facebook, according to Engeström, is that they’ve opened it up to allow users and developers to create their own social objects, providing for unlimited number of objects – events, photos, status messages, what have you.

So how did Engeström use this notion of social objects in building his own social web service, Jaiku? Well, the social object of Jaiku is status messages – or jaikus as they’re called (a neologism similar to tweets, I suppose). Engeström was inspired by Instant Messaging status messages, which people already used to a great extent to tell their network what they were up to (whether on Microsoft Messenger, AIM, Gtalk or elsewhere). But these IM statuses weren’t sharable (outside that specific Instant Messaging network) or savable (no web history). He wanted to turn these status messages into a fully fledged social object, which users could share, discuss, and socialise through. Having worked for Nokia, he also sought to combine the service with SMS updates.

In short, Jaiku was conceived from the beginning with a specific centre of attention, which all use of the service would revolve around. Twitter didn’t come with all these features for socialising, and users had to invent them for themselves. In that way, it’s somewhat unfortunate that Twitter took off, and Jaiku did not. When asked about what the next big thing in the field of online social objects might be, he suggests locations, which Jaiku also experimented with. But being able to digitally bookmark a location as a social object depends on a much more widespread adoption of GPS-enabled phones. Just like Flickr depended on widespread adoption of digital cameras, and Youtube depended on widespread adoption of webcams and digital camcorders.

Summing up his experiences with building Jaiku, Engeström names 5 key design principles in using social objects as a design parameter:

1) Define your object. (users should be able to identify a site’s social object within 10 seconds of entering the site)
2) Define your verbs. (what actions can users actually perform on the site in relation to the social object? – a brilliant example is eBay’s Buy and Sell buttons)
3) Make it sharable. Make it easy and quick to share. What is the particular way to share this kind of object?
4) Make it viral. You need to turn each invitation into a gift. Make receivers feel like that they are getting a gift. Youtube does this well. Sending a video is often just like sending a smile.
5) Don’t charge the spectators, charge the publishers. Make it free and easy to see, use and share the social object. Those who have a keen interest in using the social object for more specialised purposes will also be willing to pay for that privilege.

It’s striking how well these design principles fit with what successful free software projects are doing. The Ubuntu community is an excellent example of how a whole community of hackers are brought to gather by a social object, an operating system, which they have a common interest in. I really like the idea of social objects as points of focus and gravity for social interactions. I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about how such objects may create social coherence by providing a context that allows people with shared interests to relate one another in new and meaningful ways.

Making sense of twitter

Following my last post, where I likened Twitter to shouting out the window of a moving truck, I’ve been giving the matter some more thought and dug up some different perspectives on Twitter. Web 2.0 entrepreneur Ross Mayfield even asked his Twitter followers how they would describe Twitter to new-comers.

It’s public but focused on individuals. It’s both asynchronous and real-time. It’s searchable and cumulative. It’s not necessarily shouting.

As this presentation by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams illustrates, Twitter is also quite a lot like passing notes or whispering in a classroom. The difference being that the presenter can check out all the comments afterwards:

Williams’ main point is that Twitter has proven to be much more versatile than they expected, and they’ve been working hard to keep up with the cognitive surplus being invested in defining the etiquette and uses of twitter. David Pogue makes a similar point in his insightful write-up of Twitter in the New York Times:Twitter can be whatever you want it to be: An ego boost, a discussion tool, a research tool, a waste of time, a running dialogue during a presentation. It is the openness of the tool that creates the magic. It is still a complete mess, fragmented and incoherent precisely because all of the users are still in the process of figuring out how best to use it.

I can’t help comparing it to IRC, which I used a lot as part of my fieldwork. IRC is real-time chat channels focused on topics rather than on individuals. It requires you to be online through an IRC client in order to follow the conversation (though some IRC channels do log the conversations), but it can also be asynchronous. People can direct comments to specific individuals or just ask an open question to everybody present. It has many of the same features as Twitter – an allows for much better conversation. But it is limited to channels. You need to get all of your friends together in the same few channels in order to be able to talk with them.

Twitter has a much, much lower barrier to entry: It’s on the web. Sign-up is easy. You don’t have to decide which topics you’re interested in, or try to get your friends involved – you immediately connect with your friends already on Twitter. You can use it on your mobile phone. And perhaps most importantly: You’re limited to 140 characters.

But all of this comes at a high price: There is a massive loss of context: It is much more difficult to make sense of the conversation once you’re there. People are trying to help this by using acronyms.

I find Twitter to be a fascinating example of a technology that has been shaped by use rather than by design. Its greatest advantage is the fact that so many people are using it – not any inherent quality of the design itself. The result is a fairly unaesthetic mess, but it makes it clear just how much potential there is for such easy discussion and access to expert knowledge. Twitter has begun to tap this potential in form a Web 2.0 service. But there is a long way to go, still.