Monday, April 28, 2008

Idealism and Pragmatism can be friends

Here's another insight I gained from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.

I (Seth) regard myself as an idealist. When I first encountered Wikipedia, I was excited by what I perceived to be an idealistic tool which fully and equally validated every participant and contribution. So I found it difficult at first to reconcile that idealistic perspective with Wikipedia’s imposition of any restrictions, such as locking down frequently abused articles and disallowing unregistered users from starting new articles from scratch. I could understand the reasons for imposing limits, but something inside me seemed to squirm a little – as if perhaps such compromises invalidated my idealism. But, as Shirky explains it,
Wikipedia is predicated on openness not as a theoretical way of working but as a practical way. ... Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions. [emphasis mine]
This view provides a satisfying relief. Although Wikipedia may not be “pure” from a philosophically idealistic perspective, it is practical from a real world, make-the-most-valuable-resource perspective. And this latter quality invests it with significance and gravitas that is absent in theoretical vision per se. Yes, we may have an idealistic vision of a repaired world. And Wikipedia (and similar tools) moves us closer to that vision – not because it perfectly matches that vision on some ephemeral, theoretical plane, but because it: a) is philosophically congruent with that vision, and also b) engages with, and makes a tangible improvement to, the real world we live in today.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

About social tools and activism

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations has lots of terrific insights. Here’s one about activism.

He describes a couple examples of citizen activism facilitated by new social tools. One is about angry airline passengers organizing to create an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights by using newspaper interactivity and an online petition and blog. Another is about college students and graduates using Facebook to organize to reverse a bait-and-switch bank policy. Both of these cases describe an unjust situation which pisses off a bunch of people, one of whom takes the initiative to start something which a lot of other people join in on. As stories, these are interesting, but not necessarily extraordinary. What I find most fascinating is his explanation about the role played by new social tools, and the implication of this for the future of activist causes.

The old model for coordinating group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so that they would be roused to action. [The new model] lower[s] the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in aggregate. Having a handful of highly motivated people and a mass of barely motivated ones used to be a recipe for frustration. The people who were on fire wondered why the general population didn’t care more, and the general population wondered why those obsessed people didn’t just shut up. Now the highly motivated people can create a context more easily in which the barely motivated people can be effective without having to become activists themselves. (p. 181-182)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tag Tags

(Note: this is a little long, but I've been thinking about it for a while...)

At many meetings or conferences, participants wear name tags. At a minimum the tag contains a self-written first name (perhaps preceded by “Hello. My name is...”). Or meetings with registered users may have name tags with pre-printed names, organizational affiliations, location or other standardized information. In all of these cases, name tags serve the same basic function: to display identifying information (or metadata) about the wearer for the benefit of others. So, as attendees come within visual range, they can discover something about one another and perhaps start a conversation or make a connection.

One of the purposes (sometimes the main purpose) of most such gatherings is to “network”, or to help attendees make meaningful connections among themselves. So, toward this end, name tags tend to be useful – because they provide important information, or networking hooks, upon which people can relate and connect. A name tag’s networking hooks are part of the first impression conveyed by the wearer, saying, in effect, “Here is something about me that maybe you will find interesting”.

But one characteristic about name tags is that they tend to contain objective information – factual information about the wearer that is readily perceived by others. Put another way, the information on someone’s name tag could be (and often actually is) provided by a third party involved in organizing the meeting.

A name tag’s objective networking hooks – like name, affiliation and hometown – may be vitally useful in opening a point of contact, when, say, you’re standing in the lunch buffet line. (“Oh, I see you’re from San Diego...”) Some of these initial contacts result in a pleasant lunchtime chat; others may result in deeper, more meaningful connections, perhaps developing into ongoing relationships. Such meaningful connections don’t happen simply by reading a name tag. They develop (if at all) in the course of subsequent conversations, after some give and take, as a result of sharing subjective information. (“I know so-and-so. Do you?” “Years ago, I used to work at _________ .” “I really hope that _____ .” “I hate when _____.”) In other words, within a group of people who don’t know one another well, simple objective networking hooks can provide an important entre to sharing the subjective information from which meaningful relationships might arise.

So why not share some subjective information up front as part of conveying a first impression? Why not present networking hooks that are uniquely and personally meaningful -- that one specifically hopes might attract a connection that would feel useful or validating or passionate? Of course, typical, objective name tag information may be intensely meaningful, like when it indicates an organizational affiliation with which the wearer passionately identifies. But if one purpose of a gathering is to provide a rich array of opportunities for meaningful connections, then the handful of objective networking hooks on a typical name tag may only scratch the surface of the potential personal and professional reasons for which one might want to connect.

Self-disclosure – the voluntary sharing of subjective information – is the fuel of social networking sites. Sharing information about who your “friends” are, your career ambitions or your favorite movies constitutes a diverse array of subjectively created metadata. These personally meaningful networking hooks are both the input and the output, the requirement and the benefit, of sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. Without subjective networking hooks, these sites simply become directories.

Face to face meetings are also (and of course always have been) social networking platforms – albeit within a physical, rather than electronic, medium. But, as we all know, compared to the vast capacity of the electronic medium of social networking sites, physical space has very real limits. Rather than having an unlimited number of media-rich electronic pages to work with, physical space requires more limited and mundane tools, such as a physically worn label or tag. Further, in a face-to-face meeting, people tend to only have a few moments to read and comprehend such information.

But even within the limited context of a physical name tag, at least some additional, subjective networking hooks can be displayed. These self-created networking hooks might be thought of as tag tags – a term which conveys both senses of the word tag: as a physical label (like a name tag) and as user-created metadata (as with Flickr or Tag tags can be worn by attendees at an event to express subjective networking hooks. Simply write your networking hook(s) on a name tag (or separate label) and go about attending the meeting. This may seems like a strange practice at first, but how different is it, really, from wearing objective metadata on a name tag in the first place? The main difference, in fact, is that self-written tag tags are more likely than typical name tags to express networking hooks that are more personal, unique and immediately relevant. One experiment with tag tags (though not by that name) was tried at the 2006 IA [Information Architecture] Summit in Vancouver, where the tag tags were photographed.

But, because of the technical and social capacity limits of wearing labels, it may be more effective if the subjective metadata were more simple, focused and direct. So, meeting organizers might suggest guidelines for tag tags. These may be highly relevant to the subject of the meeting (“Name the last projects you worked on”). Or they may be totally irrelevant to the meeting (“Who’s your favorite Disney character?”). Or they may be tangentially related (“What industry professionals most inspire you?”). Regardless of the format (or lack thereof), tag tags can enable attendees to:

  • express aspects about themselves not captured by typical name tag metadata
  • express networking hooks that are immediately relevant (and can even be added or modified during the course of the meeting)
  • introduce or reinforce new vocabulary
  • nurture more diverse types of personal connections
  • coincide with both the process and the content of how they present themselves in electronic social media
  • validate attendees for their uniquely felt identities, purposes or roles

We’ll be experimenting with tag tags at the first Net Tuesday Philly meeting. And I’d be very interested in learning about other applications or variations.