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Surfing the ‘awesome’ tag

January 23rd, 2007

My aggregators have aggregators and other meta matters

image of popurls.comNothing much was happening that Friday, just a couple of friends kicking back on the sectional surfing the ‘awesome’ tag on Flickr. “All the kids are doing it,” said my pal, joshing me for taking notes as she and her work buddy sat glued to a laptop in her new apartment. As usual, fieldwork was doubling for a social life, or perhaps it was the other way around. No matter, that’s the lot of a participant-observer and that night it was a particularly good one.

In addition to tea and sandwiches, I got to witness folksonomies–the method of using collaboratively generated tags to categorize online content–in action in everyday life. Not that I hadn’t tagged and searched tags. I’d just never done it in a social context, alongside watching TV, listening to music, and playing video games while hanging out with friends. But this isn’t really so new, I thought. I mean, a dozen years ago geeks hung out, sprawled in clusters around screens, surfing the net, and there were all sorts of ranking and recommendation sites to play with, like that early classic, “Hot or Not.”

The genre of creating new value from user-input (e.g. letters to the editor) or from metadata, whether stats or votes, is an old one that’s transcended lots of delivery technologies. But I had to admit, folksonomies had something new with user-input as meta data. Lisa Gitelman writes of media working on two levels: (1) as technology that enables communication and (2) as a set of associated cultural protocols and practices. Do genres count as cultural practices that can (sometimes, always) span delivery technologies?

And what distinguishes user-input from statistics generated by use? That is, is there a meaningful difference (emic or etic) between aggregation of user stats (e.g. popurls.com) and tagging (e.g. del.icio.us) as kinds of metadata? Both seem to have uses and entertainment value for the natives, but what’s in it for Joe Social Science? What do you know when you know someone by the trails he leaves?

The popularity of aggregators puts me in mind of filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s admonition:

“it is not sufficient to present fragments of reality on the screen, to represent life by its crumbs. These fragments must be elaborated upon so as to make an integrated whole which is, in turn, the thematic reality.”

(in Jean Rouch, 1975. `The Camera and Man.’ In P. Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. Mouton, The Hague.)

Clearly Vertov, who died in 1954, would have favored directory-driven portals over aggregators, and would have sided with Jaron Lanier in the kerfuffle over Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, but maybe, just maybe, he would have been down with tags.

Bell System Beauty

January 15th, 2007

Bell System Beauty the participant observer’s Bell System Beauty photoset

The Data Structures of Everyday Life (The Limits of Automagical Order)

January 9th, 2007

For about a year now, wikis have peeved me. Not the software, which can certainly be useful, but its heedless deployment as the groupware of choice. In both corporate and academic contexts, wikis are thrown up as project intranets, but in many cases what escapes attention until after the fact is the flatness of the data they tend to collect. What I mean by flatness is posts tend to accumulate as linked lists, heaped up like middens with all the latest material at the top. Of course, wikiware also offers the advantages of searchable text, change logs, and revision histories, but do these eliminate the need for logical (editorial) ordering of uploaded “items?” Or, might it be that these flat, automatic ways of setting relations among posted items, deceive us in to thinking that order arises automagically from the nodes and links of user-generated hypertext?

Image of Wikipedia on a desktop

Wikipedia, which is probably the best known wiki, is a perfect match of task and tool because the simple structure of term and entry is sufficient architecturally for an encyclopedia. But encyclopedias are a special case. And they differ markedly from the various other forms collected knowledge takes in everyday life–from that random-access classic, the book, to online databases and corporate intranets. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries and the like: these are remarkably uncomplicated instances, structure is axiomatic, everyone already knows how to play, more or less. But even here I’d venture that on projects with any longevity, wiki gnomes edit people’s edits, educate and evangelize through other channels, and chastise rule-breakers in whatever hallways those channels afford. Which is to say, even in the most uncomplicated cases, meaningful order does not turn out to be an emergent property of shared, stored communications.

My gripe against wiki-mania, as I came to call it, first became fully apparent to me last May. At the time I was preparing to teach (TA) an anthropology course with a multimedia production component through USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. The professor I was assisting had planned to scan a bunch of images of art, ritual and everyday objects, and photographs from her books (it was a course on the changing image of the Pacific in the Western imagination), so I suggested it would make sense to build on that work to create a database to which students could contribute and around which they could do their projects. That way, I thought, we’d all learn together about creating a networked, multimedia resource of this kind, and we’d be able to collect material and build and refine that resource over time. It seemed to me a perfect plan and, looking back, that should have been my first clue. Such illusions are made to be shattered and, quite shortly, mine were.

To create this online, multi-author, course database, I dutifully wrote a paragraph describing what we wanted to do, listed out all the capabilities we’d need, and asked the tech folks in charge of this particular sector of the grid (by way of a managerial intermediary) what type of software they would have me use. Having run a Mac/Tango/Filmaker site in the early 1990s that shared a FileMaker Pro (FMP) database over the Internet with a community of contributing users, the functionality requested seemed reasonable to me and I’d read about several current open source content management packages what sounded like they’d work just fine. The answer that came back, however, was, “You can use a wiki.

I was less than delighted, but that didn’t register until later because I was stunned by the curricular implications of the reply. Of course I could use wikiware to try to mimic the capabilities of a database, but why? That didn’t seem very sensible given that we were trying to teach something about the nature of records and databases, about the benefits and limitations of what Vannevar Bush called “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities…Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

How would we teach them to think about different kinds of data structures? Not as computer science students do, but in terms of the tradeoffs of involved in representing, archiving, appending, and organizing any collection of information? The wiki format doesn’t lend itself well to the model of designing records with fields and coming up with a template for records, then seeding the database with partial records to give students some examples of the kinds of media projects that would fulfill the course objectives. We wanted to create a sort of fill-in-the-blank treasure hunt which could serve students and instructors alike as a resource in which to explore relationships of general structure (i.e. categories, fields, data types, associative trails) and specific entries, thereby discovering in the collected data patterns insensible in more limited scope. Databases are perfect for this sort of thing. Moreover, it would seem to me that understanding something of the various the ways humans have represented and archived knowledge and information through the ages–which today would include knowing the difference between a database and a wiki–would be an essential component of the “multimedia literacy” we were here to teach and which, quite logically, was the subject of our first teaching assistant orientation. Of all the fancy software suites, digital video production equipment, and multimedia labs on tap at this program, there was not one networked database application to be had. It seemed an astonishing oversight to me.

Image of Braudel's bookThis was right about the time I began to find the ubiquitous wiki irksome. I began to have nightmares of Wikipedia as the deceptively attractive harbinger of that age-old (and to me most savage) dream of reason–knowledge without a knower. I began to wonder if we didn’t need some sort of later-day Braudel to make sensible to us the structures and practices of daily life in the recent past. Like back in the late 1980s when most administrative assistants had a working knowledge of some database program like FileMaker.

Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life (1979) is famous as a work of historical imagination which makes palpable the weight, number, and quotidian realities of the pre-industrial world and the capitalist system that emerged within its material order. The book I’m daydreaming about, The Data Structures of Everyday Life would be far less ambitious, but it would give some overview of the history of archives, memory machines, data storage and retrieval (álà J. David Bolter, not in abstraction, but applied in a variety of specific tasks and contexts. “Think about your email,” it might say, “how is that kind of communication structured? Do you know what ‘cc’ and ‘bcc’ stand for?” And in the telling of such prosaic histories would seek to preserve knowledge of the invention of thousands of otherwise invisible wheels, pulleys, levers, and gnome systems, for the retention, retrieval, transmission and use of all sorts of shared bits and nibbles.

Must all that converges rise in my throat?

January 4th, 2007

I am finally getting around to reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide because the person who loaned it to me, Liz Losh (brilliant colleague, neighbor, and muse), needs it back. It is not going down easily and were it not for Liz’s gentle insistence, in her writing and on our walks together, that this is a book I cannot ignore, and her pointers to deft reviews, I doubt I’d have the courage or appetite.

What could I possibly find so distasteful about this often sanguine exposition of pop media convergence? Prudence dictates I finish the book before attempting a comprehensive answer, but let me just indulge in another erotema or two to whet my whistle.

Say you’re at Taco Bell and you order a drink and they give you a cup that you’re expected to fill yourself; or say you’re flying home for the holidays and choose your seat and print your boarding pass online; should we think of these as participatory fast food, participatory aviation? Though neither of these scenarios involve the kind of cultural production and consumption with which Jenkins is primarily concerned, they seem to me to be pretty central to the phenomena currently bundled as convergence.

Besides, Jenkins doesn’t limit his purview to pop media fandom and “franchises” (Survivor, American Idol, The Matrix, Start Wars and Harry Potter), but consistently underscores the wider socio-political implications of his subject. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as convinced as anyone about the socially transformative powers of networked media, it’s just that Jenkins seems to have things a bit backwards (or, at least, a different understanding of the history and structural aspects of convergence) when he writes:

Right now, we are mostly using this collective power through our recreational life, but soon we will be deploying those skills for more “serious” purposes.

You don’t have to be Janet Abbate or Steven Levy to know that the serious and the recreational always coincide in new media; and that the development of many of the technologies, genres, forms, and practices Jenkins describes (message boards, emails, web pages), has been driven since elder days by powerful synergies of work and play.

As Fred Turner, who has just published From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), wryly observes in another paper, the technophilia powering the transformation of communications technologies was “common to both the acidheads of the Trips Festival and the managers of America’s nuclear arsenal” (“Where the Counterculture Met The New Economy”, available on Turner’s site, 495). From my own fieldwork, I can drawn several examples, such as the birth of Apache on hyperreal.org.

Blokus with Nolan Bushnell: it’s all the field now, baby

January 3rd, 2007

I’ve never been big on unified field theories, but have to admit a realization that dawned on me several weeks ago (during the triple As) has held more generally than I’d thought. These days, wherever I go turns out to be the field.

Photo of people playing Blokus Case in point: last night the delightful and inspiring Ellen Steuer took me to a games party at which Nolan Bushnell (pong creator, Atari founder) turned up to play Blokus. Nolan’s the one with his hand on his head. Ellen’s the one who snapped the photo with her trusty Sidekick.

Apparently his latest venture is another entertainment and restaurant venue called uWink, but it wasn’t mentioned. Instead, Ellen quizzed Nolan about the installation he was planning for next year’s Burning Man. Something involving LEDs mounted on revolving cherry picker to project an image of a hovering flying saucer, a scaled-up use of the same light-scan technology found in those clocks that project the time in mid-air, and other geeky gadgets.

I was more fascinated with the mag-lev wind chime installation Mike Steele was designing for next year’s Burn, after going for the first time in 2006; and with Patricia Pizer’s ideas for the class on online game design she begins teaching next week. Mike and Patricia were the hosts of this Almost New Year’s Eve games (and snack!) extravaganza, and it has been a very long time since I’ve met such a gregarious, playful, and accomplished pair. This party they were throwing was a luscious testament to the capacities of human civilization, truly an anthropologists dream: a multi-generational gathering of kin, friends, and neighbors; knit of spatial, professional, and recreational affiliations; at which great swathes of non-codified knowledge were spun out in social space-time-being.

Photo of Blokus board game in endstateTo put it more specifically, I saw several people learning to play Blokus, rules and strategies were discussed. There was a show-and-tell history of caricatures in European art. I overheard an eight-year old girl ask her neighbor if she would enable communication between their Nintendo DS systems. All the while, in the front living room, a man with a guitar–who I later learned was Raph Koster–and many fine singers created a steady stream of pleasant and familiar songs, passing on traditions and practices of which I remain blissfully ignorant. Instead of ethnomusicology, I focused on finding out from Patricia what she had planned for her games class and how it had come to pass that Nolan Bushnell was in her family room playing Blokus with her teenager, their neighbor, and my friend Ellen.
Given the impending new year–which for me holds the task of writing a dissertation start to finish–I found the answers to both lines of questioning valuably portentous. To answer the second one first: Patricia and Mike took their kids to the uWink restaurant in Woodland Hills and Mike was bold enough to strike up a conversation with Nolan. Later, Nolan appears at their party. Mike’s bold gregariousness is precisely what I’ll need to strike up the conversations I need to write a dissertation, I think as I hear Patricia tell of husband’s prowess.

What Patricia said about her class, however, was an even more valuable touchstone for my project. She made a number of really astute points on misconceptions about multiplayer, online gaming. First, she pointed out the tendency to apply the label “multiplayer” only to  MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) when, with the exception of solitaire, most games–from chess to Ms. Pac-Man–have multiplayer capability. I take it as a sign of the social, its primacy and perpetual erasure in the naturalization (one of culture’s favorite methods) of such terms as “multiplayer.”

Patricia builds on it to talk about the kind of projects she hopes her students will undertake this spring. While everyone wants to create the next big MMOG, the budget and resource realities of producing such a game preclude the MMOG as a wise term project choice in most cases. Thus, she plans to point out the diverse variety of thriving game genres and communities online besides MMOGs and encourage students to design games they can feasibly produce in a semester. Here again, the potent and peculiar combination of object lesson and subject lesson all-in-one. Or, to put it in tagline form, it’s all the field now, baby.’