Great Good Place: How the decline of walking ruined community (and American bars are too loud)

Just read Ray Oldenburg’s sociology classic “The Great Good Place”, which names and praises the “third places” where people go between home and work. Oldenberg makes the case that these places are essential for people to relax and nurture social connections, and that the rise of auto sprawl and the loss of walkable neighborhoods all but ruined them.

Like Jane Jacobs’ classic work, the core thesis seems powerful and right.  However, the books arguments are highly anecdotal and suffused with credibility-sucking nostalgia; the content on the role of gender and sexuality makes manifest the iffiness of his method.


The book describes the neighborhood taverns, beer gardens, cafes, and corner stores where many people used to stop for a while between home and work and spend time with a group of regulars, across class and age boundaries, with relatively low barriers to entry, the beverages as largely an excuse to socialize, and with conversation as the main entertainment.

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London coffee shop

Oldenburg makes devastating arguments about the ways that automotive culture has greatly diminished third places.  Low density, spread out single use zoning puts people outside of walking distance from commercial establishments and gathering places; so there are no “locals” where you’ll run into a regular cast of characters.  Even successful places are patronized by roving groups of known friends, rather than stable sets who can assimilate newcomers.   The corporate chains and malls that displaced local convenience stores, casual restaurants, and other gathering places are focused on efficient turnover of anonymous customers, and don’t provide the time and space for idle conversation.

Without the influence of a patient and hospitable patron, and a stable group who can entertain themselves endlessly with animated conversation over a beer or maybe two, and single sex or family crowd, bars become places for heavy drinking, with loud music, fads for entertainment, and pickup pairing.

Interestingly, Oldenburg’s attention to street life focuses on commercial establishments that extend onto the sidewalk, where people sit, eat, drink and chat.  He does not focus on the semi-public domain of stoops and entrances where residents and proprietors hold court with passersby, which are Jane Jacobs tropes of healthy urban socialization and maintenance of social norms.

Without third places, people do 90% of their drinking and the vast majority of their entertainment within the walls of home; diminishing the mental health benefits that come from a broader social network, and putting excessive pressure on marriages. The age segregation of contemporary life, car-dependence, and pervasive scheduling makes life particularly dull and stressful for suburban youth and teenagers.  The decline in the status and health of street life can be seen in the rise of terms such as “streetwise” meaning aggressive, self-protective and cynical, and the importance of activities at keeping kids off the street.

The depiction of “wholesome” “decent” tavern norms has a fair amount of “no-true-scotsman” about it. The centuries of urban life in which there have been commercial drinking establishments include numerous geographically distributed instances of culturally prevalent alcoholism and alcohol-fueled financially harmful gambling and violence. Prohibition was a mistake, but the temperance movement wasn’t driven by the zeal to ban taverns where men relaxed and chatted for an hour over one or two drinks.

The examples of social leveling, where physicians would spend time talking politics and sports with plumbers, seem real enough, but the book ignores the boundaries of ethnicity, sometimes religion, and especially race that would get the wrong kinds of people violently excluded. Not to mention, Oldenburg’s attraction to third places comes from a particularly situated class perspective – one reason he is so fond of third places is that they are more relaxing than stuffy cocktail parties where one must dress up and be on one’s best behavior, says the college professor who presumably is obligated to attend numerous cocktail parties.

The theorizing about gender is where the anecdotal method is most obviously saturated with cultural perspective.  Oldenburg argues that one important role served by a third place providing is a relaxing single-sex refuge from heterosocial life (although some species of third place, such as the German beer garden, were populated by men, women, and children. The single sex socializing is important, says Oldenburg, for both men and women – various cultures have men only and women only spaces that are important for social life.

While Oldenburg acknowledges a need for female-only space, his language often takes a male perspective, e.g. “customers and their wives.”   The book is replete with cavalier and confident statements about gender, such as “parenting is largely mothering”, “women have more spare time than men”, and “women don’t like snooker,” but unfortunately female guests must be allowed to take a turn.   (I wonder what my female friends who are billiards aficionados think of snooker, which I had barely heard of). The assumptions about the lives of women are particularly class-coded – working class women always worked and never had idle time.

The book’s anecdotes about the disjoint sets of male and female interests are contradictory. One grown woman recalls that her interest in politics was stoked by adult conversations at the local soda fountain.  At a “third place” in the UK, a woman who is passionate about cars is steered away from the men talking about cars to the women, because she will disrupt the natural male bonding around cars, and is best directed toward more feminine subjects of conversation.


Oldenburg deplores and bemoans a tendency toward companionate relationships with the growth of the college-educated professional class. “College men started to take their women took their women on hunting, fishing and boating trips” which ruined the ambience of the all male gatherings.  The reason that mixed gatherings are unwelcome is that because with the tension that is necessary for sexual attraction, it is “impossible to relax with the opposite sex”, especially the forced mixing at dinner parties, and even a night out with one’s own spouse.


Meanwhile, all-male gatherings have no harmful effects.  “Male groups encourage men to view women as sex objects but not treat them this way,” as we surely know from fraternities and technology conferences.   The interest of women in gaining access to the all-male clubs that are key venues for business and political networking is described as “The blood lust of feminists seeking to invade or destroy.”


And, Oldenburg assures us, homosocial bonding has no connection to homosexuality. “Eroticism is almost always absent in all male groups”, and rather, “homosexuality becomes common when male bonding is weak.”   Pause for laughter.


Oldenburg’s observations and assessments about gender are full of culturally situated stereotypes, not to mention rampant sexism.  The dominance of dubious assumptions about gender raises questions about other observations in the book.  Unlike the work of, say, Jan Gehl, which is based on meticulous observations of social life in public places, and a long history of design experiments to affect the social life in public spaces, Oldenburg’s book is full of one-off personal observations and retold anecdotes.


Because of Oldenburg’s strong opinions and heavily anecdotal methods, I would also wonder about counter examples where car cultures may have created functioning third places – what diners, beaches, and other car-dependent locations still fostered informal socializing with regular participants.  The book is also wholly secular; there may be evidence and arguments about the relative roles of churches and synagogues in fostering regularly attended gatherings that nurture social ties (although Charles Marohn of Strong Towns argues that suburban churches also weaken the third place nature of community events).

Thinking about the book, I wonder whether bike party rides count as effective third places. They’re not daily, but with test rides there are weekly events, they involve casual socializing with people across a range of ethnicity, income, and age, with alcohol etc as social lubricants, and sets of regulars who are open to newcomers. They use suburban people-unfriendly arterial roads and parking lots, and convert them into sociable parades and festivals.

Interestingly, a quick Google search shows that in addition to planners, Christian bloggers have apparently taken up consideration of Oldenburg’s work.  Church folk wonder whether religious institutions can provide “third place” style gathering spots, or bring church practices to “third places”, or possibly compete with secular places.


Oldenburg himself is dismissive of the ability of online services to play the role of “third places”, and stresses the need for in-person interaction.  However, this perspective neglects the increasingly common interaction of online settings, where people can chitchat and meet virtually through others with similar interests and mutual friends, and in-person gatherings that spring from online discussion.


While Oldenburg’s methods are highly qualitative and culturally situated there is some good evidence that Oldenburg got key points measurably right – greatly reduced time spent socializing informally outside of the home; the dramatic increase in the structure of children’s lives and reduction of outdoor self-directed free play.


When the book was written in the 90s, Oldenburg writes that the planning profession had paid negligible attention to community spaces.   The government was well established in the business of creating outdoor parks for recreation, but played minimal roles in creating spaces for urban socializing.  (Oldenburg omits discussion of the compulsory and largely disastrous civic and office plazas created in the second half of the the 20th century. William Whyte’s detailed study of the success factors for public plazas in New York City is the exception that proves the rule).


Since then, however, the planning and design professions have accelerated study of public places and have started to seek to foster lively public space, and civic participation in the creation of public spaces, on a more regular basis.  The Project for Public Spaces, founded to build on Whyte’s work, has developed a global practice in the field in recent decades, and cites Oldenburg as an inspiration.   Jan Gehl’s firm has been influential in transforming places around the world, including Copenhagen, Melbourne, and New York City.


With these practices, the role of the public sector is to foster the places that can foster social interaction. Outdoors, this includes human-scaled plazas with detail fostering social interaction, and sizeable sidewalks taking space back from vehicles.   For indoor spaces, the public sector is starting to play a role in fixing the policies that caused third places to decline – once again allowing mixed use zoning, and walkable densities, so people can live near coffeeshops, restaurants and convenience stores; and changing vehicle parking laws so that driving and parking does not make it unpleasant to stroll by a neighborhood place.


The revival of big cities and small city downtowns, and neighborhood design encourages optimism about the opportunity to gradually bring back third places.  As of Oldenburg’s sequel, it didn’t seem like much progress had been made – the Great Good Places he was able to find in a late 90s anthology were , However, the drastic shortage of increasingly popular walkable places is causing gentrification, and raises the risk that until and unless the shortage is filled, the social and civic capital available to people with public places will be less available to lower income people exiled to exurban sprawl.

Conversation curation

In a couple of good posts, JP Rangaswami reflects on the need and opportunity for democratized curation. He cites Google CEO Eric Schmidt quantifying the incredible amount of information being generated on the internet – these days, 5 exabytes of information is created every two days, as much as all the information created between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. JP writes about the need for curation of text, music, image, and video. I’d like to focus on a new opportunity – curating conversation.

The last few years has seen the rise of the realtime web, so-called status updates in Facebook, Twitter and other services, much of which is really conversation. The stream flies by quickly. If you missed it, it’s gone. Search of stream content is getting better, but even so, if you find a single message, you don’t really get the gist of a conversation. This is where curation comes in. This is different but closely related to “tummeling”, which is the art of facilitating a live conversation in process. Conversation curation is the art of representing and summarizing a conversation, so others can see it later, and the conversation can pick up again from a new starting point.

Conversational curation isn’t needed or wanted for many conversations – sometimes the conversation is truly transient – for example, nobody needs an edited record of people cheering their team through a hockey championship. But sometimes conversation does have longer-lasting value. For example, there was a fascinating Twitter conversation between Howard Rheingold and his Twitter followers about attention and distraction. This discussion contained information and arguments that seemed worth preserving, so I wrote it up as a post, which has continued to get references well after the original discussion. People have been using the practice of summarizing conversations in mailing lists and forums for years. The realtime web makes this practice more important because conversations can be even more transient and hard to piece together without a curated record.

There are some very old, pre-modern examples of the form of curated conversation – found in the Talmud and, I’m told, ancient Chinese traditions also. In the Jewish tradition, the form of curated conversation comes from attempting to preserve some of the texture of an oral tradition of dialog and debate, as that tradition was being represented in written form.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve been interested recently in modern takes on the representation of multi-voiced discourse in ancient works – because I think that this old form has lessons for a new need in quite a different cultural context. An edited conversation, with multiple voices assembled by an editor, is not identical as a live conversation in which participants speak for themselves. Scholars looking at the old forms debate how much the edited conversation is actually conversational. Daniel Boyarin argues, building on Bakhtin, that the editor’s hand smooths out differences in the represented voices and turns the dialog into a monolog. But David Frank contrasts the dialog in Plato, where the conversational partner is represented merely as a foil to reach a foregone conclusion, with dialog in the Talmud, where the different voices carry different ideas, and the whole picture includes multiple voices.

Another distinction – and something that may be important for the future genre – is how readers are brought into the picture. With the Talmud, says Marc-Alain Ouaknin, the dialog is represented – and culturally presented – in a way such that readers are drawn in to converse together in realtime to carry on the conversation, in debate with each other, adding their own contributions. By contrast, in Socratic dialog, the reader is expected to understand, assimilate, and agree with the presented conclusions.

In a new book that looks at these ancient forms of represented dialog (that comes to different conclusions than David Frank, and than I do agreeing with Frank), Daniel Boyarin makes an important point. Representing a conversation doesn’t freeze it, it just pauses it. The transition between speech and writing is a repeated cycle – “written culture becomes transmuted into oral culture and then back… over and over and over again.” Part of the form of curating conversation will be representing it in a way that people will find it welcoming and interesting to continue the conversation in realtime, and continue the cycle again.

Another important difference from the pre-modern forms is the boundary of the conversation. Daniel Boyarin notes astutely that the conversation represented in the Talmud is open with respect to ideas seen as within the community of the Talmud’s rabbis, but closed with respect to ideas seen as outside that framework. In modern settings, people create boundaries for conversations in very different ways – but those boundaries still exist, often as informal social norms. In communities of fan fiction, participants decide what works fit into the canon they will remix. In political communities, participants decide which opinions are legitimate for debate in a given community, and which positions are out of bounds. The editors / curators will play key and controversial roles in maintaining these norms.

There are some emerging technical components that will make the practice of curating conversation easier – to conduct conversation across services, and Salmon to pull together the comments. Plus, perhaps, there is a need for visual editing tools to pull the pieces of a conversation together.

In the world JP Rangaswami envisions, where curation is an important part of improving the ratio of signal to noise, conversational curation will be an important art, and the cycle between live conversation and the edited representation of dialog will become important once again.

Classical and Jewish forms of argument compared

The rhetoric of Jewish thought is distinctively different from the classical tradition. In The Mind of the Talmud, which I summarized last week, David Kraemer analyzes the Rabbinic tradition of argument, describes its philosophical implications, and contrasts it with the classical tradition, but does not go deeply into that contrast.

David Frank’s article, Arguing with God, explores those differences in more depth, drawing on a set of thinkers including Susan Handelman, David Kraemer, Emanuel Levinas, and Chaim Perelman/Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. In short; the classical tradition favors speculative thought and declarative exposition in search of unitary truth; the rabbinic tradition favors practice, situational context, and multi-voiced argument that does not reach a single conclusion.

In Jewish tradition, people argue with God and win. In the bible God changes God’s mind, in the Talmud God concedes the turf to the Rabbis. The Jewish tradition takes a pluralist approach, in which minority opinions are preserved, and the truth is contained in multiple voices. Frank shows how Jewish thought contrasts with some of the basic assumptions of Aristotelian logic: “In Jewish logic, it does not follow that if two people disagree, only one must be right… Talmudic logic seeks out and cultivates an “included middle” – one that attempts to find or invent common ground between contraries.”

The biblical arguments with God are about ethics and justice; people are arguing that God should live up to God’s own standards. Modern/postmodern thinkers including Kraemer and Levinas read the Talmud as leaving the arguments and decisions in human hands. In Levinas’ view, seeking the divine directly is madness; people are enjoined to seek the divine through recognizing and meeting ethical obligations to the Other.

Citing Ronald Arnett on Levinas, Frank makes the case that Levinas offers a corrective to classical philosophy’s focus on the self. “Rather than beginning with self, Levinas shifts our focus to the face of the Other, which becomes for him the face of God. We are responsible for and too this face, which is sacred.” The ethical imperative in the Jewish tradition “corrects and reverses the hierarchy of Western philosophy, placing the ethical response to the Other before the pursuit of Being, or ontology.”

In the journal article, Frank argues in favor of a more expansive vision of reason that draws upon both the classical and Jewish traditions. Frank shows that classical thought is characterized by a feud between philosophy and rhetoric in which philosophy won; and argues that Jewish thought never had this split. Citing Levinas and Perelman, Frank argues in favor of a vision of reason that draws both on classical demonstrative logic and Jewish ethics and pluralism.

On the Jewish side of the argument, Frank draws on the liberal interpretive tradition that favors arguing with God rather than obedience to divine will; and the Mitnagdic tradition favoring scholarship and ethics over the Hassidic tradition of mystical experience (for background, see The Faith of the Mithnagdim, an intellectual history by Allan Nadler that is sympathetic to the Mitnagdic side of the split.) I align toward Frank’s biases, but acknowledge that they are biases.

As for the classical side, I think Frank goes a bit Godwin when he draws on Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism as the ultimate conclusion of classical rhetoric. (Isaiah Berlin makes a similar argument about the roots of totalitarianism, pointing particularly at the Continental side of the Continental/Anglo divide). Judaism, Anglo-American pragmatism, and many other systems of belief and philosophy can also be used to justify abuse of power – I think the problem is crazy people with guns, not the style of argument preferred by a given set of crazy people with guns.

Both of the traditions of argument that Frank presents are alternative modes of conscious reason. Meanwhile, much of the discourse over the last century has been about the roots of persuasion in unconscious and social motivations. Frank (and Kraemer) don’t acknowledge the stream of thought from Freud through Edward Bernays, and on to Cialdini and BJ Fogg, to name a few, where reason is, if anything, secondary to interpersonal and intrapsychic influence.

Frank elides the difference when he discusses the ethical advantages of argument. “We now know that ethical behavior is much more likely when argumentation and persuasion are taught as means of dealing with difference and disagreement. What I might do would be to defend argumentation as learned in the strange corridors of the Texas legislature – argument can be persuasive, as long as a hierarchy of persuasion is met; the argument is in the context of meeting the listener’s desires and is seen as socially acceptable.

I strongly recommend the Frank article. It’s a good summary of a topic that I find really interesting, having a traditional Jewish background and Western education, and observing different intellectual norms that are often taken for granted on each side. I’d been looking for a concise, logical, and sourced summary of this polarity since 1983 when I first heard the argument made in a class that Rabbinic rhetoric poses a distinctive and deliberate alternative to classical thought.

On new concepts for public and private

Pronouncements of the death of privacy are clearly premature. Google’s initial choice to reveal one’s email contacts was a significant mistake – disturbing for some users and harmful or dangerous for others, such as consultants whose clients were revealed, and abuse victims whose networks were revealed to stalkers.

The clear violation of the boundary shows that there are, in fact, real boundaries that can and shouldn’t be violated. That said, there is also real change happening in technology and in social norms relating to the changing infrastructure of society.

So, what is the same, and what is getting different?

Privacy protection is still needed, in fact and concept

Tim LeBerecht presents the perspective that privacy is done for, collateral damage of the trend toward online broadcasting. This has been disproven.

Facebook is only reacting to a larger social trend as it strives to become an asymmetrical and therefore more growth-enabled network (or communications platform) – like Twitter. Privacy, at least a more traditional notion thereof, is the collateral damage of this strategic agenda. With the value of reciprocity (narrowcasting) succumbing to the prospect of exponentiality (broadcasting), privacy is no longer commercially exploitable.

Adrian Chan doesn’t say that privacy is dead, but suggests that the conventional thinking around privacy regarding protection, security, and safety from exposure is the wrong frame.

Like many of you, I think the opposition of private and public is now problematic at best, if not counterproductive. First off, privacy suggests to me individual rights of ownership, protections and security, safety from exposure and the risk of misuse and abuse of personal information. It centers on the individual and his or her protections. I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.

The buzz launch privacy error shows that the conventional frame about protecting the individual is still necessary and important. (Which Adrian acknowledges in a recent post on the Buzz launch privacy mis-steps.

Privacy doesn’t express identity – identity is created socially

A base level of privacy protection is needed. Given that, the concept of privacy protection is not adequate to describe the needs of individuals around identity and expression.

Adrian Chan and Stowe Boyd seem to disagree about terminology, but have related opinions about the social construction and expression of identity.

In Adrian’s words, ” I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.”

Stowe Boyd describes a similar concept, and adds nuances about the ways that people form identity in social contexts. The problem with the concept of articulating identity in terms of privacy, says Stowe, is that it frames the self as something that exists outside the social realm and is shared in the social realm. Instead, the self is to a large extent generated in the social realm, and its expression depends on the social norms in various different social circumstances.

From a privacy viewpoint, this fracturing of the totality of experience is viewed as selectively revealing potentially overlapping classes of information about my personal life with different subsets of my world. In the privacy take on the world, a person might be defined as the union of all the personalities they present to the world. People’s personalities in this worldview are thought of as atomic, but multifaceted….

From a publicy viewpoint, something very different is going on. In this zeitgeist a person has social contracts within various online publics, and these are based on norms of behavior, not of layers of privacy. In these online publics, different sorts of personal status — sexual preferences, food choices, geographic location — exist to be shared with those that inhabit the publics. So, in this worldview, people are the union of a collection of social contracts, each of which is self-defined, and self-referential. The norms and mores of a foodist service — eat everything and post everything you eat — may be completely distinct from those about sexual interests, or sports, or social technology on the web. These streams of updates don’t have to add up to a picture that defines the individual, any more that we are defined by the stamps on our passports or the complete sequence of hats we have owned.

In this worldview, a person is a network of identities, each defined in the context of the form factor of a specific social publics. There is no atomic personality, per se, just the assumption that people shift from one public self to another as needed.

Stowe’s perspective focuses on the content and norms of the environments in which social identity is created, while Adrian is focusing more closely on the individual negotiations within those environments; both emphasize the way the self exists socially and is created socially.

So what is public?
Adrian takes issue with Stowe’s use of the new word “publicy”, suggesting that there is no need to re-invent and modify concepts of the public sphere.

Public, to me, suggests the public sphere, and the formal, institutional, legal, economic, cultural and other forces that organize it. Conceptually, the public sphere is orthogonal to the social and to different kinds of sociality. In social theoretical terms, the public refers to a kind of social organization in which individuals don’t really experience themselves as acting and interacting subjects. It is “constructed” on the basis of those interactions perhaps, but the term captures anonymous sociality — not, in my view, the one experienced when socializing online.

I disagree with several elements here. Adrian implies that the concept of the public sphere exists and is stable – I think that there are fundamental changes in progress.

The concept of public sphere that we have today was formed in urban public squares and they heavily reshaped by mass media – newspapers, radio, television. As Adrian notes, in the age of mass media, individuals are strangers in the crowd – people do not act or interact. Also in the age of mass media, power of the press belongs to the one who owns the printing press – the power to broadcast is concentrated, the range of information is limited.

The new public network is substantially different from the old broadcast forms. Ubiquitous publication is new. 2-3 Billion people can now share text; hundreds of millions are sharing videos. Ubiquitous discoverability is new. And participants in the new public sphere increasingly aren’t anonymous strangers – more than 400M people are active users of Facebook, which requires real identity.

What people do in public is visible, discoverable, and increasingly linkable to real identity. This is a new circumstance in the world. Social forms and norms are morphing in conjunction with these new things. (I’m not saying that technology shapes society; technologies and social realities co-evolve).

The new discoverable public sphere isn’t quite universal – google doesn’t reach everything. Firewalls contain large amounts of information within organizational boundaries, but within these boundaries, search engines and links make massive amounts of information discoverable. And organizations are seeing that there are powerful benefits to be gained by sharing and discovery, inside and across organizational boundaries.

With defined firewalls, overlapping follow lists and group memberships, and changing relationships and group lifecycles, the map of the more-public sphere is complicated.

Tim Leberecht sees the new public sphere not in opposition to privacy, but on a continuum with it. “Thus, it makes sense to replace the strict privacy-publicy opposition with a multi-layered continuum along progressive levels of sociality. Also, Tim sees sharing in terms of control – On Facebook and other networks, you can pick and choose the people you want to meet and share ‘presence’ with; in a restaurant, bar, and other public spaces, you can’t. Exclusivity in the real world needs to be earned, whereas online it is a given.

I agree with Tim that the binary opposition between “public” and “private” is wrong. But I disagree with Tim’s spacial metaphors to describe the relationship. I don’t think there is any single scale that runs from “more private” to “more public”. I prefer Kevin Marks’ discussions of overlapping publics, and Stowes descriptions of how identities are constructed within associations. Also, I disagree that the primary operation in sharing is about “control”. It is about constructing identities, as Stowe describes. It is about the flux of relations between individuals, and among individuals and their groups, as Adrian Chan describes.

Stowe Boyd sees the difference in the online public sphere as an orientation toward time, vs. space. “Online, we share time, not space. We are not actually in a restaurant together: we are using Brightkite, and I am playing along with the premises of the social conventions of Brightkite by posting that I am in Momofuku, The Slanted Door, or Fatty Crab.”

This is an interesting distinction, but not the most salient one, I think. The old world of mass media was also about sharing time – it was about millions of people seeing the same sitcom and the same news broadcast on the same night. Digital media do as much to break up shared time as they do to unify time – for example, people watching movies on their own schedule, and using comments, likes/ratings, and share gestures to express opinions, affiliations and connections.

Even when people do share time in near-synchronous exchanges on Facebook or Twitter or Buzz, the increasing ability to search, curate, and browse shared artifacts and identities will be very important aspects of discoverable life. In the physical world, edifices and public spaces were used to express shared identity, and the decoration of houses and homes expressed personal and household identity. In the online world, profiles were the first step, but the curation of streams will be important forms of expression of both personal and shared identities.

New norms

With this new public sphere shaped by discoverability, there are emerging norms that favor more sharing, transparency and discovery, for individuals participating in social life, and for organizations pursuing some mission or goal. There are also emerging and disputed norms about the discoverable expression of varying aspects of identity. Some workers get fired – and some get hired – as a result of personal expression online.

Stowe contends that the new social contract will be that faceted expressions will be seen as mutually exclusive.

Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent…. and any individual’s participation in a specific online public does not have to be justified in a global way, any more than the cultural mores of the Berber Tuaregs need to be justified from the perspective of modern Western norms.

I don’t believe this is quite how the new norms will play out. I suspect we’re entering a world that is like Jane Jacobs’ urban village, where people are keeping an eye out for what’s happening on the street. There is a lot of visible information and people choose what to pay attention to when.

Another changing sphere of norms and practices is in the area of presence and attention, given that sharing time is one of the properties of the new public sphere. How are people available to each other, what modes do they use, when do we attempt to focus vs. split attention, what expectations to people have of others. Howard Rheingold wisely expresses the believe that “attention is the new literacy” – that people will need to evolve new practices and disciples for handling and communicating attention.

New words and concepts

New norms, conventions, and practices are emerging in this changed reality. New words and concepts will be needed to describe it, or existing words will need to morph their meaning.

Stowe Boyd proposes the term “publicy” to mean the set of expectations around being public – being online, time-oriented vs. space oriented, and existing within overlapping, contextually-determined publics.

Adrian Chan doesn’t like the neologism, arguing that “publicy is not only new and thus obfuscating, but sacrifices the possibility of leveraging existing theoretical arguments.” Instead, Adrian prefers “sociality”, which he uses to describe a bottom-up view of a “social field”, for its organization, relations, and means of reproduction.”

Thinking about socialities, we ask not what they are but how they are organized. What are the relations between members? How do these relations become reintegrated in how members relate differently or uniquely to themselves? If we believe that attention, presence, communication, games, or other kinds of organization are involved, then to what effect and with what outcomes? These forms are often temporary, but meaningful nonetheless because they produce a great deal of communication (which is captured)….

Focusing not on publics but on socialities also shifts emphasis to dynamics. For any type of social organization, ask what can it do? How is it assembled? This is an age-old philosophical question: What can a people do? Not what do people do, but recognizing that their relations are organized and their interactions structured, what is a people capable of?

Adrian is interested in established anthropological questions: “What types of talk and what kinds of social interactions does the sociality promote, and what types does it preempt? Does it promote the Self as image and ego, the group as collaborative, the whole as a unity with purpose? These are anthropological questions valid for us as observers of mediated cultures.”

I agree with Adrian that these considerations are important, and that analysis of social media tools and practices are often wanting because they neglect these considerations.

I don’t yet have a strong opinion about the term “publicy”, and disagree with some of what Stowe is saying about what the new public sphere may mean. What I like about “publicy” is the focus on something that I think has actually changed. (Tim Leberecht actually uses the term “sociality” to refer to this type of change). With respect to this change, I like the focus on the ability to be expressive in a discoverable way. To use the word in a sentence with this meaning, “Facebook violates my norms of privacy by disclosing my friends list to advertisers regardless of my wishes, but it violates my norms of (publicy? sociality?) by making it rather confusing to share public discourse with the world, something my blog makes trivial.”

From an individual perspective and an organizational perspective, it is interesting and useful to consider what may be actually different in capabilities and practices; what may be different because of exposure, discoverability, synchrony and time-shiftedness, and other changed properties. If there is something different in the world, then individuals and organizations have new opportunities, new requirements, new obligations.

Sociality? Publicy? A linguist would have fun monitoring the uses of these terms, and the meanings the terms are accreting. What I want to see is more public discussion of the social aspects of online experience and design, both from the perspective of what is already understood about social behavior, and what is changing.

Connected, or What it means to live in the network society

Connected by Stephen Shaviro attempts to explicate the network society, through the perspective of postmodern theory and works of science fiction in literature, film, and music.

In his introduction, Shaviro cites Deleuze’s idea that philosophy can be seen as a type of science fiction. The thought-provoking and fun aspect of the book is the way that it fleshes out the connections between ideas in speculative fiction and other art, the ideas as expressed in theory and philosophy.

Using these techniques, the book explores a range of ideas and themes that shape experiences and perceptions of the networked world:

  • The network as a world of simulation, through images of Philip K Dick and William Gibson, and ideas of Berkeley, Nietzsche, Baudrillard
  • Distraction and information addiction, as in Transmetropolitan, di Fillipo’s Ciphers, and other works
  • Alienation in a world of images and microfame per Warhol
  • Cyborgism, the merging of human and android, in Gibson, the Matrix and other works
  • Corporate capitalist domination, where all relations are monetary and all beings are slaves, in Jeter’s Noir, Philip K Dick, JG Ballard, Gibson
  • Complete surveillance and self-surveillance, Foucault realized and dramatized
  • Hedonism in sex drugs and violence, Jeter, Transmet, Ballard

Shaviro’s picture of the networked future, as read through his sources, is a noirish, dystopian, kitsch-and-rubble-filled wasteland. The simulations of the virtual world has replaced anything that might have been construed as real, the solvent of capitalism has destroyed anything that might have been construed as relation. And Shaviro’s view of the past eliminates any illusion of nostalgia.

There is no human connection in this world of the network, only isolation. Leibnitzian monads are the model for individuals. The role models for identity and relationships are Andy Warhol and his coterie, who live lives self-defined by image and emptiness. The psychology in the book focuses on the solitary and noncommunicable experiences of hallucinogenic drug. Love and sex surely don’t provide any source of connection – choices include pornography, anonymous sex with sensorily augmented robots, femme-fatalism and horror-fiction nightmares where lovers turn into puddles of pulsing goo.

Corporations are supervillains. From Ballard’s Super-Cannes, “A giant multi-national like Fuji or General Motors sets its own morality. The company defines the rules that govern how you treat your spouse, where you educate your children, the sensible limits to stock market investment.” Describing the world of Jeter’s Noir, Shaviro writes that “Corporations are not subject to “the same rule of survival” as individuals; their struggle is a Neitzchean one to increase their dominance, rather than a Malthusian/Darwinian one just to survive.” Of course, the population of the Fortune 500 changes regularly – corporate empires rise and fall.

Now, these imaginary worlds are well-formed extrapolations of visible trends. There is artistic, intellectual, emotional, psychological merit in taking such trends and stretching them to fill an imagined world. That’s what science fiction does. KW Jeter’s Noir takes capitalism to its extreme; death is no escape from creditors, IP piracy is met with a fate worse than death; and advertising has moved from screens into neural synapses.

But, in reading the science fiction as theory, and the theory as explanatory of the fiction, Shaviro misses a few things. He describes how noir is an esthetic choice. “The allure of today’s retro noir stylization is that it makes even tho most intolerable situations bearable precisely by estheticizing them, by making them beautiful. But he also inhabits this choice, moves in, goes native, portraying this esthetic as the inevitable consequence of the properties of the networked world.

By inhabiting his sources, he is vulnerable to the fate that befalls science fiction commentary on its presence, which is to say swift, personal jetpack-style obsolescence. The swift obsolescence plays out esthetically – Shaviro uses 90s electronic music and music videos for stylistic atmosphere; this becomes a timebound soundtrack; think of images of Bjork androids singing and making love.

This also plays out in already-passe forecasts of technical trends In a work published in 2003, he highlights the dystopian nightmare of universal digital rights management, and misses the apparent victory several years later of unencrypted mp3s. In his attraction to the dystopic vision, he takes the conservative point of view that there is a binary choice: piracy or control, and misses the economic trends that Cory Doctorow saw at the time more clearly, that the enemy of most artists is obscurity not piracy, and the more a work is pirated, the more purchases there will be.

Shaviro is fond of pessimism, and this leads him to some distorted conclusions. He compares the network, which is dependent on external sources of energy, with a junkie addicted to heroin. But he misses the point that the network that requires energy input is all of life itself (11). Shaviro cites a scientific paper that you cannot get ride of information without dissipating energy in the form of friction or heat. Then he connects this physical observation directly to the problem of information overload (141). But he brings no evidence from neuroscience that cognitive problems caused by a profusion of digital messages are actually related to the physics of information storage. After all, our senses take on much more data than our mind observes already, and if the problem was the physical energy cost of discarding data, our minds would have melted already.

By inhabiting the fictional world, Shaviro also misses the ways that the dystopian worlds are an expression of fears. The book uses sources who are paranoid (Philip K Dick) or sociopathic (Burroughs) or otherwise mad (Nietszche); people whose entire worldview may have been consumed by pathology; but the creative works of the insane do not prove that sanity doesn’t exist. Several of the authors cited in the book (Gibson, Delaney) are apparently off the center of the bell curve but sane, at least to casual observers of the biographies and twitter feeds of living famous people.

Now, I like dystopian science fiction. My dad is a World War 2 refugee and my mother’s parents fled pogroms; my childhood nightmares featured the end of civilization. The end of the world is plausible and worthy of fear. But that’s not a proof that civilization is ending at any given time, with any specific apocalypse. Philosophers and theorists have articulated ideas about alienation and illusion and science fiction writers have illustrated them in dystopias, but that doesn’t make them inevitable.

Given the last decade’s focus on social networking, it’s particularly interesting to see utter absence of the social in Shaviro’s network. Shaviro concludes that the consequences of the network society is isolation, because everything is connected to everything else. But the lesson of social networking is that everything is not equally connected, there are tide pool-like social micro-environments even in technically open networks.

The gap, when you leave the social out of the network, is basic psychology. Shaviro quotes Burroughs: “if the biologic bank is open, anything you want, any being you imagined can be you. You only have to pay the biologic price.” Not in human society you can’t, murder and suicide have social consequences.

On the lighter side, Shaviro envisions the Experience Music Project as the epitome of network experience alienation, but already today, participants might be connected via their mobile phones across the exhibits.

Extrapolating a world of pervasive social networking, one might see different trends:
* echo chambers and re-created village social pressure
* surveillance images not as voyeurism but as social-network performance and stalking
* in place of alienated suburbia, neo-urbanism with social overlays in augmented reality
* in addition to the the distortions of physical space by cyberspace, new distortions of time with realtime streams

Perhaps these works of science fiction have been written already, recommendations welcome.

Wilco: I am trying to break your heart

“When you strip it down, it just sounds like a folk song.” That’s Jeff Tweedy of Wilco talking about their music early in the 2003 documentary about the making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I watched this weekend after recently digging YHF out of the garage. Tweedy is right. Pull off the sonic layers and add half the words back to the fractured lyrics, and you have accessible, good folk and rock’n’roll. The live performances of Tweedy and the band make that clear. This music is not that hard.

But YHF was off-center enough that Reprise Records dumped the band when Tweedy wouldn’t take their advice to make the music more accessible. Wilco put the recording on the internet in the iterregnum before Nonesuch, another division of Time Warner, picked it up. Internet distribution only heightened interest in the recording and helped fans stay keep up with the band before the record came out.

The Wilco saga was a fairly early sign of the breakdown of the oligopoly. The tactics to try to preserve the economic scarcity of physical distribution in an age of digital download were unsustainable. The fact that YHF is a problem at all is a problem. Jim O’Rourke, who gets a speaking part of about 15 seconds, on the other hand, who was brought in to help production, is a ringer for music that resists easy. Nobody’s asking him about commercial music; that would probably keep the documentary from being produced.

Suroweicki argued in Slate that the conventional reading of artistic victory against commercial philistinism doesn’t hold because after all, it was another division of Time Warner that picked up the record; others have observed that Reprise didn’t have to have the grace to let the band buy their contract out. Still, Tweedy and manager didn’t have to have the balls and economic confidence to reject the advice to tone down the eccentricity and up the catchiness.

Interesting that it was Howie Klein, the music exec turned political blogger, whose ouster led to Reprise rejection of the record. Among other things, Klein has been one of the curators of the wonderful “Late Night Music Club”, a virtual fireside chat with youtube clips across wide range of excellent and interesting music irrespective of fashion and nominal genre. Communities like NLMC are taking the place of the radio playlist for music discovery, and that’s for the better.

In the Lefsetz Letter an entertainment industry lawyer makes the nostalgic argument in favor of the role of massmarket hits at creating common public consciousness. But the trade always was too high, in segregation, genre-focus, overplay, and the loss of cultural context in a narrative focused on hits. (Not to give Lefsetz a hard time; reading his blog, he is otherwise in favor of digital distribution and taking advantage of the long tail.)

Maybe we’ll eventually get a good “digg” for aggregating and voting up digital plays, which can play the role of a zeitgeist track. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, since it wouldn’t prevent people from discovering long-neglected performances on YouTube and discovering wonderful stuff through the playlists of friends and acquaintances. Network math works like that – there’s still a tall head in the age of the long tail – it’s just that you can get to the long tail now and you couldn’t before.

p.s. interesting that the Wikipedia definition of Playlist is now dominated by digital tools and the digital definition.

Taxonomy is power

There’s a saying, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Categories reflect social power. This is true even with fictional things. A friend was describing a fantasy novel series. I googled and found its web page and wiki.
Lo and behold, the categories in the left navigation of the wiki read:
Picture 64.png
A funny set of categories to characterize this fictional world! And there’s a backstory — some of the fans wanted to classify dragons as people, and organize them by nationality, like people. But the maintainer of the wiki wanted to keep the categories of beings separate. Leading to a heated dispute about human/dragon racism.
No word on whether there is a full-fledged dragons rights movement. Or at least a protest t-shirt.
Even more backstory. That quote about dialects? It was a quote by a yiddish scholar, made famous at a presentation in a conference in 1945, while WW2 was in progress.

Dinosaurs and mammals at SXSW

Back to back conversations at an SXSW party last night:
* a multi-billion dollar content company can’t figure out how to cost-justify digitizing its content and making it available to fans
* a small web hosting firm with lots of artist customers publishes a blog and RSS feeds full of content from artists who want to get out the word about their creations, like, say this ipod holder.

Mammals are scurrying around the dinosaurs’ feet.