Where is social context?

In yesterday’s post on the problem with Facebook Like, I wrote that Facebook is trying to be the sole provider of social context. This got me thinking about the various places that social context may be represented in a networked software system:

  1. in the object or message (which ActivityStreams helps enable)
  2. in the context where it is created
  3. in the contexts where it is seen and used
  4. in each node of the social graph
  5. in sets of social graph elements
  6. in decentralized elements of the social graph (e.g. aggregated/syndicated profile elements)
  7. shared understanding in participants minds
  8. unshared understandings in participants minds

Facebook’s model is seeking consolidation in two places. By replacing a metadata-rich, standardized, ActivityStream based representation of the message with a proprietary API call, Facebook is foreclosing opportunities for the adding of context in creation and in viewing and utilization (items 1-3 in the list).

By acting as the sole provider of social graph and profile services, Facebook is seeking to own those aspects of context (item 4, 5, and 6 in the list). Is Facebook doing anything to enable the exchange of subsets? (item 5 in the list)

But the even the proposed more open models social graph models don’t yet support context well enough, if I understand them right. The portable social graph initiative was based on a simple model that the user wants to bring his or her friends from service to service en masse, and this just isn’t true. It would be great to see an OPML-like standard for friend lists. I don’t think this exists yet. I’m told by standards geek friends that there are standards for 6, but I haven’t seen implementations. Pointers to resources are welcome.

Decentralization, experimentation, and diversity

The future that I am rooting for uses a decentralized model that supports experimentation with many different ways of creating and supporting social contexts. I’d love to hear for people steeped in the standards world to explain which elements actually support this vision, and I’d love to see more development that uses it. Even in a world with a big Facebook, locally specialized needs can be the seeds of disruptive change.

Last, but not at all least, are the aspects of social context that aren’t represented in the nodes and lines in the graph, or the messages and objects that traverse the graph, but among the people. It is always the case that the communication and social understanding, and social misunderstandings and conflicts among people are richer than the bits transmitted by electrons. Social context is in the cultural structures and discourses that people live in, and are largely outside the scope of the communication tools we use, although the tools and use of tools are shaped by culture. Part of the reason for humility and experimentation in design is the knowledge that models and tools are never going fully represent what is happening socially, they can only augment social experience to some degree.

One of my concerns about rise of the one-true-network graph is the potential loss of diverse experiences. By displaying one’s Facebook own friends in a third party site, is this locking one into one’s existing friend network and foreclosing opportunities to meet new people in new contexts? Surely, we sometimes want to share with close friends, but also to use different contexts as opportunities to make new acquaintances.

A recent academic study at Insead video link here shows that people are more creative when they get the chance to live abroad. Cities with diverse populations tend to be more creative, interesting places. Social network concentration is comforting and not a bad thing in itself, but social network lockin is stifling.

I think that the representation of social context is hard, and diversity is healthy, and that’s why I’d like to see standardized elements that can support a lot of decentralized, competitive experimentation.

The strong and weak case for social objects

Adrian Chan wrote an interesting blog post last week arguing against the common notion of the social object. I think Adrian’s mostly right. Social objects are useful, but the arguments in favor of social objects are made way too strongly, blinding designers to a wealth of opportunities that support the interactions surrounding objects, and not just the objects themselves.

The idea of social objects was crystallized in 2005 by Jyri Engestrom, building on a 1997 academic paper by Karin Knorr-Cetina. Later on Rashmi Sinha created an excellent presentation elaborating on many aspects of the overall social object design pattern.

In comments, Jyri makes a categorical case that “the object gives us a reason to talk to each other.” This strong version of the argument fails. Jyri brings the example of Linked In, a social network where people don’t simply connect to connect, they connect because of a social object, a job that binds them. But even this seemingly clear and sensible argument about LinkedIn doesn’t work very well. Even in Linked In, the interactions aren’t mediated by “a job”, but an industry or field, and topics and informally defined communities within that.

The weaker form of the case for social objects is valid – if you are a LinkedIn designer you definitely want to enable people to represent their jobs and find others who are co-workers or alumni. But the strong case fails. In fact, using the design pattern in Linked In overly strongly causes a design failure, and is the reason that I often use Facebook or Twitter instead of LInked in to represent a professional connection! Linked in requires you to say how you know someone within an explicit taxonomy – a job or institution. But if I know someone within an informally constituted social design community, say met at a meetup, I need to know their email to join on Linked in. And I don’t bother, I use Twitter or Facebook instead.

Even in Slideshare, which Rashmi Sinha designed around the idea of social objects, people are sharing objects – slides – within a variety of social contexts including conferences, marketing lead generation, technical standards development, humor, church sermons, that involve many sorts of social relations & interactions. If you are designing SlideShare, you want to look closely at the object to figure out common things that people want to do with slides presentations, such as rate and comment. And then you might want to look at the broader set of interactions for other ways of providing value to people – such marketing lead gen tools, or conference-related services.

As Adrian Chan observes, what’s meaningful isn’t just the object, but a set of social interactions and practices that surround the object. An excellent example of objects that subordinate to social dynamics is the story of Farmville. What’s compelling about the design of Farmville – what makes people obsessed with playing it – isn’t the game tokens, but the set of social obligations around the exchange of these tokens. Another example is the use of Formspring by teenagers to harass and bully each other, see this post by danah boyd.

Out of curiousity, I went back and read the original Knorr-Cetina article, and was not persuaded by her theoretical case that objects are in fact the center of sociality. The article used broad sociological generalities – people are alienated individuals in a knowledge economy – to make the case that objects have now become the elements that draw people together in the absence of other social ties.

In her focus on objects, Knorr-Cetina appears to ignores large swaths of history, sociology/anthropology and social theory about the social practices that bring people together. She writes “in a knowledge society, object relations substitute for and become constitutive of social relations… for example, objects serve as centering and integrating devices for regimes of expertise that transcend an expert’s lifetime and create the collective conventions and moral order communitarians are concerned about.”

But there have long have been social conventions and processes and bodies of knowledge in various fields. The transition to modernity extracted knowledge from heritable social structures into subcultures that are communicated through networks and institutions with greater social mobility. Just to pick one quick example, Elizabeth Eistenstein did a good job of writing about this transition in the context of the spread of printing. But Eisenstein wrote that printing and books facilitated these changes and practices, not that books *were* the changes and practices. Why use specific objects as synechdoche for the swath of the practices, networks and institutions that enable knowledge discourse?

Perhaps there is some academic or theoretical context that I am missing, which makes the article more meaningful than it appears. In any rate, going back to the source does not seem to provide justification for the “strong case” for social objects, which is that they are *the primary cause* for people to communicate, rather than being part of a matrix of practices, relationships, and things. The now-familiar social object design pattern is good and useful – it doesn’t need to be done away with, but it is limited, and there are more aspects of social design that become visible when one considers the interactions around the objects.

The problem with Facebook Like

The problem with Facebook Like is that it breaks Activity Streams and instead tries be the sole provider of social context.

Currently, activity updates are tightly bound to the service in which they were created. In order to share with others, the choices are blunt – annoy all your Facebook friends with game updates, annoy all your twitter followers with 4square checkins. By giving activity streams a standard vocabulary and metadata, applications will gain the capability to create more refined – and contexually relevant – posting choices and reading filters.

But that’s what Facebook’s “Like” gets rid of. See, there’s an alternative vision about social context. And that is that Facebook is your one and only source of context. Thomas Vanderwal suggests, in the discussion of Facebook’s recent announcement, that Facebook is not doing such a great job of this today: “The social graph is dangerous without context and much more dangerous w/ partial context.” ActivityStreams fosters competition among services that want to provide social context of various sorts, and Like forecloses that competition.

Elias Bizannes does the technical analysis to support this conclusion in an excellent post on the Data Portability project blog which analyzes the open-ness of Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol. Bizannes writes that:

the proposed page header metadata “a play to increase the quantity of semantic data on the web and then capture social gestures (aka “Likes”) made against those concrete semantic objects – think a web-wide recommendation engine. This is a big step forward for Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the semantic web.

Currently, however, these gestures are submitted to FB’s proprietary database using proprietary API calls. This was not the most open way to execute on this functionality. Instead, these gestures could be written out to a site-specific Activity Stream that can then be indexed by any web-crawler.

There is a simple way for Facebook to remedy this situation, which is to support the Activity Streams standard for like updates. In this way, Facebook could compete to actually be the superior provider of social context – it has a major opportunity here – without closing off competition to other sites, tools and services.

If Facebook doesn’t do this, the challenge for those who’ll benefit from competition is to make it very easy to support standard activity streams – and then use that data to actually do a better job than Facebook at supporting the social desires of users

The Burnt Book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin

What do you get when you cross Derrida and Kabbalah? Something like “The Burnt Book”, a postmodern interpretation of Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts by Marc-Alain Ouaknin, a French rabbi and philosopher from a Sephardi rabbinic family and the French postmodern tradition. Ouaknin is a disciple of Levinas; he brings Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Blanchot, and other European thinkers to his reading of traditional Jewish texts; and he brings the Rabbinic tradition, including Kabbalistic and Hassidic mystical traditions to his understanding of postmodern philosophy; the combination is a distinctive and wild fusion.

This post is part of a series exploring the work of thinkers who explore the resemblances of traditional Jewish thought and post-modern theory. Like David Kraemer, in “Mind of the Talmud” Ouaknin reads the Talmud’s rhetoric as the expression of a philosophical approach that explores truth in multiple voices and un-resolved arguments. Like David Frank, in Arguing with God, Ouaknin shows have this approach is different from the tradition of Western philosophical dialog, contrasting the multi-voiced argument in the Talmud with Platonic dialogues, where one of the characters is present as a foil for the other.

Engaged interpretation

Unlike Kraemer, who uses a historical approach to trace the origins of Talmudic rhetoric, Ouaknin rejects the historical perspective, and prefers an immersed and interpretive style of reading (Chapter 6). Ouaknin’s ahistoricism appears to draw from a common orthodox perspective; from this perspective, a historical reading is alienated and impersonal. “To whom are the texts of the Tradition addressed? For the historian the answer is simple: to everyone except himself”. By contrast, the ahistorical view allows for living, personal engagement. “The existential approach is based on the personal involvement of the interpreter in the event of understanding.” In contrast to traditionalists, though, Ouaknin wants to use the ahistorical approach to generate innovative interpretations.

The first five short chapters provide an accessible summary of traditional Jewish literature and its interpretive methods, from the perspective with which the tradition sees itself. “We will not be giving a description of the history of the Tradition, but the tradition of the history of the tradition.” In the tradition of the tradition, Moses hears revelation from God, writes it down, and conveys in oral teachings more context than is written in the bible. The point of view of traditional self-perception yields sentences like this: “since Hebrew is a consonantal language, no vowel that would provide for a more precise reading should appear”. From this traditionalist perspective, Hebrew is a consonantal language in order to deliberately enable ambiguity of interpretation; rather than as an accident of the evolution of writing scripts. As someone infected by modern notions of history, the unbracketed perspective seems a bit jarring. The historicist and charitable way to say the same thing is that the Rabbis took advantage of the consonantal language of the script to create fruitful interpretations.

If you are familiar with the tradition of the tradition, you can skim this section; though it has some tasty snippets of midrash and interpretation. If you are less familiar, it’s a nice intro, if you prefer or can tolerate the traditional self-perception.

Post-modern talmud

Drawing the traditional interpretive framework, Ouaknin highlights a variety of aspects of Talmudic rhetoric that exemplify post-modern traits. Ouaknin draws on Blanchot and R. Nachman to highlight the importance of the open-ended question in the Talmudic genre; Talmudic discussions start with questions (rather than definitions), as is common in Greek philosophy and its descendants. Ouaknin elaborates on “Makhloket” – the classic form of Talmudic dispute between pairs of sages in each generation who are continual opponents – Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Samuel, Abbaye and Rava, etc. In Makhloket, reconciliation is not sought… we would have to talk of an open dialectic, since no synthesis, no third term, cancels out the contradiction.”

Following Levinas, Ouaknin reads the Talmud’s classic interpretive method, “gezerah shavah”, “analogy by common term” as a process of interpretation that opens up a vast amount of creative space by bringing the context of each quote to inform the other.

Like Kraemer, Ouaknin uses the familiar story of the Oven of Aknai to make the point about dialectic. In homiletic style, though, Ouaknin creates his own interpretation. The Talmud says of Talmudic discussion “The words of one and the words of the other are the words of the living God. Ouaknin’s own take” “The sentence should be understood as conditional” “*If* there are words of one *and* words of the other, *then* they are words of the living God. This is nice, and an example of Ouaknin acting as a participant not an observing analyst.

Opening up, incompleteness, instability

Ouaknin’s style melds the serious play of Jewish mystical tradition, and the wordplay of Derrida and other French school postmoderns; words, letters and meanings are combinatorially re-assembled, exploring themes of presence and absence, intertexuality, multiplicity, incompleteness. In the section on “Openings”, Ouaknin reads and interprets midrash on idiosyncrasies in the passed down scribal tradition of the writing of torah scrolls. Various dots and symbols in the text are interpreted like pre-GUI typesetting codes, erasing, transposing, cutting, pasting, and otherwise transforming the meaning of the coded text.

Ouaknin describes the paradoxical effect of these erasures: “Once effaced, these two verses no longer exist, but, as a result, their effacing and the meaning of this effacing are themselves effaced, forgotten. Therefore the effacing should be done without effacing, and we should perhaps write indicating the effacing, leaving a trace of the existence of this intention of an impossible effacing” This echoes Derrida, in its style and content illustrating a shimmering indeterminacy of meaning. Trace is a Derridian technical term, referring to ways that the meaning of language always depends on things that are not said.

When I read Derrida back in the day, I wondered whether he was at all familiar with the play of Midrash; his family was assimilated, his education was Western, and his life was secular. Regardless of Derrida’s intention (!), Ouaknin reads the Midrash back into Derrida. There are similarities and differences that are more complex than they may appear – deconstruction works to destabilize authority and gives the critic the last word; Ouaknin’s midrash insists that there is no such thing as the last word; and gives creative power to each reader who can innovate. Ouaknin’s radical theology insists that the presence that animates the play of meaning is only visible in its absence (the burnt book theme); but his normative orientation and reading of postmodernist themes back into sacred texts creates a gravitational pull that adds back reverence where Derrida would not find it.

The Mystical Tradition

Ouaknin approaches postmodern rabbinics with distinctive background in Kabbalah and Hassidism. Ouaknin uses the mystical sources and techniques to generate meanings; he plays them off of postmodern sources to create a unique take on these ideas. I can’t count the number of times in undergrad when the teacher said that text comes from the latin Tissus, to weave (this was Yale in the 80s.). Ouaknin brings a section of the Zohar, in which a phrase is broken into horizontal and vertical columns, and read both vertically and horizontally. “Here we are really confronted with a “text” that must be understood in its etymological meaning: fabric, texture, built by interweaving of vertical threads (warp) and horizontal threads (woof). The Gaon of Vilna, speaking of this diagram, explicitly uses the term “woven.” Ouaknin then segues to Julia Kristeva.

Mysticism isn’t my primary disposition, I confess. Whereas text interpretation sets up interplay between the reader and the text, mystical readings strike me as arbitrary and unmoored; pretending to being interpretation but being fully self-expression. I like abstraction in art, but I’m puzzled to the pretension at coded messages. The same techniques that can be used to compute hidden messages from the text of the Torah can derive messages from the text of Tolstoy, or the phone book. It’s not a matter of belief in one text or other – getting messages from an source of alphabet material is a matter of algorithm not source text. It’s a matter of esthetics, I suppose. When the readings are insightful (as Ouaknin is), and the emphasis is more on interpretation than on literalism and “proof” (as Ouaknin does) I can enjoy mystical interpretations as tours de force.

Rabbi Nahman and atheism

Ouaknin draws the image of the Burnt Book most strongly from the work of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. This Chassidic master is best known for his stories; Ouaknin reads him in his more neglected role as a philosopher.

Rabbi Nachman wrote several esoteric works, and then had their copies destroyed, believing that their existence endangered his life and the life of his family. Ouaknin connects the burning of R. Nachman’s own books with the Chassidic Master’s take on the classic myth of Lurianic Kabbalah. In order to create the world, God needed to constrain Godself to leave enough room for the world to be created. The world as it is, is devoid of God, other than little divine sparks scattered in toxic container fragments, as a result of a sort of explosives accident during the creation. The burnt books are analogues of this self-constrained divinity, they are present only in their absence.

The Kabbalistic myth, and the tale of the burn book both serve as powerful illustrations of the Derridian trace. The picture of assembling truth out of a million scattered sparks of Godstuff is a different image of the postmodern fragmentary alternative to systematic truth. WIth these ideas of presence-in-absence, Ouaknin gets to be engaged with the atheism and decenteredness of modern/postmodern thought, while maintaining the gravitational pull of God and meaning. He can be an atheist in thought, while keeping God on the other side of the screen.

What’s hidden behind the screen?

The image of the screen that hides the divine from sight is a core image in the central section of the book on eroticism and transcendence. In an upcoming post on the Burnt Book (part 2 of 3) I’ll talk about this section. Things will get strange. To be continued…

Variants of the golden rule

There are different versions of basic ethical principles that are common across cultures, and may have roots in the evolutionary advantage of cooperation.

The famous New Testament version is “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” A Talmudic version has a subtle, but notable difference, “what is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” The difference may relate to differing attitudes toward proselytizing. Someone who would want to have been converted to Christianity would offer the same benefit to others. By contrast, someone who would prefer not to be proselytized would recommend against inflicting others with one’s beliefs.

In many situations, I like the Wiccan version of the golden rule, “do as ye will an ye harm none.” The cautionary clarification is that “harm none” includes the self – so practices that are pleasurable but self-destructive would be discouraged.

There’s another variant that I wish existed but haven’t seen anywhere. “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.” This assumes that what the other person wants may be different from what you want, and encourages you to treat them as they would wish to be treated. The other ones are easier, the roots of empathy and avoiding harm are found in one’s own feelings – this one requires reflecting on how another’s wants are different.

Wikipedia has a whole catalog of cross-cultural variants, here. What do you think?