Is location social anymore?

When FourSquare first came out, its social design supported a strange mix of invitation and competitive motivations. “Swing by and say hi!” said the standard message when you shared with Twitter or Facebook. At the same time, the service promoted competition for mayorships and badges for frequent checkins. Many people “checked in”, not because they wanted to meet up with their friends or show off their cool choice of hangout, but because they wanted to rack up points. Competitive and invitation dynamics were at odds, and in social practice, the competitive dynamic won. The competitive dynamic may be a factor that kept adoption narrow, within a small segment of mostly male, mostly young users.

In search of broader adoption and a revenue model, FourSquare, Facebook with mobile deals and location services have started to promote themselves to merchants as a tool for discounts and loyalty programs. This may be good for merchants and for consumers seeking bargains. It also seems to further reduce the social value of a checkin. I might be happy to get a shampoo coupon for checking into Walgreens, or a free latte after several Starbucks checkins, but do I want to tell my friends about it? No. Saving money is useful in tough economic times, but social fun it isn’t.

It is possible to design promotions that do take advantage of location-based social commerce? Sure – events and venues where you get discounts if you bring friends who check in, stores that give promotions for shoppers who refer each other. Yelp could do interesting things with it’s new checkin feature – restaurants could give promotions for groups and loyalty points for shoutouts – though it doesn’t look like they’re doing so yet. But if the general social dynamic for checkin is personal, it may become harder to overcome a barrier against sharing. Plus, there are gradations between events where people are enthusiastic about inviting each other (going to a music festival or first-run movie), services where people might be eager to tip others to something cool (which food cart is rolling through the neighborhood), and products where a social announcement may just feel like more unsolicited advertising (yes there are discounts at the Stanford Mall for holiday shopping. I vehemently do not want to hear about it from friends.)

Over time, I suspect that “location” won’t be an app anymore – it will be a feature embedded in different sorts applications that will provide different sorts of experiences. The Walgreens shampoo coupon checkin will be very different from the festival or restaurant promotion that gives you benefits for checking in with friends.

The Signifying Monkey

The Signifying Monkey, the major scholarly work of Henry Louis Gates, influential scholar of African-American literature, has long been a gap in my education. Gates left Yale in ’85 as a rising star – eventually to build the African-American studies practice at Harvard – before I could take his class, but some of the ideas in the book were deja vu familiar to me from lectures in other classes on related topics.

The book is an attempt to create a theory of African-American literature based on African-American cultural traditions. The first part describes African-American traditions of conversational rhetoric – clever, indirect, often-competitive “Signifying” (the “dozens”, a traditional game of insult is a subset of Signifying.) Gates illustrates these traditions with examples and analysis from anthropologists, evaluating their explanations with his own experience as a native speaker. Gates connects these oral traditions with artistic techniques of variation, parody and pastiche in Jazz and various other African-American art forms. Gates connects the origin of these practices to West African religion – the trickster deity Esu-Elegbara, who mediates between other gods and humans through divination practices yielding cryptic messages for the seeker. The connection from the African to African-American tradition comes via the still-told folktale of the “Signifying Monkey”, in which a trickster Monkey outwits a braggart Lion. The second part of the book seeks to use the theory of Signifying to explicate a series of texts – a set of slave narratives, and then several novels from the canon, by writers including Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Tony Morrison.

The section on theory seems very Yale-of-the-time in its strengths and flaws. The African-derived tradition is explained to convey truths from Ifa, the guide of determinate meanings, in the voice of Esu, the god of indeterminate meanings, through the oblique messages from the oracle. In seeking an origin myth, Gates finds predecessors to post-modern literary interpretation. But this reading strategically omits characteristics of the African situation. In Yoruba religion, the word from Esu/Elegbara was transmitted through the mediation and heirophantic practices of a priest, after the seeker attempted to propitiate the deity through sacrifices. And the seeker was not expected to revel in the ambiguity of the answer (and the infinite possible answers of the divination ritual), but to understand the answer as destiny and to apply it to the situation for which advice was sought. EIther Gates is suggesting that the professor of literature is playing the role of the priest (which I don’t think he is), or he is positing a kind of new age protestant version of the African ritual, in which the reader has the ability to observe and revel in the multiple meanings of the text, and to choose the appropriate combination of simultaneous meanings that apply.

In the Yale postmodern tradition, Gates repeats the homiletic tropes used to introduce deconstructive ideas that I heard retold in class after class – text comes from the latin “tissus”, to weave. Repeated and distorted images appear as a hall of mirrors. A “copula” – a grammatical connective element – enables parts of the text to “copulate.” Gates occasionally engages in original postmodern-style wordplay – in some places more effective to my taste than others. One example is core to the book – Gates uses the term Signifyin(g) for the African-American oral tradition of clever indirect expression, parenthesizing the “g” to refer to the African-American pronounciation; the African-American Signifyin(g) is contrasted to Western signification, the supposedly direct mapping from signifier to signified; and he uses the capitalization to Signify on the pretensions of the Western sense to authoritativeness. Is there a connection between the French “signe” (sign) and “singe” (monkey)? Gates briefly speculates – a high post-modern trickster would swing with that joke. Gates’ language is nowhere near as dense, but also not as witty as Prof Derrida.

One aspect that’s troubling to me about Gates’ reading is his claim that the Lion is outwitted because he takes the Monkey’s figurative language literally. What the Monkey does in the folktale is to falsely allege that the more-powerful Elephant has been talking trash about the Lion behind the Lion’s back. Now, if the Monkey had directly insulted the Lion in terms familiar from the “dozens” tradition of ritual insult – “your momma is so fat…” then the Lion would be at fault for taking the mock-insult literally. But the Monkey puts the insult in the mouth of the absent elephant – he wasn’t using figurative language, he was lying. (Native speakers reading this please let me know if the listener is also supposed to detect insults attributed to third persons).

What’s worse, Gates then uses Signifying to stand for all use of figurative language. While traditional insults use figurative language (Your momma lives in a tin can), those images are a strange and limited analog for all of figurative language. Gates stretches the application of Signifying to cover a wide range of literary rhetoric, while only minimally describing the patently obvious characteristic, which is the use of trickery and indirection to cope with situations where the speaker has less power than the listener. I’ll get back to this issue in a bit.

In the second part of the book, Gates uses the idea of Signification in his characterization of an African-American literary tradition. As in the first part, some parts of the argument seem more effective to me than others. In Signifying Monkey, Gates was building an argument in favor of the existence of a tradition of African-American literature, with tropes and rhetorical strategies that repeated and were deliberately varied by writers in the tradition. For example, in early slave narratives, the Talking Book (the naive impression of one who can’t read that a book must be talking to its readers) was a common trope that writers used to illustrate their transition to literacy and freedom. Reading Gates’ argument in favor of the existence of a tradition, it takes effort to assimilate the fact that not long ago there were arguments that such a thing didn’t exist. Racist ideology held that black writers could not create original work, but could only imitate; as a consequence black writers including Charles Chesnutt (who hadn’t read predecessors, who were admittedly hard to find), Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison (who had a much less strong case) asserted that they were only mildly influenced by other black writers.

But in making an indisputable case in favor of a tradition, Gates argues too strongly at times. In a review not long after Signifying Monkey was published, writer and academic John Edgar Wideman observed that Gates’ argued a little too strongly that each author of a slave narrative – Gronniosaw, Marrant, Cugoano, was deliberately reading and revising specific prior works – without evidence that the influence was so direct. It is enough of an argument that the genre of narrative used common conventions, and each practitioner in the tradition varied the conventions for his ends.

The more serious weakness is the way that Gates uses the concept of Signifying to stand for the notion of literary influence itself. Each writer that varied the tropes of the genre was Signifying on their predecessors. Meanwhile, one of the narratives was the story of a John Marrant, a Black man who fell captive to a Native American tribe, avoided execution by demonstrating his literacy and Christian piety, and eventually thrived with his captors. The narrative, published in 1785, draws at least as strongly on other narratives of Indian captivity and of religious piety. If Signifying means a distinctive African-American literary form of influence and variation, how to explain the way that Marrant also used and varied the conventions of these other common narrative genres.

The argument for tradition and influence is even stronger, and the argument against Signification as a distinctively African-American method of literary influence is weaker, when Gates reads several works of modern African-American novelists. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses the social practices of Signifying as an important plot and thematic device, and uses an “free indirect” rhetorical technique that at once captures the African-American style of speech and illustrates the divided and evolving consciousness of her main character. Gates shows how Ishmael Reed uses parody and pastiche to critique traditions of the black novel, including the confessional mode, representative realism, orderly plots, blackness as natural transcendent presence, and mystical Afro-centrism (this last critique is me reading Reed following Gates’ argument, and not necessarily Gates himself). Finally, Gates shows Alice Walker in the Color Purple modifying Zora Neale Hurston’s use of a different sort of free indirect rhetorical style to convey the voice and emerging identity of her narrator.

Gates makes powerful cases that these writers are working in tradition, building and extending and critiquing each others’ work. But it is not at all clear to me that Signifying in this theoretical sense represents a special sort of African-American literary influence distinct from other sorts of literary influence. Writers always build on the work of earlier writers. Later parts of the bible modify earlier parts, and the Hebrew bible reworks earlier Semitic traditions. Dante rewrites and modifies Virgil. Cervantes parodies chivalric romances in Don Quixote. It’s how writing works, and how art works, how culture works. African-American writers respond to other African-American writers, and other predecessors (Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is obviously also in the broader tradition of modern/postmodern literature). Is Reed’s response to Black writers Signifying, and to other writers not? Or is the way that African-American writers respond to predecessors Signifying, as distinct to the way other writers respond? I don’t think so, and Gates doesn’t even try to make the case. He does not look at Hurston in the context of other writers using “regional” narrative conventions to parse out ways that her use of tradition is Signification, in a way that is distinct from how white writers use regional conventions. He does not look at Reed in the context of other modern/postmodern narrative and parse out different strategies of influence with African-American vs. other predecessors. Without this argument, it all looks like influence, variation, and intertextuality to me.

Getting back to the issue of power in the practice of Signifying, one of the main themes that Hurston and Walker have in common is a female main character finding her voice and her identity by telling off an abusive man.In this book, and throughout his career, Gates has focused on finding and emphasizing the work of female writers (and in the footnotes, Gates cites insights from a variety of female colleagues, so he’s respecting peers, not just valorizing dead people and written texts). But in the book, Gates goes light on Signifying as a tool for the less-powerful to confront the more-powerful. Perhaps he’s working in the Signifying tradition of implication and indirection, and the critiques of power are left as exercises for the reader.

In summary, the Signifying Monkey makes a complex argument, some parts of which seem to me more persuasive than others. There is an African-American tradition of spoken rhetoric, emphasizing cleverness and indirection, which has roots in African tradition, and exists in continuing practice. There is a tradition of African-American literature, characterized by tropes and rhetorical strategies that are repeated and varied, including Signifying as a trope and a represented practice and a rhetorical resource. Strong arguments, well-defended with interesting readings that yield insight into the tradition as a whole and important writers in particular. I liked the book and recommend it for these strengths, if you enjoy literary analysis.

But Signifying as a Afro-centric roots of post-modernism? A nice origin myth, with the strengths and weaknesses of other origin myths for contemporary ideas. And Signifying, in a theoretical sense, as a distinctively African-American form of literary influence? I don’t see it. Although, if anyone reading does, please let me know and make the case.

Parenthetically, Gates’ search for and discovery of pre-modern ethnic sources for postmodern literary ideas reminds me a bit of parallel efforts finding traditions of polyvocal truth in Rabbinic rhetoric. There’s an interesting parallel in the strategy to search for alternatives to ideologies of unitary truth in non-Western traditions. In order to read Rabbinic rhetoric as a resource for post-modern thought in this way, one needs to abstract it, in a manner analogous to the way that Gates does, from built in mechanisms of authority.

p.s. Disclosure: Reed’s Mumbo-Jumbo is the only one of the novels that Gates treats in depth here that I haven’t read yet. Have you? Should I? And did you read the Signifying Monkey at some point in your education? What did you think?

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

The plural of anecdote isn’t quite social history, but it can be illuminating. What was it like to paint on the walls of a cave by the flickering light of an animal fat lamp? What was it like at night in a medieval european town, when a strict curfew was imposed, householders needed to give their keys over to a magistrate, and someone walking about on the streets was presumed a criminal? What was it like to be a coal miner in the age when light was flame that ignited the methane collecting in dark mines? What was it like in cities, when increased indoor lighting and street lighting enabled new forms of after-dark socializing, and a new word for it, “nightlife.” What was it like at the Worlds Fairs that showed the latest in lighting as a symbol of Progress? What was it like in London, when blackout rules darkened windows, streets, vehicles? What was it like to be in a US rural village as electrification finally brought relief from manual washing and ironing?

In Brilliant, Jane Brox picks anecdotes spanning the history of lighting, from stone age lamps, through the various materials and processes used in making and tending candles, through whale oil, gas, kerosene, and electric light; and the environmental, health, and system risks of the current electrical system. The story bounces around the world in an unmethodical fashion, with anecdotes about life lit by seal lamps in the arctic, 60 years of repeated attempts to build a lighthouse off a perilous coastline south of England, valleys and villages drowned by the TVA. Most of the early stories are set in Europe, and then the narratives jump the Atlantic, with electrification told from the perspective of the US. The book was published in 2010, but the ongoing story of rural electrification in India and China, using leapfrog technology, isn’t mentioned at all.

One loose argument across the book is the way that the use lighting follows socioeconomic stratification – in earlier times the wealthy could afford steadier, better-smelling beeswax candles, while the poor made do with smelly, messy, flickering hard-to-maintain animal fat and rush lights; in later times, gas lighting and then electric lighting made their way to rich areas before poor ones, increasing the separation among neighborhoods, and between city and country. An argument through the book’s second half is that the gas and later electric lighting tie people into a connected system that is more vulnerable than the household-managed lamps and candles of the past. All the way through, the author uses anecdotes to illustrate (not with any sustained argument) that new types of lighting came along with changes in life and work – 3-shift factory work with the availability of 24-hour lighting, the rise of window-shopping enabled by light and plate glass, changes in sleep patterns with household electrification.

This isn’t the book to read to understand the workings of lighting technology – explanations are cursory, there are no pictures, and Amazon reviewers point out numerous mistakes. But the progression of anecdotes have enough resources that the impatient reader with Google, or the patient reader with access to library, can look up pictures and technical explanations.

That assessment can serve for the book as a whole. The author didn’t do original research – the stories are gleaned from many secondary sources, mostly books. The book is impressionistic, not comprehensive or strongly argued. But if you aren’t an expert in the topic already, you will learn many interesting things about the history of lighting, and have jumping off points to sources to explore further. For me, the book had answers to questions I’d desultorily wondered about over time. How were igloos kept warm and lit? What does “snuffing a candle” mean? Why the characteristic design of a miner’s headlamp? What was it with mirrors in palaces? (amplifying dim lighting sources, not just vanity). In traditional Jewish Friday night services there is an (often-omitted) section from the Mishnah about the lighting materials permitted for the Sabbath – why did the different sorts of wicks and fuels matter? (because cheaper materials flickered, were smoky and smelly).

I am a big fan of the social history of science and technology. My favorite books in the genre combine original research and/or original analysis, a coherent picture of the topic, and an argument built from the elements of story. This book doesn’t take a place in the pantheon of works by historians including Schwartz Cowan, Nye, Cronon, McNeill (I’ll stop now). But it taught me things I didn’t know, inspired reflection about things often taken for granted, and has references for further exploration.

So I enjoyed the book, and recommend it for people who are interested in the topic, and would enjoy it despite its limitations.

Zero-sum social

Ralph Koster’s comprehensive presentation about social game mechanics at the most recent Game Developers Conference includes some pithy and striking definitions of social concepts and how they relate to games:

* “Identity: Means of displaying status and role via rivalrous goods.”
* “Gift: “transferring a rivalrous good to another actor to increase their status.”
* “Community is where we play games on you.”
* Mutual improvement is anathema to games

All of these posit a zero-sum, competitive definition of the concept. Of course, competitive and egocentric motivations are mixed in with most social activity. Identity entails self-expression, affiliation with kin and tribe, and expression of status. Gifts involve generosity, understanding of the other, reciprocity, and status for giver and recipient.

One of my favorite Rabbinic tales is about the necessity of selfish and competitive motives in human life. But defining these concepts as the zero-sum aspect is rather shocking. And it’s not even true of all games. Players of World of Warcraft talk about the games as means of self-expression, play with identity, and affiliate with a tribe. Folk who are more involved in game cultures may be able to come up with examples of gift practices that aren’t just about rank. Sesbastian Deterding notes Pandemic as an example of a cooperative game where players work together to find cures to diseases.

I’m not much of a traditional “gamer”, and the zero-sum orientation is part of the reason. The gamelike experience I’ve been involved with designing lately is the Drive Less Challenge, which invokes competitive, goal-oriented, and cooperative motivations to help people reconsider their habits of driving alone in a car.

A non-zero-sum orientation toward social experience may be new to gaming culture. In a writeup from a recent Game Developer conference, a Zynga developer talked about discovering alternatives to zero-sum conflict.

One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did, I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore, but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that, for many people, the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

As game techniques are applied to a broad range of activities, will the broader understandings of social design be used to expand the social attributes of games, or will the zero-sum social definitions from game culture be applied to more aspects of social life?

Midrash and Theory

Midrash and Theory is a short collection of essays by David Stern, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Stern is one of the co-authors of the wonderful anthology, Rabbinic Fantasies – a collection of fantastic narratives from the rabbinic tradition – the ancestors of 20th and 21st century writers of Jewish fantastic literature including Shai Agnon and Michael Chabon.

Midrash and Theory summarizes the brief flirtation between the academic study of rabbinic literature and literary theory; a hot couple on the intellectual scene for a brief moment before breaking up in a drama of misunderstanding and realization that they were never as close as they appeared on the surface.

The first chapter tells the story of the short and fractious romance. Reading Stern’s sociological and intellectual recent history, explicitly and a bit between the lines, there were tribal loyalties and cultural mis-affinities that led to actual unpleasant dissension between real people in the different disciplines. Plus, intellectual gaps between Judaic studies specialists, who knew their texts deeply and were offended by what they felt to be naive misreadings, and literary specialists, who found the Judaic specialists to be hidebound and blind to some of the implications in the material because of their historicist methodological routines. And last but perhaps most important to Stern, the Rabbinic texts themselves are resistant to some of the kinds of theorizing that literary academics wished to impose upon them, and the nature of the texts in fact reveal some gaps in the purported multiculturalist universality of deconstructive readings.

Stern seems a bit professionally disappointed by the falling out of fashion of the literary study of Rabbinics, and aware of the belatedness of the approach. Despite this, he sees insight to be gained, and proceeds to present a set of four essays looking at a set of key themes and genres in Rabbinic literature from a literary perspective. It may not be fashionable anymore, Stern seems to say, but there is learning to be had from this approach, and I will continue to develop it.

In the first chapter, Stern takes on midrashic polysemy, the love of proliferating meanings. This enthusiasm for multiplied interpretation is unlike other contemporary and later traditions of more directional interpretation. Stern’s insight in the chapter is that midrashic polysemy was always an ideal. The heart of the chapter is a gorgeous reading of a Talmudic story where the interpretation itself is happily polysemous, as is the ideology of the characters in the story, but the frame story of the narrative shows the situation to be painfully political. Students visit an exiled teacher, who lost a notorious political battle; the teacher encourages the students to to tell him new interpretations from the academy from which he has been exiled. At the end of reading the story, we are left with both pictures simultaneously, which is the gift of literature; the happily creative practice of interpretive polysemy, and the zero-sum, compromised, ironic and somewhat painful outcomes of wordly, agonic politics.

In the second chapter, Stern looks at one common genre of Rabbinic literary writing, the parable/mashal. Stern looks at the mashal from a perspective that is literary, and infused by the flavor of political intellectual history that is the fingerprint of Conservative movement academic orientation. “The mashal is an ideological narrative, and the Rabbis used it, as they used scriptural exegesis, to impress upon their audience the validity and authority of their view of the world.” Stern explains that some mshalim are concrete illustrations of abstract topics, while some are esoteric shields guiding secret meaning. But the main literary form of the mashal, argues Stern, is rhetorical.

This chapter examines interprets a mashal of a woman, seemingly abandoned by her royal husband, who looks to her ketubah (marriage contract) as a trust that he will return; the woman is Israel, who looks to the Torah in the absense of God in exile. Stern highlights the shifting of focus in Rabbinic Judaism from God directly to Torah. He also looks at the narrative and theological issues raised by the fact that the return of the husband is described in terms that are understood to be eschatalogical. The end of the story is in present tense in the mashal, but the language is understood to represent the end of time. So the narrative encapsulates within itself both consolation that the husband will return, and complaint that the woman is abandoned. Stern glosses that the act of interpretation itself is part of the meaning of the mashal, it is interpretation which enables the text to be understood as a promise of consolation.

In the third chapter, Stern talks about homiletic midrashim. He maps out the classic midrashic form that starts with one text and weaves its way through many twists and turns to connect it to the eventual, and expected subject. The form is a tour de force showing how anything can be connected to anything. This is a form that continues to this day in well-done drash as a popular genre. When taken out of context and reapplied in other intellectual contexts, it strikes people familiar with linear topical discourse as virtuosic. It is interesting and cool to read the specific history of the form in these ancient collections of homiletic writings.

In Chapter 4, Stern uses literary readings to explore Rabbinic theology, looking at two midrashim from Eichah Rabbah in which the character of God is anthropomorphised to an extreme. Stern rightly reads the anthropomorphic treatment not philosophically – as a question of whether or not the Rabbis believed God had human form – but literarily – as an illustration of God’s character and role. Stern summarizes the theological impact with a terse and pregnant statement. “There is no reason for us, the Rabbis’ modern readers, to believe more or less then they did.” The Rabbis didn’t take their texts literally, and neither should we. I agree with Stern’s admonition against naive literalist reverence, but in reading these portraits, I would go further than Stern does.

For in the first narrative, God exhibits florid and exhorbitant mourning for the destruction of the temple and the humiliation of Israel; and in so doing God feels sorry for Godself, not for the exiled, starving, physically brutalized people. In the second narrative, God appears cold, indifferent, resistant to every plea from the patriarchs in the name of god’s justice, except the last, when Rachel makes God see, by analogy to her own overcoming of jealousy for Leah, that he was acting out of jealousy for pagan dieties, and therefore to relent and promise to redeem the people.

The two forms of literary characterization that Stern examines are essential and role-based; but the characterization that seems most compelling to me is psychological. In both cases the God character comes across as abusive – in the first story, an abusive parent or partner who feels sorry only for himself when viewing the damage he has caused; in the second story, an abuser who feels no regret at his cruelty and can only relent with an appeal to his own ego.

Far from setting up the God character as the epitome of attributes of goodness, as in a philosophically oriented theological treatment, this portrayal casts god as a pathological narcissist – and the Rabbis as deeply angry at the perpetrator of Israel’s humiliation. The text is Eichah Rabbah – a text belonging to a time of mourning that is identified and isolated in the calendar – a set of feelings that one feels and moves past, and returns to cyclically. So I would not necessarily look at the god of this midrash the one true portrait, and thus to consider the rabbis view of God as a precursor to Kafka. I would look to views of God in other seasons of the psychological landscape as well, before drawing any conclusions. And I would expect to see a variety of portraits illustrating different psychological states and traits.

Overall, Stern concludes that Rabbinic texts are not very tractable by systematic theory. Rather than possessing a hermeneutics that enables forumulaic decoding, the midrash has a narrative of interpretation, and the goal of a theoretical study of midrash is to understand how that narrative operates. in other words, instead of interpreting a narrative, you look at the narration to understand how interpretation works. Which is itself one of the flavors of literary theory.

In the introduction, Stern talks about the impulse to use literary reading to reclaim Rabbinic literature for modern readers. On the one hand, it is always a bit of a shock to re-encounter the axioms and tropes of the rabbinic worldview – the making of meaning through explication of sacred texts whose every word and piece of punctuation has meeting, the primary relationship between god and israel, the narrative arc of exile and redemption, the evaluative axes of prohibited and forbidden, worthy of praise and blame.

And yet, the secularized metanarratives of alienation, of imputation of meaning through creative interpretation, the capturing of authority through reading, carry over and seep into other domains. They already have, and they are a distinctive set of practices and implied beliefs, as secularized and absorbed as the figure of the hero from different traditions, as secularized as the figures of redemption in various political schemes. In Stern’s introduction, he talks about whether this move is valid. Whether or not it is valid, he’s done it in this book; he does it sensitively and well.

I really like the way Stern reads Rabbinic texts. Stern has has a great feel for the beauty and weirdness of rabbinic narratives. There are other contemporary thinkers who read Rabbinic literature from a literary/academic perspective, including David Kraemer and David Frank who domesticate and organize the strangeness of rabbinic narrative. Stern stays with and explicates the strangeness in terms that seem related to and descended from the text without growing ideas from the text that seem like monsters to me. The psychoanalytic schools strike me that way; Bloom’s anxiety of influence and parricide; various Freudian and Lacanian readings. Don’t get me wrong, rabbinic narrative is full of weird power and gender and sex dynamics, but psychoanalytic schematics that seem bolted on to me. This is, of course, an esthetic judgement; I find Stern’s readings more congenial to the text.

The gaps Stern finds and explicates seem justified in a reading of the text on its terms, a traditional reader might find the same gaps though would bring a different flavor of explication. A slightly more radical reader like me might push a bit harder at the psychological and theological consequences. It seems to me that the openings he finds are ones the rabbis put there.

Stern is at Penn, not the Jewish Theological Seminary, but his ideology and intellectual tradition seems to come from that tradition; the Conservative ideology says that the rabbis completely transformed Judaism from temple cult to text and synagogue-based religion, maintaining and thoroughly reinterpreting the tradition. Following this move, modernists reinterpret one more time; Mordechai Kaplan takes the reinterpretation the next step to secularism.

Analytically, Stern concludes that midrashic & lit-theoretical polysemy are not and cannot be the same, because the principle that animates midrash is a divine presence with many faces, and literary polysemy is motivated by the lack of any given meaning. Personally, I’d take a humanist approach to both; Kaplan said that god is the sum total of goodness in the world, where goodness is what people do, and I might add that god is the sum total of meanings, where meanings are what people create.

Frum radicals, Rabbi Nachman and his postmodern disciple Ouaknin, will revel in the alternation and co-presense of faith and doubt. The conservatives and the humanists focus on the human action of feeling doubt and choosing to make meaning. This perspective may be out of fashion, it was already out of fashion when Stern wrote it fifteen years ago, but it’s as close as I may get to theology.

As a nonprofessional, I look at the academic-world sociology as a spectator. I watched the drama out of the corner of my eye through my adult intellectual life – when I started noticing it heading to college in the early 80s it was actually starting to happen, and when it was apparently in full bloom I had friends launching academic careers under the rubric. The careerist academic implications – how easy it is to get one’s paper’s published or to get jobs, are remote to me. These ideas have been and are deeply influential for the way that I think. I don’t have to care whether it’s professionally fashionable or not – I can learn from it and enjoy it.

For others who are interested in connections between Rabbinic and contemporary thought, I strongly recommend this book.

The social layer – who benefits from silos?

Mark Zuckerberg is on record dismissing the idea of a social layer. He makes a good point that good social experiences need to be fostered with design, not simply tacked on. This is true but not but does not contradict the need for a “social layer.”

People want social experiences, and they don’t want those experiences to be tied to specific tools. Robert Scoble told the story very well when he described his needs for location-based services that drew on data and functionality from many different services. Robert wants to be able to discover people he knows in an area where he’s travelling, share recommendations, book restaurants and concert tickets and schedule meetings with his friends and colleagues, and more. The question is, should Facebook have a monopoly on defining friends, identity, and relationships.

There are two ways to integrate services – point to point integration with a market leader, and open standards that allow different services to be connected to each other, and allow custom services to be designed that integrate the data and services they need. Of course Facebook will advocate for the first position. They have the most to gain from being the chokepoint, the sole owner of the social graph. But that doesn’t mean that this position serves customers.

Think about Facebook Groups, for example. Facebook is rolling out an API for its new groups functionality, which lets developers write to a group’s stream, and invite users to groups. But Facebook group invitations, at least in its initial implementation, are opt-out only, and forever-like-death-and-taxes. If I use an application to invite people into the group, they are automatically joined whether they want to join or not, and if they unsubscribe, I can never re-invite them again. If Facebook gets to have a monopoly on defining groups for the rest of the internet, then this unpleasant social dynamic gets to affect a very large amount of human social activity.

Yes, good experiences will need to be enabled with design. It’s not enough to glom a single social feature across a variety of sites. But this doesn’t even work for Facebook. When I go to a news site these days, I see likes and comments from relatives and acquaintances who are Facebook friends, and who have very different takes on the news that I do. “Facebook friends” is not very useful there as a generic social layer. I’d rather have a community in the context of that news site, or that topic, and certainly not with Facebook’s opt-out-only group policy.

A monopoly on the social layer doesn’t serve customers, and it doesn’t serve marketers well either. A couple of weeks ago, there was a Read Write Web article arguing that the social layer may be useful in the enterprise, but it probably won’t serve consumers, or businesses who sell to consumers. This is wrong. A marketer wants to reach customers wherever they are. A marketer wants customers to be able to reach out to them at different times and places. A marketer benefits when they have access to the data about their customers. With a social silo, the marketer can only reach their customer, the customer can only reach the marketer, and the marketer can only get data about their interactions with customer, through a chokepoint intermediary.

Tom Foremski puts the analysis into financial terms – comparing Google and Facebook’s business model and profit, he concludes that “Clearly, there is more to be gained in trying to monetize the entire Internet rather than a subset of the Internet.” A strategy that enables experiences across multiple sites and services will be more powerful and more profitable.

The main beneficiary of a social silo is the owner of the silo. Everyone else benefits from a social layer that can be used to create social experiences across services, across the internet, intranet, or extranets.

Facebook groups are forever

Brian Solis uncovered an interesting feature of Facebook groups – if you unsubscribe from a group, you cannot join it ever again. This is portrayed as a feature to improve the social dynamics of groups, by making people use care about which groups they invite others too, and which they expect.

Update: Actually, you cannot be re-invited to the group ever again. If it is an Open group, it’s possible that you can choose to rejoin it (if someone has tested this, please write in comments). But the inviter definitely can’t invite you again, which is awkward. And if it’s a private group, you’re stuck.

I find this policy much too draconian. As in other aspects of life, one’s time, availability and interests change. Perhaps you don’t have time to join a book club now, but your schedule changes in six months. Perhaps when your friend invites you to the “Save the Bay” group, you are not interested at first, but then you learn more and decide later that you want to participate. I understand that Facebook is trying make people use care when inviting others, but this seems extreme to me. There are very few decisions in life that are permanent, and choosing not to join a Facebook group should not be one of them!

Some people are speculating that Facebook groups will help Facebook compete with Twitter by providing more focused ways of sharing and discussing information. But this will certainly not happen if a user has only one chance to explore an interest before giving up on it forever.

Years ago, David Weinberger wrote beautifully about the importance of ambiguity in our real-life social networks. When someone asks you to lunch and you say that you are busy, it could mean that you would like to get together later, or that you don’t actually want to get together with this person very much. The ambiguity is expected, and the outcomes play out in repeated interactions over time. If somebody asks a few times with no response, they stop asking. There are many fewer situations in life where one wants or needs to say “don’t ask me ever again.” Facebook is eliminating the good ambiguity, skipping from “yes immediately” to “never again” with nothing in between.

One of the problems Facebook is seeking to minimize spam invitations – so an over-aggressive inviter can’t invite the same person over and over again. But there is a much simpler solution to this problem – allow a user to block the inviter or the group. Twitter has an excellent “block” and report for “spam” features – if you don’t want someone following you you can block them, and if someone sends you spam messages or their stream is clearly inappropriate you can report them. These features gives the control to users, without restricting their future choices.

Facebook has a difficult design challenge: make the system easy to use, encourage people to use the system responsibly, and support a wide enough array of social life well enough that it becomes a utility. Hopefully Facebook will see the light and make leaving a group more flexible, and provide better ways of severing ties when that’s needed.

Culture vs. Brand

When the local newspaper published a story about the cyclist who was killed on El Camino Real near Atherton I didn’t recognize the name, but I thought I recognized the face. Then at Menlo Park Peet’s there was a picture frame with the picture, and a hand-written note of condolence and a reference to the person’s favorite drink. I must have seen the man in line for coffee, or sitting at a table with fellow cyclists, with bikes lined up outside.

Peet’s had a nice display about Turkish Coffee, with an attractive sign, and special paraphernalia to make it, and special cups to drink it, and glass bottles of cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods, and cards with instructions. The display was intended to reinforce customers’ self-image as connoisseurs, with taste and skill that can be easily acquired with packaged products and step-by-step instructions, and thereby to sell additional products. The display seemed to me like a good example of branding, executed with attention and professionalism.

The photo of the late customer seems like culture. I’ve also seen this custom at Palo Alto Peet’s. A sign that the slight ties among people who serve and make coffee, the vague recognition of each other’s faces from the morning’s ritual, counts as part of our ordinary sense of community. This seems to me like a sign of values that encourage recognizing the humanity of our fellows. I’ll ask the manager how the memorials get suggested and posted.

Design for social – beyond hello

Josh Porter’s presentation from the “Warm Gun” conference on design for social is quite good, but not does not get very far into social experiences.

The three principles in the presentation are: design for the individual first, give people control, and derive complex experiences from simple ones. “Design for the individual first” is a good heuristic – it uses the classic example of the design of the social bookmarking tool Delicious, which starts out as a tool for organizing one’s own bookmarks, and becomes more valuable when others use it. But what do you do after it’s useful to individuals? Delicious never was all that good at social experience – it’s hard to find people, hard to find interests through people, impossible to invite your friends.

Interestingly, Twitter is following this process backwards. It started as a tool for information sharing and simple conversation. Twitter became massively popular, even though the personal experience for a new user who didn’t have a community on twitter was rather baffling. Only now is Twitter going back to provide a better early experience for people before their experience becomes social. (There’s an article about this that I recently saw – will add the link when I find it again!)

“Give people control” provides examples primarily about profiles and personal data sharing – about me. This is very important, and bad to get wrong. There are also important social steps throughout the experience – the experience of inviting friends, of being invited, of setting a shared social expectation about the privacy and accesss to what’s being shared. This is the part of experience, for example, where Facebook Groups make some mistakes.

Once again, building complex experiences from simple ones is a key point. If a user is confused on the first day, they won’t get started, and they won’t get to the rich experiences later. So, how to manage this process of building? This is something that game designers think a lot about – how can non-game social experiences deepen over time as well?

I liked the presentation and learned from – it highlights critical things that services get wrong, that will kill a service before it takes off. A short presentation can’t capture it all. And designing for social goes far beyond the personal use and “hello” stage that were in the slides.

By contrast, this Social Play presentation picks up where Porter leaves off. It talks about principles of social games: Spontaneity, Interruptability, Continuity, Discovery, Virality, Narrativity, Expression, Sharing, Sociability and Competition. Now, these are social!

The last seven principles on the list are obviously all social (and it’s telling that competition is last on the list.) Find people, invite others, share emotions, stories, things. The first three items on the list are less obviously social – they’re about time. At first glance, what does this have to do with social experience? But if you’re creating and engaging in a mediated experience, how do you handle the sharing of periodic or discontinuous time? The handling of time is actually critical to a mediated social experience.

I’m glad to see social design on the agenda of a design conference – now, more please on social design!

New Facebook groups: the good and the bad for organizers

Facebook groups addresses one of its biggest weaknesses for organizers, but leaves one big problem in place, and creates a whole new one. A little while ago I wrote a post about a big weakness of Facebook for organizing. In Facebook, it’s pretty easy to get people to share information and actions in their existing social network. And it’s pretty easy for an organization to set up a “fan page” with numerous followers. But was pretty hard to get people to meet each other, who didn’t know each other before, because of the feature affordances and social norms in Facebook. For an organizer who wants their movement to grow, it is very powerful to connect people across weak ties, and to help new, casual acquaintances to build closer relationships. Even if you participated in a conversation with a stranger in a Facebook conversation, that still wasn’t enough connection to overcome the barrier and “friend” someone you hadn’t met before.

Facebook Groups transforms that dynamic. A Facebook Group makes it possible to create a shared space, with a shared hame, a shared image, a shared conversation, shared pictures, and thereby ways to have a bit of shared identity. While it’s pretty awkward, given the norms of Facebook, for people who meet in a “Drive Less Challenge” Facebook discussion, or a conversation thread triggered by a mutual friend’s post, it feels to me a lot more congenial to “friend” someone that you meet in a group, once you’ve had some shared discussions. The invitation and the shared context seems to lower the barrier to making friendly acquaintances with a new person.

But Facebook has put up two large barriers to using Facebook groups successfully for organizing. The first barrier is scaling. A successful group can easily outgrow the 150 person limit that the Facebook team mentioned at their launch event. And then, Facebook peremptorily turns off features that can get harder to manage with larger groups, such as group chat. Now, it is true that chat is hard to scale with a lot of people at the same time. But groups scale successfully not just because of feature changes (though tools to help), but because of culture and practices of facilitation and tummeling. It is very easy for moderately successful community groups to grow over that 150 person limit, and then be disabled in capability.

And what then? At the same time they announced groups Facebook just announced the ability for *individual users* to export their own information. But that export capability does not exist for groups. So, if your “South Bay Classical Music Lovers” group wants to move, they have no ability to export their contact information, their shared pictures, their shared content. Individuals are free to leave, but groups (at least for now) are held hostage. So groups that want to use Facebook for part of their online interaction would do well to maintain a separate location for contact information and assets that they may want later to move.

Facebook Groups solved one of the biggest problems for organizers – the difficulty in introducing members to each other. But it creates new problems – it’s hard to grow, and it’s hard to leave.