November 17, 2009

digital natives (complete-ish)

while i was in Berlin i spoke at Deutsche Telekom's Innovation Day. in the exhibitions hall there was a display for an initiative called Palomar5. Palomar5 is group of young people (and it gives me the shivers that I am no longer included in this category) that are interested in innovation and large-scale problem solving using social technology. With the help of DT, Palomar5 put together a "Technology Innovation Camp." The camp brought 30 young-ens under 30 from around the world and placed them into a former beer factory in the heart of industrial Berlin for six weeks. I visited the facility on the recommendation of the folks that had brought me in to speak.

The space was immense. An architect had been hired to loosely partition some of the more cavernous rooms, creating play spaces and work areas. The sleeping quarters consisted of a series of small, free-standing one-bedroom houses that were scattered around the factory floor. it looked like a miniature village. I was told that these cocoons were especially helpful because the participants kept odd hours and would sometimes hibernate in the middle of the day.

An extremely precocious 19 year-old named Max walked me through the labyrinth. The work areas were chaotic - writing on the walls was encouraged, and in one room a series of bean bags faced a home made projection screen where participants had pitched ideas to professionals in a "real" simulation of the reality show "Dragon's Den." Another room was filled with computers and divided up by large white cut-outs in the shape of sails. Max showed me a fort that the participants had built out of bedsheets and chairs. The night before they had been up until 3AM blowing things up in the parking lot. It was all the best things you could wish for in a techno-geek camp.

Max was interested in entrepreneurship. He was building a platform that he hoped would provide a network of resources to first time entrepreneurs - his subgroup of palomar5 participants has set up a site that will be launching soon if you care to follow their progress. As we wandered around Max spoke in a way that complimented the chaos of the space. His ideas were vast, confused, irreverent and terribly exciting. At one point I asked him whether he planned on going to college next year and he said that he wasn't sure. he said he had sat in on a graduate class and felt that he already knew everything that they were saying. He thought that he might just skip college altogether and become an entrepreneur.

My host at Deutsche Telekom had referred to the participants of Palomar5 as "digital natives." It is a terms that is frequently used to describe people that have had access to the fruits of the digital revolution since early childhood. I am not a digital native, I was born on the cusp - and have experienced the bizarre forces of nature that allow teenagers to assemble on a Friday night without the use of a cell phone. "digital natives" is meant to signify that these people are different in some fundamental way. the idea is that access to technology during formative years has messed with the internal wiring, creating metaphors for information and social experiences that someone like me could never understand. My guess is that this is partially true.

But "digital natives" are not always revered in the way that they are at Palomar5. Companies complain that "natives" expect things to be handed to them, that they don't respect authority. Helicopter mothers supposedly show up at interviews with their native children. Words like "spoiled", "entitled" and "arrogant" are thrown around. Even the word "native" has some unintended negative connotations. Groups that are labeled "native" tend to get a raw deal in this world.

And that is how i reacted to Max's attitude toward universities: as a sign of the Spoiled Generation. He said he would rather start a company than go to an university that threw his ideas in wastebasket after a quick review and a grade. I responded that at his age most of his ideas deserved to be thrown in the garbage, and the product of an education is not a specific idea, but rather the whole of the person being educated. it felt harsh when i said it and since then i've been trying to understand what happened during that exchange.

my guess is that Max and I were shouting across some sort of chasm. It is a similar chasm that separates republicans from democrats - where differences in an underlying world view makes it impossible to use our shared language to convey an idea . i think that the chasm i experienced at palomar5 involved two very different ideas about power.

digital natives have grown up in a landscape where access to information and influence has been flattened. they have watched media distribution bottlenecks in the form of networks and studios lose influence to youtube and independent production houses. They have watched companies bow down to viral video critiques, and watched political systems get hacked by social networks. this is a generation that doesn't understand restrictions on access to media if those restrictions are inefficient or obviously detrimental to the system as a whole. this is a generation that has been at war with DRM and copyright right from the start. it is a generation awash with free tutorials and download-able source code.

I can understand why the thought of spending four years at a university could raise a native eyebrow. universities are emblematic of a different, much older understanding of power. they are meant to be an oasis of access to knowledge and influence in contrast to a world where access is withheld. they provide libraries full of information, and allow students to rub elbows with professors who don't return emails. but as access to knowledge and influence flattens, universities seem less like oases and more like training camps.

University students are trained to navigate the power dynamics of the outside world. students are expected to conform to the will of idiosyncratic professors as a sign of their flexibility in the face of power. Students are expected to perform redundant tasks in exams with artificial restrictions on access to information - learning to live with inefficiency rather than to challenge it. and in the most elite universities students are reminded that the bonds that they create with other students will be the basis of an influence grid that will someday replace the current one - something that could be done in any run-of-the-mill social network for quite a bit less money.

as i write this i feel as though it comes across as if i have contempt for these attributes of a college education. maybe i do, but i also consider them to be valid and valuable. i feel like it is a place where we learn that the world is an uneven place and we should hedge our bet by learning to be self reliant. learn to spell just in case the spell-check stops working. learn to use the stacks just in case google goes down for a day or two. learn to appreciate the classics just in case your boss happens to mention one at a cocktail party. learn basic math just in case your accountant is a cheat. learn basic economics in case you want to go into affiliate advertising.

but show me a society that is obsessed with self reliance and i will show you a society in which communities have failed.

forgive this next interlude, it might get mushy and it will be based on the kind of conjecture that you can only get from an internet personality (yes, mom... that is all that i am.) However, i feel like i have to wrestle with some thoughts about where these older ideas of self reliance and power came from.

There has been a lot of talk about the "power law" in the past few years, particularly about the "long tail" and now the "fat belly". But the tail and the belly are just distraction from it's vicious head. The most famous example of a power law distribution is the way that wealth is distributed globally - roughly 20% of the population has 80% of the wealth, leaving 80% of the population with 20% of the wealth. In recent times we have seen this distribution pop up all over the place - in the distribution of natural phenomena like earthquake magnitude or wave height and in all facets of the networked world - traffic distribution by IP, # of friends on facebook: if you start to look it is hard not to find this distribution. Clay Shirky once told me that networks that have scarcity built into them tend toward power law distributions unless work is added to the system. I don't understand the math, but it seems like a force of nature.

If societies tend toward this kind of uneven distribution, monarchies start making sense: they are a rationalization of a naturally occurring phenomena. Someone always ends up with all of the power and we call them kings and queens and rationalize that God must have given them a divine right to that power. The court becomes a birthright and the peasantry becomes a birth curse, but either way monarchies settle into a power distribution that is somewhat stable. Of course there are upheavals, but after a quick shock the system rebounds to a power law distribution. This distribution is seen at all levels of society in a fractal-like pattern. States have governors, towns have mayors and families have elders. Everyone knows their place.

And it was a remarkably successful form of society. It lasted for thousands of years. But as we became enlightened - tasting of the fruit of knowledge, so to speak - we were cast out of the bliss of thinking things were just so. Modern democracies challenged the justification but not the underlying power distribution. First we questioned birth right but kept a class system that more or less justified the status of most of the population, but over time even that started to erode. What we were left with was the uneven landscape without an explanation of why it was just so.

To fill the void we came up with the myth of ultimate ascension - the idea that anyone can become king, and i don't mean president, i mean someone who has amassed enough wealth to act like a king (i call it a myth because that sort of ascension is statistically unlikely). Here is the idea that each man is a universe of possibility, and the basis of self reliance. Without having a specific place in the world dictated to us we try and possess the skills that will allow us to operate anywhere on the curve. And the people in the top 20% justify their position as a better execution of those skills.

Even when the distribution is called unfair it is treated like an inevitability. the criticism is often that the wrong people occupy the wrong slots, rather than a criticism of the slots themselves. maybe it is an inevitability, a force of nature. maybe that is why communism in its pure form has never been able to scale - it requires too much work to push against that spring - and communist governments seem to collapse back into the the same pattern of oligarchy or monarchy after any initial success.

Growing up in this sort of self reliant society I accept that there are certain things that need to be learned, and I buy into the sort of power structure training that happens in universities. I appreciate respect for elders even if it is irrational, it is a small justification of my beliefs about the system as a whole.

But i can also start to see how the digital native generation might collide with some of these beliefs. All of this self reliance must seem a bit redundant and inefficient. i said above that self reliance points to the failure of community. I believe that to a certain degree: it means that we don't trust the network to provide for us so we feel like we have to prepare for being alone. But digital natives trust the network and might not understand why we all need to have the same survival skills. On a societal level it is like asking why we need to learn how to spell when we have spell check. why wouldn't you bring your mother to your first interview? she is more persuasive than you are. she understands meetings. she is like the anagram finder for online scrabble: she is a hack for the game called interview. sure, they may seem entitled when they don't understand the value of investing years in apprentice-like jobs. those jobs are meant to solidify them within a power structure that they don't think is stable. if you look at the skill sets required for upper management without considering power brokerage as one of them - it might seem like anyone could do the job... and maybe that is true.

personally i still believe in the inevitability of an uneven distribution of resources. I look at the events of recent years not as a flattening, but as a shuffling of places on the curve. certain things transition from luxuries to commodities, but new luxuries take their place. to me digital natives are held tightly within the bosom of the old world order - so tightly that they don't see it. They experience the flattening of access and influence in a few domains to be a reflection of the possibilities of a larger shift. I can't see it that way, but perhaps I am wrong.

as i left palomar i was escorted out by another young participant from Mexico. he asked me for some advice. he said that everyone in those cavernous rooms was committed to changing the world. and by the look on his face i believed him. so how does one go about something like this? my first reaction was to play inside the system - find out what the sponsors were after and to deliver exactly that, secure more money for the long term, create a hidden agenda, wash, rinse, repeat. but i could tell that was disappointing to hear.

so as i turned toward the gate I said - maybe you are all revolutionaries without any teeth. maybe the answer is to grow some teeth. i don't know what i meant exactly, but it was an attempt to shout across the chasm.

November 11, 2009

digital natives (draft)

:: this entry is continued (or rather posted in full) here

Continue reading "digital natives (draft)" »

November 7, 2009

finding niemann

i wanted to set this down while it still meant something to me. i have a lot of difficulty holding on to rational triggers that inspire me to work or to feel something in particular. i've written about this before in a post called rational triggers for the emoto-self and it seems like it is a universal problem. I still look back at the comments to get a lift now and then.

i just returned from a two week speaking trip to europe last night. this sort of separation from my day-to-day life is difficult. I find it hard to work in hotel rooms and i spend a lot of time wandering around, detached, thinking about my life. most of the time it isn't pleasant.

in berlin, i stayed for a few days with a friend of mine - the illustrator christoph niemann. It was a warm relief and i much preferred it to the cocoon of a hotel room, even after I found out that one of his children had been diagnosed with scarlet fever, and a second child, the one who had drooled on my computer while we played with internet toys, seemed like he was sure to have it as well.

i am stuck in many ways right now. in particular i have a fraught relationship with my creative work. my mind seems to want to connect every part of my life together. it makes it hard to work on anything in particular when i think that everything i do influences everything else. it is confusing to think about even now, but it feels heavy and frightening.

watching christoph work i found something i had been looking for. at least i hope it i did. he has a blog for the NYTimes, a "visual blog" called abstract city. The pay for these sorts of things, much like the video series that I produce for Time.com, won't make you rich, and although you are given a broad audience, that audience comes with new pressures and self-doubts. For me this sort of work is terrifying, and i respond with procrastination involving constant out-of-the-way walks that end up in coffee shops, far from my computer. i think it is stressful for Christoph as well, but he seemed to respond to the stress by diving deeper into the work rather than trying to escape it. he spends an amazing amount of time on the entries - disproportionate to the immediate compensation - and seems to get lost in the details. it was wonderful to watch. and it pays dividends - his blog has generated new work and has reminded old clients of his brilliance.

this isn't a complicated thought. but it has reminded me of the power of pouring love into the things that you do, sometimes even if it feels like it is a waste of effort in the larger picture. i hope i remember that.

January 30, 2009

Trying Again :: Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1 )

:: I am embarrassed by my last post. It is vague and tightly wound. I alluded to thoughts that I don't have the skill to fully express. This is another attempt at the same subject ::

Setting expectations for any a project is something I tend to avoid or to overlook. This is because:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.
2) Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.
3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.
4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.

This is a challenge I face in all aspects of my life. I avoid setting personal goals for myself, and I am sure it is because I am terrified of failure. I don’t think that I will overcome the fear of failing. But I am learning to think of it as the price I pay for the best moments of living.

Setting realistic goals makes me think realistically. Which is a bummer.

Projects have this strange glow before they are released, even the bad ones. It isn’t based on anything rational; it is a secret wish. I think it is a feeling of unlimited possibility. I imagine that it is the same sort of feeling that people get when they buy lottery tickets. Thinking reasonably about what will happen to the project, and what would be “good enough”, pulls me away from that glow.

I could set my expectation for each project at “wild success”. But this would leave me perpetually disappointed. I could avoid setting a goal altogether and hope that I would be surprised by and appreciative of anything that happened. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Without concrete goals, any success feels like a wasted opportunity to have achieved the next level of success. In other words I kick myself for not having spent the time trying to anticipate what happened - so that I could be in a better position to take advantage of it, or at least feel like I had accomplished something.

I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.

This is particularly true when success is defined by popularity, as so many online projects are. There are certain things that are in my control, and there are certain things that are out of my control. Ideally I would like to set my expectations based on the things that are in my control, but it is sometimes hard to tell which is which. In terms of popularity, true exponential growth is the ultimate prize (I don’t use the term “viral” because it has lost its original connection to exponential growth, and therefore has become meaningless). Being a witness to this sort of growth is stunning, and it warps one’s expectations of all future projects. It is easy to confuse exponential growth with the logical extension of linear growth – things get bigger and bigger and then they become REALLY big. But it is a different force. The mechanisms that lead to exponential growth are vexing. More vexing is the tendency for people who have experienced it to rationalize in hindsight, attributing success to conveniently human attributes (desire, hard work, vision). This is true not only online, but in all spheres where success is measured by popularity – music, film, tele-evangelism. There is wisdom to be gotten from these people, but it has more to do with how to deal with the event when it happens… not how to cause the event itself.

But some things are under my control. And setting expectations means asking myself which things are, and which things aren’t,. This can be difficult and even sad.

It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.

This is a sad truth. Hope makes you both inwardly and outwardly vulnerable. It is exhausting to fail. It is exhausting not to know if you are going to fail. But I think the tension that hope brings is the key to vitality.

January 28, 2009

Setting Expectations for Contribution Based Projects (Part 1)

Setting expectations for any a project is something I tend to avoid or to overlook. This is because:

1) Defining success means that I am also defining failure. That can be frightening.

2) Setting realistic goals makes you think realistically. Which is a bummer.

3) I often think that the mechanisms of success are out of my control.

4) It is easier not to care, or at least to pretend not to care.


#1 and #3 are a devious pair and that is why I kept them apart. It is a tragic fact that in defining what is hoped for, you simultaneously define what is feared. When you don’t care, the system is at rest, neutral. Adding hope adds potential emotional energy that is bound to become kinetic. Triumph or Defeat. Not Neutral no mo’. It is easier to stay in bed.

Besides the strain of it all there are rational tricks I can play to avoid setting expectations - especially online, where it is possible to peek into the machinery of success and get overwhelmed by all the moving parts. So many forces are at play and so many things depend on other things. It can be hard to imagine the path between wanting a thing and the thing itself. In hindsight it is satisfying to attribute success to unwavering desire and hard work, but those qualities are abundant in failure as well. Then an animated gif of a butterfly flaps its wings on server in Tokyo, somehow causing Amazon to sell more copies of “A Perfect Storm”.

Can you Digg it?

But what is the alternative? No expectations. Just react. When something sticks, ride it. That is a valuable skill, no doubt, but it doesn’t always feel very human. And it doesn’t make for a very good story, even if it is closer to the truth. ***

If I don’t actively set expectations I am usually disappointed no matter what. Without something concrete, I find that I secretly wish that every project were a run-away smash success. Internet Flash Toy Cures Cancer! Any moderate achievements are always compared to the next bar I had failed to set, like that weird moment when you hit a number playing roulette and suddenly whatever you won seems like nothing compared to what it could become. 1. 10. 100. 1000.

Next: What defines success…

January 24, 2009

"Our bodies, blind, mourn for shapes remembered" :: lybwnbc

January 23, 2009

Notes on Scale

Jorge Luis Borges wrote that we each have three themes that guide our creative life. I don’t remember what his were exactly but I’m going to guess labyrinths, knife fights and memory. If you don’t know of him, I would start with Borges: Collected Fictions , which is certainly worthwhile. I’ve wondered if I have themes and what they might be. I’m almost certain one has to do with a visceral feeling of scale and density.

I have two strong memories from childhood related to this. The first is of a recurring nightmare, which has defied proper explanation for all these years (although I have found a few people that understand me immediately). It isn’t a visual dream so much as simultaneity of incongruous sensations: the feeling of something very small or insubstantial overlapped with the feeling of something massive and terrible. The closest visual metaphor I have found is that awful screensaver which auto-generates a system of overlapping pipes. I can get at that feeling if I imagine myself in the middle of an infinite volume of these tubes trying to hold onto a single piece that keeps vomiting more and more segments.

The second memory is of an evening when I visited a newspaper factory. I was very young; that age when doing anything away from home in the evening was thrilling. There was a huge metal drum that spun so fast that the just-inked newspaper pages were a blur of streaked grey. I could feel that drum. The floor shook. The noise was enormous. I imagined that if that drum became unhinged it would tear a neat-violent path through the whole city. It was awesome, in the old sense of the word. But then I looked down at my watch. And I saw that tiny little second hand.

Tick.

The fact that those two moments could coexist was overwhelming. Almost nauseating. And I am drawn to this feeling in the same way that I can’t help biting a sore lip.

The Earth Sandwich is one example. Tiny bread. Big Earth. Another less straightforward example is the absurdist game “every second counts”. The increasing stretches of time and anticipation vs. the small gesture of the mouse button. I find this juxtaposition of scale in things that make me laugh. For example the crude and silly joke: “I have to go poop.” stated seriously followed by an utterance of the word “poop”. It only works for me if the sound is small. A little throw away.

On a more practical note:

I use scale as a way to brainstorm ideas around a theme. I try to imagine certain elements of the theme at extreme scale to see if it generates ideas. Dick Cheney in a wheel chair at the inauguration. Giant wheelchair. Armor plated wheelchair. Aretha Franklin’s hat as bullet proof protection. Aretha Franklin’s hat shrunk by the dry cleaners. Tiny. A tiny wheelchair just for your hand – imagine walking stooped over dragging a tiny wheelchair. A huge wheelchair with tiny wheels. A tiny wheelchair with huge wheels. An inauguration where no one showed up. An entire podium filled with senators and dignitaries and only a single person clapping in the audience.

I am also wary of too much reliance on scale, particularly a reliance on iteration. Iteration is often used to bolster weak ideas. For example I once thought it would be cool to animate each letter of the alphabet. “Each letter of the alphabet” is a reliance on iteration, and without anything beyond “animation” holding the project together, I petered out at the letter “I”. The same thing holds with projects that are framed with “Don’t worry, it will be awesome once there are a lot of them (contributions, for example). This usually means the project has been inadequately framed. The best contribution projects are like fractals – the beauty/interest of the entire project can be captured in a single entry.

This reminds me of something else relating to expectations for a contribution-based project. I think I will pick this up in the next post.

January 21, 2009

Some Quick Notes on Approaching a Single Day Consultancy:

If I find myself in the boardroom of a company that I am only vaguely familiar with, and I am asked to consult on a problem that I am only just learning about, I find it is useful to keep some basic approaches in mind:

Approach 1:: Ramming Your Square Peg Into Their Circular Hole

Although this is the silliest form of consulting it is often exactly what is expected of you. It comes from the notion that an idea is more valuable than the process by which the idea was generated. In this case you have been brought in because someone in the company has heard about your IDEA and thinks that your IDEA might be valuable in solving a problem that the company is facing. The success of these consultations depends more on the judgment of the person that invited you than it does on the quality of your idea. You are expected to explain your idea and then repeatedly frame their problem from the perspective of your idea. Sometimes it is a perfect fit, while other times you will struggle to spark a glimmer of synergy that you hope will burn just long enough so that you can get back to the airport.

Approach 2 :: Repeating Only What You Understand

This approach is painfully simple but is often more effective than (1). Here you might explain the IDEA that got you in the door only to the extent that it makes people in the room respect you as someone who is intelligent and open minded. Then you say that your IDEA might apply, but that you would first like each person in the room to explain exactly what they think the problem is. You will find that certain aspects of the problem cause people’s voices to trail off at the end of long rambling sentences. When everyone is finished, repeat the problem back eliminating anything you didn’t understand. Rinse and repeat. This helps isolate the confusing parts of the problem and allows you to tackle those confusing parts from the perspective of what is understood, rather than letting confusion co-mingle with clarity.

On a side note, psychologists use a different sort of repetition to negotiate communication problems between individuals. One person begins by stating what they perceive to be the problem. The second individual is asked to repeat back what they heard. Often the first attempt is not a repetition, but rather an interpretation. For example: “I think you don’t respect my ideas” is repeated back as “You think that I should stop whatever I’m doing whenever you want something done”, instead of “You think I don’t respect your ideas”. Individuals are asked to go back and forth until they focus only on what is being said and nothing else. I have never mediated this sort of approach, but have heard it works quite well.

Approach 3 :: Riding The Elephant In The Room

Sometimes you might get the feeling that the problem that is being articulated isn’t the real problem. This often happens when there is something distasteful that people are uncomfortable bringing up – for example a negative attribute of a product being marketed, or a tough relationship with an outside person or team. It can be tempting to try and bring these issues directly into the open by yourself, but this can be jarring and counterproductive. It’s better to find a way to get the rest of the room to do the talking for you. One thing I have tried (and wish I could try more often) is joke writing. First I talk about the process of finding humor in a thing – for example using exaggeration, inverting relationships, finding metaphors and puns, increasing stakes, or switching contexts. Then everyone is asked to brainstorm and extend jokes about the project using these guidelines. The room is “safe” in that none of the information leaves, but it is also agreed that no personal information is to be used. In the search for funny, taboo subjects become excellent fodder – those subjects are the areas where the most tension is ready to be released. After the room has loosened a bit, and some themes have emerged, you can point them out and try and tackle them directly.

January 15, 2009

Additional Notes on Awareness of Audience

This is a follow-up to this post based on emails I received.

1) Writing makes me self-conscious. Self-consciousness is the worst form of audience awareness. It is less rational than a critical eye - more like a dark cluster of emotions: sadness, fear and loneliness. When I write, I feel as though I am playing with an extremely thin thread, unintentionally tying tight little knots with my large clumsy fingers.

1a) "I tie knots" :: "Try not tying knots" :: "Tying not-knots?" :: Yes, try tying not-knots"

2) To try and trick the self-consciousness away I framed this blog as “Notes and Advice to Someone Just Like Me.” I assumed that someone like me would be a more forgiving audience.

3) I was wrong. Ha!

4) I appreciate the irony of writing a series of posts on collaboration in the most non-collaborative way. I am open to suggestions. Ha!

5) When I used the word “trance” I didn’t mean an actual trance and I was not trying to romanticize the creative process. I meant it in the spirit of “he walked through the room as if in a trance.” - a lack of awareness of the outside world (in this case, the audience.)

6) I believe that the process I described in “audience awareness” is not limited to large projects; it can happen when I write emails, when I put on clothes, or when I have a conversation. I go through the process whenever I do or make something with the intention of being perceived by something external. There are exceptions. In some conversations (the good ones) you can feel joined with the other person to the extent that they do not seem to be an external audience. I would call this a trance, too (or participation). And it can be jarring when you separate.

7) Someone pointed out to me that “audience awareness” has quite a bit to do with feedback. How you conceive of an audience is often greatly affected by the sorts of feedback you receive. Two issues come to mind that might be worth exploring further. One I would call “On Being Thin Skinned”, which would deal with the difficulty of being emotionally open to feedback in a world where genuine assholes roam. And the other would be “On the Squeaky Wheel” which would deal with the fact that in most cases only a small portion of the audience will give feedback.

8. Knot

January 13, 2009

Awareness of Audience

For me, the awareness of audience is one of the most exciting aspects of an authorship society. The jumbled nature of this awareness however, can be a hindrance to large-scale group collaboration.

First let me explain what I mean by “awareness of audience”.

During the creative process, the process of making a thing, I find that there are a few different states that I occupy. Of course my experience varies quite a bit from project to project, but these have proven to be reliable generalizations.

The first state is an introduction. This is where an idea presents itself in my mind. These early ideas are soft and fuzzy and can’t be fully grasped. So I turn them around, and tug at them and try to look at them from a number of different angles. I might imagine what it will be like to execute the idea, to walk myself through the experience of doing what needs to be done. I might imagine what the finished product will look like. I might also imagine how someone else will perceive the finished product, or how someone might react when they hear about it. I look at it as an early vetting process. Does it excite me? Will it be tedious to make? Will other people like it? All of this happens in my mind. And because the idea is just an idea, and the audience I am imagining is imagined, there is plenty of wiggle room. Potential criticism is met with potential alterations, potential praise is met with potential false modesty. This is the first place where an awareness of audience comes into play, but the awareness is often broad and non-specific.

The second state is a trance. This is where I am absorbed in the process of making. I focus on details and techniques that have little to do with the way I thought about the initial idea. Deciding between a 2” or 3” drainage pipe has little to do with the idea of a dream house, for example. The project, which is at this point just a collection of disjointed parts, is kept alive by the whole imagined at the outset.

The third state is an awakening. At some point, usually in the last third of the project (although I have referred to “80% complete” in the past,) I experience what I am working on as a whole in its own right - as something external. This usually occurs suddenly, much in the same way that I first experience autumn. Some small trigger, a leaf or a brisk wind, causes me to realize that autumn has crept up all around me while I still dreamt of summer. How could I have missed it? It can be harsh and it can be wonderful, but either way it tends toward sadness.

From this point forward the project can become quite a bit more difficult. There is a tension between that amorphous original idea and the very real thing that you have in front of you. Some of the dreams that kept you motivated might vanish. Parts of the project you thought would sparkle just don’t, while other unintended parts do. And that imagined audience that you could negotiate with when your idea was just an idea, now has something concrete to judge, to laugh at, or to love.

I think for a lot of people (including me more often than not) this is an unconscious process, and manifests itself in waves of frustration and self-doubt. Sometimes it is possible to push all these feelings aside and allow that original idea to fill in all the defects and hard edges of the thing created - until you convince yourself that the two are identical. We have all experienced someone that seems unable to look at their work with a critical eye.

This term, “critical eye”, might be what I am trying to get at with “awareness of audience”. If you apply a critical eye to your own work there is, of course, no physical unblinking eye. You conjure up some internal perspective through which to view your work. What shapes this perspective?  Sometimes you might imagine interacting with someone from your past – a loved one, a bully, a mentor. You might try to imagine a group – like “urban males age 18-25” based on what you have read, seen on TV or extrapolated from all the urban males age 18-25 you have encountered. Or the perspective might be an emotional state, like “cynical and ready to fight”, or “adoring but with high expectations”. In all of these cases you are creating a representation of a possible audience, you are imagining an outside world and its relation to you and the thing you are making. This is what I call “awareness of audience”.

For example, when you write a comment, or a facebook status update, or anything that goes out to a group of people – pay attention to how you imagine it being perceived. Are you imagining each person individually? Have you created some in proxy individual for the group? Are you aware of an unknown audience? What are they like? Is there a mood associated with them? How did it all come to be?

I mentioned at the outset that I find all of this to be very exciting. For me, as a result of the proliferation of authorship tools and the creation of a universe of potential audiences, this “awareness of audience” represents a sea change in the way that people perceive themselves in relation to the world around them.

I also mentioned that awareness of audience can be vexing to a collaborative project, and I am embarrassed that all this writing leads up to such a simple point, namely: If there isn’t a shared sense of who the audience is, between you and the contributors, or between the contributors themselves, the final project may appear disjointed.

One example might be if you wanted to create a project that would ultimately be viewed by a large and diverse audience, but your contributors were under the impression that it was for a small insular community. The result might be contributions that play off local, contextual knowledge (inside jokes and obscure references) and are difficult for a larger audience to appreciate.

In the extreme, contributors might think that the intended audience consists only of other contributors. A line-by-line collaborative short story can quickly shift to a line-by-line non sequitur competition, which is very fun for those who participate and utter gibberish to everyone else.

Comment sections often contain excellent content (for example if you ask a question in a post), but require the reader to jump from comments directed to an audience-at-large, to comments directed to the blogger himself, to comments directed at other commenters.

I’m not sure that this jumble of intended audiences can be completely avoided in anything but the smallest group projects. And in some cases, this jumble is what makes a project wonderfully interesting, weird and unexpected. However, there are a few ways to bring the project into sharper focus.

First you can directly state what you consider to be the intended audience: “write as if speaking to a child”, or “give advice to new buyers”. Second, you can reference a specific style (which takes the place of an audience): “like a soap opera”, “in the style of an encyclopedia”. And third, you can add a “final presentation” to the project: “Fifty entries will be displayed at this location when the project is done” or “images will be included in a book”. This at least creates a shared context for how all the contributions will be viewed, and can point to a broader audience (this ad will be shown during the superbowl), or to a very specific audience (this will be displayed at the children’s hospital).

If you are interested, I previously asked a number of people (including Ben Stiller, Imogen Heap, Clay Shirkey, Jane McGonical and 20 other artists, designers, musicians and writers) how they thought about audience during the creative process. You can read the responses here

January 8, 2009

Installment #2 of “Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project”

(click here for the first installment)

Would you want to contribute to this project?

Many potential projects might seem intellectually interesting and might sound good on paper, but fall apart when you imagine yourself actually participating. It is easy to get excited about the concept of the project as a whole, as a completed collection of many contributions, without taking the time to imagine what it will be like to participate in just one part of it.

What would you anticipate being the best part of contributing to the project?

Is your project like a puzzle? Is the best part trying to figure out a novel or best solution? (For example creating a haiku that explains Christianity). Is the actual act of contributing, the creation of the media, the best part? (For example recording audio of you and your child singing, or filming a power move) Will the best part be seeing yourself included in a gallery? Having your voice heard? Getting feedback? Is it something else? Is it a feeling of contributing to the greater good? Or is it the same sort of satisfaction you get when you alphabetize your books? The feeling of a set being completed? Of order being created?

Are you facilitating multiple rewards for those who contribute?

Some projects can be engaging/fun/rewarding to different people in different ways. Interact with contributors to find out what it was that they responded to, and make sure you are facilitating those experiences. If it is feedback, encourage feedback, if it is the process of contributing – ask questions and make suggestions to make it even better.

How personal or impersonal are the contributions?

I was once told (by a poet) that poems are like photographs: people only get interested if they’re in ‘em.

This may not apply directly to every contributory project, but I think it is good food for thought. Personalization impacts a project in three ways: First it can create desire and inspiration, second it connects the contributor to the contribution (throughout the life of the project), and third it creates another lens through which the project can be browsed/appreciated.

In terms of desire and inspiration: Personalized rule sets allow people to contribute what is specific to them – their image, their voice, their taste, opinion or experiences. The contribution is not judged by some external standard, but rather on what each person knows best – themselves. It levels the playing field.

In terms of connection to the contribution: The most obvious connection is made if someone submits his or her face, likeness, or voice. Revisiting the site means coming across a mirror – you are placed personally into the project - beyond what you have specifically contributed. This also makes it easier to share the project. Other people have no problem spotting you in the work - no explanations are necessary.

In terms of creating an additional lens through which to view the project: People are more interesting than things. Personalizing a project allows viewers to browse people as well as the project itself. Projects that include faces are perhaps the best example. Even if the focus of the contribution is something else: a written sign, something worn, an object held, I find myself scanning faces.

Of course not every project can include a picture of a face - there might not be any pictures at all. But any contribution that represents personal taste, opinion, or experience is a lens through which to explore other people, to try and figure them out, to imagine who they are. Virtual, meta people watching.

For example: if a project asks people to post songs containing the word “garbage” there is little room for people to express themselves. “Post songs that make you cry”, on the other hand, is highly personal - and the contribution, although not a direct product of the contributor, says a lot about them.

There are no hard rules here, and finding a personal angle on a project often takes a bit of work (if it is even possible). It is, however, one of the most useful questions that I have asked myself, and has made many projects more enjoyable and more successful.

Do the contributors know who the audience is?

Are people aware that a larger audience will see their contribution? Do they understand the context in which it will be displayed? In the case of reviews, comments, examples, stories - are they addressing you? or are they addressing everyone else that will experience the media? Do they think they are creating something for “people just like them”?

(I have tried to expand on this in the following post: Awareness of Audience)

January 5, 2009

Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project:

What technology is required to contribute?

Every layer of technology (camera, microphone, phone, software, credit card, broadband, mouse, sharpie, screwdriver…) adds a potential barrier-to-entry to your project. Can any be substituted? Is that clear?

What skill sets are required to contribute?

Do not assume that the audience has the same degree of media literacy that you do. Many people do not know how to use image-processing software at even the most basic level. Cropping photographs, merging photographs, taking screenshots, capturing audio, compressing video are all specific skill sets that not everyone possesses, and that can potentially limit the number of contributors.

Are you using specialized language in your instructions?

Be aware of any specialized language that you are using in your instructions or in the description of the project. Words and phrases like “cache”, “ftp”, “social book-marking”, “beta”, “screengrab”, “firewall”, “tagging”, “tweet”, “proxy”, etc… may not be part of your audience’s vocabulary.

Are you unnecessarily excluding people that don’t speak your language?

Can you display your instructions in a way that is not language -dependent?

If you are providing an example, does that example skew the impression of the possible range of contributions?

Be aware that any example you display can be seen as a hint or piece of advice for new contributors. In some cases this is helpful if you want to guide the project in a certain direction, however it can also reduce the number of unexpected creative solutions to your rule set.

Can people contribute in the same physical location as where they receive your instructions?

If a majority of your audience receives your instructions while at work, they will not be able to immediately contribute to a project involving photos of their front lawn. If you send instructions via twitter and people receive instructions on their cell phones they might not be able to immediately record audio. Think of the spatial distance between the reading of instructions and the act of contribution.

Can people contribute at the same time as when they receive your instructions?

Is your project time dependent? Does it involve a sunset? Bedtime story? Birthday? How long will it take? Will people have that amount of time when they receive the instructions or will they have to wait? Think of the temporal distance between the reading of instructions and the act of contribution.

Are you assuming your contributors have contextual information about the project outside what is included in the instructions?

If someone knows nothing about you, your work, or any larger context in which the project exists, will they still have enough information to contribute?

How broad or narrow is the set of possible contributions?

Are there a finite number of possible contributions? Are there a limited number of categories into which all contributions will fall? Will this appear repetitive? Is the range so broad that the project won’t appear cohesive? Are the rule sets so broad that they do not supply enough boundaries to play against?

For example “post your favorite Obama attack ad” has a small and finite number of possible contributions, whereas “make something out of legos” is perhaps too broad and lacks significant boundaries to inspire contribution.


Continued here


December 30, 2008

Notes on the experience of Participation and Contribution

1 - These are my definitions, sort of. They are not trivial or merely formal. I use them to Figure Things Out. They might not stand the test of time. But that test is a bitch. And if I pass (the Test), it will be because the pattern I fill in, in the shape of duck, happens to be the right answer. It will be By Accident.

2 – Here I am interested in the experience of the person participating or contributing.

3 – Participation is the experience of oneself in relation to a group or system. Its focus is a verb related to self-definition. Participation is a “state of being related to a larger whole”.

4 - From the outside, participation can be invisible. It does not require hand raising or button pushing or jersey wearing. It is a perspective shift in the mind of an individual.

5 - “Passive consumption” can be participation. The passive consumer can place himself into the meaning of what is consumed. As he unpacks the images, the text, the sounds, he can extend the mythology of what he perceives, comparing moments to memories, and joining into the narratives of inclusion and exclusion. If there is no narrative he can make one.

6 – Participation can also be visible from the outside. But the point of participation is not how it is perceived from the outside.

7 – While participation is about a “state of being”, focused on the internal, contribution is about the external, the making of a thing to be perceived by someone (or something) else.

7.5 - There are unintentional contributions and intentional contributions. Here I am interested in intentional contributions.

8 – Intentional contribution is made of 1) an intention, 2) a thing to be perceived, and 3) an internal representation of an audience that will perceive it.**

9 – An actual audience may not exist.

9.5 - The audience can be non-human, for example a system or a deity.

10 – The audience can be the contributor herself, as long as the idea of herself as audience is thought to be separate from herself as contributor; for example “an older me”, or a “happier me”.

11 – But that gets Complicated.

12 – It is possible to contribute by Doing Nothing. In this case the contributor must intend that the Doing Nothing be a thing that will be perceived by someone else. The Silent Treatment is a contribution to an argument.

13. The same action by an individual can be participation or contribution depending on whether the individual intends for the action to be perceived by someone else.

14 – It is possible to participate without contributing.

15 – It is possible to contribute without participating.**

Continue reading "Notes on the experience of Participation and Contribution" »

December 22, 2008

If the goal of a project is to get many people to contribute

Usually there will be a few contributions that are outliers in technical merit and scale. There is a temptation to reward these contributions by drawing specific attention to them while the project is running. This can sometimes have the effect of damping the project as a whole, since potential contributors will measure their work against an artificially high standard. Alternatively, only displaying the most recent contribution allows the tonality of the project to be at the whim of the last contributor.

Instead of only focusing on technical ability, draw attention to qualities that can be expressed by anyone: simplicity, individuality, and humanity. Allow there to be a feeling of “Hey, I could do that too”.

December 19, 2008

The Wish :: lybwnbc

The creation of all media is accompanied by a wish: to experience and to be experienced by another human mind. Above all this means to feel and to be felt.

Central personae vs. algorithm

Virtual communities are often bound by a platform: some sort of place where the community is represented. This is not to say that every platform is a community, or that every virtual community must be represented in specific place. But technologies like message boards, vlogs, blogs, media sharing sites, social book marking sites, and traditional social networks (to some degree) often serve as a representation of the community, both as a proxy for geographical proximity and as a display of community actions and affiliations.

These representations of community are often presented as lists: what happened recently, who recently acted, what is popular, who is worth paying attention to, and what place the community holds in the world (press, lawsuits, taunts). These lists give members of the community a shared history and culture, they create heroes and villains, and they help members to place themselves within the overall structure of the community.**

In order for these representations to work effectively, community members need to have some understanding (true or not) as to how the representation is created: what sort of mirror is being used to reflect the community back to them. There are two main models of understanding. One is that the representation is created by an algorithm, and the other is that the representation is created by a central persona or central personae. These models are at two extremes of a continuum.

Algorithm, in this sense, is a set of rational, non-emotional rules that is seen to determine the mirroring of the community (most diggs, newest, word filters, page rank).

On the other hand, a community might imagine that a central persona is doing the mirroring. A central persona is imagined as a human mind that is both rational and irrational. It thinks and feels. It can be angry, unjust, jealous, or benevolent. It can make mistakes and it can apologize. It can represent the community by selecting what is cool, what is lame, what is weird, what is hopeful and what is touching.

These models are at two sides of a continuum; most often the representation of a community is seen as a mixture of the two.

December 17, 2008

Addressing a Community or its Members: Levels of Communication

There are four main levels on which a central persona can communicate with a community or a subset of its members.

Broadcast Level

Generally this is top level, one-to-many communication around which the community is naturally organized. The broadcast level often consists of a blog, TV show, video blog, a welcome message, announcements, mailer, or a splash page.

The broadcast level is the primary place where a central persona expresses opinions and shares information. It is also where a central persona can reflect a simplified image of the community back upon itself.

Structural Level

The structural level includes the organization, format, rule sets, design and layout of anything within the boundaries of the community. Changing any of these elements can be considered communicating on the structural level.

Communication on the structural level can be used to:

:: signal new opportunities for community activity (opening a “current events” forum, adding voting, comments, etc..)
:: alter the framework of community identity (creation of sub groups, rankings, private areas)
:: accommodate wide spread requests or complaints
:: co-opt rogue sub groups (creation of new labels/ status to accommodate the group)
:: intervene in a crisis situation with a small group of members (changing status, modifying avatars, banning)

Structural communication is the most direct display of power available to a central persona... e.g. “Playing God".


Community Level

The community level includes all the tools that the community uses to communicate: threads, comments, reviews, gallery uploads, response videos. A central persona should avoid communicating at this level if it is possible to use a structural approach. For example it is better to append an existing comment/thread with a remark than it is to post a new/separate comment under the moniker of the central persona. In my opinion the central persona is not a member of the community, but rather is part of the structure of the community.


Personal Level

The personal level includes any direct communication with a member or small group of members that is not visible to the rest of the community. This is best used as a means to organize high level community members, or to reach out to valued community members in times of crisis. A central persona should avoid using any personal level communication beyond valued/trusted members.

December 16, 2008

"Addiction is the triumph of rhythm over life" :: lybwnbc

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be" :: lybwnbc

Using a personal voice

When addressing a group that is unaware of its membership (a blog, a BCC, a mailing list), it is often best to use a personal voice and address the group as if it were an individual. Avoid phrases like “all of you”, “sorry for the mass mailing”, or “some of you may know”. These phrases tend to distance the recipient from the message, and make it harder to convey emotional content.

On the other hand, do not try to intentionally trick recipients into thinking that the message was only sent to them and no one else. In some cases (blogs, message boards) the platform itself will make that obvious. In other cases (BCCs, mailing lists) use subject lines and headers to hint at the one-to-many nature of the message.

Reply one to one to follow up conversation to the extent that is possible, even if the reply is brief. Extend the personal voice to these conversations as well. Avoid referring to other people's responses with phrases like “You are the tenth person to say that”.

This sort of language breaks the promise of the personal voice.