Archive for the ‘Webtheory’ Category

So, most of my posts are theory-leaden and complicated, right? Here’s a light one for a change. It’s notorious that Google is faster predicting breakouts of flu than the US Centres for Disease Control. How do they do it? Quite simply: they analyze what people search for. And by the way, they make the results available for anyone to look at. I’ve always been wondering what else you could understand by looking at what people search for. Google let’s you do so. And because Google is basically the window to the internet for most people, what people search for on Google should be very insightful. If you can read the results. Which is hard. Once it a while I play around with their “Insights for Search” trying to find something significant. I prepared a little parcours for you. It takes you from Solutions over Sex to Climate Change. Go ahead!

Google Insights for Search: Regional Search for “Solutions”

So India is looking for solutions. Right. But, given that the number one associated search terms are “Software Solutions”, “IT Solutions” and “Business Solutions”, India doesn’t seem to bad off. And while the US are looking for “Network Solutions”, “Business Solutions”, “Global Solutions” and “Health Solutions” (in this order), South Africa is also into IT. For the other African countries the Statistics aren’t precisely rich, as there is only one city in each of them that seems to have sufficient internet access to figure in Google’s region list (which is also a result of the search, somehow ). Well, now the real question is: who’s looking for…Problems?

Google Insights for Search: Regional Search for “Problems”

For Lesotho and all the other countries of this list, the situation is not different than for the aforementioned African ones. Each of these countries is basically one city for Google. And there are no country-specific associated search terms. On a global level, the list of the kinds of problems that people try to solve on the internet speaks for itself… .

Google Insights for Search: Global Top Searches Related to “Problems”

So, basically you are using what exactly to solve the problems you have with your computer? Oh! A computer. Sure.

Now, how the search term number one (at least it used to be when the internet started to become (in)famous, basically when I was a kid. I know you’ve been waiting. So here it goes: Sex: Yeah, not only Sex, but even better:

Google Insights for Search: Regional Interest for “Free Sex”

Not really what you’d expect here. Well, my hypothesis is that in the US, the world’s biggest porn market, people have had the internet long enough to be more precise about their interests. Much more precise…

I’d only like to mention that this doesn’t reflect interest in free sex in a country, but interest in the results for “free sex” online of those with internet access.

Comparison of Searches for “Free Sex” (blue) and “Problems” (red)

Or more generally speaking:

Comparison of Searches for “Sex” (blue) and “Problems” (red)

Well, I couldn’t say that this comes as much of a surprise…

But let’s get serious again:

Google Insights for Search: Regional Interest for “Climate Change”

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest for the issue in what is called the “developed” countries. After all, there are more important things, like … iphone problems. Or maybe I’m doing the ESDW (English Speaking Developed World) wrong? Maybe the reason why the U.S. has a hard time signing protocols is just because – while they can well understand “CHANGE!” – they still don’t really know what that weird foreign word “climate” means! On the following chart, “What is Climate” a top related search for “Climate Change”, Australia comes forth, and the US sixth, closely followed by New Zealand, the UK, and … Canada. Wonder if this is an inverted scheme of the success of their education systems… .

Google Insights for Search: Regional Interest for “What is Climate”

Okay. That’s enough playing with Google Insights for Search. Now go ahead yourself: http://www.google.com/insights/search – and don’t forget to share your results with me!

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There’s more to telling a story than the story.

According to some theorists of narrative or story-telling, tellability is one of the criteria of narrativity. To be narrative, they hold, the content of a discourse has to be tellable. Tellability is what makes a story worth the telling, usually the extraordinariness of the events being told.

I don’t agree on the idea that tellability is a criteria for narrativity, or else there wouldn’t be boring stories. If a story is boring because the events being told are not of an extraordinary kind, this doesn’t imply that it’s not a story at all. But rather than getting deeper into this issue, I’d like to use the concept of tellability in a different sense to better understand the social phenomenon of story-telling.

Theorists of narrative tend to treat tellability as an absolute – if not objective – criteria on the level of the story. Either a story is tellable. Fullstop. Or a story isn’t tellable. Fullstop. I’m not quite sure if there really is something like universal tellability. I tend to think that tellability depends on context (audience+situation). And for each and every story, boring as it may seem, there’s an appropriate context. (N.B. I must admit that I only just discovered that Seymour Chatman in his fantastic classic of narratology Story and Discourse also holds the view that tellability is relative)

Relative tellability is far more important in our everyday experience than some supposed absolute tellability. What matters most in our lives is not a story per se, but a story in context – and so we often wonder

Should I tell this story here?

What’s tellable within the context of a bull session with my buddies isn’t usually tellable at Sunday lunch with my grand-parents – and vice-versa. A story is usually a good fit for the bull session for the features that make it a bad fit for Sunday lunch. So tellability is relative to situation and – I would like to add – the teller. More precisely we have to ask ourselves:

Is it appropriate for me and interesting to tell this story to this audience in this context?

Being appropriate is so-to-speak the upper limit of tellability in everyday life. The lower limit is to be interesting. The ideal story is both appropriate for the teller in the context and interesting for the given audience in the context.

So even if we supposed that it was clear what it means for a story to be tellable per se, the narrativists’ tellability would not be sufficient – or essential – for our decisions to tell a story or not.

I hope that these few remarks make it clear that there is more to tellability than the story itself. When we think about telling a story, we quite naturally evaluate its tellabilityin-context.

However, the idea of tellability per se (as a story) may stay if we subjectivize it. There might be stories that I just don’t find tellable at all, maybe because I find them gross, or because they oppose my ethics.

Think of a story that glorifies Nazism. This is a story that I won’t find tellable even if I happen to be stuck with a bunch of Neo-Nazis, where both the situation and the audience would be convenient. But this means that tellability of a story comes down to tellability as seen by the teller, which is far less than tellability of the story per se.

For the remainder of this post, I will try to explain my idea of tellability more precisely.

I identified four levels of tellability:

1. The tellability of the story (its interest as a story)), i.e. the tellability for the teller as seen from within (his or her perspective)

2. The tellability for the teller (a. appropriateness/ b. interest) as seen from without

3. The tellability for the audience (a. appropriateness/ b. interest)

4. The tellability in the situation (a. appropriateness/b. focus)

There’s potential for misjudgment of tellability at least on levels 2-4.

1. We’ll usually know if a story is tellable for us as we see us, because we know our values.

2. This level is tricky and misjudgments are easy.

a. Appropriateness will depend on our role within a given context. For example, it may be appropriate for a student or employee to tell a story about a professor or executive that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a professor or executive to tell.

b. Interest is tricky, because we move away from the story to the telling: in fact, some people are able to tell any story in such a way that it becomes interesting, and, thus, tellable.

3. It may or may not be difficult to determine tellability on the audience level.

a. In general, it is pretty easy to grasp what it means for a story to be inappropriate for a certain audience. For example, we usually won’t tell a priest a sex story. However, it may be difficult to determine in a given situation if a story is appropriate for a given audience. The main problematic issues are sex, illness and crime. And if we don’t have enough information about an audience, we will usually avoid stories that imply these elements.

b. The interest of a story for an audience is much more difficult to determine. But fortunately the consequences of telling a story that our audience doesn’t find interesting aren’t usually very serious and painful – unless, of course, we are doing an elevator pitch and have little time to grasp a person’s attention to, for example, sell or promote something. (N.B. Before you launch the first video: the videos are only very loose illustrations of the points made in the post. They mostly show story-tellings as imagined by script-writers or movie-makers. In general the points made will be good points if you can validate them based on your experience of real-world story-telling. And if not, I’d be happy to hear from you in the comments).

4. It is a bit easier to judge situation-tellability than audience-tellability, because if we’ve been there at the moment of situation-establishment, all the elements about the situation are (in principle) available to us. It’s more tricky if we enter the situation in medias res, all of a sudden, as when joining an ongoing conversation.

In such situations it’s particularly difficult to judge tellability.

Obviously, the most tricky cases are those where, for example at a conference, we don’t know the people in the group we are joining (audience) and have not been there at situation-establishment. Whether or not we will be able to participate actively in the dialogue will then depend on how risk-averse we are.

a. situation-appropriateness: in extreme cases, this is particularly easy to judge, mainly if the geo-localization of a situation is an indicator. For example, a hospital or a graveyard usually won’t be appropriate places for funny stories (which, in a sort of weird twist, can make them particularly appropriate places for funny stories being told by people working there to people working there).

Places like a bar or a bowling-place will tend to be appropriate places. But if the place is more neutral, like a street or a school, it will be more difficult to establish tellability.

b. situation-focus: in extreme cases, like formal meetings which tend to have specific topics, it’s usually clear what’s interesting given the focus of the meeting. In cases of more casual meetings it may be more difficult to determine what’s interesting given the situation. But again: being wrong about interest is not as bad as being wrong about appropriateness.

Extreme cases of tellers:

Extraordinary tellers make every story tellable by their telling

(Now, you could obviously point out to me that the main part of this is not really a story, but an argumentative discourse, that the only story being told here is a story being retold with an alternative plot in order to support the argument, while the passage ends with an analysis and a comment on Hollywood-style story-telling, all this, of course, being part of a Hollywood movie. And you would be quite right, but, hell, isn’t it a good telling?)

Food-in-mouth tellers regularly misjudge appropriateness of their story (which may, in movies where story-telling is presented, be the whole point – but rarely a good one)

Terrible tellers are able to kill story with good substance by their telling, thus making them uninteresting for their audience (which may, in exceptional cases, be the whole point of, say, a youtube video)

Terrible tellers regularly misjudge the relative interest of the story they relate

(63 views? But it shows something: self-awareness is not enough. In the bits of discourse of this video, the young protagonist actually shows good intuitive understanding of the basic functionning of real user-generated content and exemplifies the over-stated importance of self-awareness in low-quality productionn, which seems to be one of the most influential wrong post-modernist ideas. Or to be more concise: Knowing it’s bad doesn’t stop it from being bad.)

To finish, I’d like to show you a short video about a terrible teller which quotes a paradigmatic utterance of terrible tellers. The video ends by the video’s author stating the traditional view according to which it’s the situation that makes for a good story, which is a view which I hope to have proved wrong:

via Jesse Thomas

Twitter growth slows down while the average user follows more people but over 80% of the users still follow less than 100 people.

Interestingly this is what the economist and hypios Co-Founder Jérémie Bertrand predicted on hypios Thinking in November. Jérémie’s basic idea was that you can conceive of large parts of Twitter as a ponzi scheme for marketing where the currency is attention.

It’s a fun theoretical post with great illustrations showing that a large part of twitter might be bound to collapse once there is no more new attention pulled in.

If users follow too many other users, they can’t pay enough attention anymore and therefore twitter looses value for them.

I think that following more than 100 people is completely useless.

But if you follow so few people, doesn’t Twitter become a facebook where you would only have status-updates? Well, nearly. The essential difference remains: to follow someone on Twitter, (s)he doesn’t have to accept you as a follower (like (s)he would need to allow you to be their friend on facebook). And this has big consequences:

On facebook you see info by people you know.

On Twitter, you see info by people you are interested in.

Therefore facebook is great to keep in touch. Twitter is great to broaden your horizon.

(N.B. An earlier version of this post was published on the – now defunct? – Bigstartups.com)

On the professional social network LinkedIn a direct message basically costs $5 USD. This makes InMail (supposedly) much more efficient than E-Mail.

Why?

The fact that you pay for the message is a signal that you value contacting the person you are contacting.

On twitter, there is no monetary price for direct messaging and direct messages (DMs) on twitter are being abused. If you follow many people you get so many automated DMs that you eventually stop reading them.

It seems to me that a public messages has a higher value on twitter than a private one.

This looks like a paradox, but  it can be argued the principle is the same as on LinkedIn even though the consequence is opposite:

1. Public messaging gives visibilty to the person you are messaging (you signal that you value her/him)

This functions like payment. You could (and some did) argue that twitter is an economy where attention is the currency. Mentioning someone on twitter (e.g. @hypios) is therefore like paying for a private message on LinkedIn.

2. You give public visibilty to the content of your message.

In this sense it’s like the old public letters that used to appear in newspapers, like Emile Zola’s J’accuse.

If you are criticizing the person (or brand), (s)he has a much stronger incentive to answer when your criticism is public (this is why people tend to send public letters for political causes), because if there’s no reply other people might think the criticism is justified and that the person (brand) being adressed has no answer.

Open Challenges: take it up (and let me if you do)!

The pros and cons for  making public and making private contact online should be clarified:

How does it affect reception of one and the same “comment” or “message” if it’s made/sent in private vs. in public?

What are the implications of sending private or public messages?

What does it imply to publicly “like”  or even “share” something? Does it always mean you adhere? What is “ironic likeing”?

How often do we like the content of what is shared vs. the fact that it is shared, e.g. if someone shares an article on how Berlusconi did something impossible again?

Is there a (non-monetary) way to make certain emails more valuable and incentivize reading?

What are the start-up companies, tools, apis that work on value of messages and help  you pre-organize your messages according to relative importance?

(N.B. an earlier version of this post was published on the -now defunct?- bigstartups.com)

LiveJournal started it, facebook popularized it, other pages followed: allowing us to “like” things, “become fans”, “digg”… . More recently, LinkedIn joined the likeing industry, and took the step facebook doesn’t want to take: introducing a “pass” button (the equivalent of what would be a “dislike” button of facebook). On all these sites, you also have the option to “unlike”, “undigg”, etc., i.e. you can stop likeing what you used to like.

But when we talk like this, like most people do, we actually blur a frontier that seemed pretty clear before: the frontier between feeling something and expressing that feeling.

When you press a like button, are you supposed to express your appreciation or to actually start appreciating?

As the consumption of content on the web is extremly fast, the temporal gap between actually likeing something (in the mental sense of, say, having a feeling of appreciation) and expressing that you like it can become extremely small, so small that we might forget that we expressed our likeing. The expression can even end up priming, and we can then “discover” that we like something. A friend to whom I suggested to become a fan of Wax Tailor on facebook, first told me he would and then came back saying:  “Actually I already liked Wax Tailor!”

This practice would have delighted Gilbert Ryle, a behavourist, but extremly smart philosopher, who fought against the idea of a “ghost in the machine”, in other words a mind and mental activity (The Concept of Mind). According to Ryle, there are no activities behind the curtain, and feeling comes down to expressing the feeling, thinking comes down to expressing the thought. And as the WEB becomes the ultimate indicator of existence, I must say that I feel this to be more and more true.

Another philospher wouldn’t think that this is much of a surprise: Stanley Cavell. In his essay “Must we mean what we say?”, he ends up concluding that we must.  Adapting this to likeing, we would have to conclude that if we express that we like something, like we must – like it or not.