Thursday, March 23, 2006

Placeism in the global network

A few weeks ago, Dave Lull introduced me to the concept of "place-ism", specifically a book by Bill Kauffman called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. Mr Kauffman's book is about staying in one place, not going anywhere, and being the richer for it. He tells many anecdotes about his own place, Batavia in New York State, some amusing, some wry. There is a strong sense of nostalgia for the small-scale, personal way things were done in the past (similarly addressed, also with some lack of objectivity, by John Grisham in, say, The Last Juror or the Broker). There is also a deep thread of personal history. Read the book (I can't do justice to all its aspects here): it's funny and instructive, neatly capturing, for example, the ambiguity of personal choice versus the expectations others (our families, mainly) have of us. I believe, if memory serves, that Dave recommended this book in light of some discussion we were having about the "small-scaleness" of blogging. I probably mentioned (or droned on about) how after I started blogging I rapidly found the Internet to be a small place, against my expectations. Blogging is a "placeist" activity, in that one can use the technology of the Web to fall into a localised yet intense sphere that is common to you and a very few other people. It is a placeism of the mind, in which one's fellow travellers are not living in the next street and whom you never see face-to-face. Another aspect of placeism is the strong sense of "home" infusing Mr Kauffman's book (and indeed, John Grisham's). As has been pointed out many times, far fewer people have this sense of "place" and inner stability today compared with pre-industrial pasts. But one can make one's own place. In the morning on the way to work, I stop off at an Italian coffee shop for my only allowed cup of the day (in preference to using the free machines at work). I don't go to this place every day, but I never have to specify the way I like my coffee, because the guy always remembers. At Christmas time, he gave me a large pantotte. On his counter, he has an Internet connection open showing his website: not google or a news site, but a slideshow of his own sandwiches to order, his Vespa for sale, and so on. This is a "place" for ex-nomads such as myself who do not have a Batavia or a Silloth; one goes through life collecting them up. MySpace and place I came across another article, this time as a result of thinking and discussions about MySpace, whose "overnight and complete" market success among the young is of intense interest in many established companies who wonder how MySpace did it. As well they might. At the recent O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference, Danah Boyd gave a talk about "glocalisation". As she says, a grotesque word, and defined by her as the "ugliness that ensues when the global and local are shoved uncomfortably into the same concept." Her perspective is that of web design of social software, but she makes some very insightful comments about customers, particularly young ones, and by extension, placeism. "When mass media began, people assumed we would all converge upon one global culture. While the media had an effect, complete homogenisation has not occurred. And it will not. While some values spread and are adopted en-masse, cultures form within mass culture to differentiate smaller groups of people. Style-driven subcultures are the most visible form of this, but it occurs in companies and other social gatherings". Ms Boyd is not talking about the company of bloggers/army of Davids, but she might as well be. Her article, as I say, is directed towards use of social space from the company perspective, and her comments about customer service should be required reading by any business ;-) . Leaving that aside, and many fascinating observations which make me urge you to read her transcript, DB goes on to say: "Just becuase people can connect globally does not mean they want to. People are more drawn to those who are like them, who share their same values and cultural norms. In this way, people don't have to explain the foundations of their thoughts. They feel more closely aligned and more willing to share with people who are more like them." "People collide on Flickr becuase they took similar photos; they find wonderful blogs through search." I won't go on to paraphrase DB's developing argument about random collisions and rareness, as if you've read this far you'll know if you are with her and want to read the article. I also lost touch with the piece as it ended with an analysis of language and symbols. But my summary of her bottom line, "designing for glocalisation", is placeism through and through:
  • Empower users to personalise and culturalise their spaces online (blogs, MySpace, etc)
  • Provide the cultural environment where people can accidentally connect with strangers over meaningful things (public not private networks)
  • Empower individual users to be cultural spokespeople (modifiable systems)
  • It's all got to work and the network builders have to really, really care about it working the way the users want (good customer service, as exemplified by MySpace, Flickr, Craigslist)

One final quote: "Organic community growth, embedded design and the ability to connect culturally local communities through global network[s] are the way to form large sustainable communities."

Lawrence, Kansas

Finally, and I am almost at the end now, a kind of postscript to this posting is The newspaper of the future, once again via a link from Dave Lull. This long article in the New York Times business section describes the Journal-World of Lawrence, Kansas. This newspaper, via profits from its broadband holding, is providing interactive, imaginative and multimedia information for the town of Lawrence "however the consumer wants it and wherever the consumer wants it, in the most complete and useful way possible." There are lots of Kauffmanian examples in the piece linked to here (not (yet?) behind subscription wall). Pace Glenn Reynolds, journalists providing the information have retrained to become multi-taskers, and investment is being made in all types of information technologies to convey and receive the information (customer feedback, note, being a significant part of the equation). At the end of the day the financial constraints may be limiting. But the Lawrence experience is definitely one for the placeists among us to watch.