Previous month:
February 2010
Next month:
April 2010

March 2010

Be Impeccable With Your Word: Confrontation vs. Condescension and Intimidation

TheFourAgreementsI've had a number of opportunities recently to reflect on don Miguel Ruiz' first agreement: be impeccable with your word. Amid public conversations at the recent Coffee Party kickoff meeting, private discussions about reviews of academic papers and proposals, and listening to an interview about the science of wisdom, I've gained a greater appreciation for the importance of making this agreement and adopting this practice. A comment advocating confrontation by my good friend Robb - an ardent defender of the Ruahines Mountain Range in New Zealand and wild places in general - on my blog post about political conversation vs. confrontation in the context of the Coffee Party movement helped me reconsider my opposition to confrontation (the meaning of which is "opposition"), and realize that what I'm actually opposed to is condescension and intimidation. I decided to further clarify my own beliefs about being impeccable with my word in a followup blog post.

I'll start off with the brief description of this agreement on the inner jacket cover of don Miguel Ruiz' book, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

Be Impeccable With Your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

In the chapter elaborating on The First Agreement, Ruiz defines impeccable as "without sin" and suggests that sin begins with rejection of myself, and in the case of the word, manifests in using words against myself. [Actually, Ruiz uses the word "yourself" rather than "myself", but I prefer to use "I" statements wherever possible.] If I reject myself, I am more likely to reject others, and if I use words against myself, I am more likely to use words against others. Or, as is observed in the recently released movie, Greenberg (and elsewhere): "hurt people hurt people".

Ruiz describes the power of the word as a form of magic, through which we can cast spells for good or evil. Impeccable use of words - pure magic - can have a powerful effect on people, helping us appreciate positive qualities and do positive things. I've written before about the power of positivity and appropriate praise (and the perils of inappropriate and profuse praise), and recently encountered psychological studies showing that even the unspoken expectations of others can influence us. Ruiz warns that the invocation of what he calls black magic - sowing seeds of fear and doubt in the minds of others - can also have powerful impact, alluding to Hitler, whose words so successfully demonized and vilified an entire race of people that 6 million were killed.

Given my recent revelation about confrontation vs. condescension, I want to distinguish between using words to criticize a person (or a race, religion or political party of persons) and using words to criticize a person's actions. For example, I can question the truthfulness or logic of another person's statements and still be impeccable with my word. However, if I call another person a liar or an imbecile, I am not being impeccable with my word.

S-JOE-WILSON-large The specific words and tone I use to raise a question or potential criticism also offer an opportunity to practice impeccability. For example, someone may say something like "The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally". I may question the truthfulness of that statement, but if I say "You lie!" - especially if I were to shout that out in a nationally televised public setting - I am not being impeccable with my word ... though I may be giving that person an opportunity to practice the second agreement, don't take anything personally.

If instead I were to say "I disagree with that statement" - especially if I were to do so at another time and place - I am being impeccable with my word. And, if it turns out that the statement with which I disagree is actually true, e.g., the reforms that person is proposing include a provision that explicitly states that "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States", then being impeccable with my word may help me preserve my integrity more effectively.

I was discussing the distinction between confrontation and condescension in the context of political conversations with a friend yesterday - over coffee - who suggested some references that might inform my perspective. One site lists two basic types of arguments:

There are basically two types of arguments: Aristotelian or adversarial, and Rogerian or consensus-building. Aristotelian argument is made to confirm a position or hypothesis or to refute an existing argument. Using the techniques at hand, the writer attempts to persuade the reader to a particular point of view. The writer uses logic, appeals to the rational in the audience, and provides empirical and common sense evidence to persuade the audience members to change their beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

Rogerian argument is a bit different—its goal is to develop consensus among readers rather than establish an adversarial relationship. The idea is that a successful argument is a winning situation for everyone. Avoiding all emotionally sensitive language, the writer phrases statements in as neutral a way as possible to avoid alienating readers by minimizing threat and establishing trust. The analysis of the opposition's point of view is carefully and objectively worded, demonstrating that the writer understands the position and reasons for believing it. In preparation for the conclusion, the writer points out the common characteristics, goals, and values of the arguments and persons involved. Finally, the writer proposes a resolution that recognizes the interests of all interested parties.

I believe both types of arguments benefit from being impeccable with your word ... assuming the goal is to arrive at the truth of the matter - or at least a deeper under understanding - rather than simply winning. I'm not so sure that truth is a top priority of some participants in our political process.

Speaking of truth, resolution and evolution, I'm reminded of Gandhi's inspiring insights into truth vs. consistency:

My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth.

Aristotle, who generally advocated dialectic (logic) over rhetoric (the art of persuasion), acknowledged the pragmatic value of rhetoric in civic affairs, and outlined three primary strategies of persuasion:

  • ethos: how the character and credibility of a speaker can influence an audience to consider him/her to be believable.
  • pathos: the use of emotional appeals to alter the audience's judgment.
  • logos: the use of reasoning, either inductive or deductive, to construct an argument.

Again, I believe that being impeccable with your word is an important ingredient in applying all of these strategies. One can establish one's credibility without resorting to the character assassination of one's opponent, although respectfully raising questions about the credibility of statements made by an opponent is consistent with the first agreement. One can also appeal to emotions without insulting an opponent. And, of course, constructing a logical argument can be done with impeccability, as long as one begins with impeccable premises.

A story on NPR yesterday morning, on anti-bullying programs in schools, based on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, offers an instructive overview of the social culture of bullying that supports and promotes intimidation which has ramifications well beyond the schoolyard.


Olweus emphasizes the social culture that supports, condones or promotes bullying - the dark side of the idea that "it takes a village":

  • Students who bully: These students want to bully, start the bullying, and play a leader role.
  • Followers or henchmen: These students are positive toward the bullying and take an active part, but don't usually initiate it and do not play a lead role.
  • Supporters or passive bullies: These students actively and openly support the bullying, for example, through laughter or calling attention to the situation, but they don't join in.
  • Passive supporters or possible bullies: These students like the bullying but do not show outward signs of support.
  • Disengaged onlookers: These students do not get involved and do not take a stand, nor do they participate actively in either direction. They might thin or say "It's none of my business" or "Let's watch and see what happens."
  • Possible defenders: These students dislike the bullying and think they should help the student who is being bullied, but do nothing.
  • Defenders: These students dislike the bullying and help or try to help the student who is being bullied.

The NPR story notes that "The community can take away the bully's power by refusing to cheer him on, by telling an adult, or perhaps the ultimate step: stepping in to help the victim."

Anti-bullying tactics has a particular poignancy in political arenas outside of the schoolyard, given recent words and actions surrounding the health care reform debate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi alluded to the power of words yesterday, in response to the violence and death threats in the wake of this week's health care vote:

I believe that words have power, they weigh a ton. And they are received differently by people in - depending on their, shall we say, emotional state. And we have to take responsibility for words that are said that we do not reject.

A blog post about American Kristallnacht: Conservative Hatred Shatters the Peace includes an extensive rundown of the powerful, hateful and intimidating words used by various conservative leaders over the last several days, some of which explicitly call for the breaking of windows and the murder of elected officials who voted for the health care reform law. I wish I was surprised to learn that the frequency of death threats against President Obama is 400% higher than against former President George W. Bush.

I believe that with a "government of the people, by the people, for the people", the potential victims of this campaign of intimidation are not just our elected officials but all citizens, just as I believe the ultimate victims of the violent words and actions that crystalized on Kristallnacht were not just the persecuted Jews, but the Nazi bullies and their supporters, the passive or disengaged German citizens, and eventually most of the citizens of the world community.

CP_square So, what can someone who objects to the tactics of intimidation do to step in to help the potential victims? One could start or join a movement to "wake up, stand up and speak up", to re-engage in vigorous and respectful political conversation, to oppose bullying without resorting to the bullying tactics of condescension and intimidation. I'm not sure if the Coffee Party movement will ultimately succeed, but I plan to participate in one of the local National Coffee Summit meetings this weekend, as it appears to be a promising vehicle through which to promote and practice being impeccable with your word on a large scale.

The Coffee Party: Political Conversation vs. Confrontation

Coffee Party @ SoulFood Books, Music & Coffee I attended a Coffee Party kickoff meeting at SoulFood Books, Music and Organic Coffee House on Saturday. Approximately 40 people subdivided into smaller groups to discuss their hopes and fears about the state of the union. Amid the largely liberal perspectives voiced by several participants, I was delighted to discover an unanticipated diversity of opinions in our group. A number of common themes emerged, but I came away most hopeful about the prospect for preserving this diversity and promoting a resurgence of the middle way in American politics.

Among the issues raised by participants were ethics, elections, economics, employment, energy and the environment. At several points, I was reminded of Paul Hawken's book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, and a blog post I wrote about his systems view of the interrelationships between social, economic and environmental justice. At other points, I was reminded of Doug Rushkoff's book, Life, Incorporated: How the World Became a Corporation and How To Take It Back - e.g., one person championing de-marginalization, another recommending the de-personalization of the corporation (referring to the 1844 U.S. Supreme Court decision designating a corporation as a natural person) and another suggesting a transformation from a me society to a we society.

During the course of the discussions, there were a number of references to the Tea Party movement - whose members tend to be male, rural, upscale, and overwhelmingly conservative - mostly in the context of expressing opposition to or at least distinction from that movement. I believe there are some important areas of agreement between values espoused by the Tea Party and the Coffee Party: an affinity for transparency, accountability and responsibility, and an aversion to abuses of power and other perceived injustices.

There do appear to be areas of differences between the Tea Party and the Coffee Party; among the most significant - to me - are the tactics employed. Based on what I've read and seen, the Tea Party seems to be rather ideological and confrontational whereas my first experience with the Coffee Party suggests a more idealistic and conversational approach to politics. Some members and groups within the Tea Party appear to be adopting the demonizing and spiteful rhetoric that was used so extensively during the McCain-Palin campaign of 2008. The tone and tenor of the discussions and debates within the Coffee Party meeting - in which some people articulated and advocated strong positions - was far more civil and respectful.

In a blog post about coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, I proposed the possibility of promoting civic engagement without sacrificing civil engagement, noting that others have articulated a tension between the two:

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Coffeehouses: Bringing the Buzz Back, Michael Idov talks about some of the European coffeehouses I first read about in The Grand Literary Cafes of Europe, warning that Americans are "losing the coffeehouse ... to our own politeness". Idov claims that while coffeehouses were once "hotbed[s] of a proudly rootless culture", "seminaries of sedition" with traditions of "intellectual sparring", they have now become elitist bastions of "balkanization". While these coffeehouses may have promoted civic engagement, it appears that they were not well known for civil engagement.

I [still] believe it is possible to have vigorous debate - in the best traditions of the coffee house - without stooping to the vilification of one's opponent(s).

That said, one of my concerns about the Coffee Party is how effective a conversational approach can be at this juncture in American politics. We may come to understand and appreciate - if not agree with - one another better, but will this effect changes in policy and legislation? Especially if other, more ideologically unified parties and movements - and corporations - are more certain, focused and strident about their views. It's hard to have a productive conversation if no one else is listening.

In an earlier post, on conservatism, liberalism and independence, I recounted a classic Doonesbury comic strip:

In the main portion of the strip, Chase [a conservative] sums up the differences between liberals and conservatives: "[Y]ou liberals are hung up on fairness! You actually try to respect all points of view! But conservatives feel no need whatsoever to consider other views. We know we're right, so why bother? Because we have no tradition of tolerance, we're unencumbered by doubt! So we roll you guys every time!" When Mark [a liberal] replies "Actually, you make a good point...", Chase responds, "See! Only a loser would admit that!"

Listening to "The Science of Wisdom" on KUOW Weekday yesterday, I heard Stephen S. Hall, author of Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, talk about the power of anger as a motivating emotion. While he said that anger and wisdom are not antithetical, the ability to regulate anger and other emotions effectively is one of the hallmarks of a wise person. However, he also observed that many famous wise people have been willing to run the risk of contradicting conventional wisdom and adopt adversarial stances.

The question, I suppose, is whether it is wiser - and/or more effective - to promote alternative perspectives through conversational or confrontational tactics, or to advocate adversarial positions with consideration or condescension. Personally, I tend to prefer coffee to tea.

Some highlights from CSCW 2010

cscw2010_logo CSCW 2010 - the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work - is the first CSCW I've missed since 1998. I tried following along remotely via the Twitter #cscw2010 hashtag, which may have been the next best thing to being there ... but it was a distant second. I was glad to read a few posts on BLOG@CACM (which, unfortunately, does not appear to support tags) and view some of the 400+ cscw2010 photos on Flickr, and am delighted that the entire CSCW 2010 Proceedings has been posted online. However, for a conference devoted to "the design and use of technologies that affect groups, organizations, and communities", I think there is room for improvement in the community's use of social media to more broadly disseminate the knowledge reported in Savannah, Georgia, last month.

As many people know, I am an irrepressible - perhaps even fanatical - promoter of SlideShare ("YouTube for Powerpoint") in any context where people are using slides to present their work. Shauna Causey recently tweeted about her pleasant surprise at the viral nature of SlideShare after posting her slides from a recent Social Media Club Seattle [motto: "If you get it, share it"] educational event on Location-Based Apps

Wow! Just got a note saying my overview of location based apps hit No. 1 on Slideshare. Thx, @gumption for pursuading me to upload it tday.

During the CSCW conference, I tweeted a couple of invitations to authors to post their CSCW 2010 slides on SlideShare. Unfortunately, only three authors have posted their slides (and tagged them with "cscw2010"). Fortunately, these presentations are associated with three of my favorite papers from the conference - in fact, I've already referenced them in comments I've posted on other blogs.

Over the years, I've posted blog entries with notes from CSCW 2004 (Chicago), CSCW 2006 (Banff) and CSCW 2008 (San Diego), and will continue this tradition in somewhat abbreviated form this year, focusing my highlighting on these three papers. Given that Eric, who first commented on my CSCW 2004 blog post, recently commented that he generally prefers to read shorter blog entries - and that more careful and concise editing may help me get more out of my own writing - it seems appropriate that I make this a relatively short post (by my standards).

Note that I do not mean to imply that the collection below represents the best papers from CSCW 2010 in any objective sense  - although one did win a Best Paper or Note award (top 1%) and another won an Honorable Mention (top 5%) - but they resonate with me, and given the extra effort expended by the authors to use social media to share the results of their work, I'm happy to help further promote their research.

Readers are Not Free-Riders: Reading as a Form of Participation on Wikipedia (Page 127)
Judd Antin (University of California - Berkeley)
Coye Cheshire (University of California - Berkeley)

Abstract: The success of Wikipedia as a large-scale collaborative effort has spurred researchers to examine the motivations and behaviors of Wikipedia’s participants. However, this research has tended to focus on active involvement rather than more common forms of participation such as reading. In this paper we argue that Wikipedia’s readers should not all be characterized as free-riders – individuals who knowingly choose to take advantage of others’ effort. Furthermore, we illustrate how readers provide a valuable service to Wikipedia. Finally, we use the notion of legitimate peripheral participation to argue that reading is a gateway activity through which newcomers learn about Wikipedia. We find support for our arguments in the results of a survey of Wikipedia usage and knowledge. Implications for future research and design are discussed.

Highlights: As I noted in a comment on Judd Antin's blog post about the paper, I'm always drawn to work that challenges long-held beliefs and conventional wisdom … especially when it shines a positive light on a previously scorned behavior. They cite numerous other studies that highlight the value of [just] reading: as an indicator of value, as contributing to the formation of an audience (motivating those who create / edit entries), and as a form of legitimate peripheral participation that may represent a gateway to more engaged forms of participation. The authors conducted a study of their own that shows many readers of Wikipedia have incomplete operational knowledge regarding the norms and affordances for contributing to Wikipedia in more involved ways, beyond reading - and linking to - articles.

Personally, I think the power law of participation that leads to only a small fraction of community members to create or edit content on Wikipedia - or any other online social media site - is more of a feature than a bug. For example, I suspect that one of the largest "mass contribution" episodes ever was Stephen Colbert's Wikipedia stunt, in which he urged viewers of his show to edit the Wikipedia entry for elephants to say that the population of elephants had tripled in the last 6 months.

Is it Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams (Page 189)
Mor Naaman (Rutgers University)
Jeffrey Boase (Rutgers University)
Chih-Hui Lai (Rutgers University)

Abstract: In this work we examine the characteristics of social activity and patterns of communication on Twitter, a prominent example of the emerging class of communication systems we call “social awareness streams.” We use system data and message content from over 350 Twitter users, applying human coding and quantitative analysis to provide a deeper understanding of the activity of individuals on the Twitter network. In particular, we develop a content-based categorization of the type of messages posted by Twitter users, based on which we examine users’ activity. Our analysis shows two common types of user behavior in terms of the content of the posted messages, and exposes differences between users in respect to these activities.

Highlights: This paper has already received well-deserved attention by prominent social media sites and gurus, such as Mashable, one of the most popular social media aggregator sites, and Steve Rubel, SVP and Director of Insights for Edelman, the world's largest PR firm... as well as some not-so-prominent sites, such as my blog post on Power Laws and Pyramids: Participation, Gratification, and Distraction in Social Media. (which also mentions the Antin & Cheshire paper). Mor and his colleagues looked at a collection of public tweets by 125,593 Twitter users, and randomly selected a sample of 350 users who had at least 10 "friends" (for which I would prefer to substitute "followees"), 10 followers, and had posted at least 10 messages. Interestingly, Twitter statistics recently reported by RJMetrics reveal some interesting power law properties, showing that approximately 25% of Twitter users (or accounts) have no followers, 40% have 1-5 followers and 12% have 6-10 followers - although as I noted in a blog post on The Commoditization of Followers, there are a number of innovative ways to artificially inflate follower counts - and fewer than 25% have posted 10 or more tweets.

The 3,379 messages were coded into one of 9 categories. The authors distinguish between Meformers - users whose messages were predominantly in the "Me now" category, e.g., "tired and upset" - and Informers - users whose messages were predominantly in the "Information sharing" category, e.g., messages with links to [more] information. They found that "Informers have more friends (Median1=131) and followers (Median2=112) than Meformers (Median1=61, Median2= 42)" and that "Informers also have a higher proportion of mentions of other users in their messages (M=54% vs. M=41%)". This suggests that shining a bright light on others may attract more attention than shining a bright light one oneself ... and as I suggested in a blog post on Co-Promotion Reconsidered: The Recursive Attraction of Attention, there are a variety of techniques Twitter users can use to increase the probability that some of the light they shine will reflect back on them.

Understanding Deja Reviewers (Page 225)
Eric Gilbert (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Karrie Karahalios (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Abstract: People who review products on the web invest considerable time and energy in what they write. So why would someone write a review that restates earlier reviews? Our work looks to answer this question. In this paper, we present a mixed- method study of deja reviewers, latecomers who echo what other people said. We analyze nearly 100,000 reviews for signs of repetition and find that roughly 10– 15% of reviews substantially resemble previous ones. Using these algorithmically-identified reviews as centerpieces for discussion, we interviewed reviewers to understand their motives. An overwhelming number of reviews partially explains deja reviews, but deeper factors revolving around an individual’s status in the community are also at work. The paper concludes by introducing a new idea inspired by our findings: a self-aware community that nudges members toward community-wide goals.

Highlights: This is one of my favorite CSCW papers ever - and it's only 4 pages! Eric and Karrie provide some fascinating qualitative results that complement earlier, more quantitative results about reviewing behavior, e.g., a paper by Talwar, et al., on Understanding user behavior in online feedback reporting, in the ACM EC 2007 conference on electronic commerce. The personality and social psychology behind rating and reviewing is also receiving increasing attention in non-academic circles, e.g., a recent post on Adina Levin's blog about Learning about Web Rating Systems and a Wall Street Journal article last October, On the Internet, Everyone's a Critic But They're Not Very Critical, reporting that the average online review is 4.3 out of 5 stars.

Amazon suffers from a "curse of success" when it comes to online community participation: tens of millions of reviews, so many that the reviews for popular products are overwhelming for many users. Using computational linguistic analysis, they found that approximately 10-15% of reviews are deja reviews: effectively echoing earlier reviews. In their interviews with 20 reviewers of the most popular products, they discovered two general classes of reviewers operating under very different motivations. Amateur reviewers (9 of 20) have posted fewer than 30 reviews and have very few "this was helpful" votes on their reviews; Pro reviewers (11 of 20) have posted hundreds of reviews, have received many "helpful" votes and even have a following on Amazon. Amateur reviewers are motivated by an intrinsic, "almost visceral reaction" to the products; Pro reviewers are motivated by extrinsic goals of building "a brand or identity" within the reviewing community. Pro reviewers include authors of other books who create more links back their own books with every review they post, as well as those who are eager to reach the Top 100 status (or higher) among Amazon reviewers.

While a number of approaches have been invented for helping users wade through the seas of online reviews, the authors propose an interesting idea, based on their work. Invite amateur reviewers to rate deja reviews (those that are similar to their own)since they may see value in similar sentiments expressed in [more] compelling ways. Pro reviewers may be extrinsically motivated to rate any other reviews as low, and so should be excluded. Secondly, noting that the Amazon reviewers constitute "a self-aware community that knows what it wants", the computational linguistic techniques that were used to identify similarities among reviews might also be used to identify features that have not yet been thoroughly addressed, and amateur reviewers could be invited to effectively fill in the gaps.

And speaking of gaps, there are clearly significant gaps in my review of CSCW 2010. In checking the tweetstream for #cscw2010, I see that Mimi Ito has posted her closing keynote on Amateur Media Production in a Networked Ecology, complete with embedded videos that I presume she used in her talk. While the talk looks great - and very relevant to issues of social belonging, identity, and participation that are addressed in the papers I reviewed above - I'm going to end this amateur media production here and now, and take a little time to enjoy some natural ecology on an unseasonably sunny and warm winter afternoon in Seattle.