Places and Spaces

The Starbucks Digital Network, Engagement, Enlightenment and Third Places

In a recent interview at TheGrill media and entertainment conference, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz extolled the virtues of video streaming and other proprietary media that will soon be made available via free Wi-Fi on the Starbuck Digital Network. At the end of the interview, he briefly mentions the unique opportunity that Starbucks offers as a third place in America. Offering customers more engaging content through their wireless devices while they are in the stores may well represent some unique opportunities for the content providers and consumers. However, it is likely to diminish the real-world conversation, sense of community and potential for serendipitous enlightenment that are central elements to the ideal of a third place.

Ironically, in a blog post by Josh Dickey about Schultz' interview at The Wrap, Schultz is quoted as saying

We’ve got to completely allow ourselves to engage in conversations that we’d normally be afraid of.

As might inferred from my earlier post about the coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks, I completely agree with this sentiment, and while this new network - and Starbucks' extensive social media presence - may promote online conversations, it is likely to do so at the expense of the kinds of interactions traditionally cultivated in coffeehouses. I won't rehash that entire earlier post, but I would like to review a bit of context about "third places":

Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

In his interview, Schultz speaks glowingly about values, guiding principles, emotional connection and customer loyalty. He talks about research showing how Starbucks customers had traditionally used Wi-Fi primarily for synching email, but increasingly use Wi-Fi in more "engaging" ways. He shows a slide highlighting the ways that Starbucks has become "a powerful force" in social media, and is clearly excited about how they will now take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by "captive" customers in their stores. He talks about the 9 million people who have registered a Starbucks Rewards card and the potential for integrating a "national physical footprint" with a new digital network. But as far as I can tell, all these new developments will simply promote more public privatism, portable cocooning and the more effective use of devices as interaction shields through which people can be alone together and enjoy joint solitude.


All of this is all the more ironic given another video I recently watched (not in a Starbucks) - Steven Johnson's TED talk about Where Good Ideas Come From - highlighting the importance of the "liquid networks" and serendipitous interactions in traditional coffeehouses to the evolution of innovative ideas:

The English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment ... it was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share [ideas] ... An astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.

I have shared positive perspectives in the past about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership and my own Starbucks experience. And I have written about the research and development through which I have partnered with others to design and deploy technology to promote conversation and community in coffeehouses (although this work was focused primarily on independent coffeehouses). The new Starbucks Digital Network may provide many benefits to many stakeholders - especially those in the media and entertainment industry - and I have no doubt it will promote digital engagement and perhaps even enlightenment, but it is largely incompatible with the idea of Starbucks serving as a true third place.

But who knows? Maybe someone will watch Steven Johnson's video while sitting at a Starbucks, and decide to disengage from the Wi-Fi long enough to expose themselves to the potentially enlightening people and ideas surrounding them right there in the store.

Place-centered Sociality

Foursquare-gowallaJyri Engestrom first introduced me to the concept of object-centered sociality almost 5 years ago, through a blog post in which he argued that social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. Jyri suggests that the problem with some social networking services (such as LinkedIn [at that time]) is that they focus primarily on people and links, ignoring the objects of affinity that those linked people share, such as photos, URLs and events. The recent buzz about location-based social networking services such as Foursquare and GoWalla combined with recent reflections on my own work on using place as a catalyst for sociality has prompted me to read about, contemplate and extend the notion of object-centered sociality to include places in the pantheon of socialized objects, and to elaborate on what I might call place-centered sociality.

In his April 2005 post, Jyri noted that "place" was a promising object around which future social networking applications could be designed, but that prospect was [then] constrained by issues of cost, reliability and usability. While I'm sure he would agree that recent developments have elevated place into the realm of sharable objects about which to socialize, I want to distinguish between the notion of sociality about objects and the concept of sociality with the objects themselves. Jyri focuses primarily on the former, but I think both aspects are relevant to place-centered sociality, and help explain the appeal of some recent social networking applications that make places prominent.

TheoryCultureSocietyKarin Knorr Cetina, who is cited by Jyri as a source of inspiration, wrote a seminal journal article on "Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies", [Theory, Culture & Society, 1997, Vol. 14(4):1-30]. She argues for a strong thesis of "objectualization" in which "objects displace human beings as relationship partners and embedding environments" and "increasingly mediate human relationships". Much of what I've read about and experienced with the application or interpretation of object-centered sociality in the context of online social networking focuses on this latter idea of using objects - photos, videos, tweets - to mediate relationships among people (sociality about objects), but little attention is given to the former idea, wherein the objects themselves act as relationship partners (sociality with objects). We comment on, vote on, favorite, link to or otherwise reference online photos, videos, web pages, etc., but we do not [typically] form a relationship with these objects (at least not at the level in which they would be considered substitutes for human relationship partners).

Knorr Cetina invokes other sociological theories (e.g., The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness, by Berger, et al., and The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, by Christopher Lasch) in which "economic and technological civilization" produces a "disencumbered and disembedded self" that gives rise to a "culture of narcissism". The "overly grandiose conception of the self" results in "fear of emotional dependence" and an "exploitative approach to personal relations" that triggers a "hunger for emotional experiences with which to fill the inner void". This reference to hunger and inner void reminded me of another sociological study I recently encountered that explored how places can satisfy this hunger and fill these voids.

GreatGoodPlace_Oldenburg_coverIn "A Cup of Coffee With a Dash of Love: An Investigation of Commercial Social Support and Third-Place Attachment", [Journal of Service Research, 2007, Vol. 10(1):43-59], Mark Rosenbaum and his colleagues investigated why some customers form attachments to third places - described by sociologist Ray Oldenburg as "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate", such as cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars and hair salon. Rosenbaum cites personal (vs. societal) sources of voids opening up in people's lives: bereavement, divorce, separation, illness, retirement, and empty nest (children leaving home). Third places often serve to fill the resulting gaps in local social support networks. While people in third places often play a prominent role in filling these voids - performing the role of consequential strangers and acquaintances - the physical (or metaphysical) aspects of the places themselves can be an important factor in third place attachment and other types of relationships that people form with places, e.g., place identity, existential insideness, geopiety and topophilia.

In The Prelude to her book The Dance, spiritual teacher and author Oriah Mountain Dreamer weaves together both of these aspects of place-centered sociality - people and places - in an inspiring and elegant way:

What if becoming who and what we truly are happens not through striving and trying but by recognizing and receiving the people and places and practises that offer us the warmth of encouragement we need to unfold?

Knorr Cetina also speaks of unfolding. Later in her article, she looks specifically at knowledge objects, and how they are increasingly produced by specialists and experts rather than through a broader form of participatory interpretation. She argues that experts' relationships with knowledge objects can be best characterized by a the notion of lack and a corresponding structure of wanting [emphasis hers] because these objects "seem to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely": new results that add to objects of knowledge have the side effect of opening up new questions. This perpetual unfolding gives rise to "a libidinal dimension or dimension of knowledge activities" - an "arousal" and "deep emotional investment" - by the person studying the knowledge object. As an example, she describes the way that biologist Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of genetic transposition, would totally immerse herself in her study of plant chromosomes, identifying with the chromosomes and imagining how they might see the world - evoking an image (for me) of object-centered empathy more than sociality.

Teachings-of-Don-Juan-coverAlthough I'm not sure whether many people would enter this kind of flow state in thinking about and relating to places, I'm reminded of Carlos Casteneda's book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in which Yaqui sorcerer don Juan instructs Castenada to find his "spot":

While you remain rooted to your "good spot" nothing can cause you bodily harm, because you have the assurance that at that particular spot you are at your very best. You have the power to shove off anything that might be harmful to you. If, however, I had told you where it was, you would never have had the confidence needed to claim it as true knowledge. Thus, knowledge is indeed power.

Po Bronson, in his book, What Should I Do With My Life?, also emphasizes the value of finding one's spot (though with a somewhat more metaphoric notion of "spot"):

I'd like to suggest an alternate "success" story - one where, with each next, the protagonist is closer to finding that spot where he's no longer held back by his heart, and he explodes with talent, and his character blossoms, and the gift he has to offer the world is apparent.

DSC00630 My friend Robb Kloss offers many examples of place-centered sociality on his Musings from Aotearoa blog, regularly recounting inspiring instances of flow states he has experienced in various places throughout the Ruahine mountain range in northern New Zealand. Although some of Robb's experiences involve the sharing of his affection for the Ruahines with other people - both the people who accompany him on his expeditions or that he meets in the mountains and those who read and comment on his blog posts afterward - there are numerous examples throughout his writing - and photography - of his immersion in the mountains themselves.

While the experiences of Kloss and Casteneda may be extreme in some ways, I believe most of us have encountered some form of the power of place(s), and participated in a form of place-centered sociality in which our relationship with the places (as objects) themselves, rather than - or in addition to - the people in places, is the nexus of connection. While sociality about other kinds of objects have created or enhanced many relationships in social networking services, I'm excited about even greater prospects for some new technologies and applications to enhance the power of - and connection with - places, as well as the possibilities for connecting to other people through places.

Coffee, Community and Health

An article reviewing the health benefits and risks of coffee by Melinda Beck in yesterday's Wall Street Journal includes a number of studies that have yielded conflicting results on the effects of coffee. Coffee consumption of varying levels has been correlated with significant differences in the likelihood of being diagnosed with diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's and cancers of various kinds, as well as other health conditions such as cholesterol level, hypertension and pregnancy. In some cases, coffee consumption is associated with increased health benefits, in others, it is associated with increased health risks.


The well-balanced article enumerates a number of confounding factors in assessing the health impacts of a cup of coffee: the general challenges of self-reported data, the range of cup sizes (6 to 32 ounces), differences in caffeine levels (75 to 300 milligrams), and the variety of "extras" such as sugar, flavored syrup and whipped cream. It also notes a number of potential hidden factors such as employment, access to health care, exercise and nutrition (several of which have interdependencies). However, having recently written about conversation and community at Starbucks and other coffeehouses, I think that an important hidden health factor omitted from the article is the community context in which coffee is sometimes consumed.

Coffeehouses and other third places have traditionally provided physical spaces where "unrelated people relate". While people are likely to consume coffee in such places, they may also be more likely to engage in conversations with a more diverse array of people with whom they share weak social ties. Although I didn't highlight health effects in my review of Consequential Strangers, the book references a number of studies that demonstrate the health benefits of the diverse social relationships that can be created and maintained in such community-oriented places, such as fewer colds, less depression and anxiety, longer lives, better mental and physical health, and greater likelihood of surviving heart attacks and cancer.

I'm reminded of a 2000 survey by the National Institutes of Health reviewing studies on the health risks and benefits of alcohol consumption, which also included some conflicting results. Aside from people with pre-existing health conditions that are negatively impacted by alcohol, moderate consumption habits - 1 to 2 drinks (with an equivalent of 15 grams of pure alcohol) per day - were more strongly correlated with better health outcomes than either heavy consumption or abstention.


The studies investigating the health effects of alcohol consumption are impacted by some of the same confounding factors as those investigating the health effects of coffee consumption, e.g., reliance on self-reported data and an incomplete accounting of potential hidden factors. Given that pubs, taverns and neighborhood bars are included in the array of prototypical third places - where the health benefits of diverse social relationships would also apply - I suspect that the context of alcohol consumption represents an important, and largely hidden, factor in its health effects.

It would be interesting to conduct studies that would explicitly take into account the community aspects of coffee and/or alcohol consumption, and the resulting variation in health effects. For example, are "grab and go" coffee drinkers more or less likely to enjoy the health benefits associated with coffee than "stay and sip" drinkers? Are pub regulars - with the Cheers cast as extreme exemplars - more or less likely to enjoy the health benefits associated with alcohol than people drinking at home alone? I don't imagine that many people have started - or will start - drinking coffee or alcohol primarily for the reported health benefits, but with the growing health consciousness in American society, demonstrating the health benefits of frequenting third places could affect where people drink coffee and/or alcohol.

The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces

DarkTwitterBird-reversed Recently, I've been disturbed to read about some significant frontchannel disturbances arising through the use of Twitter backchannels to heckle speakers at conferences. Having finished off my last blog with an example of the beneficial ways that Twitter helps us connect with consequential strangers, I want to revisit some issues that initially arose [for me] 5 years ago, surrounding the use of another backchannel tool in another conference context, and reflect a bit on the dark side of how Twitter can leave us vulnerable to maliciously consequential strangers, even when we are in the same physical place ... and in some cases, especially when we are in the same physical space.

Five years ago, at the first Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium (SCS 2004), a speaker was in the middle of a presentation when laughter spontaneously erupted from several people seated at different tables around the room. Apparently, someone had made a snarky comment about the presentation in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) backchannel that had been created for the event, and a few people found the comment so amusing that they could not contain themselves. Fortunately, after a relatively brief period of confusion - for the speaker and for many people in the audience who weren't previously aware of the backchannel - the speaker was able to continue the presentation. Although there were a number of other issues that arose on or about the backchannel (details about which are described in Liz Lawley's blog post - and ensuing vigorous debate in comments - on "Confessions of a backchannel queen"), the event proceeded without further significant disruptions.

CSCW2004 At another conference (CHI 2004) a few weeks after later, danah boyd - who at the time was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and was also at SCS 2004 - and I were talking about how surprised many of the academic and industry researchers were about seeing IRC used as a backchannel at the symposium. We conspired to propose a panel for the upcoming conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2004), in which we would bring this discussion to a larger group of researchers who were interested in innovative uses of computer-mediated communication tools. We also conspired to bring the experience of the backchannel to the conference itself, and succeeded in persuading the organizers of the conference to offer wireless Internet access (a first for CSCW) and to promote the use of sanctioned IRC channels (one for each of the three conference session meeting rooms).

The backchannel attracted varying levels of engagement throughout the conference, depending (in part) on the nature of the different sessions, e.g., the channel was most active during panels, which are generally intended to be highly interactive, and least active during keynotes, which tend to be more like formal lectures (at CSCW). Several people on the panel (e.g., Richard Hodkinson, Liz Lawley and danah) and in the audience (e.g., Jack Vinson, Eric Jurotich, and even USA Today) have written about their experiences during the panel. danah and I later compiled and analyzed the experiences in a CHI 2005 short paper on Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces: Experiences at an Academic Conference.



What I want to revisit in this context is the various ways that backchannels were brought into the foreground during the panel. In my own blog post about the experience, frontchannels, backchannels and sidechannels at CSCW 2004, I wrote:

In many respects, this panel offered a hands-on, or at least eyes-on, experience.  For example, during Elizabeth [Churchill]'s opening statement, she projected a series of photos of herself, with bubble thoughts (comics-style), creating yet another "channel"; one backchannel participant posted the message "She's talking on one channel, putting up those slides ... evil! evil!" ... After the short position statements by each of the panelists, we decided to project the IRC window onto the main screen, so that everyone in the audience -- not just those with wireless personal computing devices that enabled them to directly participate in the channel -- could see what was going on.  At one point, there was a lively and creative series of posts proposing new names for backchannels such as the one(s) created during the panel, including "crackchannels", "smackchannels", "trackchannels", "hackchannels", "cochannels", "snackchannels", "lackoftactchannels" and "FAQchannels".

It's important to emphasize that the projection of the backchannel into the frontchannel was done with the intention of broadening the awareness and discussion of the backchannel in the frontchannel. After all, the backchannel was the topic of the panel, and its projection on the big screen thus served the goals of all the stakeholders: the panel organizers, speakers and the audience.

Web2expo-logo Flash forward 5 years (almost to the day), and I was disturbed to read about a resurgence of "lackoftactchannels" in Rude Tweeters Take Over Web 2.0 Expo, describing "a roomful of content co-creators who, along with their status as members of the audience, have also shed their human decency". The author, Nicole Ferraro, references an earlier post on "Twittering a Distraction During Twitter Business Panel", and goes on to talk about her most recent encounter with Twitter-fueled distractions at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC last month:

A similar situation just occurred here at the Web 2.0 Expo during a keynote given by Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who was apparently speaking too fast for the Twitterati -- how ironic. Throughout her entire presentation -- entitled "Streams of Content, Limited Attention" (also ironic) -- boyd stood in front of a giant screen of Tweets, most of which were attacking her presentation skills

Actually, in reading and watching danah's talk (which I highly recommend), I'm struck by the many other elements of unintended irony that can be found throughout the themes and topics she presents: the "flow" state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; living "with, in, and around" information; adding to, grabbing and redirecting streams; "the law of two feet"; the non-democratization of attention; our addiction to gossip; the unhealthy cycle of manipulation for stimulation; and the prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and power promulgated by homophily in networks ... to name a few.

My two favorite - and most ironic - insights from her talk (which was written before she went on stage) are given at the very end:

  • Advertising is based on capturing attention, typically by interrupting the broadcast message or by being inserted into the content itself.
  • Y'all are setting the tone of the future of information. Keep it exciting and, please, recognize the power that you have!
I wasn't at the conference, but after watching the talk, and reading numerous accounts of it on blog posts and comments, I would say that some members of the audience clearly recognized their power, and were setting the tone by using the backchannel to insert content and thereby interrupt the message. And they were, in effect, advertising themselves, offering an example of the impact of negative advertising.

danahboyd I was tempted to add a comment on Nicole's post noting an additional irony, that danah had, once again, though unintentionally, "sparked a broad conversation about the implications of turning the backchannel into part of the frontchannel", but I was hesitant to write about this event, as I didn't want to focus any [additional] attention on the whole affair. However, a few days later, danah herself wrote about the "spectacle at Web2.0 Expo... from my perspective" (starting with the description about sparking conversation that I quoted in the preceding sentence), and a day later, in response to an outpouring of support through various channels, she tweeted "there's nothing like being publicly vulnerable for starting convs. THANK YOU for the digital hugs." So I felt it was OK for me to talk about it, too.

danah notes that she was surprised by a number of factors: she was not allowed to use a laptop, nor a properly angled podium for her notes, she was blinded by the lights and unable to see or visually connect with the audience, and she hadn't realized until shortly before the talk that a live twitter feed would be projected on the screen behind her. She started out a bit flustered, and then things got worse:

within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. ... The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way.

Afterward, when Brady Forrest, co-chair of the conference - and one of the most innovative and engaging conference chairs I know - explained what had transpired on the Twitter stream (and how they had shut it down temporarily a few times when things got really ugly, creating even more rumblings), she was surprised that she had misread the feedback - even though it was all going on behind her - and noted yet another dimension of irony: the unseen "feedback" (if it can be called that) about her going too fast had actually prompted her to go faster. In her final analysis, though, she nailed the core issue:

The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. Not me. ... The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself.

I have written before about my view of Twitter as a witness projection program, in that it addresses our fundamental human need to matter or to have a witness, and even adds a layer of witnesses to our publicly articulated witnesses. I had been focusing on the online implications of projected audiences and witnesses, and hadn't specifically considered the prospect of a physical projection of the "witnessing". Unlike the CSCW 2004 panel, where the backchannel was the intended focus of attention (for all stakeholders) - and was shown on a screen that was visible from both the stage and the audience - at the Web 2.0 Expo, it appears that the projected backchannel was serving the needs of only a subset of stakeholders, offering a vocal minority an irresistible opportunity to literally - and publicly - talk behind the speaker's back. 

ScottBerkun danah says she can imagine how, with the right kind of event, the right kind of speaker(s) and the right kind of audience, the projection of the backchannel into the frontchannel could be a positive influence. Scott Berkun, who recently wrote a book about public speaking, also spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo, and has offered his views on how to meet the challenge of visible twitter at conferences. He also suggests that the projection of tweets may be beneficial in certain contexts, with appropriate support, but also asks an important question:

What problem are you trying to solve?

Jeremiah Owyang has written about an "audience revolt" via Twitter at SXSW 2008, about how the tweeting audience influenced his own moderation of a panel at Web 2.0 Expo 2008, and more recently offered a compilation of lessons that he and others have learned about How Speakers Should Integrate Social Into Their Presentation. [Those who want an even more comprehensive guide may be interested in Olivia Mitchell's 62-page eBook on "How to Present with Twitter and Other Backchannels", or in Nancy White's compilation of backchannel resources.] While I agree with some of Jeremiah's recommendations - regarding greater preparation of presentations and better knowledge of the audience - I don't agree with his general assertion that "speakers, panelists, and moderators must monitor the back channel" [emphasis added], although he does provide some examples that suggest such monitoring can be useful in certain cases. Whileh he doesn't generally recommend projecting tweets on a screen behind the speaker, he suggested in a comment that:

A displayed back channel on stage behind a speaker should be used when the message from the organizers clearly say "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker" It's right for some conferences --but not all.

I'm trying to imagine conferences in which "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker". Speakers are typically paid - or at least invited - to present, whereas audience members typically pay to hear and see what the speakers have to say and show. The relationship is, by definition, unequal, which becomes evident when one considers the relative impacts of an attendee not showing up vs. a speaker not showing up. Attendees in the audience may have considerable expertise and experience in the topic(s) the speaker is talking about - in fact, ideally, there is such an alignment - but that does not give the audience the right to be rude, and certainly doesn't give them the right to gang up to tear down the speaker.

The most extreme example I've read of a cyberlynching by a Twittermob [at a conference] didn't involve a projection of the tweetstream. In an article by Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "Conference Humiliation: They're Tweeting Behind Your Back", he offered a word to describe the practice:

Tweckle (twek'ul) vt. to abuse a speaker only to Twitter followers in the audience while he/she is speaking.

[a commenter on his article later posted a reference to an earlier tweet that allegedly defined tweckle]

Highedweb-homepageopenconnected Parry describes a mob-like "virtual lynching" that arose in the Twitter backchannel of the HighEdWeb 2009 conference in October, which had the ironic theme, "open + connected":

Perfect conditions propelled this Twitter torrent: a speaker who delivered what was apparently a technically flawed and topically dated talk to a crowd of Web experts who expected better. They reacted by flaying him with more than 500 tweets in one hour. The onslaught grew so large that it went viral—live. The conference became one of the most popular topics on Twitter, meaning strangers with no connection to the meeting gaped at [the speaker]''s humiliation when they logged onto their home pages. One consultant who coaches academics on public speaking now uses the disaster as a what-to-avoid case study.

And it all started at 11:59 a.m. with one measly, harmless, innocent tweet, a dig at [the speaker]'s hard-to-read PowerPoint slide: hella drop shadow.

[Since I have not read anything about the speaker's response to the event, I've elided the speaker's name throughout this post.]

Parry goes on to share other examples of collective cyberbullying in other conference contexts, and notes some of the strategies employed to thwart the attacks - publishing social-media “courtesy” guidelines or publicly calling out the twecklers (i.e., cybershaming ... or perhaps reverse cybershaming). The comments on the article comprise a mostly civil and engaging discussion of a variety of related topics, including civility, engagement, protocols, preparation, propriety, mutuality, reciprocity and transparency, as well as references to positive and negative uses of backchannels at other conferences, and other recommended strategies for moderating the backchannel, e.g., an "audience ombudsman". One comment references a fascinating analysis of the HighEdWeb Great Keynote Revolt of 2009 (measuring the "snark factor" in the tweetstream on a scale of 1 to 5), and another describes a #positweet-worthy story about using Twitter to band together to replace a laptop that was stolen from an attendee. [Interestingly, while examples of #positweets abound, I couldn't find any examples of #negatweets ... that is, until I #negatweeted a link to Parry's article.]

So what is it about conferences that brings out the mob on backchannels? I've been ruminating on this - on and off - ever since reading the first account of danah's experience at Web 2.0 Expo last month. Three things I read this week helped me get a better handle on this troubling trend.

One was an article by Elizabeth Bernstein in this week's Wall Street Journal, "The Dark Side of 'Webtribution'" (defined as retribution via the Internet), which describes several examples of how spouses and intimate friends - or former spouses and formerly intimate friends (or friends of formerly intimate friends) - have used email, blogs, MySpace and/or Facebook to publicly humiliate their [former] loved ones. The article references the online disinhibition effect, which can take benign or toxic forms, and talks about how "The Internet turns us into a mob". Interestingly, though, there really aren't any examples of a mob in the article - they are all more personal, or individual, attacks - and none of them involve Twitter. I remember, with lingering indignation, a mob attack in the blogosphere a few years ago (around the time of another O'Reilly conference), but I was unable to find any such attacks in the Twitterverse ... except those (listed above) that have taken place at conferences.

The Wikipedia entry for online inhibition effect lists six components:

  • You Don't Know Me (Dissociative anonymity)
  • You Can't See Me (Invisibility)
  • See You Later (Asynchronicity)
  • It's All in My Head (Solipsistic Introjection)
  • It's Just a Game (Dissociative Imagination)
  • We're Equals (Minimizing Authority)

However, when online tools are used in shared physical spaces, they transform them into what Adriana de Souza e Silva and others call hybrid spaces. In such spaces, the first four components are not as relevant or applicable, and so the hybrid inhibition effect may only involve the last two, and I think the one that best explains the Twittermobbing at conferences is the last one.

I have attended many conferences where there are people in the audience who, at times, believe that they know as much - or more - than the speaker (and in some cases, I'm sure they do). Having a digital backchannel allows for explicit and implicit assertions of authority, and even superiority, by members of the audience. The fact that Twitter usernames and avatars can reduce or eliminate anonymity and invisibility (the first two factors above) may create a powerful disinhibition effect in such face-to-face contexts.

The laughter I witnessed 5 years ago at SCS 2004 came, in part, from a number of "A-list" bloggers - bloggers with tens or hundreds of thousands of readers (analogous to microblog "followers") - in the audience during a presentation on some of the earliest academic research into blogging. I don't recall the actual comments on the IRC backchannel there, but would not be surprised if some of the experienced bloggers were offering some contrasting perspectives. I was not present at any of the more recent conferences listed above, but I would not be surprised if some of the attacks were variations on this theme.

The second thing I read this week that helped shed some light on this behavior was the last chapter, appropriately called "The Downside", in the Consequential Strangers book I reviewed in my last post. The authors make several references to a paper by Ronald S. Burt, Bandwidth and Echo: Trust, Information, and Gossip in Social Networks, which shows that shared dislikes (negative information and attitudes about specific people or things) is more conducive to group bonding than shared likes (positive information and attitudes), and so gossiping about, say, someone presenting at a conference can enhance cohesiveness of the audience.

The third relevant item I read this week was another blog post about the Web 2.0 Expo cyberlynching, in which Michele Riggin-Ransom references the term harshtags to reflect the way "people start tagging their related tweets with something insulting in order to get it to trend". She goes on say:

There’s something seriously wrong about a thousand people who won’t talk to each other in the hallways bonding together to silently mock presenters, who have taken time, energy and in many cases personal expense to come speak. ... this livestream Twitterbashing (Tweckling?) seems a bit like the bully in my Spanish class who used to reflect a circle of sunlight glinting off his watch onto the teacher’s bottom while she was writing on the chalkboard just to make the class laugh.

I'm going to resist the urge to speculate further on the personality profiles of the mockers, though I am interested in learning more about the personality and social psychology that underlies such behavior. I would also be interested in learning more about the Twitter profiles of mob members (e.g., # of followers, # of followees, # of tweets and the photorealism of their avatars), and their Twitter influence (an ill-defined metric for which there seems to be a new tool deployed every day). But I'm going to leave those topics for another post.

However I can't resist the urge to end off with a cartoon that danah recently tweeted about. In the commentary on his cartoon, Tweuology, Rob Cottingham notes:

There’s a fascinating renegotiation going on between audiences and speakers. Twitter and backchannels are part of it, but I suspect something deeper is afoot. There’s a revolution sweeping all forms of communication – ask anyone who works for a newspaper or a record company – and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that even something as seemingly timeless as public speaking would be affected.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it.



Consequential Strangers and Acquaintanceships, Online and Offline

Consequentialstrangers-cover-200x300 Consequential strangers are the people with whom we enjoy casual relationships in our neighborhoods, workplaces and third places that can be as vital to our health, wealth, wisdom and well-being as our family and closest friends (or what I like to call speed dial friends). According to a new book by Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter ... But Really Do, these networks - or social convoys - of acquaintanceships include people who are often able to open us up to more opportunities than we may fully appreciate. Many of these people on the periphery, our weak ties, are ready, willing and able to connect us with information, jobs and other resources we need to realize our full potential.

The extensively researched and highly accessible book starts out by reviewing Mark Granovetter's seminal study on The Strength of Weak Ties, first published in the 1973 (and revisited in 1983), which demonstrated that people outside our innermost social circles were the most likely to help us find jobs and mobilize our communities. They continue on with research published in 2003 by Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman on the strength of weak ties abetted by technology in connecting and mobilizing physical communities, Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet Supports Community and Social Capital in a Wired Suburb, as well as research by Robert Wuthnow (After the Baby Boomers) that explores the different kinds of groups outside of our neighborhoods - religious, self-help and activity-oriented - in which consequential strangers seek and provide assistance to each other.

RedHatSociety In addition to the academic research reviewed in the book, the authors include a number of other stories highlighting the importance of consequential strangers. For example, Karla Lightfoot, an enthusiastic member of the Ladies Who Launch entrepreneur network, has achieved personal and professional success due, in part, to her delight in the interactions and connections with the people she encounters in a variety of contexts. Lightfoot, who the authors describe as an acquaintanceship artist, extols (and demonstrates) the benefits of being more open to serendipitous opportunities: "It's about sharing whatever you have and people being able to ask for what they need". Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University (with over 38,000 employees and 80,000 students spanning 24 campuses), spends the first week of the school year living in a freshman dorm in order to expand his network of consequential strangers, noting that breaking down barriers can help leaders become more effective. Sue Ellen Cooper, founder of the Red Hat Society, discovered that assembling a group of consequential strangers to engage in a "small act of rebellion" - wearing purple outfits and red hats to lunch (as shown in photo to the left) - helped unleash "their most carefree, playful selves". This group of women over fifty who gather for "fun, friendship, freedom and fulfillment" has become the world's largest social networking community for women, having grown to 40,000 members in a little over ten years.

300px-The_looking_glass_self The authors cite psychological studies by Marilyn Brewer (who pioneered optimal distinctiveness theory) that differentiate between a personal self that seeks distinction, and a social self that seeks connection and belonging. They note other studies that demonstrate the power and prevalence of social mirrors, and the role of audiences and witnesses in the perception and construction of our complex selves: "We see ourselves in others' eyes". [The image to the right is a depiction of one of the earliest articulations of this concept, the "looking glass self", by Charles Cooley in 1902.] Consequential strangers help us stretch beyond the relatively rigid boxes that the people who have known us the longest - our family and close friends - often put us into. Through interacting with people who do not know us as well, we are more free to experiment with ourselves, and less likely to have our new behaviors and roles reflected back to us by people who object, "But that's not like you!".

Places and groups that offer support for redefining or extending ourselves might be thought of as self-construction zones. This support is, I suspect, a large part of the power of entrepreneur networks - where people are experimenting with new businesses - colleges and universities - where people are experimenting with new fields of learning - and social networking groups - where people are experimenting with new ways of having fun (not that I mean to imply that business, learning and fun are mutually exclusive). 

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

One corollary may be that every consequential stranger represents a lab partner, and the places we interact with consequential strangers represent living laboratories.

UmpquaBank Some of the most productive living laboratories are coffeehouses, prototypical third places where people may be especially receptive to serendipitous encounters with consequential strangers. I first encountered Blau and Fingerman's book in my research into the social aspects of coffeehouses, much of which is summarized in my earlier post on conversation, community and culture at Starbucks. The book includes an entire chapter on Being Spaces: places "where a stranger can become a consequential stranger" that feature "an atmosphere and activities that inspire us to connect". The authors do talk about coffeehouses, of course, but extend the discussion of sociable spaces to include diners, banks, supermarkets, gyms and other physical environments that are seeking to integrate communal and commercial benefits by creating "human watering holes" that promote the "linger longer effect".

Toward the end of the chapter, the authors extend the notion of being spaces from the physical world to the online world. They profile, a web site where people can make plans online to connect offline with others based on shared interests and activities. Throughout the book, they make references to online communities and social networking sites. Interestingly, while they make numerous references to Facebook, it seems to me that Twitter is the online platform most conducive to the transformation of strangers into consequential strangers and acquaintances.

Others have suggested that Twitter is the virtual coffeeshop ... or that Twitter is more than just an offline coffeeshop. The opportunity to "follow" people on Twitter without requiring that they reciprocate, as is the case in most other social networking platforms (e.g., the bidirectional "friends" links in Facebook and "contacts" links in LinkedIn), makes it easier for people to progress through the "initiating" and "experimenting" stages of self-disclosure. For me, at least, Facebook is a place for friends, while Twitter is a place for cultivating connections to consequential strangers.

TwitterTales Jason Simon (@CoffeeShopChat), a friend with whom I first established a consequential acquaintanceship via Twitter, recently sent me a link to an eBook, Twittertales, a collection of short stories by "Conversation Agent" Valeria Maltoni. Each story - which are all longer than 140 characters, but less than two pages - represents a consequential acquaintanceship established via Twitter that led to "a friendship, project, career opportunity, [or] meaningful and purposeful new something". Although Maltoni doesn't use the term, I believe these are all compelling examples of what Blau and Fingerman call consequential strangers.

I will finish off with a relevant excerpt from of one of the stories. In "Mint, the Derby and a New Friend", Michael Winn shares an exchange on Twitter which leads to the realization that a person he had thought of as a "complete stranger" was really a consequential stranger who was transformed from an online "follower" (or, more precisely, "followee") into a real world friend through a simple act of kindness:

Here is [a] series of Twitter status updates from Friday between myself (TallyDigitalBiz) and RickOpp whom I have never met in real life, but follow on Twitter:
@RickOpp 2:33 PM May 1st from web: about to go on a mint run — essential for juleps for Derby Day and mojitos for post-golf @ poolside Sunday.
@TallyDigitalBiz (2:54 PM May 1st from web in reply to RickOpp):let me know where you find the mint “goods” i went to three stores and struck out, had to settle for just the mixer:
@RickOpp 3:33 PM May 1st (from TwitterBerry in reply to @TallyDigitalBiz): Tharpe Publix was out & produce guy said other Pubs may b out 2. Got last 2 pkgs @ Tharpe WinnDixie. Try calling others.
@TallyDigitalBiz (3:39 PM May 1st from TweetDeck): Enjoying free WiFi and a black and white at Starbucks on North Monroe
@RickOpp 3:46 PM MAY 1st via Direct Message Raise ur hand & wave right now.

At 3:46 PM on Friday May 1st while sitting in Starbucks on North Monroe, I hear a friendly voice ask; Are you Michael Winn? I reply, yes. Reaching out to shake hands, I am handed a small package of fresh mint. Stunned, I have just experienced the incredible power of connection between Twitter and real world friendships. RickOpp, who I personally know now as Rick Oppenheim, have a Twitter story that will be told over and over.

In less than 73 minutes, two complete strangers found a common interest. By the simple spirit of generosity and hospitality, two people now have a keystone to building something beyond Twitter updates, mint, and a 50 to 1 shot winning the Derby.

Coffee, conversation, community and culture at Starbucks

EverythingButTheCoffee Given my long-standing interest in the social and community aspects of coffeehouse culture, I was intrigued by a number of articles about Byant Simon's book, "Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks", that turned up during web searches and in some of the links in the tweetstream of @CoffeeShopChat. Over the last several years, Simon has spent 10-15 hours per week visiting 425 Starbucks stores in 9 countries. The book offers a far-ranging critique, exploring the topics of coffee, conversation, community and culture, as well as consumerism, corporatism and conservation in the context of a large coffee chain. Simon is concerned about what he sees as the loss of civic society, and alternately depicts Starbucks as a cause and an effect of this trend.

I share Simon's goal of cultivating community and civic engagement, and his belief in the potential of coffeehouses to promote this goal. However, having spent a great deal of time over the past two years visiting over 200 independent coffeehouses in the Seattle area, I also believe that his image of non-chain coffeehouses may be overly romanticized. While Simon raises a number of important issues, his writing sometimes seems colored by a negative bias that may reflect the disillusionment of a former Starbucks fan, and perhaps a broader disillusionment about America. Rather than attempt a full review of the book here, I will restrict my focus to its contribution to the conversation about coffeehouse culture and community, while incorporating related sources that I hope will further contribute to the discussion.

One of the first articles I encountered about the book was an Associated Press interview with Simon, "Book asserts Starbucks' store designs squelch interaction", in which he argues that a "sense of community" is missing from Starbucks, and claims that "People want these [spontaneous] conversations, people want to feel connected". While I agree with Simon (and Abraham Maslow) that people generally want to feel connected, and that spontaneous conversations can add spice to life, the research that I and my colleagues have conducted suggests that people's openness to serendipitous encounters with potentially consequential strangers in coffeehouses is highly variable. People can be very sociable with the friends they arrive with or the business associates they meet with in coffeehouses, but most people in most coffeehouses generally prefer to abide by the implicit social contract of familiar strangers, maintaining civil inattention or perhaps indulging in nodding acquaintanceships. However, our research also suggests that people are generally interested in the people around them, and while we may not initiate direct conversations with others, we often enjoy a peripheral awareness of the interests and activities of our cohorts, gleaned from observing book covers, overhearing conversations or seeing other displays of people's unique and shared affinities.

In a response to this article, "Reflection on Starbucks in the U.S.: lack of cafe culture and the role of WiFi", Esme Vos offers an international perspective. She observes that European cafes usually serve alcohol, which may help liven or loosen things up, and notes that Europeans tend to go to cafes to meet friends or people watch (but does not say anything about spontaneous conversations). She also asserts that Starbucks is not to blame for what she calls the "zombie cafe" culture in the U.S.:

There is no cafe culture in the United States. Americans are all about speed and efficiency. “Time is money” is the motto of this country. Nothing bad about that, but it does not give rise to a cafe culture where people linger for hours discussing Kierkegaard.

In another reaction to the AP article, specifically responding to Simon's argument that "Starbucks, a private corporation, has enriched itself in part by taking advantage of Americans’ impoverished civic life", educator David Warlick shares his 2 cents on the question "Is Starbucks Killing Community?":

I think that’s a little overboard.  I told Brenda that there are slow times when many of the people at the Starbucks I write at are sitting alone at tables, tapping at their laptops.  But that’s the exception.  Most of the time the room is loud with conversation, and, from time to time, I find myself drawn into discussions with others about a variety of issues.

ChacoCanyon The types of coffeehouse customers that Warlick describes - isolated laptop users vs. loud conversationalists - is fleshed out in a study by sociologists Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta on Community and social interaction in the wireless city: wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces. As I mentioned in my last post on coffee, conversation and continuing education at Zoka (a local coffee micro-chain), their report differentiates two predominant coffeehouse practices. True mobiles go to coffee shops primarily to get work done - typically via laptop and/or mobile phone - whereas placemakers desire and often initiate conversations with others (although these conversations are "as often with coffee shop employees as with customers"). The study looked at Starbucks stores and independent coffeehouses in two cities, Boston and Seattle (in which the independent coffeehouse studied was Chaco Canyon Cafe, shown above left), and found that while both practices can be found in both types of places, more true mobiles were found in the two Starbucks stores and more placemakers were found in the two independent coffee houses

Simon talks about engaging in both practices at various Starbucks stores at various times himself. When he wants to be "alone in public" (or practice what he quotes Steven Levy as calling "portable cocooning", or what Hampton and Gupta might call "public privatism"), he creates his "own virtual gated community" via his laptop, cell phone and iPod. It's worth nothing here that another study by Hampton and his students, The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces: Internet Use, Social Networks, and the Public Realm, suggests that the iPod is probably the most effective tool in achieving this goal. In their exploration of the use and effects of various mobile technologies in public spaces, they observed instances of wi-fi laptop users, book readers, PDA and portable gaming device users and mobile phone users interacting with strangers, but "no one using a portable music device was observed interacting with a stranger".

Simon's observations of other Starbucks customers suggests that he is not alone in his aloneness. In his visits to Starbucks, he observed 65% of the tables had single occupants. However, solitary visits are not restricted to Starbucks stores: in a study we conducted last year at another independent coffeehouse in Seattle (Measuring the Impact of Third Place Attachment on the Adoption of a Place-Based Community Technology), we observed that 62% of customers were alone. As others have noted, aloneness is not loneliness, and while loneliness can be harmful to one's health, aloneness is not always - or even often - a bad thing: Chris Pluger extolled the virtues and benefits of two hours of joint solitude in a coffeehouse in a marvelous 2005 essay.

And, just to round things out, aloneness abetted by technology does not equate to isolation. Hampton and his students recently published a report on Social Isolation and New Technology, in which they note that many aspects of technology use are inversely correlated with social isolation. For example, people who use mobile phones, online photo sharing services and instant messaging tools actually have larger core discussion networks - the significant people with whom we discuss important matters - than those who do not, and bloggers have more racially diverse discussion networks than non-bloggers. However, use of online social networking services such as Facebook does appear to substitute for – rather than supplement – some level of local involvement in the physical world.

In any case, I don't believe Simon believes solitary visits to coffeehouses are a bad thing. However, taken to an extreme, he is concerned that the pervasive solitariness that persists within coffeehouses detracts from the benefits traditionally offered by coffeehouses: "connections, conversations, debate, and, ultimately, the ongoing and elusive desire for community and belonging in the world". Simon notes that Howard Schultz, Starbucks' CEO, has expressed a similar sentiment, seeking to recreate "a sense of community, by bringing people together and recognizing the importance of place in people's lives", although I should note that Simon expresses cynicism about this (and many of Schultz' pronouncements).

TheGrandLiteraryCafesOfEurope Others have also recently commented on the disappearance of coffeehouse traditions. 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. Interestingly, Idov argues that this trend toward balkanization is more exacerbated in the third wave (independent) coffeehouses, which he labels as "austere obsessives", observing that "[w]ith the exception of the ubiquitous Starbucks, where slumming and aspiration meet, we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes". And Idov should know, given his own "nightmarish" experience as an independent coffeehouse owner, wherein his dream of hosting a "perpetual dinner party" was soon dashed by the economic, psychic and emotional costs of opening and operating a shop in New York's Lower East Side.

In a related article on Coffee House Culture, Robert Bain elaborates on an episode of the BBC radio series, The Eureka Years, on Coffee, Cosmology and Civil War, an historical account of coffeehouse traditions circa 1650, which suggests that the balkanization that Idov decries may not be a recent, nor exclusively American, invention:

Coffee houses became the respectable alternative to taverns, serving a drink that sharpened rather than dulled the senses and fuelled conversation about arts, science, politics and business. Lloyds’ insurance market, the Stock Exchange and Newton’s theory of gravitation all have their origins in the coffee house.

Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist by day and an expert in the history of coffee by night, draws parallels between coffee house culture and the internet: “Coffee houses tended to have subject-specific alignments, so if you were the clergyman you would go to this one, and if you were an actor you went to that one and if you were a sailor you went to that one, and so forth. They were a bit like websites, and you’d sort of go to the ones that matched your interests…

Oldenburg-GreatGoodPlace Ray Oldenburg has also researched the history of coffeehouse culture, extending it to other types of hangouts in his classic book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, which is largely responsible for the popularization of [the notion of] the third place, Oldenburg praises the virtues of these "homes away from home" where "unrelated people relate" and "conversation is the main activity", offering spaces wherein "the full spectrum of local humanity" can engage in "inclusive sociability" and practice an "ease of association" that is rarely found elsewhere. Oldenburg argues that such places offer individual benefits - novelty, broadening of perspective and "spiritual tonic" - as well as community benefits - fostering the development of civil society, democracy and civic engagement.

Simon frequently invokes Oldenburg and his ideal of the third place, and notes - with some cynicism - that Howard Schultz does, too. Simon also draws upon a related idea, Elijah Anderson's notion of a "cosmopolitan canopy":

sites where different kinds of people gather and feel safe enough to let down their guard and open themselves up to new music, new food, new experiences, new ideas and even new people.

Simon describes a Starbucks on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, that had "that third place feel", and includes other accounts of Starbucks experiences that present what seems like the ideal picture of a third place. For example, he references a 2003 column written by Sandra Thompson in the St. Petersburg Times, "Bringing Us Together, One Latte at a Time", in which she highlights the distinct culture and community - or, perhaps, "subject-specific alignments" - of several different Starbucks in her city:

Once an urban dream in Tampa, Starbucks, the ultimate deliverer of caffeine, has cropped up all over the city. There are now 20 Starbucks in greater Tampa, and while the logo is the same for all, each has its own identity.

At the Starbucks on S Howard Street, you see the city's fashionistas, sitting outside under the oak tree at the edge of the parking lot, feeling good that they're hip and they're here. At the Starbucks near the University of South Florida, young people are hunched over laptops or textbooks, one duo discussing the merits of the carrot cake. At the Starbucks on S West Shore and Kennedy boulevards, well-dressed people with French accents drift in from the Wyndham Westshore Hotel across the street. At West Park Village, mommies and daddies pick up a latte before walking the kids down the block for ice cream.

However, as much as Simon promotes the idea of people who don't already know each other talking to each other and exchanging the ideas, by his own admission, he doesn't practice it much himself. Despite his extensive visits to many Starbucks stores (425), he notes that "on only a dozen or so occasions did I speak to someone I didn't already know", and that he sometimes found that "I didn't know what to say or how to raise questions ... with people I didn't know". And yet, on the same page, he complains that "I have been to plenty of Starbucks without much talk", though on the next page he admits "maybe I should have tried harder".

GoodSheet-008-20081030 I can relate to this challenge myself, and despite my general desire for greater connection and belonging - at coffeehouses and elsewhere - I often don't want to (or am unwilling to) take the time or assume the risk of initiating conversations with people I don't know. And we are not alone. One of the most popular ideas at MyStarbucksIdea - a web site where Starbucks customers can submit, comment and vote on ideas created shortly after Howard Schultz returned as CEO - was "Great Conversations at Starbucks", with 95120 points and 1030 comments. The ideator echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Simon, i.e., wanting to create "a sense of conversation and community" about "the arts, world events and culture" and moving toward a European-style "21st century 'cafe society'" at Starbucks stores. Starbucks responded by offering free copies of The Good Sheet - short, weekly, folded newsheets devoted to social, environmental, economic and political issues intended to spark conversations in the stores (number 008, from October 30, 2008, is shown left) - in its stores, and by sponsoring The Alcove, with Mark Molaro, an online long-format interview program, and offering free access to episodes on its stores' WiFi splash pages.

[Update, 20-Jan-2010: StarbucksMelody has posted a detailed, visually annotated history of the GOOD sheets on her blog; from comments on her blog post and on a post on the official Starbucks blog asking what kind of great conversations people were having, it appears that many people liked GOOD sheets, but there is only one reference to a conversation being sparked by one ... and that was between coworkers, not customers.]

IMG_0117_2 The desire to help break the ice, spark conversation and cultivate community was also the motivation behind CoCollage, the system we developed at Strands Labs Seattle and deployed at 24 coffeehouses and other "great, good places" around Seattle. CoCollage uses a large display to show a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded to a special web site by the customers and staff in that place. I don't know how successful The Good Sheet or The Alcove have been in fostering more conversation and community at Starbucks, but I do know we had some success on those dimensions with CoCollage. In our followup study, "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software", we found that 81% of customers reported that CoCollage "increased interactions" in the coffeehouse and 95% reported that the system "increased the sense of community" there.

An important source of inspiration for CoCollage was the participatory culture of art we discovered at our pilot site, ranging from the framed art on the walls to the more spontaneous art we found in the sketchbooks around the coffeehouse. In his book, Simon contrasts the abstract art, jazz music and "whiff of danger" that speak "the language of freedom and individualism" he associates with independent coffeehouse culture to the "exclusive and controlled environment" he associates with Starbucks stores. While I have observed a broader diversity of art and music in many of the independent coffeehouses I've worked with, most of them are considerably more careful about curating their coffeehouse environments than Simon appears to imagine.

One independent coffeehouse owner with a considerable community customer base told me last fall that he would not allow any kind of political posters or ads; even though he estimated that Barack Obama was the U.S. presidential candidate preferred by about 95% of his customers, he saw no reason to risk alienating the other 5% (bringing to mind earlier themes of politeness and balkanization). The owner of another independent coffeehouse, which also enjoys a strong community connection, imposes very strict standards about the art on its walls and the items allowed on its bulletin boards. Elizabeth Churchill and Les Nelson also found significant levels of curatorial constraints in their conversations with owners of an independent art gallery / cafe in which they had deployed their eyeCanvas digital bulletin board.

Bulletin Board @ 15th Ave Coffee & Tea I always notice - and often take photos of - bulletin boards in coffeehouses, as I think they offer interesting windows into the communities. Simon criticizes the Starbucks policy on bulletin boards, referring to a "Dos/Don'ts of Community Boards" document from the late 1990s (some of which is reflected in a Starbucks Gossip thread on bulletin boards about a year ago). Recently, I've noticed more variety in the items I've seen posted on Starbucks bulletin boards and elsewhere in its traditional stores. And the bulletin boards in its two new un-branded stores in Seattle - 15th Ave Coffee & Tea and Roy Street Coffee & Tea - are indistinguishable from many I have seen at independent coffeehouses (an example from 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea is shown left). These "street level" stores are widely viewed as an attempt by Starbucks to recapture some of its mojo. They are intended to be more individualized (both have their own distinct web sites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts) and better integrated with their local communities, offering poetry readings, musical performances and art, photography and video exhibitions. More importantly, these stores are designed to renew Starbucks commitment to "premium quality, passionate partners and a rich customer experience".

OpeningDayBusynessSimon has written a short blog post expressing cynicism about 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, focusing on its name (which, he notes, is not "Starbucks"), and describing it as "another attempt to consume genuine desire with carefully crafted artifice". Alex Negranza, one of the most passionate people I know in the local independent coffee community, posted an extensive review with a more balanced perspective, noting some positive developments in the quality of coffee at 15th Ave Coffee & Tea (a photo from which is shown right). Although Alex focuses primarily on the coffee at the new store, he also talks about enjoying "interesting conversations" with "extremely friendly" baristas who are "passionate about their involvement in coffee".

[Update, 2009-12-03: Alex has posted a review of Roy Street Coffee & Tea, which also focuses primarily on the coffee, but also talks about the "refreshing transparency", "sense of eagerness" and "refreshing outlook" among the "friendly and eclectic" baristas there.]

Passion is the key to the cultivation of animated conversation, engaged community and vibrant culture, whether in a coffeehouse or any other environment (online or offline). Several years ago, after reading the book, Pour Your Heart Into It, I wrote about Howard Schultz' promotion of passion, perseverance and partnership, and while I have read some cynical comments by disillusioned partners and former partners on the Starbucks Gossip blog, there are clearly a number of partners who persevere in their passion for Starbucks and its customers. A recent post there by a former Starbucks Manager - who has offered pseudonymous critiques of 46 Starbucks stores - about a legendary Starbucks experience offers an inspiring example of contagious passion at a Starbucks in Lynnwood, WA

Chris, a male barista who appeared to be everywhere at once ... was nothing short of amazing – while rocking the bar, he was tossing out well wishes to customers who were on their way out of the building. He joked with folks waiting for drinks. He interacted wonderfully with his fellow partners. It was like there was an aura of energy around him that touched anyone who came near. This is not to say the other partners weren't doing their's just that Chris noticeably stood out and the result was pretty damn cool to experience.

This story about Chris reflects elements of the Coffee House Man that Antony Wild writes about - and Simon alludes to - in his book, Coffee: A Dark History, and the plaza mayors that William Whyte describes in his classic book, "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces". Other names and descriptions for this kind of conversational catalyst can be found in a blog post on "Here Comes Everybody - Tummlers, Geishas, Animateurs and Chief Conversation Officers help us listen", in which Kevin Marks notes that 

The key .. is finding people who play the role of conversational catalyst within a group, to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation so that it can become a community ... The communities that fail, whether dying out from apathy or being overwhelmed by noise, are the ones that don't have someone there cherishing the conversation, setting the tone, creating a space to speak, and rapidly segregating those intent on damage.

Independent coffeehouses often have brilliant conversational catalysts, of course, and I have had the pleasure of enjoying regular exchanges with many of them; my point here is that Starbucks has them too. Simon questions the authenticity of any exchanges between Starbucks baristas and customers, referring to them as "corporate-generated recognition and banter", but I've read enough comments on different posts on Starbucks Gossip and other blogs that lead me to believe that many Starbucks partners genuinely enjoy interactions with their customers ... or, at least, most of their customers. No one likes to deal with angry, bitter customers (not to mention all the RUDE customers described on a Facebook discussion thread).

And speaking of anger and bitterness, this may be the area where I most sharply disagree with Simon. Simon talks in glowing terms about "heated exchanges", "noisy political debate" and "shocking, in-your-face art" while disparaging "respectful conversation", "familiarity" and "predictability". And he is as disparaging of National Public Radio as he is of Starbucks, accusing both as offering "smooth sailing for the less adventurous, those who want discovery but want it close by, clean, and not too far outside the mainstream". 

I believe there is room for - and value in - both the mainstream and the outliers. I enjoy vigorous debate, but vastly prefer the more respectful form of conversation curated on NPR (and PBS shows such as the Lehrer Newshour) to the kind of angry, bitter attacks I occasionally catch glimpses of on Fox News. With all due respect, I don't believe that civil engagement precludes civic engagement, or that politeness precludes passion. I also enjoy familiarity and predictability, and while I believe it is good to regularly stretch out of one's comfort zone(s), it is also good to have places - online and offline - where one can savor periods of relative comfort as well. Thus I, for one, am glad that there exists a range of third places that span the spectrum.

Coffee, conversation and continuing education at Kirkland Zoka

Kirkland Zoka I've met with good friends at Kirkland Zoka the past two mornings, enjoying great coffee, stimulating conversations of considerable breadth and depth, and a continuing education about a range of topics, including social media, Foucault and social dialogue, the challenges of living without a goal (or, at least, living without attachments) ... and the finer points of fine coffee.

Friday morning, I met with Jason Simon, a connoisseur and cultivator of caffeinated conversations, to talk about the ways that coffeehouses are using social media (e.g., Jason has been tracking how coffeehouses are using Twitter, the resurgence of controversy about WiFi use in coffeehouses and a collection of photos of conversations at coffeehouses), as well as the ways that social media is affecting - or might affect - conversations in coffeehouses (which was one of the design goals behind CoCollage).

Four-cone pour-over station Upon my arrival at Zoka, I was happy to reconnect with Matt, one of the baristas who had been working at Trabant when we initiated our collaboration on the initial deployment of CoCollage (and who has one of the coolest pair of forearm tattoos I've ever encountered). After telling Matt that I was interested in trying something with full body - subtlety is nearly always lost on me, and I need big, bold flavors in anything I drink to really have [positive] impact - he suggested the Kenya Kirimara, and I followed his recommendation, enjoying a great cup via their ceramic Melitta "pour-over" system (pictured left).

A stacked pair of ambient displays @ Kirkland Zoka While I was waiting for the coffee to be prepared, I became intrigued with the pair of 37 inch LCD displays showing dynamic patterns and sequences of Zoka-related photos on the southeastern wall of the coffeehouse. The upper display shows a scrolling collage of photos while the lower display shows a single photo at a time. As far as I can tell, all the photos are of, about or by Zoka, its owners and staff, the coffee they serve there and the places / plantations from which the coffee is sourced.

Although I was mostly engaged in the conversation(s) with Jason while I was there, my long association with CoCollage led me to occasionally monitor the level of attention and engagement the displays were attracting. It seemed to me that they were less engaging than the CoCollage displays - which also show a collage of photos (but the photos are contributed by customers, not just owners / staff, and their selection is influenced by who is in the coffeehouse at any given time) - but of course I'm [still] biased. I suspect part of the difference - in addition to who is contributing photos and whether / when they are shown - is due to the size and placement of the displays. The 37" LCDs (vs. 50" plasma displays used for CoCollage), coupled with the position in a corner of the coffeehouse some distance away from where most people sit, makes them somewhat less noticeable than most of the CoCollage installations. Interestingly, I had talked with the manager of the Greenlake Zoka (or "Original Zoka") and University Zoka about a CoCollage installation, but there was no interest in having any kind of display in those two coffeehouses. A recent post on the Zoka blog - Zoka Getting "With It" - which mentions the Zoka Facebook page and Twitter account (@zokacoffee) - suggests that they may be becoming more engaged in / through social media ... at least online.

Kirkland Zoka This morning, I returned to Kirkland Zoka to meet another friend, Mike Buckley, founder of Inventcor, which produces, among other things, a water tracker bottle (for monitoring daily personal hydration), to talk about personal, professional and philosophical issues not as closely related to coffeehouses, per se. The coffee house was much more crowded this morning (a Saturday) than yesterday morning, and I noticed that the community table had a much larger pool of people gathered around it today. The sun was shining for much of our time there, and the large, open windows, light colors and strategically positioned mirrors helped accentuate the delightful, but increasingly rare, absence of clouds today (though, alas, it did cloud over after a while).

After a post-coffee walk along the lakeside with Mike, I realized I was still undercaffeinated, and so after he left, I went back into Zoka for a second cup. Having recently started reading Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks, by Bryant Simon (no relation to Jason) - in which the author complains, among other things, about how customers at Starbucks stores tend to either keep to themselves, talk only with people they come in with, or talk with people they go there to meet, I was eager to spend some time there observing conversations (rather than participating in them). Although there seemed to be a few examples of spontaneous / serendipitous conversations among people waiting in line - perhaps due to the relatively inefficient layout of the counter (order on the left, pay on the right, go back to the left to pick up your drink, with the food display case in the middle) - I can't say I saw any more such conversations taking place at Zoka than I've seen (or Bryant Simon reports seeing) at Starbucks ... and despite Simon's critiques, I've had some pretty amazing coffee and conversation experiences at Starbucks.

Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta, in their fascinating study of Community and social interaction in the wireless city: wi-fi use in public and semi-public spaces, distinguish between true mobiles - who do not want to interact with others in the coffee shop (other than people they arrive with or meet there), and [so] often use laptops as "portable interaction shields" and/or mobile phones as "legitimate momentary diversions" -  and placemakers -  coffee shop customers who desire and seek out serendipitous social interactions. Hampton and Gupta studied both independent coffee houses and Starbucks coffee houses in two cities - Seattle and Boston - and did not report any significant differences between the types or numbers of conversations - or the relative proportions of true mobiles and placemakers - at either kind of place [Correction: they did note more true mobiles at Starbucks and more placemakers at independent coffee houses]. I plan to post another entry about the Bryant Simon book - and the Hampton & Gupta paper - once I'm done with the book ... and, perhaps, conducted a few more first-hand observations of Starbucks and third wave coffeehouses like Zoka.

Meanwhile, returning to first-hand experiences of coffee and conversations, in addition to observing conversations at Zoka, I was also eager to expand my coffee horizons. I asked Conner, another barista there (who also looks familiar ... perhaps he also worked at Trabant), for a recommendation of another full-bodied coffee to try. He told me they had Ethiopian Sidamo, and asked me if I wanted some of the old batch or some of the more recently roasted batch. I asked him which was bigger and bolder, and he said the older one probably had an edge in that regard, so that's what I ordered.

Ethiopia Sidamo, old (natural) and new (washed) As it turned out, although my plan was to only observe conversations, I become a participant in yet another engaging discussion. Conner went on break shortly after serving up my coffee, and sat down next to me for a bite to eat ... and didn't get as much of a break as he'd probably anticipated. I asked him what the difference was between the old and new batches of Ethiopian Sidamo. He explained that the older batch was "natural", i.e., after picking the coffee cherries, the cherries are laid out to dry before extracting the beans from their casing. This allows more of the fruit of the cherries to be imparted (infused?) into the beans, and increases the acidity. The newer batch was "washed", i.e., the beans are removed from the cherries - and washed - soon after picking, before they are allowed to dry. [I've since found a blog post with information about "washed" and "natural" Ethiopia Sidamo.] Conner asked me if I could taste any blueberry in the cup I was drinking, and I had to admit that I could ... continuing an educational process that started with a Clover tasting at Trabant over a year ago. There was only a handful of beans left from that batch, and he kindly put them in a bag for me to take home with me (see photo to the right). I now wish I'd asked for a cup of the new batch, to try them side-by-side, but then I probably would have been overcaffeinated.

Perhaps I'll go back soon to pick up a bag of the newer batch ... in any case, I'll definitely be going back there, as Kirkland Zoka is my new favorite independent (or, perhaps more accurately, micro-chain) coffee house on the Eastside.

Interactive Displays at Disney World

As I noted in my notes from UbiComp 2009, I missed a few sessions during the last day of the conference so I could explore more of Disney World, taking advantage of my free birthday pass to look for examples of how interactive displays were used to enhance guest experiences at Epcot Center. It felt a bit odd to be spending [part of] my birthday alone at Disney World, but as I noted in my earlier post on pins, positivity and practices at Disney, I was sporting my "Happy Birthday!" button during part of the day, so although I was alone, I didn't feel [as] lonely.

I'd heard reports of an interactive game on big screens for those waiting in line for Soarin', so that's where I went first. The line was the perfect length when I arrived - I was able to walk right up to a point at which the first few of the five giant screens was visible, and the line had just started moving, so I was able to advance to the edge of that first screen before the line stopped.

Waitin' for Soarin' The five ambient / interactive displays in line at Soarin'

The displays appear to operate in two modes: ambient and interactive. In ambient mode, each display shows a different sequence of intriguing landscape sketches, accompanied by music that I might characterize as reflective and complex.

Ambient display for the people waiting in line at Soarin'

One of the interesting effects of this mode is that as the crowd enters this area, they shift from being rather boisterous and chatty into a somewhat more subdued state; the attention of many of the people in the queue seems to shift from their family and friends to the images and music. After about five minutes of ambient mode, the displays shift to interactive mode, wherein the people in line are explicitly invited to play a game, in this case, "Experience the Land".

Ready to Play? (in line @ Soarin') Experience the Land @ Soarin'

In each game, the projected images are influenced by the actions of the people in line. According to a report on Soarin' in AllEars, the interaction involves a combination of motion detection and heat sensing (another report alludes to infrared as the underlying technology). Silhouettes of [parts of] people in line are projected onto the screen, and as they move around and/or wave their arms, they affect the story unfolding on the screen.

In the first game, "Form the Land" (shown on the left below), people's movements help to "push up" regions of virtual landscape into virtual mountains; I kept using my hand in a pushing up motion, but seemed to reach plateaus in some of the formations. In the second game, "Grow the Seeds" (on the right), waving physical hands over virtual seeds helped sprout the seeds into virtual plants; I suspect that additional waving helps grow the plants, and I was biding my time between sprouting new plants - requiring jumping to get the ones high up (perhaps these are within standing reach of people in line that are farthest from the screen, and so I may have been hogging the ball, so to speak) - and tending to existing plants, but at one point I inadvertently hit the person next to me, so I curbed my enthusiasm a bit after that.

Form the Land @ Soarin' Grow the Seeds @ Soarin'

The entire two-game sequence lasted about 5 minutes - about the time it takes for the Soarin' ride itself - and then I was in line for another 5 minutes of ambient mode before reaching the final destination, so I suspect that the queue is designed to toggle between ambient and interactive modes every 5 minutes, and if you have to wait 10 minutes or more, you get to try the game at least once.

I have since read an Orlando Sentinel blog post - Soarin' queue games a hit - which references "a bird game" so I suspect that there are a set of different games that are - or have been - provided for those waiting in line for Soarin' (and a more recent report in the Orlando Sentinel - Wait may be more fun at Disney's Space Mountain - suggests that an "interactive queue" and "audio-visual upgrades" may be included in the rehabilitation of that ride).

Update, 2009-11-11, via BoingBoing: a new post on Disney Parks Blog about "Walt Disney World’s Classic Space Mountain Attraction to Reopen with a Few Surprises" includes some updates and photos, from which excerpts are included below.

Passengers will be able to immerse themselves in unique game play as they prepare for blast off, becoming part of the space station adventure. During a recent walkthrough, we deflected asteroids to keep runways clear as part of the story.

The interactive experiences are based on duties you’d find on board a long-traveling space craft, according to Walt Disney Imagineering Senior Show Designer Alex Wright. Each game lasts about 90 seconds with a 90-second interval and the games can accommodate 86 players at one time.


Had I known about the possibility of multiple games at the time of my visit, I would have looped back through, just to see whether I could try another game. The post describes some group dynamics - "many people were yelling, in unison, 'lean left!' and 'lean right!' while trying to lead the bird through the forest" - that I did not observe in the Experience the Land games, so if I were to go through the queue again, I would also explore more of the collective dimensions of play in this context. There is a debate in the comments on that post about whether the game ultimately makes the queue move slower - i.e., whether people are so absorbed in the game that they don't move forward as the line opens up. While I was there, the timing was such that movement seemed to take place only when the game was not in play; I'm not sure whether this was a game feature added after the initial roll-out or was part of the original design.

More coffee, content and community One of the most challenging dimensions of designing large display applications for public and semi-public places is achieving the contextually appropriate level of engagement. If the displays are too engaging, they virtually (or attentionally) take people out of the physical space, reducing "task performance" among the people in that space. If they are not sufficiently engaging, then it is not worth the time or money to deploy them. We encountered this Goldilocks dilemma - not too hot, not too cold - in the design of our CoCollage proactive display application, where our ambient visualization of photos and quotes uploaded by people in a cafe was designed to  promote awareness and conversations among those people while they were in line (and/or elsewhere in the cafe) without unduly interfering with the "task" of placing their orders when they got to the end of the line. In some cases we got it right, but in others - due to a complex combination of factors including place, placement and community in places - the display appeared to be either too engaging or not engaging enough [and before moving on, in this context, I can't help but mention that there is a 1939 Disney short film on Goldilocks and The Three Bears.]

After searching around for some other uses of displays, I decided to take a break from my field exploration in order to attend the closing keynote and post-conference UbiComp steering committee meeting back at the Disney Conference Center. Fortunately, this was within easy walking distance.

800px-Spaceship_earth When I resumed my journey at Epcot later that afternoon, the next stop was Spaceship Earth, where in this case I was more interested in the use of displays after the ride rather than before the ride. Shortly after embarking on the ride, the riders are invited to "Look up", whereupon a photo is taken of each rider in a two-person car. The ride then progresses through a series of animatronic exhibits highlighting the relentless march of technological progress. During the ride, and at the end - while the car is backed down into the catchment area - each rider is asked a series of questions; I'll include the questions below, with my responses highlighted in italic, and links to photos I snapped of the kiosk when the questions were shown:

I was then shown my freshly semi-customized video from the future, which given the constraints imposed by the questions and multiple-choice responses, represents an example of user-influenced content vs. user-generated content. A further constraint I encountered is that the Disney site does not permit embedding, so I downloaded the video, uploaded it to YouTube and embedded it below. I'll also include a transcript of the narration.

Interestingly, in this context, the video includes a number of displays, including a portable medical scanner, a portable smart health card reader / display (shown in the keyframe for the video below) and a wearable cast-mounted display for monitoring / expediting the healing of a broken arm mended by a microscopic (or perhaps nanoscopic) robotic team. 

Your Future: Portable Medical Scanner Your Future: Portable Health Card Reader / Display Your Future: Mending Monitor

I don't know how the video might have been affected had there been another real passenger in the car providing input to the questions above, but my assigned virtual co-star in the movie appears to bear the brunt of the health problems we encounter during the episode.

Welcome to the future ... or should I say _your_ future?

Here in your future, it'll be more fun than ever to enjoy nature in the great outdoors. But even in a perfect world, accidents do happen. [video shows skiers on an icepacked ledge that breaks up falling down a mountain]

Don't worry, with your take charge attitude, you are prepared. A portable medical scanner analyzes the situation. Fortunately, your entire history is with you at all times on a smart card.

Your first day might include nanotechnology, a microscopic robotic team that fixes the injury from the inside.

And while you relax at home with a cup of soup, technology speeds recovery time. In no time at all, you're back on your feet. Uh-oh [video shows another icepack breaking up under skis]. Fortunately, in the future, help is never far away.

The end ... or should I say the beginning ... of your future.

Recent riders - and their hometowns - on Spaceship Earth After disembarking from the ride, I entered an area dominated by a large spherical display of the earth, with photos of the people emerging from the ride momentarily superimposed on the display, after which the photos are whisked away to the points on the earth representing their hometowns. Surrounding the globe are a collection of large rectangular displays showing the keyframes for the semi-customized videos that had been produced by recent riders, and a set of kiosks at which riders can find their videos from the future and send them to themselves - and one other person - via email. I found myself wishing I could have simply swiped my magnetically-striped Disney card rather than having to manually enter my email address on the touch-screen (and waiting in line in order to even get to a free kiosk). I'll include a Flickr slideshow of the sequence of events - and displays - encountered at Spaceship Earth below.

One of the interactive games I heard about, but did not experience first-hand, was the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, in which players use their "super-secret Kimmunicators—interactive, handheld, cell-phone-like devices that help maneuver agents through their mission". This was a game that encompasses several screens - the screens on the hand-held devices, as well as larger screens at different pavilions around Epcot.

A "fiesta" margaritaOne reason I didn't try it is because I heard several reports about the game being boring (for adults) and crassly commercial - many of the adventures are designed to lure the agents into specific areas of the shopping areas of the various pavilions. The other reason was that, it being my birthday, I wanted to take some time off from my field study to simply enjoy other dimensions of the guest experience, such as the warm weather, a beautiful sunset - a more naturalistic, but less interactive, public display of sorts - and the tasty margaritas I discovered around the Mexican pavilion.

Update, 23 October 2009:

Wired's GadgetLab published a short article - and video - on Interactive Art Pushes Boundaries of Viewer, Artist, highlighting the work of Camille Utterback, which seems closely related to the Soarin' game:

Digital artist Camille Utterback makes installations that combine cameras, projectors and custom software to create interactive, playful paintings.

Stand in front of her work, and you’ll soon be waving your arms, walking around, spinning or hopping to figure out how your movements get translated into the abstract, colorful strokes on the screen.


Pins, Positivity and Practices: Hybrid Design at Disney World


The day after the Doctoral Colloquium at UbiComp 2009, I attended a workshop on Hybrid Design Practices. Given my interests in hybridity, design and practices, I was eager to see how these all might fit together, and to meet others with shared interests. The Call for Participants included a number intriguing dimensions, including a field exploration of the public spaces of Disney World, reflecting on interdisciplinarity in ubiquitous computing, and developing a new vocabulary for this area of inquiry. Among the field exploration discoveries I found most interesting were the extensive use of pins (and tags, buttons and badges) and an almost preternatural promotion of positivity throughout this carefully constructed hybrid world.

The organizers who facilitated the workshop - Lucian Leahu, Silvia Lindtner and Karen Martin - led off with a brief summary of the goals of the workshop, an outline of the day, and an invitation to pair off and introduce ourselves to each other, including our favorite Disney character, and then introduce our partner to the rest of the group. I had the good fortune of pairing off with Matt Ratto, who has designed a number of interesting hybrid objects that integrate the online with the offline; in fact, I got so interested in learning about Matt's work I forgot to ask him about his favorite Disney character.

A brief teaser of some related critical - and provocative - work was offered, including Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World, by Kuenz, et al., The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Dubord, and Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard, complemented by the screening of a short segment of a more positive piece, a video of Walt Disney World from The History Channel's Modern Marvels series. The portion of the video I found most intriguing was during an interview with Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, following an observation by the narrator about Walt Disney's successful combination of technology and great storytelling:

The theme park is the first experience wherein the audience can actually walk through the frame into the story, and actually participate in that story in a way that was entirely unique. It went from being a passive experience to an active experience.

Our subsequent field excursions enabled us to become participant-observers in some of the active experiences designed for that environment. Before embarking on our journey, the organizers divided us into two groups - I was with the Downtown Disney crew, the other group explored the Polynesian Village - and presented us with some cue cards suggesting some aspects to which we might attend (Nature, Social, Spatial, Technological), and a outlining a few tasks within each of those aspects, during our investigations.

Hybrid design field study questions Hybrid design field study questions

I was assigned the Technological dimension, which included the following three tasks:

  • Document three examples of how technology links the past and the future
  • Find three examples of how technology bridges work and play
  • Record three points where technology brings out the visible or hides the real

Today is tomorrow's yesterday: pre-allocating memory storage I found that these dimensions - and the tasks within my assigned dimension - were helpful guides for the field exploration. I won't go into all the details here, but will simply note that my conception of "technology" was expanded to include a number of devices that I might not have thought of as technology, for example a photo frame annotated with a story about one's first visit to Disney ... which may in some cases be purchased at the outset of that trip, thereby anticipating or framing one's future memories ... a sort of prospective retrospective device, calling to mind the adage "today is tomorrow's yesterday" ... or the notion of pre-allocating memory storage (in more technical terms).

Nancy: a fountain of knowledge about Downtown Disney However, the most interesting uses of technology - to me - were discovered immediately after getting off the bus, where we were greeted by Nancy, an amazingly helpful cast member (the term Disney uses for all employees) who kindly provided some information about the technologies - high and low - used to cultivate experiences for guests (the term Disney uses for all customers / visitors). At the high end of the technology spectrum, she had a radio / phone with an earbud to communicate with other cast members who were on "downtown duty" (she told us that cast member leaders use Blackberries). What I found most intriguing, though, was the assortment of devices at the low end of the technology spectrum she had at her disposal: maps, brochures, stickers, certificates and a diverse collection of pins to give out to people ... and a few prominent pins of her own. Nancy's name tag revealed that her hometown is Seattle, WA - an immediate connection point for me (I was the only Seattleite in the group) - and she explained that the two other pins attached to the name tag were a 5-year Service Anniversary pin and a "Partners in Excellence" pin, the latter being a prestigious award that is given to a small number of cast members each year based on a process of recommendation, nomination and voting among peers (Jack Spence has a great blog post about the history of Disney name tags that provides far more details about the badges and the supplemental pins), confirming that we were not the only ones who found Nancy to be incredibly helpful in our Disney experience.

In addition to her own name badge and pins, Nancy had a ribbon full of 10 other pins that could not be given away but only traded (and only traded with guests, not other cast members ... and I've since discovered that there are more elaborate sets of rules and traditions surrounding Disney pin trading). But the highlight of the entire Disney experience for me was the discovery of a set of buttons that she had for giving away to guests to promote the ubiquitous theme of celebration. The buttons denoted celebrations for such milestones as birthdays, engagements, honeymoons, anniversaries, family reunions and an "everything else" button for simply broadcasting the sentiment "I'm celebrating".DisneyButtons

45th Anniversary Buttons @ Disney World Nancy told us that cast members regularly acknowledge these celebratory milestones whenever they encounter a guest who is sporting a button, wishing them "happy birthday", "happy anniversary" or simply "congratulations". She also said that guests also sometimes acknowledge other guests' milestones ... a practice I confirmed on our bus ride back, while I was standing next to a seated couple who was celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary ... and sporting "Happy Anniversary!" buttons with "45" marked on them. They told me that several other guests - especially others who were sporting "Happy Anniversary!" buttons - had congratulated them (forming an ad-hoc mutual congratulation society), and they enjoyed the serendipitous opportunities to meet and talk with other couples who were celebrating their anniversaries, especially others who were celebrating 40+ years of marriage. In fact, they said they'd love to have a special dinner where they could get together with all the other 40+ anniversary couples.

I've long been fascinated with name tags, and the way they promote reciprocal self-disclosure. As I'd written in a blog post on this topic several years ago:

HelloMyNameIsScott I spent a delightful hour reading "Hello, My Name is Scott: Wearing Nametags for a Friendlier Society", by Scott Ginsberg, yesterday ... Scott has worn a nametag every day since October 2000 because "it makes people friendlier and more sociable and also helps them remember my name."

I earlier posted a bit about Scott's front porch philosophy; today I want to elaborate on another topic Scott covers: reciprocal self-disclosure. One of the many interesting recurring reactions Scott has encountered is that people are more likely to verbally introduce themselves to him, presumably because he has already visually introduced himself (via his nametag) to them.

This reciprocal name exchange is an example of self disclosure, which is the act of making yourself manifest. The reason people are significantly more willing to give me their names as soon as we begin the conversation is because self disclosure is reciprocal respective to the level of intimacy that you have revealed. In short, when you tell someone something about yourself, e.g., your name, they will be likely to tell you that same thing about themselves.

I decided to experiment with some approachability enhancement - and reciprocal self-disclosure - later in the conference. Since I actually was celebrating my birthday while at the conference, I picked up a "Happy Birthday!" button that I added to my Pathable conference badge and ribbons. As expected, a number of people at the conference - and others I encountered outside of the conference (cast members and other guests) - wished me a happy birthday. And, like the couple I'd spoken with on the bus, I started noticing other "Happy Birthday!" buttons, and found myself almost unconsciously wishing them "Happy Birthday!". I was even wishing couples "Happy Anniversary!" ... and would have expressed other positive wishes about other milestones had I been able to recognize more of the other buttons. Talk about an effective technology for promoting the Disney theme of "celebrate today"!

Disney reserves the right to moderate user-designed tee-shits Another technology that we discovered during the workshop field exploration was the Design-a-Tee system. Guests can use a kiosk to customize a tee shirt with images of Disney characters, Disney slogans and/or user-generated - or perhaps guest-generated - content. In an experiment to test the limits of acceptability within this carefully constrained environment, one of the members of our group designed a tee shirt that started with an image of the Disney character, Grumpy (a character from the Disney movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), in the center of the shirt, and then added the text "Disney makes me" above the image and the text "Grumpy" below the image (i.e., "Disney makes me ... Grumpy"). A receipt for the shirt was then printed out at the counter, and when we asked the cast member there, he consulted with his supervisor, who told us that this tee shirt design could not be used as it violated the acceptable use policy, which stipulates (among other things) that only positive - or at least non-negative - messages about Disney could be used on such shirts. We considered going back later, to generate another shirt, but not ask explicitly about the policy, to see if we could slip one through ... however, we never performed the followup experiment.

[Update, 3 Nov 2009: BBC reports that Feeling grumpy is 'good for you', so perhaps we really should be celebrating grumpiness :-) ]

Hybrid design objects When we returned to the meeting room at the Yacht Club Conference Center to process and share our findings, we adopted a variety of practices to represent and/or implement the results of our field exploration. A few of us started compiling photos from the day, incorporating some of them into a slide deck and others into photo albums (due to time constraints). Others started designing hybrid objects, continuing the theme of subversion that we had begun exploring at the Design-a-Tee store; some of those objects are shown to the right.

The other group had inadvertently discovered some of the local dependencies within the Disney World transportation system when the monorail broke down for a bit. They spent nearly 2 hours trying to get back to the Conference Center from the Polynesian Village, encountering various cast members in various spots, each with limited amounts of information about the best way to proceed ... and finding themselves moving along various suboptimal paths - including some dead ends - in their exploration. They decided to represent their experiences through an experiment in which each drew a map of Disney World, based on their perceptions along the journey. All of the maps contained the remarkable - and landmarkable - geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth at Disney's Epcot Center, but there were a number of interesting variations on some of the other details, reminiscent of Stanley Milgram's experiment on psychological maps of Paris (perhaps an early example of hybrid design).

One of the interesting aspects that arose in this multi-faceted processing of the field explorations was a discussion about whether we were really doing design (we were clearly doing something very hybrid), followed by a related discussion about whether we were really doing ethnography during the field exploration. I honestly don't know enough about either design or ethnography to comment on these debates, but I rather liked Matt Ratto's suggestion that we avoid the design debate by simply using the word "making" to describe some of the work we were doing after our field study.

I don't know if I came away with a better understanding of what the organizers intended by Hybrid Design Practices, but I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to meet and explore Downtown Disney with other interesting people, and to investigate the ways that Disney has designed space, technology and social practices in conjunction with - and opposition to - nature to promote positive experiences among its guests.

[Pictures in header via Flickr and Graham Coreil-Allen and Flickr and pinky09 via Hybrid Design Practices workshop page.]

Digital Cities 6

I finally got a chance to attend a workshop in the Digital Cities series last week at the 4th International Conference on Communities and Technologies (C&T 2009) at Penn State University. Digital Cities 6, organized by Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano and Hiromitsu Hattori, focused on the theme of "Concepts, Methods and Systems of Urban Informatics". The participants and projects represented a broad range of ways that digital technology can enhance people, places, events and other things in cities. [I've posted some photos from the workshop on Flickr, with the "digitalcities6" tag.]

Martijn de Waal started things off with "The Urban ideals of Location Based Media", positing the question "What is a city?" and noting some of its dimensions:

  • a bunch of infrastructure
  • a cultural system
  • a community
  • a polity

Among the themes that resonated most strongly with me was his assertion that location based media is not [necessarily] "anywhere, anytime, anything" but here and now, his suggestion that we shift our attention from placelessness to situatedness, his invitation to reconsider the prioritization of efficiency over all else, and his distinction between casting people as citizens vs. consumers. Martijn has [also] posted a set of excellent notes from the workshop.

CO2nfessionCO2mittment-small Jonas Fritsch presented "Between Engagement and Information: Experimental Urban Media in the Climate Change Debate" [slides], which included a number of interesting projects designed to promote civic engagement (a recurring theme throughout the workshop and the conference). One project was CO2nfession / CO2mmitment (photo on right), in which citizens could enter a booth at a climate change event in Aarhus to videorecord both a confession of their sins of CO2 emissions and seek absolution through a commitment to reducing their future emissions. These CO2nfessions and CO2mmitments were then shown on displays at the event venue. Another project was Climate on the Wall, inspired by magnetic poetry (and perhaps Tetris), in which words and phrases associated with climate change were projected on the side of a building, and people could physically interact with those projected terms to form statements reflecting their views on climate change via their movement at or near the wall.

Jon Lukens was next up, talking about "Seeing the City through Machines: Non-anthropocentric Design and Youth Robotics", in which he described a workshop to get youth involved in the design of urban robots to encourage them to think critically about different (non-human) relations to the environment helps reveal new design considerations - seeing the city through new [robotic] eyes. The students were given the task of designing a robot to participate in an infrastructure scavenger hunt in an urban area. One group of students produced a video called "Curiosity Killed the Camera", but unfortunately, I can't find it anywhere. Interestingly, while encouraging students to think more critically about themselves and their bodies as they exist in space, one student asked "am I a robot?" I found myself thinking about Stelarc as representing a rather extreme position on the spectrum of reconsidering selves, bodies and spaces.

CreateClub-Jelly-PaneraBread-KansasCity-LauraForlano Laura Forlano shared some ideas about "Building the Open Source City: Changing Work Environments for Collaboration and Innovation" (many of which are described in greater detail in a great blog post about Work and the Open Source City). She motivated this theme, in part, via an experience at Panera Bread in Kansas City, where she stumbled upon some people working at a table with a sign saying "Create Club" and "Jelly" (see photo to the right), the latter of which has become a meme [tag] for casual coworking - people working on different things coming together to work in the company of others at homes or third places. Laura talked about NEWworkCITY, a slightly more formal comunity coworking space (reminding me of Office Nomads here in Seattle), noting that a natural tension arises in such such spaces “for like-minded people” between homogeneity and heterogeneity. She also presented Project BREAKOUT!, part of the Toward the Sentient City exhibition planned for September 2009, in which people will be invited to bring their work out of their offices and into public spaces around New York City (such as parks), in what sounded to me a bit like a flash work mob. She finished off with a brief description of UrbanOmnibus, a project of the Architectural League of New York that seeks engagement from a broad range of urban stakeholders in the design and redesign of urban spaces.

I presented "Ambient Informatics in Urban Cafés", an overview of CoCollage, our place-based social networking application that uses a large computer display to show a dynamic collage of photos and quotes uploaded to a special web site by patrons and staff in a café or other community-oriented place. Rather than writing more about it here, I'll simply embed the slides I used for the presentation from SlideShare ... and encourage any readers who were also at the workshop (or the conference) to post their slides, with the "cct2009" tag (I also used the "digitalcities6" tag for my workshop slides). [Further details can be found in our main conference paper, "Supporting Community in Third Places with Situated Social Software".]

Marcus Foth motivated his talk on "Urban Futures: A Performance-based Approach to Residential Design" by noting a frequent problem in the urban planning process (which UrbanOmnibus is presumably also trying to address): citizens share ideas with urban planners, but they never get any feedback, i.e., they rarely know whether any of their input has any impact on the planning. Marcus and his colleagues created some new ways to elicit ideas from prospective citizens (or denizens) of a future master-planned community about what their ideal house would look and feel like. In an open space, participants were invited to close their eyes, imagine and act out (perform) how they would enter their home, and then record their ideas using crayons and paper on the floor. The outcome is a set of personas representing the kinds of people who might like to live in the planned community. The approach strikes me as an interesting mashup between the TrueHome approach of walkthroughs and interviews to understand personalities in the process of designing a home (which I first read about in Sam Gosling's book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, and I think some of his other insights into possessions, perceptions projections and personalities would also be applicable), and the Focus Troupe approach of using drama and theatre to elicit ideas for new consumer products.

Ross Harley - who traveled all the way from the University of New South Wales, Australia, just to attend the one-day workshop (and not the rest of the conference) - presented "Contactless Contact: Reconceptualising Radio and Architecture in the Wireless City". Ross showed some videos visualizing traveling through airspace in and around airports developed as part of the Aviopolis project. He and his colleagues are now shifting from studying airports to studying air, applying what ethermapping and other methods from experimental geography to explore the politics and aesthetics of invisible radio frequency networks - and their "intersecting thresholds of intensities" (my favorite new term from the workshop) - in and around cities. He cited the Touch Project, which explores potential connections between RFID-enabled mobile phones and [other] physical things, and a paper by Jerry Kang on Pervasive Computing: Embedding the Public Sphere, as interesting related examples of this kind of work ... and I found myself thinking about one of my favorite [dystopian] videos depicting a scenario in which the [RF] airwaves might be mined and mapped in interesting ways: The Catalogue, by Chris Oakley:

SenseableCity-TheWorldInsideNewYork Clio Andris presented the keynote, "Urban Informatics in a Digital Revolution", a catalog of projects at the Senseable City Lab at MIT, on behalf of her advisor, Carlo Ratti, who was unable to attend. There were way too many projects presented in this whirlwind tour to describe them here - all can be found at the Senseable City Lab home page - so I'll just mention a few here. One was the New York Talk Exchange, which includes visualizations on varying scales of the different places to which people in New York make phone calls (proxies for the web of the connections and relationships of New Yorkers). The photo on the right is one such visualization, The World Inside New York, representing the connections made from different neighborhoods within New York to different countries around the world. Clio talked about an extension of this work that is / will be applying graph theory to mobile phone calls made around the city (though it may be a city in UK) as a way of approximating the demarcation of the city boundaries.

TrashTrack-StarbucksCup StarbucksCupsAtEtech2007 Another project, Trash | Track, allows users (citizens?) to attach an active RFID tracking device to an article of trash, and then be able to track where that trash goes. The first example is a Starbucks cup that has been tracked in Seattle. The project reminds me of an automated version of Where's George, where dollar bills are tracked via serial numbers manually entered into a web site. There is a blog associated with the project, and there is a set of photos on Flickr, but I haven't been able to find anywhere that people can track any items in real-time. The photo to the left is from one of the recent blog entries, which represents the trajectory of the aforementioned Starbucks cup (as of, approximately, 20 May 2009) ... and the photo to the right is one I took two years at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies conference (ETech 2007) ... and I'm thinking that ETech 2010 might be a promising venue for a demonstration of Trash | Track. Meanwhile, I'd love to find out how I can participate in Trash | Track locally.

The presentation concluded with some historical context:

  • The agricultural revolution allowed us to harvest food to achieve sustainability
  • The industrial revolution allowed us to harvest human innovation and capitol labor resources
  • The digital revolution is allowing us to harvest information about all agents in the built environment, seen and unseen

I'm not entirely comfortable with the framing of these developments in terms of harvesting - which could be cast as a form of corporatist exploitation and extraction that Doug Rushkoff talks about in his recent book, Life, Inc. - but the presentation achieved its goal of being relevant, stimulating and provocative.

Ubidisplays-toripolliisi_small Hannu Kukka presented "A Digital City Needs Open Pervasive Computing Infrastructure", providing an overview of the UrBan Interactions (UBI) program at the University of Oulu in Finland. The goal of the program is to impose a visible and lasting change on the Finnish society (as opposed, or perhaps in addition, to publishing papers about the work). The program is deploying a network of UBI displays - large interactive displays with cameras, NFC / RFID, Bluetooth, wireless LAN and touch-screen capabilities - throughout Oulu. Twelve displays will be deployed - 6 indoor and 6 outdoor (the outdoor display installations will have two screens facing opposite directions). The displays will include user-generated media as well as local information and advertising. They are developing and plan to release open source toolkits for mobile phones that will enable users to interact with the displays, and to develop their own applications for use on / with the displays. Among the recent publications from the project is "Leveraging social networking services to encourage interaction in public spaces" from the MUM 2008 conference ... which sounds very relevant to our current project as well as some earlier work on "The Context, Content & Community Collage: Sharing Personal Digital Media in the Physical Workplace", a paper presented at the CSCW 2008 conference (for which, of course, I posted the slides). It sounds like a very interesting and relevant project - far more ambitious than our C3 Collage project at Nokia - but unfortunately, I can't find any images or videos to include in these notes. [Update: Timo Ojala sent me some links to photos and a video; I've embedded one of the photos above, but the video is a 58MB FLV file that must be downloaded to be viewed.]

Songdo_First_World_Tower_001 Germaine Halegoua presented "The Export of Ubiquitous Place: Investigating South Korean U-cities", including some interviews she's conducted with some of the people involved in the U-City project in Seoul, South Korea (aka the Seoul Digital Media City or DMC) and the Songdo U-Life project outside of Seoul in the new Free Economic Zone (FEZ) created in Incheon. Germaine is interested in what she calls the "cultural geography of media" (another cool new term for me), investigating the places of production and places of consumption of online media. In the DMC, the effort is to integrate new media technology into an existing city (what she called "hybridity" or "coexisting combination"); in U-Life, the goal is to co-develop the technology infrastructure with other dimensions of the planning and architecture - what the developers call a "Synergy City" - and then to export the business model to other cities. A recent photo of the Sondo is included to the right; more photos and a video can be found on their master plan page. Germaine will be traveling to Korea soon, to see how these plans are developing first-hand.

Last, but not least, Andrew Wong presented "Mobile Interactions as Social Machine: Young Urban Poor at Play in Cities in Bangladesh", in which he described three genres of using mobile phones: entertainment, enlarging their social network and creative mobile use to save cost through code. Many of the practices of the young urban poor are quite interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by what he called "missed call signaling" - calling a number and hanging up, sometimes multiple times in succession, to save the cost of an answered mobile phone call. Andrew described the "regional" languages - or perhaps dialects - that have evolved over time (he used the term "hyper-localization of communication"), highlighting how shallow media can be imbued with rich meaning with the right confluence of economic, social and/or entertainment incentives. This nuanced use of signaling reminded me of what was (for me), the highlight of the last Communities and Technologies conference (C&T 2007): Judith Donath's keynote on "Standing on Boxes: Signaling Costs and Benefits in Online and Offline Social Network".

I'll post some notes from the main conference in the near future. For now, I'll end off by noting that one of the many interesting serendipitous discoveries I made in searching around for links relating to the workshop is, unfortunately, a missed opportunity: a relevant project being conducted at Penn State Public Broadcasting - The Geospatial Revolution ("The location of anything is becoming everything"). Unfortunately, I did not see any members from that team at the workshop, despite its being held at the PSU campus ... perhaps we'll see them at the next Digital Cities workshop at C&T 2011, in Queensland, Australia (being chaired by Marcus Foth, one of he organizers of the Digital Cities workshop this year).

Many thanks to the organizers - and other participants - for co-creating such an engaging event!