Read in WSJ

Is Reality Broken? Is Virtuality Broken? The Costs and Benefits of Online vs. Offline

AloneTogether RealityIsBroken Two of the most interesting and provocative books I've encountered recently are Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, and Reality is Broken: How Games Can Make Us Better and How They Are Changing the World, by Jane McGonigal. I have not finished reading either book, but I've read numerous articles and reviews about both books, and my general impression is that Alone Together expresses concern that our increasing focus on virtual interactions is draining, depleting and distracting us from our real-world interactions, whereas Reality is Broken espouses the belief that the time we spend playing online games can renew and revitalize us and perhaps even lead us to redirect our energies toward solving real world problems.

Turkle is not proposing that we abandon all - or even most - of our technologies, but that we become more conscious of our choices about interacting with and through machines vs. interacting face-to-face with other humans. She warns that

These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about our intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time ... Sociable robots and online life both suggest the possibility of relationships the way we want them ... But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections.

Borrowing some of the language and insights shared by Brene Brown's TEDxHouston Talk on Wholeheartedness, I would characterize Turkle's book as inviting us to be more willing to lean into the discomfort of real-world interactions and embrace the courage, vulnerability and authenticity needed for meaningful connections with people IRL (in real life).

As technology increasingly co-inhabits more of our physical spaces - and inhabits increasingly human-like or animal-like robots in our midsts - we need to develop a more disciplined approach in balancing our online and offline interactions. During her January 17, 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, Turkle summed this up by saying "we have to put technology in its place".

McGonigal offers a more positive perspective on the value of online interactions. In a Wall Street Journal article on The Benefits of Videogames (adapted from her book), she implicitly questions whether we ought to lean into discomfort of real life, and promotes the embrace of the relatively friction-free engagement more readily available in online games.

Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer's sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? The real world just doesn't offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments. Reality doesn't motivate us as effectively. Reality isn't engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy.

However, while McGonigal advocates the benefits of gaming and online interactions, she does not turn her back on real life. During her February 3, 2011 interview with Stephen Colbert, she noted studies showing that "the emotions we feel in games spill over into our real lives", and describes a game, Evoke, that she designed to promote the creation of social enterprises to solve real world problems such as poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa.

I don't believe that McGonigal believes that reality is completely broken, nor do I believe that Turkle believes that virtuality - sociable robots and online interactions - is completely broken. However, each expresses a very different point of view about the relative costs and benefits of online vs. offline interactions.

I recently posted some slides I used for a guest lecture conversation on human-robot interaction in a human-computer interaction course at the University of Washington, Tacoma, which reference Alone Together and Reality is Broken, as well as a number of other ideas and perspectives on the topics of interacting with humans vs. robots and online vs. offline.

After tweeting a link to the slides, I followed up with another tweet:

Shortly thereafter, the current issue of ACM interactions magazine arrived, reminding me about a Social Media forum that I now edit in the magazine, which may offer an ideal venue in which to host a debate between these two inspiring authors. In my introductory article - which appears in the current issue (Bridging the Gaps between HCI and Social Media, which has not yet appeared is now available online) - I wrote about my intention to use the forum to reflect the conversational nature of social media, and to bring together short and potentially conflicting contributions by multiple thinkers and doers on topics of interest to the HCI community.

I'm hoping I can convince Sherry Turkle and Jane McGonigal to participate in an upcoming forum, as I think the insights and experiences they offer would be of great interest and benefit to the ACM interactions community. If you agree that this would be a worthy endeavor, please feel free to tweet a link to this post and CC @STurkle and/or @avantgame.

Click here to tweet this

Fitting in vs. Belonging: The Costs and Benefits of Conformity

TheGiftsOfImperfection-cover A while back, I wrote about Brene Brown's inspiring TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness as connection through courage, vulnerability and authenticity. I have since read her most recent book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, and was so moved by her insights that I have added it to my "top 10" books on the right column of this blog. As with most of the books on that list, I won't attempt a review of the entire book in one post, but will [continue to] tap into on themes from the book in various contexts. In this post, I want to explore the distinction Brown makes between fitting in and belonging, and how that distinction relates to other themes I've read, thought and/or written about recently with respect to personal and professional growth.

On the second page of the preface in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown shares two lists of recurring themes that emerged from the thousands of stories she's collected from people over her years of research into shame and resilience. The first list characterizes people who enjoy a strong sense of love and connection; the second list characterizes people who don't.

Do: worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude and creativity.

Don't: perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment and scarcity.

The inclusion of belonging in the first list and the inclusion of fitting in on the second list immediately jumped out at me, as I had previously thought of these two terms as synonymous. A little further on, Brown notes that she was [also] surprised at the distinction, and offers definitions for the two terms:

Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn't require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.

She goes on to define belonging in more detail:

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self acceptance.

In one of several guideposts she shares for learning how to be more courageous, vulnerable and authentic, Brown champions the idea of letting go of comparison, which she describes as being all about conformity and competition.

The comparison mandate becomes this crushing paradox of "fit in and stand out!" It's not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging and authenticity, it's be just like everyone else, but better.

The conflict between wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out appears to be yet another manifestation of the tension between agency and communion that lies at the heart of the stories we make up about ourselves, a topic I wrote about a few weeks ago. As I reflect on those ideas in this context, it occurs to me that conformity could be defined as adhering to the stories that others make up about us.

Battle_Hymn_of_the_Tiger_Mother-cover This conflict also seems to lie at the heart of the controversy surrounding a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, excerpted from a new book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. While Brown writes about the gifts of imperfection, Chua writes about the gifts of perfection. Citing a study of American and Chinese immigrant mothers, Chua notes that

the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job." ... Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you."

Chua offers three distinctions between the American and Chinese style of parenting, which reflect the expectation of [some] Chinese parents that children will conform to their parents' idea of who they should be by standing out from their peers in areas the parents deem important:

  1. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough
  2. Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.
  3. Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.

The article - and book - has triggered intense debate.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen responded with an article in the Huffington Post on The Question No One is Asking in the Tiger Mom Debate: Is achievement really the best measure of success? She goes on to share several examples of the high costs that conformity to parents' ideals has extracted from some famous child prodigies - including penury, profligacy and prostitution - and reports that the suicide rate among Asian-American women aged 15-24 is the highest of any race or ethnic group in that age range.

image from Ayelet Waldman, a Jewish-American mother and author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, offered a defense of the guilty, ambivalent, preoccupied Western mom in a followup article in the Wall Street Journal. Waldman's response is well-balanced and compassionate, expressing admiration for some of the positive elements of parental perseverance, guilt and regret for not always doing the best she might have done, but also proposing a more nuanced approach in which a child's individual needs are prioritized: "our job as mothers is to be the type of tigress that each of our different cubs needs".

Chua modulates her tone a bit in her own WSJ followup article, The Tiger Mother Talks Back, acknowledging the importance of love, compassion and willingness to make individual adjustments based on children's special needs. She also emphasizes that the book was intended as a description rather than a prescription, written as a memoir rather than a how-to manual. I have not read her book, but based on others' reviews, I suspect that the excerpted chapter or section was intentionally provocative, and that the book itself offers a somewhat more balanced perspective on parenting.

PowerOfPull Turning from parenting to business leadership - roles I see as having many common themes - the issue of fitting in vs. belonging was an implicit theme in my review of the recent book by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, The Power of Pull: Institutions as Platforms for Individual Growth. As the authors note in their book:

Rather than molding individuals to fit the needs of the institution, institutions will be shaped to provide platforms to help individuals achieve their full potential by connecting with others and better addressing challenging performance needs ... Rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be crafted to serve the needs of individuals.

Large organizations have traditionally tended to promote conformity, and to treat employees as standardized parts of a predictable machine, who suppress their intrinsic creative instincts in return for extrinsic rewards. Although the tactics employed by managers in most large organizations to encourage conformity are not as drastic as those employed by Amy Chua - e.g., the explosive episode of parenting pressure she describes in encouraging her daughter to play her piano piece correctly - they reflect a similar underlying premise: we know what is best [for you].

However, if one believes that innovation is more likely to occur at the edges than the core of an organization, and be practiced by people who are taking risks rather than conforming to written or unwritten rules, then the cost of conformity is to sacrifice innovation, and the benefits of innovation will accrue to those organizations that are willing to embrace non-conformity ... or perhaps even anti-conformity.

Few large organizations are willing or able to embrace - or even accept - non-conformity, much less anti-conformity. This is why many large organizations attempt to import innovation via acquisitions ... and why so few innovators stay on with their acquiring benefactors beyond the point at which their stock options vest ... and why so few imported innovations turn out to be sustainable.

Reflecting on Brene Brown's ideas, I suspect this corporate emphasis on conformity (and comparison and competition) is also why so few employees of large organizations are willing to be courageous, vulnerable and authentic in their work[places] ... and why so many employees feel so disengaged. Looking back at her "Do" and "Don't" list, I believe that the "Don't" list aligns more closely with most employees' experience in the workplace ... which may explain why wholeheartedness is more the exception than the rule in most workplaces.

John Hagel (@jhagel) recently tweeted a link to a provocative and compelling video on the topic of Conformity by YouTube video artist/scientist TheraminTrees, who weaves together a number of interesting and informative studies on our tendency to conform. One image in the video, in particular, reminded me of Brene Brown's ideas about wholeheartedness, authenticity ... and fitting in vs. belonging:


I highly recommend watching the entire video, but for the benefit of those who might not have the time or inclination to do so, I'll include a brief synopsis below the embedded video.

The narrator starts off with a definition of conformity as "behaving in accordance with real or imagined social norms, rules and expectations". He goes on to share a number of interesting studies from psychology and neurology about our tendency toward conformity in our perceptions, actions and judgments. Acknowledging that conformity can work for us - providing structure, predictability and helpful conventions - or against us - leaving us vulnerable to the tyranny of group opinion and the loss of authentic self - he warns that "we give up a lot more than we know". To guard against the costs of conformity, he offers four recommendations:

  • be aware of our vulnerability to conformity
  • actively change our behavior based on this awareness
  • cultivate healthy scepticism towards our own groups
  • be willing to disappoint people

TheInvitation This invitation to be willing to disappoint people reminds me of one of the most inspiring prose poems (and books) I've ever encountered - The Invitation, by Oriah Mountain Dreamer - and so I'm going to leave the last words on conformity to her:

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

Virtual Reality, Somatic Cognition, Homuncular Flexibility and Object-Centered Sociality and Learning

VirtualReality Jaron Lanier recently wrote about virtual reality and its potential application to learning, utilizing some evocative terms and offering an educational scenario that reminds me of a seminal 1997 paper that described how a Nobel prize-winning biologist fused with her objects of study. The Saturday Wall Street Journal article gave me a keener appreciation for the potential applications of virtual reality (VR) - immersive computer-generated environments that model real or imaginary worlds - and for the pervasiveness of object-centered sociality, a concept I first encountered via Jyri Engestrom.

Crane-sm6 Lanier's article is about new frontiers for avatars - "movable representations of ourselves in cyberspace" - and how they can be used to manifest somatic cognition - the mapping of human body motion "into a theater or thought and strategy not usually available to us" in which one's hands (or presumably, other body parts) can solve complicated puzzles more quickly than one's head (or conscious mind). The examples he gives of somatic cognition outside the realm of virtual reality include professional musicians, athletes, surgeons and pilots, and I found myself thinking of a documentary I saw years ago on heavy machinery, and the way that a crane operator who was interviewed described the bewildering array of levers as virtual extensions of his arms and hands.

After describing a software bug in an early VR system that gave his humanoid avatar a gigantic hand, Lanier generalizes homuncular flexibility as a more general principle: "people can learn to inhabit other bodies not just with oddly shaped limbs [gigantic hands], or limbs attached in unfamiliar places, but even bodies with different numbers of limbs [lobster avatars]". Dean Eckles generalizes this notion even further - in a 2009 blog post reviewing a 2006 article by Lanier on homonucular flexibility (which offers more details about the lobster) - to distal attribution: our propensity for attributing sensory perceptions to internal or external - or proximal or more distant - sources.

However, it is Lanier's reference to an experiment with elementary school children being turned into the things they were studying that I found most interesting [although I have not been able to track down the reference]:

Some [students] were turned into molecules, dancing and squirming to dock with other molecules. In this case the molecule serves the role of the piano, and instead of harmony puzzles, you are learning chemistry. Somatic cognition offers an overwhelming emotional appeal for education, because it leverages vanity. You become the thing you are studying. Your sensory motor loop is modified to incorporate the logic of a science, and you develop body intuition about that logic.

This idea of fusing or becoming one with the object of study is one of the two primary manifestations of object-centered sociality articulated in Karin Knorr Cetina's seminal paper, "Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies", [Theory, Culture & Society, 1997, Vol. 14(4):1-30]. As I noted in an earlier post on place-centered sociality, the other manifestation of object-centered sociality - sociality (interactions and relationships) through objects, such as online photos, videos or even blog posts - is better known, at least among many of those who study online social media (and mediation). But Lanier's article evokes the manifestation of sociality with objects themselves, reminding me of what I earlier wrote about Knorr Cetina's articulation of how this can promote deeper investigation and learning:

[Knorr Cetina] 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.

Kinect The prospect of empowering future Nobel laureates with virtual reality technology to engage with and virtually embody objects of knowledge at an early age is very exciting. Lanier mentions the Kinect camera for Xbox 360 made by Microsoft (his employer), which will likely put virtual reality technology in the hands (or homes) of millions of people in the near future.

The primary emphasis of Kinect marketing is on fun and games, but based on Lanier's article, and Knorr Cetina's insights into object-centered learning, Kinect might also provide a platform for a new approach to education. In an ideal world, of course, fun and learning would not be such distinct concepts ... perhaps this new technology will help promote a new dimension of convergence in the not-too-distant future.

The facts and opinions surrounding the Proposition 8 ruling

image from I was elated by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughan Walker's ruling agaist California's Propostion 8 last week. The 136-page ruling, overturning the state's ban on same-sex marriage, renews my hope for full civil rights for all of us's, including lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Over the weekend, I have read some interesting facts and opinions about the facts and opinions presented in the case. I also watched - and was moved in different ways by - Boys Don't Cry and The Kids are All Right, but I will stick to reviewing news articles rather than movies in the context of this post.

Dahlia Lithwick wrote a brilliant article on A Brilliant Ruling that appeared in Slate on Wednesday, in which she reports on some of the facts and opinions that were expressed by witnesses for the plaintiffs (two same-sex couples) and the defense (the state of California and opponents of same-sex marriage) in the U.S. District Court case. After noting the likelihood of an appeal of the ruling proceeding all the way up to the Supreme Court, the carefully crafted 15 citations to 2 Supreme Court decisions written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and commenting on the imbalance in preparation and presentation of expert testimony between the two sides in the trial, she highlights some specific findings articulated by Judge Walker that I find difficult to dispute (and I hope that Justice Kennedy and his colleagues will encounter similar difficulties in disputing the findings):

Then come the elaborate "findings of fact"—and recall that appellate courts must defer far more to a judge's findings of fact than conclusions of law. Here is where Judge Walker knits together the trial evidence, to the data, to the nerves at the very base of Justice Kennedy's brain. Among his most notable determinations of fact, Walker finds: states have long discriminated in matters of who can marry; marital status affects immigration, citizenship, tax policy, property and inheritance rules, and benefits programs; that individuals do not choose their own sexual orientation; California law encourages gay couples to become parents; domestic partnership is a second-class legal status; permitting same-sex couples to marry does not affect the number of opposite-sex couples who marry, divorce, cohabit, or otherwise screw around. He found that it benefits the children of gay parents to have them be married and that the gender of a child's parent is not a factor in a child's adjustment. He found that Prop 8 puts the force of law behind a social stigma and that the entirety of the Prop 8 campaign relied on instilling fears that children exposed to the concept of same-sex marriage may become gay. (Brand-new data show that the needle only really moved in favor of the Prop 8 camp when parents of young children came out in force against gay marriage in the 11th hour of the campaign.) He found that stereotypes targeting gays and lesbians have resulted in terrible disadvantages for them and that the Prop 8 campaign traded on those stereotypes.

image from After reading this article, I decided to download and read the full text of the ruling in Perry v Schwarzenegger [PDF] for myself. [Update: HTML5 version of the Prop 8 ruling on Scribd embedded at bottom.] Of particular interest, to me, was the testimony of one of the only two expert witnesses called by the proponents of Proposition 8 called in the case: David Blankenhorn, the founder and president of the Institute for American Values and author of The Future of Marriage.

Here are some particularly poignant passages regarding Blankenhorn's testimony, which the court concluded constitutes "inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight" (with a few links to items referenced directly or indirectly inserted):

During trial, Blankenhorn was presented with a study that posed an empirical question whether permitting marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples would lead to the manifestations Blankenhorn described as indicative of deinstitutionalization. After reviewing and analyzing available evidence, the study concludes that “laws permitting same-sex marriage or civil unions have no adverse effect on marriage, divorce, and abortion rates, the percent of children born out of wedlock, or the percent of households with children under 18 headed by women.” PX2898 (Laura Langbein & Mark A Yost, Jr, Same-Sex Marriage and Negative Externalities, 90 Soc Sci Q 2 (June 2009) at 305-306). Blankenhorn had not seen the study before trial and was thus unfamiliar with its methods and conclusions. Nevertheless, Blankenhorn dismissed the study and its results, reasoning that its authors “think that [the conclusion is] so self-evident that anybody who has an opposing point of view is not a rational person.”

I added emphasis to the last sentence, as to highlight the irony of one purported expert summarily dismissing the work of other purported experts while accusing them of, in effect, summarily dismissing other points of view that differ from their own ... reminding me of another article I read recently about a study that suggests what you say about others says a lot about you. Judge Walker similalry noted that Blankenhorn "failed to consider evidence contrary to his view in presenting his testimony".

In my reading of the case, it appears that Blankenhorn, if anything, offered testimony that tended to support the claims of the plaintiffs (the same-sex couples), against which he had been invited to testify:

Blankenhorn’s concern that same-sex marriage poses a threat to the institution of marriage is further undermined by his testimony that same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage operate almost identically. During cross-examination, Blankenhorn was shown a report produced by his Institute in 2000 explaining the six dimensions of marriage: (1) legal contract; (2) financial partnership; (3) sacred promise; (4) sexual union; (5) personal bond; and (6) family-making bond. PX2879 (Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, et al, The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles (Institute for American Values 2000)). Blankenhorn agreed that same-sex marriages and opposite-sex marriages would be identical across these six dimensions. Tr 2913:8-2916:18. When referring to the sixth dimension, a family-making bond, Blankenhorn agreed that same-sex couples could “raise” children. Tr 2916:17.
Blankenhorn testified on cross-examination that studies show children of adoptive parents do as well or better than children of biological parents [possibly referring to Farr, R. H., Forssell, S. L., & Patterson, C. J. (2010). Parenting and child development in adoptive families: Does parental sexual orientation matter? Applied Developmental Science, 10, 164-178]. Tr 2794:12-2795:5. Blankenhorn agreed that children raised by same-sex couples would benefit if their parents were permitted to marry. Tr 2803:6-15. Blankenhorn also testified he wrote and agrees with the statement “I believe that today the principle of equal human dignity must apply to gay and lesbian persons. In that sense, insofar as we are a nation founded on this principle, we would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were the day before.” DIX0956 at 2; Tr 2805:6-2806:1.
Blankenhorn stated he opposes marriage for same-sex couples because it will weaken the institution of marriage, despite his recognition that at least thirteen positive consequences would flow from state recognition of marriage for same-sex couples, including: (1) by increasing the number of married couples who might be interested in adoption and foster care, same-sex marriage might well lead to fewer children growing up in state institutions and more children growing up in loving adoptive and foster families; and (2) same-sex marriage would signify greater social acceptance of homosexual love and the worth and validity of same-sex intimate relationships. Tr 2839:16-2842:25; 2847:1-2848:3; DIX0956 at 203-205.

Dana Mack, who co-authored an earlier book with Blankenhorn in 2001, The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions, wrote a spirited defense of Blankenhorn's testimony and views in her Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Friday, Now What for Marriage?. However, like her colleague, Ms. Mack appears to exhibit the same unwillingness to consider alternate perspectives:

there is simply no other way to view the age-old, universal institution of marriage than as rooted in the biological family

Also consistent with the conduct of her colleague, she makes claims without offering much scientific evidence; and while I don't mean to imply that a newspaper opinion article ought to have the exact same standards as courtroom testimony, I do believe that opinions with factual corroboration generally carry more weight ... at least among those who care about facts.

In this case, Mack claims that "there is a great deal of social-science evidence connecting marriage and the active engagement of two biological parents with child well-being", and yet only makes reference to a single statement made by anthropologist Bronislaw Molinowski without any reference to supporting studies he or others may have conducted.

I would argue that, as was the case with her colleague, she raises issues that may unintentionally serve to further support the plaintiff's case. After suggesting that the institution of marriage's "common denominator across time and cultures has been its dedication to the offices of reproduction", she goes on to report that "A recent Pew analysis of 2008 census data showed that only just over 40% of Americans consider children fundamental to marriage", a decline from 65% who expressed that view in 1990. I believe she quotes this statistic to bolster her and Blankenthorn's supposition that marriage is being "de-institutionalized"; in my reading, it suggests that the institution of marriage is being progressively re-defined rather than being undermined.

image from

The report I believe she is referring to, Childlessness Up Among All Women; Down Among Women with Advanced Degrees, shows that the proportion of all women who end their childbearing years without bearing children has risen from 10% in 1976 to 18% in 2008; among women who have ever been married, that rate is 13%. If procreation is an essential element of a "successful" or "legal" marriage, I don't know how Mack, Blankenhorn and other opponents of same-sex marriage regard childless marriages, but I have several married friends who are childless - or childfree - by choice, and I don't believe that they see their marriages as any less legitimate than childful marriages. I certainly don't, nor do I see same-sex marriages as any less legitimate than heterosexual marriages ... and I hope the growing preponderence of facts supporting the positive aspects of same-sex marriages will help influence more opinions so that we can move beyond this controversy and devote more attention to other social, economic and political problems in dire need of resolution.

Update: Just found the full text of the ruling on Scribd; embedding below:

Prop 8 Ruling FINAL

Minority Report and Recent Advances in Pervasive Personalized Advertising

Several recent articles I've read about new developments in tracking and advertising in different countries - most of which reference the science fiction movie, Minority Report - reminded me of a quote often attributed to science fiction author, William Gibson:

The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed

The articles describe the ways that various technologies - from special-purpose global positioning system (GPS) devices and face recognition software to general-purpose radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and web browsers - can be used to record information about us, and make it available to prospective advertisers in order to provide more contextually relevant advertising in a broader array of contexts.

The success of these increasingly pervasive personalized advertising systems depends, in part, on how they address three fundamental questions:

  • How much control do viewers of such advertising have over the information that is recorded?
  • What benefits do the viewers receive?
  • What risks do they perceive?

The Minority Report analogies refer to scenes in which iris scanning technology is used to identify shoppers in order to present customized messages. In the scene above, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is offered audio and visual invitations to try products and services from Lexus ("the road you're on, John Anderton, is the road less traveled"), Guinness ("John Anderton! You could use a Guiness right about now.") and American Express Travel ("Get away, John Anderton; forget your troubles") as he makes his way through a mall on his way to board a train. People in this advertising scenario have little control over being identified (short of, say, eyeball transplants), do not appear to derive any direct benefit, and the risks of ubiquitous identification and tracking go well beyond potentially irritating personalized advertising: an elite Pre-Crime unit of the police may want to apprehend you before you commit a crime you don't even know you're going to commit. These factors may explain why reviews and reactions to this scenario, including the references in these recent articles, are almost universally negative.

OysterCard On Sunday, the Daily Telegraph published an article by Richard Gray on Minority Report-style advertising billboards to target consumers, describing a system being developed by the IBM Smarter Planet program in which RFID chips - using near field communication (NFC) with a range of about 4 inches (10 cm) - are used to identify people. Few additional details are provided about the system, but the technology suggests that some kind of explicit "check-in" will be required in order for people to be identified. The article alludes to the Oyster Cards used in the London Underground and other transportation systems as being a compatible technology, and the recent announcement that all of Nokia's new Symbian phones will come equipped with NFC in 2011 suggests that the availability of NFC-enabled devices will continue to grow. I can imagine a context in which "check-ins" used for one purpose (gaining access to a train platform) could be used for another purpose (targeted advertising on nearby displays and/or speakers). If customers are given the control to explicitly opt in to such a system, and were rewarded - perhaps by subsidized fares associated with their cards (or phones) - then I believe the benefits would be perceived as outweighing the privacy risks for at least some of the potential users.

NEC_NextGenerationDigitalSignageSolution Sunday's article references another Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Hough earlier this year with a similar theme - and a similar title ('Minority Report' digital billboard 'watches consumers shop') - but with a different technology. NEC is developing a Next Generation Digital Signage Solution that combines large displays, video cameras and face recognition software designed to determine the gender and approximate ages of the person or people in front of the display. An AFP report two weeks ago, Tokyo trials digital billboards that scan passers-by, refers to a Digital Signage Promotion Project in which 27 high-tech advertising displays were deployed in commuter stations in Tokyo. I suspect this is a pilot of the NEC system, although NEC is not mentioned anywhere in the report.

While potentially less invasive than the RFID-based approach - inferring age and gender rather than requiring individual identification - the use of cameras may instead be perceived as more invasive, depending on how people believe captured images are being handled, e.g., deleted, saved for internal use only or potentially sold to third parties. There is certainly less control afforded to potential users, aside from cloaking their faces as they pass by. The proposed benefits described in the earlier Daily Telegraph article appear to be targeted primarily toward the advertisers, who potentially will be able to target advertising toward specific demographic groups in proximity to the displays. However, the more recent Telegraph article suggests that personalized advertising might offer indirect benefits to viewers, in that they "may help reduce costs that are passed onto the consumer by reducing the amount of poorly targeted advertising" ... perhaps reflecting progress toward addressing a problem observed by John Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.

TrySomethingNewWithOmo Another advertising campaign - costing $1M - seeks to move pervasive personal advertising from public and semi-public places into the home. In an article asking Is Your Detergent Stalking You?, Laurel Wentz at Advertising Age reports that Omo Detergent has inserted GPS devices in 50 boxes of new, improved detergent scattered in stores throughout Brazil. Owners of the special boxes will be tracked down in their homes - or, I suppose, wherever the detergent box comes to rest for a period of time - whereupon they will be presented with a free video camera and invited to participate in a special company-sponsored event. I don't know enough about Brazilian culture to predict how consumers in that country will respond, but given that they are not informed whether or not any particular box of detergent can be tracked - it's a surprise - I can imagine reactions that may range from the kind of ecstatic joy expressed by those contacted by the Prize Patrol unit in Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes commercials to the abject terror felt by those who are tracked down by John Anderton's Pre-Crime unit in Minority Report.

FacebookAdsMuffinTop The Wall Street Journal just launched a series of articles on Internet spyware that may be tracking information through your web browser. In the first installment, The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, Julia Angwin reports that the top 50 web sites installed 3,180 cookies, flash cookies or beacons on computers that visit their web sites, which are then used to either personalize ads shown to the user directly or sold to third parties who aggregate the data. Many users may already be aware of the use of web browser tracking technology, but the extent of the tracking may be disturbing to some, and considerable convenience must be forfeited in order to control the tracking. Perhaps even more disturbing is the potential for the algorithmically personalized advertising to intrude into intimate dimensions of our lives, resulting in psychological harm. The article describes a case of a 17 year old girl whose browsing behavior led to her being [correctly] categorized as someone interested in weight loss programs. Although accurate, the advertising was not always welcome: "I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it." Two years ago, Rachel Beckman wrote a related article for the Washington Post on Facebook ads target you where it hurts, subtitled "My Facebook page called me fat", describing the recurring emotional pain experienced by a user repeatedly exposed to targeted advertising like the Muffin Top ad shown on the right.

The audio and visual advertisements soliciting John Anderton's attention were for products and services that he probably did not mind being associated with - luxury cars, beer and travel to exotic locales. Thinking back to issues I raised about the prospects of personalized, publicly displayed promotions of personal care products in a drug store (represented by OlayForYou screens at WalMart), I wonder what kind of reaction Anderton - and the movie audience - might have to personalized, publicly displayed advertisements for more intimate or personal products and services in a mall - say, Viagra, Hair Club for Men, or WeightWatchers (and as I type these, I can already envision some of the spam comments I'll get on this post).

CoCollage-Trabant Despite my concerns about potential abuses and/or unintended consequences that may arise in an era of increasingly pervasive personalized advertising, I believe that well-designed active environments that can sense and respond to people in contextually appropriate ways can offer benefits that outweigh the risks. My own work on proactive displays has involved the linkage of different sensing technologies - infrared badges, RFID, Bluetooth mobile phones and magetically-striped loyalty cards - to social media sites in order to bring some of the richness of what we share in our online social networks into the physical spaces we share with others. Revealing the interestingness of the people nearby, e.g., through showing their photos on a large display, creates new opportunities for enhanced awareness, appreciation, interactions and relationships. Although some of the users of these prototypes have found them intrusive or otherwise undesireable, many users found them sufficiently advantageous to explicitly opt in, and even those who have not opted in have enjoyed seeing the social media (mostly photos) shared by others on the nearby displays.

One of the challenges we have faced in these systems - which I sometimes describe as bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline - is how to bridge the gap between cool research prototypes to sustainable and pervasive product or service. The only way I can envision this happening is with advertising revenue streams, which is the path we were pursuing with CoCollage. A few of the other current generation digital signage solutions include user-generated social media along with advertiser-generated media in their mix (e.g., LocaModa and Aerva), but I think there is still considerable room for next generation digital signage solutions to provide increased control and benefits for their users, to help compensate for real or perceived risks ... and avoid the currently inevitable comparisons to Minority Report.

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.

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.

Blessing and Wounding: Longing, loss, pain and transformation

I was transfixed by an article in today's Wall Street Journal - In Praise of the Crackup: A novelist peers through darkness to find glittering gems in writing and art - by Jeanette Winterson, in which she explores "the collision of creativity and mental instability", digging deeper into the way that artists are often able [driven?] to transform personal pain and loss into works that offer great meaning and value to others. I was first struck by her illumination of the connection between blessing and wounding:

The French verb "blesser" means "to wound." Original etymologies from both Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon bind "bless" with a bloodying of some kind—the daubing of the lintel at Passover, the blood smear on the forehead or thigh of a new young warrior or temple initiate. Wounding—real or symbolic—is both mark and marker. It is an opening in the self, painful but transformative.

Rumi-225px-Mevlana This notion of wounding as opening resonated with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets in an audiobook by one of my favorite modern authors. In Your Heart's Prayer, Oriah Mountain Dreamer recites the poem "Not Here", by Rumi, in which he celebrates the broken-open place:

There's courage involved if you want to become truth.
There is a broken-open place in a lover.
Where are those qualities of bravery and sharp compassion?
What's the use of old and frozen thought?
I want a howling hurt.
This is not a treasury where gold is stored; this is for copper.
We alchemists look for talent that can heat up and change.
Lukewarm won't do.
Halfhearted holding back, well-enough getting by?
Not here.

200px-Tagore3 It also reminded me of other ancient wisdom that I [also] first encountered through Oriah, a piece by Rabindranath Tagore, of which I do not know the name:

I see a light, but no fire. Is this what my life is to be like?
Better to head for the grave.
A messenger comes, the grief-courier, and the message is that the woman you love is in her house alone, and wants you to come now while it is still night.
Clouds unbroken, rain, all night, all night. I don't understand these wild impulses - what is happening to me?
A lightning flash is followed by deeper melancholy. I stumble around inside looking for the path the night wants me to take.
Light, where is the light? Light the fire, if you have desire!
Thunder, rushing wind, nothingness. Black night, black stone.
Don't let your whole life go by in the dark.
Evidently, the only way to find the path is to set fire to my own life.

220px-Leonard_Cohen_2187-edited And, just to round out a selection of relevant poems shared by Oriah, here's a segment she quotes from Leonard Cohen's song, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 

Returning to the wisdom channeled by Jeanette Winterson, there were a number of other highly resonant insights and experiences, written with such elegance and poignancy that I cannot bring myself to do anything more (or less) than simply excerpt them here:

We know from 100 years of psychoanalytic investigation that an early trauma, often buried or unavailable to consciousness, is the motif that plays through our lives. We meet it again and again in different disguises. We are wounded again in the same place. This doesn't turn us into victims. Rather, we are people in search of a transformation of the real.

Creativity takes the heavy mass of our lives and transforms it back into available energy. Taking the mundane or the weighted, the overlooked or the too familiar, art is able to re-show us ourselves and ourselves in the world. Art holding up a mirror to life is commonly misunderstood as realism, but in fact it is recognition. We see through our own fakes, our own cover stories, we see things as they are, instead of how they look, or how we'd like them to be.


Art isn't a surface activity. It comes from a deep place and it meets the wound we each carry.

Even when our lives are going well, there is something that prowls the borders, unseen, unfelt. The existential depression that is becoming a condition of humankind, experienced as loss of meaning, a kind of empty bafflement, is different from the situational depression we all go through from time to time. Job loss, bereavement and catastrophe will throw us into situational depression, but existential depression is different. When life loses all meaning, we cannot live.


Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the poems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss, and one has meaning.

[Addendum: While Jeanette Winterson focuses on art and literature, in Wired's recent article on "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All", Amy Wallace describes a transformation of a wound into a blessing in the realm of science:

To understand exactly why [Paul] Offit [inventor of the rotavirus vaccine] became a scientist, you must go back more than half a century, to 1956. That was when doctors in Offit’s hometown of Baltimore operated on one of his legs to correct a club foot, requiring him to spend three weeks recovering in a chronic care facility with 20 other children, all of whom had polio. Parents were allowed to visit just one hour a week, on Sundays. His father, a shirt salesman, came when he could. His mother, who was pregnant with his brother and hospitalized with appendicitis, was unable to visit at all. He was 5 years old. “It was a pretty lonely, isolating experience,” Offit says. “But what was even worse was looking at these other children who were just horribly crippled and disfigured by polio.” That memory, he says, was the first thing that drove him toward a career in pediatric infectious diseases.]

The Coming Ad Revolution: Predatory vs. Participatory

Esther Dyson wrote an insightful opinion piece in Monday's Wall Street Journal on "The Coming Ad Revolution". I agree with many of her observations and prognostications about how advertising will (and will not) evolve - or, perhaps, revolve - but I had a strong adverse reaction to her use of "targeting" with respect to the future form of advertising.

She begins by noting the importance of validation in social networks (and advertising):

The discussion about privacy is changing as users take control over their own online data. While they spread their Web presence, these users are not looking for privacy, but for recognition as individuals [emphasis mine] - whether by friends or vendors. This will eventually change the whole world of advertising.

Dyson goes on to describe examples of how social networking and advertising might interact, primarily revolving around travel, e.g.,

I'm an individual with specific travel plans, which I intentionally make visible to preferred vendors. British Airways, of course, will pay Dopplr a handsome sponsorship fee to be eligible to be my "friend".

She concludes by noting:

Value is being created in users' own walled gardens, which they will cultivate for themselves in real estate owned by the social networks. The new value creators are companies -- like Facebook and Dopplr -- that know how to build and support online communities.

I liked and agreed with what she had to say throughout much of the article, but there is a big disconnect for me in this last point. The users are cultivating value (inside walled gardens) and yet the attribution of value creation - and all the financial proceeds thereto - goes to the landlords. This strikes me as online feudalism, which is the antithesis of the architectures of participation that many other commentators are placing at the core of Web 2.0 (a paradigm, or at least a perspective, which encompasses services like Facebook and Dopplr). Why should Dopplr or Facebook (or any other social networking service) be the sole financial beneficiaries of our gardening? This seems more evolutionary than revolutionary to me - more of a platform shift than a paradigm shift, with a slew of new lords.

Targeted advertising is all the rage these days, perhaps best exemplified by Google Adwords, with many other services and companies - notably including Microsoft and Yahoo! (who are mentioned by Dyson, along with some newer players such as NebuAd, Project Rialto, Phorm, Frontporch and Adzilla) - jockeying for a piece of that pie. But even this terminology reflects a feudal - or perhaps predatory - mentality. Who wants to be a target? The word clearly has some non-positive connotations - "something or someone fired at or marked for attack; an object of ridicule or criticism" - that reinforce (for me) an imbalance between advertisers and the consumers they want to reach. In this context, current social networks seem more like hunting ranches or fishing farms than gardens, but perhaps that distinction simply reflects my bias toward fauna over flora (at least with respect to domestication or manipulation).

In another section, Dyson makes reference to "a hypothetical Amazon 2.0, new and more personalized"; I'm not sure how the current Amazon falls short of the personalization she has in mind, but its affiliates program offers one model for how online lords can share some of the yields of the vassals' efforts through referral fees and/or commissions. Why not share the financial benefits from the social production of social value in social networks more universally - sharing the wealth of networks across all the participants in the network(s)? This would be a real revolution in advertising.

Ruminating on revolution, gardening and bargaining brings to mind a musical reference (a recurring experience for me, especially lately) - the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version of Woodstock:

We are stardust, we are golden,
We are caught in the devil's bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Cyberbullying: Prevalence, Preventability and Politics

Perhaps due, in part, to things I've read, thought and blogged about recently regarding cybershaming and accountability, and the fearful overreactions of parents and other authorities over teens' use of MySpace, I had a more skeptical reaction to a Wall Street Journal article this week on "Schools Act to Short-Circuit Spread of 'Cyberbullying'" than the last time I read, thought and blogged at any length about cyberbullying (nearly 3 years ago!).

The article alludes to the case of an 8th grade girl, Kylie, who suffered emotional distress over the purported creation of a web site titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated" by classmates ... a site of which I can find no trace, other than references in other articles (most of which are simply referring to the WSJ article). It goes on to catalog varying degrees of preventative measures considered or enacted by different schools and school districts, and the legal issues surrounding the prospect of schools intervening into affairs that take place, in large part, off campus.

Given my recent [re]priming of the MySpace overreaction, I started wondering how prevalent cyberbullying really is. The first few pages of results returned after googling for "cyberbullying statistics" yielded no results that I would consider statistically valid  An organization named i-Safe has a statistics page claiming that "42% of kids have been bullied while online" and that over half have sent or received mean messages online. Leaving aside the question of where they have drawn the line between receiving mean messages and bullying, I cannot find any information about the methodology by which the statistics were gathered (phrasing of questions, sampling method, numbers of responses, etc.). Another site, by Qing Li at the University of Calgary, provides a surprisingly small amount of methodological information (for an academic institution) -- a survey of "177 grade seven students (80 males and 97 females)" -- before noting that 54% of survey respondents had been bullied and 25% had been cyberbullied. Once again, it's not clear (to me) what bullying (or cyberbullying) means to the surveyor -- or surveyees -- but assuming that cyberbullying is simply the online equivalent of whatever bullying is in the offline world, it is interesting to see that cyberbullying appears far less prevalent than bullying (at least in this limited sample).

There are, of course, numerous articles about cyberbullying, just as there are numerous articles about abuses associated with MySpace. But it is not clear to me in either case that the use of online tools is increasing or even magnifying instances of "bad behavior". I'm not saying that aren't examples of horrendous deeds being accomplished through the use of online tools, it's just not clear how frequent or widespread such instances are.  And if one were to be able to somehow measure the overall frequency and/or severity of bullying (or other forms of abuse) -- combining online and offline incidents -- I wonder whether there really is a significant or demonstrable increase in either dimension.

I also wondered whether online tools might be used to mount more effective responses to bullying -- online or offline -- by offering a platform from which victims can mount defenses, or perhaps even counteroffenses, by shining a light on perpetrators and presenting rebuttals to unfair accusations or attacks ... another example of virtually "shooting back".  Perhaps schools could devote more effort to helping students understand how to utilize the technology more effectively in defending themselves or rallying to the defense of friends who are under fire ... of course, that would require the repeal of DOPA, and that seems like too much of an optimistic stretch of the imagination.

Reflecting further, on the relationship between cybershaming and cyberbullying, it seems like a rather fine line between them ... with the former seeming somehow justified and the latter seeming unjustified (picking on someone who deserves it vs. picking on someone who doesn't deserve it). I started wondering whether Kylie had done anything to incur the cyberwrath of her classmates (I can't find anything that says anything about events leading up to the creation of the purportedly humiliating site) -- I suspect it was a reaction (or overreaction) to something.

Probing a wee bit deeper, I started questioning whether anyone really deserves any kind of shame or bullying, cyber or otherwise. In my most recent post on cybershaming, I noted that my satisfaction in reading about web sites being used to highlight unacceptable (or at least unaccepted) behavior felt rather smug. I felt a twinge of embarrassment in writing [that part of] the post, and I feel it more keenly in this one. Did Kylie really deserve the purported humiliation she was allegedly subjected to? And who am I (or anyone else) to render such judgment?

I've also been noticing a smug satisfaction I've experienced in the increasing shame -- online and offline -- that U.S. President George W. Bush is being subjected to over the devastating consequences of his judgment and actions regarding the Iraq War.  As usual, I could not bring myself to watch or listen to his State of the Union address (though I could watch and listen to a parody); in the snippets I heard on NPR subsequently, he seems to have lost a bit of his hubris, and while I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he actually feels any shame, humiliation, guilt or remorse, I suspect he at least recognizes that, in the eyes of [many] others, he has done wrong. And I feel a sense of guilt over this feeling of smug satisfaction, especially given how many are suffering and dying -- and will likely suffer and die in the future -- in what Senator Harry Reid recently referred to as the worst foreign policy disaster ever.

Bringing the focus back to cyberbullying, I believe the greater transparency afforded by the growing array of easy-to-use online tools will ultimately reduce attacks by children against children, by giving them weapons with which they can fight back ... and, as I've noted before, I hope that adult citizens, inside and outside of government, will also learn how to use these tools to increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the frequency and severity of poor judgments by our leaders.