Archive for February, 2010

A book for those who got in the bus in the '80s

February 25, 2010

My review of a memoir by poet Peter Conners called Growing Up Dead appeared in the Proceedings of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus at the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture Association conference in Albuquerque a week or so ago, reprinted here with permission from Dead Letters Press, the publisher of the Proceedings:
[cover image from the book 'Growing Up Dead']

Growing Up Dead:
The Hallucinated Confessions
of a Teenage Deadhead

by Peter Conners
da Capo Press, 2009

Pick up just about any history or memoir of the Grateful Dead and you’ll hear about bluegrass, the Acid Tests, Live/Dead, Europe in ’72, the hiatus, and the Pyramids in excruciating detail. Then the years start to fly by, punctuated by the occasional happening: hit song and tour with Dylan in ’87, return to Europe in ’90, and then all of a sudden Jerry is dead and we’re into that nebulous post-Grateful period that continues to this day. This is understandable, but for Dead fans like my self who got on the bus in the 1980s, this leaves out a big important part of the story.

During the long period between album releases, when perhaps various bandmembers’ rebellious proclivities were beginning to catch up with them, the Dead scene experienced something of a third wind. Perhaps it was the advent of the “just say no” years and the growing need for a refuge for the disaffected youth of that era. Garcia famously called the Dead tour the last remaining great American adventure. Certainly my own experience when I stumbled into the parking lot in 1984 was a stiff sense of incredulity: how was this through-the-looking-glass society existing in parallel with the malls and office parks of the Reagan 80s? How were we getting away with this? How could it possibly last?

As we know, it couldn’t last. It was a bubble of sorts, but its surface tension held for a crucial stretch of years, long enough to sustain this pocket of the counterculture until reinforcements could arrive, tune up, plug in, and rock out.

Peter Conners is a bit younger than I am, but he got on the bus just before the tidal wave of a “hit song on MTV” crashed into the parking lot scene of 1987 and his memoir, Growing Up Dead, represents the first holographic capture of exactly what it felt like at just that time. He limns the road, the buses, the parking lots, and most importantly the shows, the music, and lyrics of the Grateful Dead in the 1980s. He described growing up in a suburban middle class enclave and falling in with a stoner crowd and eventually finding himself in the world of the Deadheads.

Perhaps most importantly, he finds his muse and toward the end of the tale, when he comes off the road, he finds that he has become a poet. The language of the Dead spoke to him and brought something out of him that his teachers and his day-to-day life did not manage to reach. As Conners said in an interview conducted on the Well’s public Inkwell conference:

When I was growing up, I didn’t have any friends who connected to language on that same level. I still remember sharing my first poems with friends. To their credit, they were openly enthusiastic. No one in our group, myself included, knew anything about poetry or literature outside of what we were fed in school. We all bonded over lyrics, singing them, writing them on our notebooks, etc., but that was more about our love of the bands and reinforcing our bonds with each other.

His is not the tawdry tale of excess and destruction and repentance that we’ve been hearing since the opium eaters but one of enlightenment, joy, self-discovery and, ultimately, graduation into adulthood and self-possession.

Conners is a gifted storyteller and delivers his tale not as a series of banal or hyperbolic generalities but in a well-knit sequence of anecdotes and portraits. The book moves along swiftly and sweeps you up in the life path of this young person questing in search of fun and liberty and friendship and love.

The story of the Grateful Dead from the viewpoint of the musicians and the Peninsula milieu in which the coalesced has been told to death (and I’ve devoured with pleasure each telling and re-telling of those days) and to some extent the personal stories of the extended community rooted in those early days and into the 1970s has at least begun to be told, but Growing Up Dead crucially fills a gap in the story without which my own experience lacks a literary context, and for this I am, dare I say it? grateful.

Oh, and hey now, be sure to read Conners’ wonderful Dead Crazy Uncle, which was reprinted as well in the Proceedings.


February 22, 2010

norm from cheers - greeting him when he entered was part of fitting in at the barOver the years as I’ve made a study of online communities and other forms of sociality, I’ve discovered (of course) a lot of other people doing important research work in the field. When we started writing our book I reached out to one such friend, Gary Burnett, a professor of communication and information who’s been doing excellent work in precisely this area.

In fact, not two years ago we appeared together on a panel at a Grateful Dead conference at U. Mass where we spoke about how Deadhead communities (and “communitas”) were fostered, enhanced, or splintered by the advent of online communication.

Gary contributed an essay to the book on explicit and implict norms in online groups, using insights gleaned in part from the formative USENET network. This is a topic Erin and I knew we wanted to drill down on, as its been long understood that healthy online communities seem to succeed best when participants have a clear understanding of acceptable norms of behavior.

Why the distinction between explicit and implicit norms? I’ll let Gary explain:

Social norms may be defined as a set of values particular to a group, the purpose of which is to provide a sense of balance, a mechanism by which people may gauge what is “normal” and acceptable in a specific context or situation. Such norms are not defined by outside factors; rather, they emerge directly from the activities, motives, and goals of the group itself. Social interfaces function as settings within which such a process may take place. The sociologist Robert K, Merton, in a classic formulation of social norms, distinguished between attitudinal and behavioral norms. However, since attitudes are visible in online settings only through visible behavior – only, that is, through the medium of textual production – it seems more appropriate to think of norms in online interactions in terms of a different distinction. Online social norms can be divided into two types: Explicit and implicit norms.

To find out how exactly these types differ and what roles they play, you’ll need to first read Gary’s essay and then delve further into the rest of his published work.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)

An essential guide to fostering online community

February 17, 2010

[Building Social Web Application book cover]Building Social Web Applications
by Gavin Bell
O’Reilly (October, 2009)

Gavin Bell draws on his extensive experience to offer a well structured guide to adding community elements to a website or application. His book will help any professional planning a social strategy, designing a set of social features, determining the types of relationships to foster among users, and even determining how best to manage change in an existing site or online structure.

Bell covers a wide gamut of issues that a site planner will need to consider, from developing the data schema for people, relationships, and objects; to how best to expose APIs to third-party developers; to the process of rolling out a new product or feature. Anyone developing a social website or app should keep this book handy throughout the process.

Bell and I share a publisher and our titles cover some similar issues. When I first picked up Bell’s finished book I gritted my teeth with envy. As I quickly devoured the book, though, I was relieved (or, at least I convinced myself) that our books are complementary and are each useful in their own way.

If you’re looking for one book to guide you through the entire process, from conception to launch and into the life of a social web application, then this is the book for you.

(via Christian Crumlish “mediajunkie’s review of Building Social Web Applications”.)

Are we doing any good?

February 16, 2010

image of a cathedralOne of my favorite essays published in our book is Matte Scheinker’s, called Are we building a better Internet?.

I asked Matte to write about ethics because it was a burning topic for the book and one that he and I used to kick around a bit as an oft-neglected issue in web design and development.

There are tradeoffs in customer acquisition, in growing a network, in handling privacy concerns and the related disclosures, some of which we are seeing at play right now in the controversial launch of Google Buzz, that we both felt do not always get the attention they deserve.

And yet when I speak about ethical issues and the inevitable conflicts between values and business goals and community interests and individual rights, I find that there is a hunger for seriously considering these topics. We all sense that we are “playing with people’s lives” in this work and that it matters how we do it.

Matte has a great way of easing into the trickiest questions:

Imagine for a moment what today’s design decisions will do to mold the Internet’s future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you’d want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it’s not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don’t sell user data because you’re short on beer money. Don’t keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don’t read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren’t as clear-cut.

… but you’ll want to read the whole thing™.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)

Richard Fleming's Walking to Guantanamo: A closely observed true thing

February 5, 2010

Walking to Guantanamo
by Richard Fleming
Commons (Oct 1, 2008)

I loved this book from start to finish. Fleming is a charming and self-deprecating travel companion: the best kind. His pictorial eye strives to transmit clear, unfiltered images and as his readers we make up our own minds about the pros of cons of hitchhiking across Cuba. Fleming’s wit makes it one of the more enjoyable learning experiences I could imagine, and the people, birds, religions, and politics of the island now mean something to me in a way they never had before, something that refuses to accept a black or white view of the world. Fleming shares his open lens with us and reveals the small truths of human interactions.

A+++++++++ WOULD BUY AGAIN!!!!

(via Christian Crumlish “mediajunkie’s review of Walking to Guantanamo.)

Putting the social in the mobile

February 3, 2010

calder mobile - satelitesMy continuing series of blog posts linking to essays published in our book, well, continues now with Billie Mandel’s Designing Social Interfaces for Mobile, in which she writes:

Contextually speaking, mobile phones are by definition social networking devices. Breaking out of the classic phone/phone book mental model and transforming that experience to include 21st century-style social networking, though – that’s where the fun challenge is for designers. Asking ourselves some mobile-specific questions can lead us as a community to create some exciting, disruptive social interfaces for mobile.

See also her essential list of do’s and don’ts.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)

Talking social patterns with thriving UX communities in London and Berlin

February 1, 2010

xian in londonA week or so ago I undertook a whirlwind visit to the UK and the Continent, giving two presentations about design patterns and social design, one in London on Tuesday, and another in Berlin on Thursday, each event sponsored by YDN (and the one in Germany co-sponsored by the local IxDA group).

The London event was in a wonderful gallery/cafe venue called Wallacespace filled with a standing-room only crowd. I was pleased to see a couple of friends from the international UX community there and the audience as a whole was wonderful, attentive, and ready with interesting, challenging questions for me when I was done.

Afterward we ate some snacks and drank some beers courtesy of YDN, before heading over to a nearby pub for more beers and conversation. This was my first time back in London in fourteen years and I was impressed by the vibrancy of the web-design community in what may be the “capital” of the Web in Europe.

The next day I headed to Berlin, where a pal picked me up at the airport and helped me get settled in my hotel in Alexanderplatz. It’s actually been 20 years since I was in Berlin! Back then, the Wall had only recently been dismantled and the east was frozen in a sort of time capsule due to economic stagnation. A lot has happened since Berlin reunited and resumed its role as the capital of Germany and arts mecca of Mitteleuropa. In fact, there was a fashion convention going on during my visit, so the airport and hotel were full of people who made me feel, in comparison, more like a geek than a designer.

East Berlin is now full of trendy gentrified neighborhoods. I had lunch at a burrito place (!) called Dolores that’s decorated with maps of the Mission in San Francisco. Clearly the internet-savvy crowd in Berlin feels a kinship with our own community in the Bay Area.

Berlin is also the home of a thriving local Interaction Design Association (IxDA) group, which helped secure the venue for my talk–(Newthinking Store) and helped promote and publicize my talk. I had a chance to meet some longtime virtual acquaintances from the IxD and IA communities in Berlin, such as Jan Jursa, of IATV and the Berlin IA Cocktail Hour.

The Berlin talk was also full, and again I was blessed with a generous and attentive crowd. More great questions. (We did the whole evening in English. Try as I might to speak slowly, I still probably spoke a bit too fast at times but just about all the German I know is noch ein Bier, bitte so it’s just as well.)

One interesting difference between the two groups is that the folks in Berlin asked me more process questions: How was the social design project organized? How did the wiki figure into the writing of the book? What’s an unbook? and so on. The questions in London tended to be more about the efficacy of design patterns in general and the application of social design patterns.

At both sessions, certain attendees had reached out to me in advance over Twitter and proposed questions that they had a chance to ask at the events. In London and again in Berlin I was asked the perennial question about whether the use of design patterns stifles innovation. My traditional answer, “No. Now shut up and do your wireframes!” got a laugh in both settings as well. (My real answer: “Not if they are applied as guidelines and with sensitivity to context.”)

One other curious difference between the two events was that the audience in London had nearly perfect gender balance, whereas the one in Berlin was, by my estimate, about 90% male. I’d like to learn more about what the differences are between the web design and development communities in the two cities that might account for that variance.

I’d like to thank YDN for sponsoring the trip, and O’Reilly Media for providing logistical support (and some copies of the book to give away as rewards for great questions). Interested folks can see my slides on Slideshare:

Several attendees in London took great notes of my talk and published them on their blogs or personal websites, including Jeff Van Campen, Suw Charman-Anderson, Michael Mahemoff, and O’Reilly’s Craig Smith.

Image credit: Jeff Van Campen

via First we take London: The Social Pattern Detective in Europe (Yahoo! Developer Network Blog).