Venkatesh Rao is a researcher in the Xerox Innovation Group, and the project manager for Trailmeme, a research beta technology that allows users to blaze and follow trails through web content and the Trailmeme for WordPress plugin. He blogs at ribbonfarm.com.
As much as we focus on developing new technologies, it is also essential that we break free of certain metaphors that bind and restrict our thinking about what these technologies can ultimately achieve. The familiar “document” metaphor, among others, has cast a long shadow on how we think about the web, and is standing in the way of some innovation.
The Conceptual Metaphor
In his classic study of media theory, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
Consider these terms: page, scroll, file, folder, trash can, bookmark, inbox, email, desktop, library, archive and index. They are all part of the document metaphor, a superset of the “desktop” metaphor. Some elements, such as scroll, desktop and library pre-date the printing press, but all are based on some sort of “marks on paper-like material” reference.
It is important to understand that the document metaphor is more than a UI metaphor. It is in fact a fundamental way of understanding one domain in terms of another. For better or worse, we continue to understand the web in relation to how we understand documents. Unlike figurative metaphors, such as “he was a lion in battle,” which are simple rhetorical statements, conceptual metaphors (a notion introduced in the classic “Metaphors We Live By” by Lakoff and Johnson) like document-ness are pre-linguistic, and quietly ubiquitous. They infiltrate how we think about things on a much more basic level.
Did it ever occur to you that the phrase “the stock market is up” is actually a particular spatial metaphor for what is really just a number? As a result, we think of the stock market as a geography, which has non-trivial ramifications for how we make decisions about it.
This is often a good thing — conceptual metaphors can be helpful. In dealing with novel phenomena, we often have no choice but to understand the new in terms of the old, the complex in terms of the primal, the abstract in terms of the tangible (companies often pitch themselves according to this logic, i.e. “we’re like FriendFeed for dating”). Accordingly we often conceive of new features, new business lines, and new market opportunities in the same way.
The Tyranny of the Document Metaphor
Conceptual metaphors aren’t always a good thing, though, helpful as they may be. A conceptual metaphor enriches your thinking in some directions and impoverishes it in others. It can become a crutch, and a burden.
Consider the terms open and close for digital documents. Serviceable though they were in the early eighties, they make little sense for the live, constantly evolving web “page.” For a rapidly changing page, the pause, play and rewind metaphor borrowed from music player UIs is more appropriate, something the Google Wave team has recognized, for example.
As a technology evolves, the metaphor struggles to keep up. It becomes increasingly strained. McLuhan’s “medium is the message” phenomenon starts to really kick in, as users encounter the limits and biases of the medium.
In the early days of computing, we needed only a few terms, such as click and double-click, to mitigate the deficiencies of the document metaphor. Today, we make new demands of the metaphor every day, and it fails us regularly. Consider the irony of your Twitter home “page” that can “scroll” much faster than you can “read.”
The solution? Look for new conceptual metaphors.
Liberating the web, Conceptually
Let’s continue with the Twitter example.
The conceptual metaphor of a party, with many overlapping public conversations, works much better than the document metaphor. Sophisticated users keep Twitter in their peripheral vision, where it behaves more like an oral medium that you “listen” to in the background, rather than “seeing” it in the foreground, which the “document” metaphor encourages. Note the deficiencies of the conversation metaphor though: it does not cover the Twitter link economy, or asymmetric following. These are better understood through a “marketplace” metaphor, which, however, downplays the conversational aspects.
Likewise, the metaphor that we currently seem to be embracing for the web is “the stream.”
The emergence of the real-time web has finally precipitated the need for a more dynamic framing, and while the stream is accessible and understandable, it is not without its limitations. The flow of information and our “jumping in and out of the stream” may actually point us in a dangerously passive direction. We may dam a stream, redirect it or harness its power for other uses, but the stream remains a metaphor that emphasizes precisely our inability to control or effectively influence or filter it.
Such are the trade-offs in engineering new metaphors. Google Wave is based on a flux metaphor. YouTube borrows a “channel” metaphor from television. The research project I manage, Xerox Trails, is based on the tricky “trail” (as in hiking) metaphor first proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945.
Central to all these programs of metaphor re-engineering is a recognition that the hyperlink is the basic building block of the web. Our conceptualization of the web still does not truly reflect its non-sequential, branching texture, created by hyperlinks.
We still haven’t truly understood that click and link are as fundamental today as read and write.
All in all, throwing off that burden is an immensely difficult task. It is much easier to create technology that conforms to dominant metaphors. What we need to do as we enter the third decade of the web, however, is consider what we want the web to be rather than awkwardly fitting that vision into older descriptive paradigms.
We need to finally begin articulating the metaphors that will move us beyond the book, and the document. Understanding the rhetoric of the hyperlink may be the most essential challenge we must meet before we are able to move our thinking forward and accommodate our digital ambitions.
There's some important concepts for consideration in this article.
As I'm writing up my PhD thesis, I recall vividly my attempts to explain how i was using weblogs in the learning context - this was not only for Ethics approval and satisfying lawyers of risk issues, but also other academics and the students themselves.
Upon reflection, I'm wondering if my descriptions did a disservice by limiting conceptual frameworks - or if the use of metaphor enabled capabilities that allowed participation and collaboration based on shared-meanings?
BTW - Lakoff & Johnson is a brilliant reference for those working with metaphors ;-)
AS MORE marketers use social media such as Twitter and Facebook in their professional and personal lives, the lines between the official company line and private comment are becoming increasingly blurred.
In the past few days a spat between a senior executive at IBM and a journalist was played out very publicly on Twitter. IBM's head of digital marketing, Martin Walsh, says the tweets directed at the technology journalist Nate Cochrane did not represent the views of his company, despite his Twitter profile clearly identifying him as an employee of the global IT giant.
The clash raises the issue of brand management in an era of social media, when everyone has an opinion and a place to publish it, however impulsive or scathing.
A similar issue confronted Telstra last year when one of its employees was identified as the person behind the Twitter account of the "Fake Stephen Conroy", commenting on issues concerning the listed telco.
The controversy prompted Telstra to develop guidelines for its employees using social media. The chief executive of the Australian Interactive Media Industry Organisation, John Butterworth, said companies needed to be clear with employees about their expectations. ''I'd encourage employees to think about it very carefully, too. Good, old-fashioned common sense needs to come into play."
The regional director of Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence, Brian Giesen, said his company advised all clients to have a social media policy.
"It's very simple: any company that employs people should have a clear social media policy. There should be guidelines about what employees can and can't say."
However, Mr Butterworth warned against prohibition as a way of managing brand communication in social media. ''In terms of content marketing, which is what all these social media are used for, if you have staff who are fantastic commentators, use them. The worst thing that you can do is ban people. That's not a great reflection on doing business in the 21st century.''
In dealing with the Fake Stephen Conroy issue, Telstra management had to consider whether or not to stop staff using social media. "We're learning on the fly,'' said Telstra's group managing director of public policy and communications, David Quilty. ''We had a choice to do the typical corporate thing and clamp down, but we're a comms company; it would be pretty silly to clamp down."
Telstra has a policy and a training module for its staff on the use of social media based on what Mr Quilty calls "the three Rs - responsibility, respect and representation".
Employees who used social media for Telstra in an official capacity were trained and accredited, he said. "It's actually worked better than we expected. It's a learning curve, and a lot of common sense needs to prevail. Our view is if we facilitate, hopefully [the staff] will be advocates and be positive."
Ultimately, though, employees will only say good things about their company if they believe in the company. The Korean car maker Hyundai recently found itself at the pointy end of a Twitter feed when disgruntled employees lashed out at the management of its Australian arm.
Hyundai Motor Company Australia's senior manager of product communications and public relations, Ben Hershman, would not say whether it had a policy for social media. His company was surprised that there were ''negative comments out there''.
Apply common sense.
Draw on talented commentators in your organisation.
Create guidelines for use of social media.
Allow your employees to confuse official and private conversations.
Now - there's some extra notes to add to this.. perhaps the Westpac "Oh so very over it today" tweet could be included in the above commentary. Did you miss it? Gavin summed up it very eloquently here: When a bad days good
I think the first point in the etiquette above pretty much says it all - apply common sense! Although somehow I expect we're going to see more of these public exchanges ;-)
I have recently moved jobs from a fairly traditional bank to a much less formal commercial bank, where the friendly approach to business is encouraged. In most regards, I feel I am settling in well, but I still feel that the tone of my e-mails is not quite right. I am looking for an e-mail sign-off that can be used in office correspondence, is brief (perhaps one word), which is less formal than "regards" but is not over-friendly as in "cheers" or "best" and so on. Any suggestions? Banker, male, 46
It used to be quite simple. "Yours faithfully" went with "Dear Sir", and "Yours sincerely" with "Dear Mr x". But now, 10 years after e-mail became the preferred tool for business communications, there is still no agreement on how to say goodbye.
Recently, I counted 100 e-mails sent to me and found 35 different ways of signing off. Of these, 30 were trying to be friendly, and all were annoying in different ways.
The first problem came from trying to sound warm. "Take care" and "Warmest regards" ooze insincerity, though are better than "Warmly", which is soppy and leaves me feeling distinctly chilly.
The next failed attempt at friendliness involves striking a matey note. "Cheers" and "Catch you later" sound more sloppy than soppy - and dim, too.
Worse than mateyness is cheeriness - usually signalled by an exclamation mark, which should have no place in e-mails, especially not at the end. "Have a good one!"; "All the best!"; "Enjoy the weekend!" are sloppy, dim and grating.
Less dim, but no less misguided, are abbreviations. These achieve some informality, but at the cost of being insulting by implying that the writer can't be bothered to make a couple of additional keystrokes. "BR", which is distressingly popular, still means British Rail to me. "Rgds" is hideous, and "HTH" (hope that helps) does not help at all. One reader has written in recommending you sign off "Yrs Ev". I wish I could be confident he was joking.
The two most popular "friendly" e-mail sign-offs are "Thanks" and "Best". The first is acceptable if there is something to be thankful for, but in most e-mails this is not the case. And the second is never all right as it makes one wonder: best what?
The reason it is so difficult to find a friendly e-mail sign-off is that the starting point is wrong. Work e-mails are not meant to be friendly, as they are not written to friends. Instead, they should be clear and polite and, above all, short or else no one will get as far as the sign-off anyway.
For years I have adopted the following rule. For people outside the company, I write "Best wishes". For those inside, I simply write my name.
Hit random keys
Hit caps lock. Hit four random keys. All your colleagues will think you're using some new internet acronym, and will be embarrassed that they're not "down" enough to know what it means.
TWKL Director, male, 41
hmmm - now here's some food for thought!
I've been using Cheers for a while now and I am tiring of it... so perhaps it's time to find a more Aussie style sign off..?
See ya? (a little too informal, perhaps) or.. I am rather partial to the random key suggestion... any thoughts, contributions to add?
Barabási mathematically describes networks in the World Wide Web, the internet, the human body, and society at large. Fowler seeks to identify the social and biological links that define us as humans. In this video Salon, Barabási and Fowler discuss contagion and the Obama campaign, debate the natural selection of robustness, and ask: Is society turning inward?
An interesting conversation about social networks - the physicist & the social scientist - not a clash of opposing fields, rather an attempt to understand.
I'm running a series of webinars for AITD - the Australian Institute for Training & Development - 28 Jan & 18Feb.
If you're new to webinars this is a must!! - Hope to see you online! ;-)
Read the blurb the below:
Webinars are an effective way to engage with geographically dispersed learners, distribute messages quickly, and enhance learning outcomes in a cost effective manner. Never attended a webinar before? Or worse, had a less than positive experience with webinars? Want to know how to effectively engage learners through the use of webinar technologies?
Or perhaps you're interested in developing a business to introduce webinars in your organisation? These 2 introductory sessions serve as an introduction to webinars, both from a "how to use" the technology, and from an overview of the benefits to learners and developing the business case. Session 1: Introducing webinars
This 60 minute session will cover the following topics: • Introduce the features and functionality or webinar platforms
• How to develop the business case (benefits, ROI etc)
• Basic session design overview
• To webinar, or not to webinar (ie. when are they suitable, when are they not.) Session 2: How to conduct an effective webinar
This session is intended to build on the information from Session 1 and focuses on how to effectively conduct a webinar. The 60 minute session will cover the following topics: • How many people does it take to run a webinar?
• Overview of different roles
• Moderator responsibilities
• Subject Matter Expert responsibilities
• Participant orientation
• Designing for engagement and interaction Both these introductory sessions would be valuable for those new to webinars, or those who are interested to integrate webinars into their learning delivery strategy. The webinar platform utilised for this series is provided by CiscoWebex
Presented by Anne Bartlett-Brag, PhD candidate, MEd (Adult Ed), BEd (Adult Ed), Dip HRM, Dip e-Learning, Cert IV TAA.
Anne specialises in the creation of innovative communication networks and learning environments with social media. Her design for the first national mentoring program (MentorNet) for young women entrepreneurs in 2007, developed entirely in social media - was a finalist in the Forrester Groundswell awards in 2008. Anne in the Managing Director of Headshift Australasia. Presented by Shelley Gibb, B.Bus in Human Resource Management, Dip. e-Learning
Shelley is a community manager and online moderator for Headshift in a number of active communities. She is currently studying a Masters Degree in Adult Education at the University of Technology, Sydney where socially focussed e-Learning strategies are her key areas of research. Timing
Session 1: Introducing webinars
28 January 2010 11:00am ** BOOKED OUT **
28 January 2010 3:00pm
Session 2: How to conduct an effective webinar
18 February 2010 11.00am
18 February 2010 3:00pm ** BOOKED OUT ** Fees:
AITD members $65.00 incl of GST
Non-members $80.00 incl of GST Book both sessions!
AITD members $115.00 incl of GST
Non-members $140.00 incl of GST
Education January/February 2010 Atlantic
For years, the secrets to great teaching have seemed more like alchemy than science, a mix of motivational mumbo jumbo and misty-eyed tales of inspiration and dedication. But for more than a decade, one organization has been tracking hundreds of thousands of kids, and looking at why some teachers can move them three grade levels ahead in a year and others can’t. Now, as the Obama administration offers states more than $4 billion to identify and cultivate effective teachers, Teach for America is ready to release its data.
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Image credit: Veronika Lukasova
This tale of two boys, and of the millions of kids just like them, embodies the most stunning finding to come out of education research in the past decade: more than any other variable in education—more than schools or curriculum—teachers matter. Put concretely, if Mr. Taylor’s student continued to learn at the same level for a few more years, his test scores would be no different from those of his more affluent peers in Northwest D.C. And if these two boys were to keep their respective teachers for three years, their lives would likely diverge forever. By high school, the compounded effects of the strong teacher—or the weak one—would become too great.
Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school, statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children. Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools—even supposedly good schools—than among schools.
But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way. Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere—but not replicate. The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.
At last, though, the research about teachers’ impact has become too overwhelming to ignore. Over the past year, President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have started talking quite a lot about great teaching. They have shifted the conversation from school accountability— the rather worn theme of No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s landmark educational reform—to teacher accountability. And they have done it using one very effective conversational gambit: billions of dollars....
Based on his students’ test scores, Mr. Taylor ranks among the top 5 percent of all D.C. math teachers. He’s entertaining, but he’s not a born performer. He’s well prepared, but he’s been a teacher for only three years. He cares about his kids, but so do a lot of his underperforming peers. What’s he doing differently?
Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to spend two years teaching in low-income schools, began outside the educational establishment and has largely remained there. For years, it has been whittling away at its own assumptions, testing its hypotheses, and refining its hiring and training. Over time, it has built an unusual laboratory: almost half a million American children are being taught by Teach for America teachers this year, and the organization tracks test-score data, linked to each teacher, for 85 percent to 90 percent of those kids. Almost all of those students are poor and African American or Latino. And Teach for America keeps an unusual amount of data about its 7,300 teachers—a pool almost twice the size of the D.C. system’s teacher corps.
Until now, Teach for America has kept its investigation largely to itself. But for this story, the organization allowed me access to 20 years of experimentation, studded by trial and error. The results are specific and surprising. Things that you might think would help a new teacher achieve success in a poor school—like prior experience working in a low-income neighborhood—don’t seem to matter. Other things that may sound trifling—like a teacher’s extracurricular accomplishments in college—tend to predict greatness.
A powerful message for educational institutions - it's all about the teacher!!
TRADITIONAL spellings could be killed off by the internet within a few decades, a language expert has claimed.
The advent of blogs and chatrooms meant that for the first time in centuries printed words were widely distributed without having been edited or proofread, said David Crystal, of the University of Wales in Bangor.
As a result, writers could spell words differently and their versions could enter common usage and become accepted by children.
Within a few decades, the spellings favoured by many internet users could replace the current, more complex versions, Professor Crystal said. Current spellings were standardised in the 18th century with the advent of dictionaries.
Internet slang - such as ''2moro'' instead of ''tomorrow'' or ''thx'' for ''thanks'' - could enter mainstream publications, Professor Crystal said, adding that many spellings bore no relation to meaning or pronunciation. ''The vast majority of spelling rules in English are irrelevant,'' he said. ''They don't stop you understanding the word in question....
''There's been a huge movement over hundreds of years to simplify English spelling because it is complex for historical reasons,'' he said.
''What you consider to be atrocious now may be standard in 50 years.
''There are people around who would treat what I said to be the voice of the devil, but one has to remember that spelling was only standardised in the 18th century. In Shakespeare's time you could spell more or less as you liked.''
Professor Crystal told the conference of the International English Language Testing System the internet would not lead to a complete breakdown in spelling rules.
''All that will happen is that one set of conventions will replace another set of conventions,'' he said.
Professor Crystal said schools should not abandon the teaching of traditional spelling. ''Kids have got to realise that in this day and age, standard English spelling is an absolute criterion of an educated background,'' he said.
As one of the most "flexible" languages that could be considered the earliest example of a mash-up, I rather enjoy watching all the new words evolve and they adaptation into common language and meanings!
See ya! ;-)