Archive for April, 2005

When Naomi Klein published No Logo in 1999, I embraced it as a welcome intervention to the massive over-branding that was going on in the consumer goods industry. Like Ed O’Brien, the guitarist of Radiohead, I felt that

No Logo certainly made me feel less alone. She was writing everything I was trying to make sense of in my head. It was very uplifting.

On the other hand, I was left with the feeling that No Logo failed to offer answers. In 2002, the Economist asked:

What is the superior alternative to capitalist development that Ms Klein proposes? She feels under no obligation to say. It is not her job to dictate to the movement. The most she can do, in all modesty, is to offer indications and observations; the people, thus empowered, must do the rest.

Now hobbyprincess offers an alternative that I dig. She suggests: instead of No Logo / Pro Logo, think ‘Own Logo‘. Instead of doing away with logos, the point is to create tools that allow people to create their own designs and labels:

An essential aspect of the own logo phenomenon is the branding of one’s own creations. Many of the people who have started to make their own designs (including me and my friends) want to tag their creations with their own symbol. The symbol can be their initials, a nickname, or any other sign that they want to adopt as their own brand. These people would probably agree with most of the arguments that Naomi brings up in her book. Still, instead of No Logo, they are signing up for Own Logo.

Sign me up to the movement.

I’m off to Redmond tomorrow, having been invited by Marc Smith to attend the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium. Judging by the documentation from last year’s workshop, it promises to be an interesting gathering.

Here’s my short position paper:

The Social Implications of Location Awareness in ‘Third Places’: Learnings from Aula Helsinki

A large part of mobile messaging traffic is about coordinating face-to-face meetings, many of which take place in so-called third places between home and work. A growing number of mobile social softwares (e.g. Imahima, Dodgeball, Plazes, GeoNotes) allow people to define a physical location, announce their presence in that location, and see who else is now checked in, was there earlier, or plans to head there in the future. However, we know relatively little about how these services actually affect the usage patterns of cafés, bars, and other third places. In our research on the use of the Hunaja (Finnish for ‘honey’) system at Aula’s social club in Helsinki, we found that new forms of serendipity, self-promotion, stalking and avoidance emerged when club members used their mobile phones to check who was in the Aula space. The focus of the talk will be on an ethnographic case study of these emerging social uses of the Hunaja system. The case will be related to the broader social implications of proximity and location sensors in mobile devices. The central argument is that location-awareness services can turn third places into physical buddy lists where comings and goings become ways to change one’s status from ‘online’ to ‘offline.’ To the users, such services can function as symbolic instruments for acquiring and maintaining membership in a community and marking territory; practical tools for optimizing paths in the city to initiate and avoid encounters with specific others; and playful objects for expressing humour and triggering creative social mischief. However, they are also a rich source of misunderstandings and afford ways to purposefully stalk and deceive other users.

Here’s a link to my profile at the MSR SCS2005 site.

A while ago I wondered how our relationship to social networking services will change when instead of adding new contacts, we begin to feel like we’d be better off cutting the links to the people who we actually don’t know, stopped liking, or no longer want to be associated with for whatever other reason. I was reminded of this on reading that Russel Beattie has now decided to link out of LinkedIn. He explains:

Yes, I thought about just deleting the people I didn’t know, but each deletion of a contact requires an individual request to customer service (it’s not just a check box and submit operation) so I finally just decided to cancel the whole thing. I think in general, people who would want to use this service are pretty contactable without using this system, no? … And if you’re a hard to reach person, you’re most likely not using this sort of thing anyways. Anyone can contact anyone in five hops, so what real use is it?

I want to use Russell’s question about the ‘real use’ of LinkedIn as a window into what I think is a profound confusion about the nature of sociality, which was partly brought about by recent use of the term ‘social network’ by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi and Mark Buchanan in the popular science world, and Clay Shirky and others in the social software world. These authors build on the definition of the social network as ‘a map of the relationships between individuals.’ Basically I’m defending an alternative approach to social networks here, which I call ‘object centered sociality’ following the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina. I’ll try to articulate the conceptual difference between the two approaches and briefly demonstrate that object-centered sociality helps us to understand better why some social networking services succeed while others don’t.

Russell’s disappointment in LinkedIn implies that the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That’s why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about ‘socio-material networks’, or just ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ (as I do) instead of social networks.

Sometimes the ‘social just means people’ fallacy gets built into technology, like in the case of FOAF, which is unworkable because it provides a format for representing people and links, but no way to represent the objects that connect people together. The social networking services that really work are the ones that are built around objects. And, in my experience, their developers intuitively ‘get’ the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life. Flickr, for example, has turned photos into objects of sociality. On the objects are the URLs. EVDB,, and evnt focus on events as objects. LinkedIn, however, is becoming the victim of its own cunning: it started off thinking it could benefit by playing up the ‘social just means people’ misunderstanding. As Russell put it,

That was the “game” right? He who has the most contacts wins. At first you were even listed by the number of contacts you had, remember?

Reid Hoffman’s choice (however unintentional it might have been, I don’t know) to encourage the use of LinkedIn as a game is what activity theorist Frank Blackler would call the introduction a ‘surrogate object.’ The surrogate object is actually not sustained by the economic, technical, and cultural arrangement that the activity relies on to sustain itself. Playing ‘Who has the most connections wins’ might have been fun to some people for a while, but it was not very valuable to the users and developers as a collective in the long run. Now LinkedIn is trying to change the object of sociality that it offers, and persuade people to re-orient their networks around their actual jobs. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m the first to support Reid and his team on their endeavour to make LinkedIn more useful as a medium for job-centered sociality!)

Last but not least, we can use the object-centered sociality theory to identify new objects that are potentially suitable for social networking services. Take the notion of place, for example. Annotating places is a new practice for which there is clearly a need, but for which there is no successful service at the moment because the technology for capturing one’s location is not quite yet cheap enough, reliable enough, and easy enough to use. In other words, to get a ‘Flickr for maps‘ we first need a ‘digital camera for location.’ Approaching sociality as object-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too. Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.

For a much more elaborate academic argument about object-centered sociality, see the chapter on ‘Objectual Practice’ by Karin Knorr Cetina in The practice turn in contemporary theory, edited by Theodor R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (London 2001: Routledge.)

Perhaps the world is ready for a new mobile device that will become the icon of the real mobile internet revolution.

What would the device do? Most likely it would work first in Wi-Fi hotspots, connecting from further afield as the range of 802.11-based access points grows and other wireless networks emerge. It would probably do VoIP and IM exceedingly well. It would possibly also do email, RSS, and music. All these we can pretty much take for granted. More interestingly, it may start doing completely different things. Its ability to go where laptops can’t go, and do things that mobile phones can’t do, will create new needs and new opportunities, which make people write new apps.

It might be used to access place and event information in the form of annotated maps for instance. Or it might be used to download and watch TV shows. Or make them in the spirit of podcasting and vlogging. When high bandwidth mobile data becomes free, some of those old mobile service ideas that history left for dead might suddenly begin to make a lot more sense. The fact is, we don’t know what the device will be used for. That’s why the code base has to be kept open.

What might the device look like? It would need to be small and afford effortless one-handed use, incorporating the best learnings from over two decades of mobile phone design. This points to a Blackberry-style roller wheel to scroll up and down the buddy list, the email inbox, and the RSS feeds. However, it would also need to have a QWERTY keyboard or some radical new key layout if it’s going to do text input well. The large footprint of a full keyboard suggests a flip design of some sort. But it would have to be extremely slim.

Here are a few sketches.



On the software side, the limited screen real estate requires that the active application must occupy the full screen. IM would probably be the default active app because the presence status of buddies has to be visible at a glance. Switching between apps would need to be extremely simple and smooth, like control-tab on the PC. Perhaps quick switching is important enough to warrant a dedicated button on the side of the device. Click! From IM to email. Click! From email to RSS. And so on.

Here’s a sketch about the ‘full-context switching’ between apps (I looted the term from Chris).


Someone stole my poster during the night from the locked SSIT5 display at LSE. It’s got the link to my blog printed on it, so dear perpetrator, know this: I’ve made the trip to London to present that poster, and I spent a lot of time preparing it. Thanks to you I’ve missed the opportunity to display my work to the other academics here this morning. I wrote on the poster: ‘I’d love to get feedback, so please come talk to me if you find this interesting.’ That does not translate to ‘you can take this poster home with you!’ I hope it reappears upstairs before the afternoon’s PhD students’ session starts.

What’s the defining value driving the ‘web 2.0.’ where, to quote Jeremy Zawodny, ‘vendors think of themselves as not just service providers or hardware vendors’ but as platforms for developers? Jon Udell put it well in a post about the new event databases that are popping up. He thinks there’s room for many different services:

If you want a seat at the table you just need to have good table manners, and that really comes down to one simple rule: don’t lock in my data. Services that try to do that will fail because, in the final analysis, social applications are powered by the people who co-create them. We’ll use online services to help us create and organize our information, but we’ll use them opportunistically. Services won’t own our information. We’ll migrate it freely to wherever it works best for us.

We could call this the dinner table perspective: we’re all contributors, and the point is to have an enjoyable conversation together. The idea of value as necessitating a process of co-creation—not merely viewing it as an inconsequential if welcome sideshow—is quite distinct in comparison to the one in Joachim Buschken’s recent book Higher Profits Through Customer Lock-In. According to the book summary:

For the most part, Customer Satisfaction programs are ineffective. Companies need to strive for Customer Lock-in. Customers are locked into a company’s product when the switching costs are high. This could result from the product being integrated into the companies’ business systems. Thus, managers must ask themselves, ‘How can I increase the switching costs of my customer?’

This could be called the prison perspective: customers are inmates, and the point is to keep them from escaping. If they are happy in their cells that’s cool but in the end, it’s the efficiency of the locks that determines the profits of the business. It’s interesting to think about the practices and arrangements that continue to reproduce both rationalities in their own worlds… and how one might subvert them ;)

These are my notes on Gideon Kunda’s SSIT5 keynote about his new book (coauthored with Steve Barley): ‘Gurus, Hired Guns and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy‘, which examines the social organization of temporary work among engineers in Silicon Valley.

– He describes how his own interest evolved from his previous book, which was a critical ethnography of ‘organisational culture’ in a Route 128 startup. R128 was predominated by a work culture centred around large corporations, whereas the culture of Silicon Valley emphasised temporary work.

– He goes on to tell how he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the glorification of the former in the early 1990s and the latter in the late 1990s. For this book, he and Steve Barley negotiated access to a staffing company dealing engineers on temporary assignments to firms in the Valley. He overviews the history of U.S. labour relations starting from the New Deal. The late 1980s were a critical time for the emergence of temporary working relations in the Valley.

– The nuances of knowledge acquisition and the way how budgets are managed are the critical enablers of Valley-style temporary work. Also, temporary labour is a way to push up the valuation of the company when firms are valuated based on the relation between revenues and the number of permanent employees. Staffing firms are ‘single points of contact, proxies.

– ‘Gurus’ are the most highly valued temps whereas ‘warm bodies’ just fill a slot in the process. Staffing firms typically take a 40% slice of the total fee; that was the economic value of contracting at the time.

– From the contractors’ point of view, face-to-face encounters are essential. The other important thing was to get one’s name and CV out. Staffing firms on the other hand set out two kinds of salespeople: ones who look for the warm bodies, and others who look for open positions. The staffer never tells the contractor how much the company is paying for the position.

– In addition to searching for contractors, there is the step of qualifying them. Contractors constantly sell themselves on skills they can’t do, believing they will learn on the job. When you start on a job, there are always people watching you. Management wants to treat you as a commodity. No hand-holding, no cuddling here. You don’t get employee benefits, can’t go on the company picknick. And permanent employees may get suspicious that you’re taking away their work. Management can call the staffing firm and get you replaced or tell you to shower in the morning. And as you’re working, you need to keep talking to staffing firms to secure the next job.

– Even so this is some engineers’ dream. In practice people are interdependent, and a successful project requires people’s involvement beyond the state of commodities. Project managers are faced with the task of re-personalising the commodity. The more you know about the way work in the company is done, the more difficult (and hence costly) it is to replace you in practice. It’s a mixed message: ‘we don’t need you—we need you’; ‘we disregard you—we love you.’

– Contractors are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. This creates all kinds of identity issues, how do people define themselves. The typical way to deal with this is first by defining yourself as an expert; second, by professionalizing your status as an outsider.

– The typical narrative is that organisation is collapsing back into a market. But here another dynamic is in play, where a distinct professional class is emerging. The bubble’s burst reduced both the permanent and temporary employment by 20%; in many firms, paid employees were the first to go. This suggests that temporary contracting is here to stay. For the contractors, the challenge is how to establish a form of security without heavily institutionalising it.

Comment: To me personally, making sense of the contracting phenomenon is a way to make sense of my professional identity. Aula is one experiment in creating lighter structure for contractors. I also got to look at this from the perspective of a staffer when I worked on ShiftControl. I guess now I’m thinking about this as a potential contractor as I’m trying to figure out what I will do after the PhD.

I’m presenting a poster about my PhD thesis at the SSIT5 workshop at LSE. It’s the first time I’ll talk about my doctoral research in public! Here’s the short text from the poster:

The Practice of Innovation: How New Technology Gets Defined as Sustaining or Disruptive

My thesis is an ethnography about Nokia’s efforts to renew itself through corporate venturing. The proliferation of Nokia’s main product—the mobile phone—is extraordinary, and social scientists across the spectrum have recognized its implications as important. Still, the design and development practices of the mobile phone have been little investigated.

As the case of Nokia illustrates, these practices take place in corporations faced with the pressures to innovate and grow. Here, the technical and the organizational work through each other. In Nokia’s case, the historical context was one where the company had reinvented itself once before, and now faced a situation where it needed to do the same again. My interest centres on how innovation in this situation was performed by way of an institutional arrangement known as internal corporate venturing, which was linked with the notion of organizational ‘renewal.’ It was not just about coming up with the next new technology; it was about giving the organization a new life.

At the same time, the study is also about something much more general. Prevailing thinking on innovation assumes that new technologies are inherently either sustaining or disruptive to the organization. In aligning myself with the practice turn in social theory, I argue that the sustaining or disruptive character of innovation is not a given; it is achieved through practices of alignment that work on and through materials and stories.

I justify this argument by showing how the ventures at Nokia aligned themselves in relation to the company’s strategic narratives and other practices in the outside world. The work of alignment involved the ordering of materials to support the stories that the ventures told about themselves. A venture’s success in the internal competition for resources depended on its ability to make the materials speak for its potency in the context of prescriptive frameworks, which the management of the company mobilized to make resource allocation decisions. I discuss how these frameworks were reproduced and reconfigured, and reflect on how my own role as an ethnographer evolved from an apprentice, to a participant, to a commentator who responded with an alternate framework for conceptualising the relationship between the ventures and the main business. I suggest that coming to grips with interventions of this kind is practice theory’s most compelling promise, as well as its toughest future challenge.

Thanks to some configuration work by Marko after Dan Gillmor’s cancellation, we’ve now confirmed a new speaker for the next Aula klubi on April 12th, 6pm at Korjaamo in Helsinki. He is (drumroll) Aditya Dev Sood, director of the Center for Knowledge Societies, a research and design practice based in Bangalore and New Delhi. Aditya will speak about the devices and cultures of Indian street innovation. This should be a fun talk! Check out the details here.