Intentional Culture and Anthropology: ten years later

That's me with the camera
That’s me with the video camera

Ten years ago I published a paper (in Japanese) about doing an ethnography of intentional cultures and traditions. Ten years before that, I was capturing the very intentional effort of a Korean cultural community in Kyoto to build their own public festival. In the past ten years, I have been working toward an understanding of virtual communities in the arena of science research and data.

Here is a link to the English version of my 2004 paper: Ethnic Cultural Theme Parks in China and Japan: Toward an Anthropology of Intentional Tradition


Intentional cultures are not limited to theme parks and cities (such as Las Vegas) that are rebuilt as theme parks, but can be seen as the future of traditional (or post-traditional) culture. The act of producing intentional tradition represents a mode of “detraditionalization” in Giddens’ perspective: “A detraditionalizing social order is one in which the population becomes more active and reflexive, although the meaning of ‘reflexive’ should be properly understood. Where the past has lost its hold, or becomes one ‘reason’ among others for doing what one does, pre-existing habits are only a limited guide to action; while the future, open to numerous ‘scenarios’, becomes of compelling interest (Giddens, 1994, 92-93).” Theme parks compete with each other and with other types of destination for scarce tourist cash flows. The ability of cultural theme parks to innovate traditions—to attempt to manage their future—is crucial to their competitive position. So too, the workers in these theme parks use intentional traditions to innovate their own ethnic markers and construct cultural practices that offer them a future in the tourism industry: the world’s largest industry. And these ethnic markers and cultural practices are highly competitive as valued tokens in the economy and society of ethnic minority locales around China. In Japan, foreign-themed parks reinforce the islanders’ sense of belonging to the wider world. These offer local experiences of far-away traditions, experiences that are added to their visitors’ reflexive construction of their sense of self and national identity.

Giddens, Anthony. 1994. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Photo by Erich Schienke

Achieving a consensus culture for your virtual organization


Decision making for your virtual organization needs to optimize the decision process and impact. If your organization relies on a wider community of unpaid volunteers, then you will need to find ways to involve this community in your decision process. Where decisions need to be made on a day-to-day basis, you will want to have paid staff with the authority to make these, and to also be accountable to the executive body of your virtual organization. Involving the wider community usually involves two complementary modes of decision making: election and consensus.  For large organizations these two modes are sometimes used together in a multi-step process of delegation and consensus.

Why is consensus important? What type of consensus is the best? How do I create a culture of consensus? Previously, I outlined the arenas where staff and volunteer decision making occur, here I want to focus on the role of consensus. Consensus is primary important as a decision process where this can positively impact the quality of the decision and/or the efficacy of its outcome. The road a consensus decision opens up the discussion to include every member’s perspective and intuition. This process brings in the full range of the group’s knowledge to bear on the issue. During this discussion, aspects of the problem may be illuminated that were previously obscure. The result can be a decision that is stronger or more astute. Even when the discussion leads to a compromise, that compromise can be based on real-world limitations, and so, might avoid trouble after implementation. Where the implementation of the decision will require the active participation of the larger community (e.g., a decision to support a certain data/metadata format) consensus carries an invaluable mark of community involvement and ownership for the decision.

Just enough of a consensus

Absolute consensus may be unreasonable, given the range and interests of various stakeholder groups in the membership. If this is the case, and it would probably become evident during the start-up of the community, then some sort of “working consensus” (or rough consensus) might be a reasonable alternative. This would be a type of super-majority that would allow for a few opposing views to be not included in the final decision, but to be included in a durable report of the decision process as a minority perspective. The logic is to be able to move ahead, while maintaining the conflict that emerged in the decision process on the surface of the final decision. This type of working consensus would need to have at least a 81% majority: in a group of 20, no more than three people can disagree with the final decision. The goal is always to achieve a total consensus, with the working consensus as a fall-back.

Consensus culture

Consensus decision making requires a consensus-aware culture for interaction within the group. There are some established cultural practice guidelines for consensus organizations. One of my favorites is the Seeds for Change organization in the UK.  The consensus decision process challenges each member to listen fully to the arguments, to state their own position clearly, and to be aware that they have more than just an option to support or block a decision. A member can also abstain, withholding their outright support and refusing to block a decision. It is important in the discussions leading to a decision that the facilitator (often a staff member) is also a process mentor, reminding members of the need for open minds and hearts in the process, and a clear-headed, well-founded motive when a member decides to block a decision.

Consensus decision making does not directly scale beyond a couple-dozen members. In a larger community, each stakeholder subgroup (this requires a fractal subsetting to sub-groups of no more than a couple-dozen members) is granted a representative to an executive council where the consensus discussion is held. At the point of a vote, the representative returns to their subgroup and outlines the issues and the proposed decision. Once a consensus is acquired within the subgroup, this is carried back to the executive group.

The process of arriving at a consensus is at the same time a process of listening to the best ideas and the strongest fears of the community’s stakeholders, and a means to forge a better solution as a final decision. A decision based on consensus carries the trust and the will of the entire community.

Photo Credit: CC licensed on Flickr by Tantek Çelik

The Intention Economy: a window into the next phase of the Internet

Doc Searls
Doc Searls: The Intention Economy. used under CC license from dsearls on flickr.

I just finished Doc Searls’ latest book. This book is several things, all of them good. This is a knowledgeable look at the future of being a customer in a world where the Internet realizes its potential as an information commons (instead of a storefront). The book is simultaneously about being a consumer and a customer (not exactly the same), and about big data and little data (the data you should be in control of), and about the Internet and the economy. Doc introduces a new (5 years old or so) effort to create software services that enable customers to announce to the world their intentions, and to then receive bids from vendors who wish to sell the products and services that might be some value for those intentions. This is a reversal of rules and roles which currently lock customers into the loyalty silos that companies use to corral their wallets.

Every chapter in this book is a revelation on an important topic, from the coming collapse of the advertising bubble, to the need for customer-based contracts instead of the current lopsided boilerplate contracts of adhesion, to the Internet as a managed commons, which can support individuals owning their own data and negotiating with an open market for what they need: based on their own intentions, rather than from some expensive (in money and effort) algorithm devised to mine their data and ferret these out. Who knows their intentions better than the customer?

The new economy, based on fourth-party brokers that act on behalf of the customer —not the vendor—will be open (newcomers welcome, no silos allowed), efficient (no more guessing intentions, transactions are knowledge-full), effective (allowing vendors to work together), and it will bring the Internet closer to its potential as a free exchange of knowledge that can also support innumerable transactions and contracts. In the end, this is also a story of a work in progress, as Doc and others have already started to build software services to explore this new economy. This is an important work, that announces what could, and I would argue, should be a new direction for an Internet enabled economy.

As a bonus, the work is extraordinarily well written at the prose level, and is not simply a blog-to-book. Each chapter adds substantially to the overall argument. I cannot recommend this book too highly. I am encouraging friends and strangers alike to give it a read.

I would also submit that there are corollaries to the commercial vendor/customer relationship that Doc’s logic and services would help improve. How much better would civil society be if the intentions and the capabilities of citizens, and the problems they face, were announced in this fashion to their local governments? How much more effective would continuing education be if the student could announce the skills they require to the world and have multiple offers for training? The Internet as a managed commons (Doc does a great job of advancing Lewis Hyde’s work on the commons) extends to many facets of our social interactions, not just those that involve transactions for money. Doc does talk about micro-transactions, but there are also new efforts to enable a sharing economy that would benefit greatly from these services.

Doc Searls: The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. Harvard Business Review Press

Democracy happens in places and with crowds

Tahrir Square demonstrations
Tahrir Square Demonstrations 2011

In Community, Democracy, and Performance, I spent a chapter looking at how festivals opened up the street in a manner that could reenact the moments when the crowd asserted its role in civil society. “Celebrations in Cities: public spheres/public spaces” reexamined the fear of the crowd, and the value of crowd moments in the history of democracy. “Let’s now return to the festival, and to the movement of people across national boundaries, and how festival production can loosen the grip that the nationally domesticated space holds over the city. A civil democracy is realized through actions taken by its citizenry. This use of the street for demonstrations of civic belonging and collective celebration or protest is not merely window-dressing for the mass media.”

Today we salute the people of Egypt and their weeks of democratic crowd moments—moments that have awakened a new space for democracy in that ancient place. Tahrir Square will now be a space for the civil crowd, and a place where reenactments of civic participation will remember these weeks, and also the people who died.

In Community, Democracy, and Performance, I expressed a concern about the lack of such founding moments/places in the city of Kyoto. What did that lack mean for the daily performance of democracy? The same might be said about Baghdad. When your democracy is delivered by Donald Rumsfeld and a foreign army, how do you reenact this as a feature of daily life? How do you own it? Egypt will not need to face such questions. They bought their democracy in the streets, and they can return to the same streets at any time to remember and reassert their national public sphere.

Photo Credit: Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook, schmacebook: We’re getting tired of shopping at the company store

I can’t wait to get off Facebook. Everyone I know can’t wait to get off Facebook. We are all waiting for the next good thing to come along and take us off this island of wasted opportunities. The two questions surrounding this situation are these: what’s wrong with Facebook? and what can we know, say, or do to help the next good thing happen?
A large problem with Facebook has to do not with what it does (or fails to do) but what it is. In fact, Facebook nailed the whole “social” side of social networking early on, only to then lose it. Facebook is a piece of software run by someone else with a business model designed to maximize how my content can be used by them to make money, but not for me. I donate my content and my time, and they keep tweaking the service to make my contributions more valuable for them. This situation is hardly a secret, so we are not talking about deception here. Just bad faith. Facebook is a social network service designed to convert my efforts (and those of 500 million others) into their IPO. Fine. For this, what do I get? A place to pop up microblogs (status updates). A space for random photos and videos (and a not very good service in terms of storing and retrieving these).  A constantly changing user interface that sends me suggestions I don’t need. A collection of my stuff that forever and without compensation now belongs to Facebook. There is no exit from Facebook. Users can only flee. But flee to where?
The next good thing in social networking will have to so several things better than Facebook:
  • Be big and small at the same time. Be a network of networks where each network has the means and the incentive to become more coherent and thus more useful and attractive. 500m members don’t help me out. 500 of the right members, with the right tools. That’s what I’m looking for.
  • Build in real reputation services, on top of powerful collaboration and publication tools. I’m looking for a place to publish once and publish everywhere. I need to know who’s reading what I contribute. I want to reward others for their insights.
  • Build in content sharing services so that I can load up my really good content and have this licensed (Creative Commons) and cited.
  • Build in property and privacy rules so that I control my own contributions. Give me an exit that packages all my content for me to take somewhere else and erases all of this on the system. Chances are I will not use this, simply because it is there. If you love my content, let it go. That’s how you get me to stay.
  • Last, and most importantly: build in network governance so that I have a say in how my social network(s) in the system are managed. I might want to donate some time to curate a part of the content. I might want to help build some policies about member services. Governance is the launching pad for network growth. When members own their own networks they care for and about these. Leaders emerge. Members become evangelists. This is the future of social networking. It looks a lot like democracy. Get used to it.
Back when a mining company opened up in a remote village it would force its workers to use the company store by paying them with scrip only that store would honor. The prices in the company store were managed to the company’s benefit. Often it was a pastel kind of slavery. Sound a lot like Facebook? This is where we are today in the tail-end of the first generation of social networking. We are living our online lives in the company store. And we are ready to jump ship.
Photo Credit: CC licensed for reuse by jekemp

Democracy First: effective governance to grow an active social network

Any social network service is much more than its code, its content, and its communities. It is all of these within a dynamic framework of rights and roles, and of needs and opportunities. All of these opportunities will flourish best if they are built on a thoughtful system of best practices and clear rules.

Your social network platform represents the various groups that must come together to build, maintain, support, and use the service. These groups include teams of developers/administrators, some number of key sponsors/funders, member organizations, and member individuals. Each of these groups has interests that you want to fulfill.

These interests can be identified by the issues they engender: funding, community (leadership, reputation), privacy (policy creation), sharing (licensing), branding, technology (features and standards), and policing (boundary control for content and bad behavior). All of these issues (funding excepted) can be addressed over time through the right kind of governance system. This system is the garden where communities can grow.

Too often, software services (even currently successful ones such as Facebook and Wikipedia) paid too little attention to governance in their infancy. This failure has long-ranging consequences, some of which are now becoming evident in these early Web 2.0 experiments. Best practices suggest that governance needs to be considered up-front, at the same time as software design.

One of these best practices is to get the your members involved in devising (and then owning) the governance system. So the plan is to first create a starting point: defining membership within the network, and then facilitate the members to create the system.

The goal is to build a nimble system that rewards sponsors for their support, enables open-source software development, encourages organizations to add their members, and gives each member not simply a voice, but a say in how their network runs.

Photo Credit: CC license on Flickr by undersound

Post Publication Peer Review: It’s in your future

I recently attended the PLoS Forum in San Francisco. For a couple years, I’ve been encouraging PLoS to find a way to experiment with post-publication peer review. However, the pathway from the current academic peer review system to something potentially better (faster, fairer, more precise) must first overcome the enormous weight of influence that the current publication system holds for academic careers. I was encouraged that half of the day was spent trying to figure out how to move ahead with post-publication peer review.

Here is an excerpt from a Knol I wrote about scaffolding a new system based upon the reputation system of the old system:

“The real sticking points preventing scientific communication from taking full advantage of digital distribution are the following: 1) top ranked journals have cornered the reputation economy in terms of impact on tenure (they are a virtual whuffieopoly:  for the term “whuffie” see Hunt and Doctorow). 2) the very same journals remain locked into the 20th century (with resemblances to prior centuries) print-based publishing model, built on blind peer review and informed by the scarcity of space available in any printed journal. The task then, is to release them from their print-based constraints, while rewarding and supporting them to continue to be a high-end filter for quality science; and then transitioning their whuffie-abilities to a form more suited to the rapid digital dissemination of scientific outcomes. The academy needs great filters to help guide readers to the best science among hundreds of thousands of new papers every year. Universities need fair and broad feedback from the academic community to decide which faculty deserve promotion. The research community needs to accelerate publication speed and minimize editorial overhead. And the public needs markers that help them determine good science from the rest. Open-access content is the first step. The next step might need some badges.”

You can read the whole piece at Post-Publication Peer Review in the Digital Age

Delivering the Goods of Democracy for your VO


One of the first conversations I have with people who have been tasked to build or manage a virtual organization centers on the cost/benefit issues of democratic governance. Given the usual shortage of funding and time, they have real concerns about the effort required to build a community-based governance system. These concerns are usually layered on top of the more general concern that the community (or rather, certain activists within the community) may use the governance system to push the organization’s goals toward their own interests.

Certainly, democratic governance increases the overhead (in terms of time and effort) spent on governance. Top-down decision making can be quite efficient up to the point where it tends to fail rather abruptly. Democratic governance is also more prone to being gamed by people with time and interest to do so. This is where the community comes in to play. When you build in enough democracy to give the community the opportunity to really govern, it will tend to resist the efforts of certain individuals to subvert this opportunity. This is one of the goods that democracy delivers to your VO. Continue reading “Delivering the Goods of Democracy for your VO”

Gathering privately online: the key to democracy


The door has a lock for a reason. Inside there is a group discussing their political choices and potential actions. In the US, this group has a right to assemble guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. However, this right is also contingent on the ability of group members to meet in private. And so the right to assemble also requires that the government not record who has assembled and what was said.
On the internet, there are few ways of hiding one’s identity (as this might be matched to the use of a computer) when you are conducting a virtual meeting. For virtual democracy to flourish, we need to find more ways to protect our presence online. This remains a software problem beyond the choices that people might make to reveal or conceal their identities. We need some sort of “anonymizer” service.
The EFF has also noted that we are physically tracked by the same devices we use to establish locations (the iPhone’s location services is a good example).  Check out this discussion of the EFF site.

Let’s find a way to lock the door on the internet!

photo credit: Doggie52 on Flickr, used under CC license

Beware of Zombie Democracy in your VO


Some digital organizations want your enthusiasm, and will suck this dry with offers of representation and feedback. How do you know your interests are being represented when the social network (SN) or virtual organization (VO) sets up a feedback system? What if they create some kind of users committee? What if they ask you to vote? All of these look like democratic practices. But the real test comes when decisions are made. Remember that democracy is a form of governance. If your feedback form, vote, representative delegate has no authority within the governance system, it’s just a zombie practice. It looks vaguely like democracy from a distance.
Most VOs and SNs are RUN BY SOMEONE… someone with their own interests. Someone being paid to do so. And that someone is probably not you. If they conjure up some kind of democratic shell game, demand to know how decisions are being made and where the money goes. If they are honest and tell you they want your feedback because it’s valuable to them and it might help them serve you better–you know where you stand.

Photo Credit: Ateo Fiel on Flickr. used with CC atribution license