Category Archives: Thoughts

Brief ruminations on any topic

Rat, Rational or Seething Cauldron of Desire: Designing the Shopper

[This is a draft of a column I wrote for the ACM’s interactions magazine. Publication details: interactions, Volume 18 Issue 1, January + February 2011, ACM New York, NY, USA]

Since the 1930s, governments have largely followed the view of John Maynard Keynes that spending, not saving, drives successful economies. We have taken this charge seriously in the U.S. If Adam Smith characterized Britain as a nation of shopkeepers, the U.S. is indubitably a nation of shoppers. No other country in the world spends as much on consumer goods as America.

Whether you love it or hate it, everyone has an opinion on shopping. It’s an expression of identity. It’s the gift I give my family. It’s a chore I have to endure. It’s sport. It’s a sign of the demise of our culture, an assault on our base ethics and morality; “Stop the Shopocalypse!” entreats the performance artist Reverend Billy and his troupe, the Church of Life after Shopping.

As the memory of Santa’s season of goodwill, joy, and multifarious forms of consumption fades and I review my credit card bill, I have been reflecting on how we shop—more specifically, on how the shopping experience is designed for us, and we are in some sense designed by it. For this reverie, I am more interested in what has been dubbed “wants based” rather than “needs based” shopping, which, as evidenced by my credit card statement, clearly makes up most of my purchases.

So, yesterday I made a diary of a shopping day, noting the things and experiences that I usually take for granted, but with a view to wondering how they came to be so. With the caveat that this is not an exhaustive diary, here’s the timeline:

6:30 a.m.: Wake up.
6:45 a.m.: Pick up mail, physical. Two catalogs, an envelope of discount coupons, and an advertisement for expensive holidays masquerading as a travel magazine.
7:00 a.m.: Scan the list of emails from services, vendors, shopping-discount sites, and so on. Canon seems to think that I could make use of yet another camera. Apple thinks I will be enchanted with some new products from them.
7:30 a.m.: Shower, using a multitude of free samples sent to me by online-shopping vendors, most of which products I feel disinclined to purchase.
8:30 a.m.: Drive to work, listen to national public radio (NPR), and hear a review of a book I will likely purchase.
11:25 a.m.: Alleviate mild distraction and boredom by reviewing what is currently available on shopping sites RueLaLa and ideeli, sites that sell designer clothes and accessories. Find names of three designers who are new to me but I will look out for in future. (Thank goodness for online shopping, which means the indignity of trying on clothes in public fitting rooms is circumvented and provides idle-time shopping in 15-minute chunks when I am bored.)
5:45 p.m.: Drive to shopping mall and locate specific department store to buy a gift for a friend, navigate lights, music, perfume, and other sensory assaults.
7:00 p.m.: Drive home from work via supermarket, pick up groceries.
7:50 p.m.: Drag loads of heavy grocery bags upstairs; curse the shopping cart that masked the weight of the load I was going to have to carry later.
9:45 p.m.: Check out the Canon offers and surf the Web, reading reviews of various computer products; cave in and buy coat from RueLaLa; download infeasibly peppy music from iTunes based purely on beats per minute, and select a book for a friend from Amazon. Watch bizarre and dubious “shopping haul” videos—teenage girls sharing shopping expertise on Youtube. Am transfixed by these videos with ghoulish fascination, and note from view counts that tens of thousands of people have watched them.

Following yesterday’s diary, today I surfed the Internet, researching how some of these experiences came to be. As you will see, aside from the Internet as a channel for learning, researching, and purchasing, many of the things I encountered yesterday and have, up until now, taken for granted, carefully were designed or created with a view of what the practice of shopping does, could and indeed should look like.

The department store as we know it derived from the entrepreneurial efforts of several key figures: the Bloomingdale brothers, John and Lyman, bankrolled by profits made from sales of the wildly successful hoop skirt; Brigham Young, who in 1868 founded Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZMCI) in Salt Lake City, Utah; Marshall Field in Chicago; Alexander T. Steward in New York; and last but certainly not least, John Wanamaker, who opened the Grand Depot, a round, six-story department store in Philadelphia in 1877. The key business driver for the department store was simple: Buying wholesale meant retail costs could be kept relatively low. The key experience driver was educating people as to hitherto unknown possibilities for parting with their cash. The department store’s development from convenient goods provision to center of cultural production is wonderfully described in Jan Whitaker’s book Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.

On a larger scale, the first shopping mall, the Country Club Plaza, was founded by the J.C. Nichols Company and opened near Kansas City, Missouri, in 1922. While the Country Club Plaza was open to the sky, the first enclosed shopping mall was opened in Edina, Minnesota (near Minneapolis), in 1956. The first shopping mall, a collection of stores, was designed to make shopping more convenient by placing lots of shops in one location. The West Edmonton Mall opened in Alberta in 1981, housing 800 stores, a hotel, an amusement park, a miniature-golf course, a church, a “water park” for sunbathing and surfing, a zoo, and a 438-foot-long lake. Park the family while you shop. Or better still, shop-play-shop.

While the shopping mall as we know it is so familiar, much of what we take for granted now was invented by Victor Gruen, an architect from Vienna. Gruen and associates designed the Northland Shopping Center in Detroit, in 1954, the Southdale Shopping Center near Minneapolis in 1956, and the Midtown Plaza in Rochester, N.Y., which opened in 1962. The innovations they designed revolutionised shopping. Innovations developed over the years: 1939, Gruen was invited to design a leather-goods store for a friend in New York. Gruen’s inspiration was to create an entrance to the store that was intriguing and enticing to the eye. Colours, lighting and reflections were used in combination with fake marble, and green corrugated glass on the ceiling to create a “customer trap” designed to lure customers into the store regardless of their initial purchase intent or their interest in the products on display (so much for the shopping list). Gruen went on to create the multi-level shopping facility with escalators between the levels and multiple entry ways from multi-level carparks. Gruen was also the genius who initiated blank wall exterior for stores; prior to that shows focused on window displays.

The shopping cart was invented by Sylvan Goldman, owner of a chain of Oklahoma City grocery stores called Standard/Piggly-Wiggly, in 1936. The original shopping cart was like all prototypes, a humble contraption. It involved two wire baskets, a folding chair and some wheels. Anyone who has wheeled themselves to the checkout, waited the allotted time, and then experienced a wave of shock at the bill followed by a panicked glance to assess what could possibly have ended up in the cart, knows how much easier it is to purchase more than you intended with a cart. The best “forcing function” to reduced purchasing is carrying the stuff you intend to buy; as your arms get wrenched from their sockets, you are more sanguine about that extra, just-in-case bottle of lotion or packet of batteries. And thank goodness for Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt’s 1954 invention, the sliding automatic door–turning handles and pushing doors while holding laden shopping bags is never a graceful exercise.

Store layout. It should be noted that stores themselves are scripted spaces, laid out to maximize our likelihood of purchasing certain items. The most famous researcher on the topic of store layout and its impact on purchasing behavior is Paco Underhill. An environmental psychologist and author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping and Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping, Underhill sets forth fairly straightforward ideas—how you structure the environment leads to different purchasing behavior, and our in-store experience is as much a part of why we purchase something as the carefully constructed shopping list.

Coupons. Introduced in 1895 as the brainchild of Asa Candler, coupons were placed in the newspaper for a free Coke from any fountain as a way of promoting the soft drink. I lost count of how many physical and digital coupons I encountered yesterday. But they are clearly part of my life, even though I use perhaps one in 100.

The mail-order catalog was created by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872. As I look at the two I received in my paper recycling pile and review the vendor sites I visited when surfing the Internet, I am comforted to know that many generations before me also preferred shopping from the couch to running around a mall.

Price tags, sales, in-store restaurants, money-back guarantees, and newspaper ads. All of these were created by John Wanamaker, who I think has to get the most points as creator of the contemporary shopping experience. It never occurred to me that someone actually had to invent the price tag!

As I researched these different inventions and designed experiences, I realized that I was also participating in a designed abstraction, playing my part with gusto. I have been trundling down the “purchase funnel,” a concept developed in 1898 by St. Elmo Lewis, who mapped a theoretical customer journey from the moment a brand or product attracts your attention to the moment you actually buy it. To advertisers, marketers, and merchandisers, AIDA is not an opera by Giuseppe Verdi; rather, it reflects points along the purchase funnel: attention, interest, desire, and action. Oddly, Gruen’s “customer trap”, physically luring people into stores, almost seems to have been captured in the funnel metaphor. Draw people in, and help them move from unexpected awareness to desire to intent and actual purchase.

I learned about a host of new products from the catalogs, the online surfing, the coupons, the radio, and the products on display. I find myself tenderized by the marketers and advertisers and am somewhere along the “purchase funnel” for a number of upcoming purchases. I also realize that designers of all sorts (advertisers, print layout, store layout, online stores, architects, entrepreneurs, engineers) have other abstractions that are being played out in their designs: an abstraction of me as a human, as a shopper and what motivates me to shop in the first place, what gets me peering into the funnel.

In researching this column, I also discovered that, as a shopper, that I am variously cast as a rat, as a rational person, as a seething cauldron of desire, or as a primeval Homo sapien, hell-bent on foraging for my kin. The model of me as rat derives from behaviorist psychology, emphasizing that I have been “conditioned” through reward (nice treats, Jimmy Choo shoes) and punishment (nasty things like hunger, cold, and no Jimmy Choo shoes) to respond to certain cues that drive us to shop. The second character, the rational shopper in me, is Homo economicus—rationally making choices on the basis of utility with some cost. This model is based on Lionel Robbins’s rational choice theory. While I recognize some of the behaviors, in general Homo economicus does not hang out with me. My third potential shopping mantle is a seething, bubbling cauldron of desire based on psychoanalytic theory. My ego, my superego and my id–the three-ring circus of conflicting urges that underlie whatever identity issues I may have–all held in molten, psychic, tension, stabilized momentarily by the acquisition of stuff. That is, I buy things so I can express my true inner self, whoever that might be today. Finally, the hunter-gatherer model emphasizes that we shop because it is innately human to shop—it is wired into our primal brain to rush out and hunt for things. Of all the models I read today, I confess the last leaves me most cold; it’s about as interesting as saying that shopping involves human beings.

Reflecting on my own experience of shopping, however, these theories have (at least) two problems. First, they are overly focussed a lot on individual shopping, when shopping is clearly social. Artist Barbara Krueger coined the phrase “I shop therefore I am”; I say, “We shop therefore we are.” Shopping is something we learn to do; we learn culturally how to shop and what to shop for. Pierre Bourdieu, the French philosopher, talks about “taste communities”; you are not just what you yourself consume but also what your friends consume. You Blahnik, therefore I Blahnik. The existence of the shopping-haul videos would not have shocked Bourdieu. Those young women are teaching others what to shop for, why the products matter, where to acquire them and what to do with them once they are acquired. Second, what constitutes a rational decision depends on how you scope the reasoning process. What looks entirely reasonable in the moment (tired, hungry, desperate for something for Uncle John so I don’t look like a cheapskate at Christmas), in retrospect looks daft (when he opens his package to find his 23rd pair of socks). The bounds of rational reasoning shift. A product or service I would not have looked at yesterday somehow becomes absolutely essential today. Grant McCracken, the anthropologist and commentator on contemporary culture, talks about the “Diderot effect,” invoking the philosopher Diderot, whose apartment remodel was kicked off by the receipt of a luxurious dressing gown, in the shadow of which the rest of his apartment looked shabby.

If we consider the trajectory of department store to mall to Internet, our choices of what to buy and how to “upgrade” our lives are increasing at a ridiculous pace. I wonder, what’s going to be the next revolution in the shopping experience? I also note it took me significantly less time and energy to part with my cash during the last Holiday season than it would have 20 years ago. This reflects the fact that, in tandem with the choice explosion, the time and energy taken to potentially acquire things is decreasing markedly; easy-to-use, one-click and delivery-to-door are in cahoots, encouraging the impulse buy, enticing the rat and irrational id, evolving the sloth model that has not yet been articulated fully, and muscling Homo economicus out the door. So, next time you’re shopping, online or off, think about how that experience is designed and in what ways it appeals to you the shopper–as rat, rational, id, hunter … or sloth?

Enticing engagement

[This is a draft of a column I wrote for the ACM’s interactions magazine. It appeared in Volume 17 Issue 3, May + June 2010].

Human engagement
A: Do you love me?
B: Yes
A: Will you marry me?
B: Yes.

Internet engagement
A: Do you love us?
B: click click click

A: Do you love us now?
B: click click click

Internet disengagement
A: Do you love us?
B: click click click
A: Do you love us now?

A: What about now?
A: Hello? Where did you go?

For me, long gone are the days when the word “engagement” conjured up diamonds, parties, and champagne. These days engagement is all about divining how much love your users or the audience have for product(s) and/or application(s). In the Internet world, the word “engagement” is intimately associated with measurement, metrics, and monetization; it is all about clicks and conversion, visitors, page views and duration. This is the world of media marketing, and of Internet success and failure.

What is Engagement?
Before I dig into Internet engagement measurement, I want to step back and think about what engagement means to me. When first asked about engagement by a colleague at work, I spouted all I knew about the experience of engagement as I understood it from a psychologist’s worldview. Flow. Immersion. Fascination. The swift passing of time as attention is held—tempus fugit. Engagement is the absolute opposite of restless boredom; boredom is the experience of time expanding painfully, a feeling of being itchy and twitchy and ready for any external stimulus beyond what you are doing now.

From a psychologist’s point of view, engagement sits within a framework of arousal states—boredom at one part of the spectrum, engagement at the other. Altertness, forced focus and stress all sit somewhere in between. Perhaps the most famous approach to thinking about engagement is the concept of flow, proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Flow is the state of full immersion in what one is doing: a feeling of energized focus, total involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Flow is a positive feeling, reflecting an utterly focused concentration and alignment with what one is doing. In some conceptions, flow is associated with feelings of joy and rapture, an exclusion of all but the central activity. Engagement may not be this rapturous positive feeling; people can be negatively engaged if something is standing between them and their desired state or goal, and for many people, military engagement denotes a negative form of entanglement.

But central to the idea of engagement is the triggering and capturing of attention, of being beguiled and perhaps focused to the exclusion of everything else. Further, lasting engagement can manifest in episodes of focus; perhaps someone will come back for more, again and again and again. This is where engagement in my early training intersects with the world of marketing and media engagement, the focus to which I now turn.

Creating Engagement
“Engagement” is a favorite word for media marketers and for the designers of products, services, applications. Take a look: The Web is brimming with smart people opining on the topic. In this world, marketers, data miners, statisticians, designers, and a host of other professionals come together. “Engagement is the most essential measure of the success of any medium. Engagement speaks to passion, preference, and habit,” said Charles Buchwalter, vice president of analytics at Nielsen NetRatings, in a 2005 white paper, “Integrated Interactive Marketing: Quantifying the Evolution of Online Engagement.”

In this world, the point is to stimulate engagement, to create it and make it last for whatever period is appropriate for your offering. In most cases, the goal of creating or “driving” engagement is to provide a platform for advertising products or services.

Models of how to engage consumers make assumptions about the level of active involvement of which the consumer is likely to be capable or willing to offer. At one end consumers are seen as being passively engaged with the content; think of the stereotypical couch potato glued to the screen while shows and advertising flicker across the TV screen. At the other end of the spectrum consumers are seen as actively seeking out content, developing their own understandings of that content, and then perhaps sharing with others. The active consumer concept is at the center of viral or word-of-mouth advertising and product engagement. Another example on the active consumer end of the spectrum is engagement marketing (which is also variously called experiential marketing, event marketing, live marketing, or participation marketing).

I like the idea that persuasion architects, who are responsible for creating campaigns to get people actively involved in advertising and engagement, are not completely in control of how the recipient perceives the message or whether or not they are likely to be engaged. I like to bestow upon the reader some agency in their own engagement. Borrowing from Tony Schwarz, a ’60s political advertising guru, who coined the idea of successful campaigns as those that invite people to “participate in their own manipulation,” I call this new world of Internet and cross-channel media play a form of “partipulation.” Perhaps we need “vongagement” to stand in for voluntary engagement? We need a word implies, entails and insists upon reciprocation, a word that acknowledges that the engagement is essentially about a relationship between a person and an activity or an entity.

Measuring Engagement
Measurement and evaluation are key in good design research; the same is true of good audience studies—it is a good thing to be able to evaluate how successful you are at engaging your audience.

In the media world, there have been many scales and measures of engagement, most of them developed for TV viewing. Examples include Q Scores from Marketing Evaluations that measured “likeability,” launched in 1963, and Jack Myers’s Emotional Connections model of viewer engagement, launched in 1999. Since then scales have measured relevance, affinity, comfort and resonance, impression, opinions, recall, awareness of brands and products, memory for program details, emotional involvement, and, of course, moment-by-moment measurements of physiological and neurological effects. Most of these studies are with representative panels of people sampled from the population of viewers as a whole.

In the world of the Internet, measures of engagement focus on features, applications, sites, services, and brands. Here, the Holy Grail is generating engagement measures based on the activity of the whole audience, not a sample; in theory, as all actions take place online, the entire system can be instrumented for activity and therefore measured. The metrics and measures even here, however, are constantly in negotiation and transition. Leaders in the discussions surrounding measurement for engagement are data services like comScore and Neilsen, who work with massive data sets as well as with panels of participants to generate measures and metrics.

A central measure of engagement used to be page views—how many times a webpage was visited. In 2007 the “visits” metric—defined as the number of times a unique person accesses content within a Web entity with breaks between access of at least 30 minutes—was introduced as a way of measuring the frequency with which a person views content, thereby illustrating a key component of user engagement. To determine engagement one looks at total visits, average minutes per visit, average visits per visitor, and average visits per usage day. One of the reasons for changing measures is technological. “With advances like AJAX changing the Internet landscape, certain measures of engagement, such as page views, are diminishing in significance for many Web properties,” said Jack Flanagan, executive Vice President of comScore Media Metrix. “The introduction of these new metrics based on ‘visits’ provides an alternative for measuring user engagement that tells us how frequently visitors are actually returning to the site to view more content.”

Things are also changing as sites become more focused on the social Internet. A more extensive list, based on my review of about six sites dedicated to Web analytics between 2007 and 2009, is this one: There are “root” metrics that appear in all discussions of engagement and Internet use. Some of these are relevant for all Internet sites, and some are relevant only for some sites, e.g., sales apply only to sites that are actively selling something or sites that contain advertising that is intended to lead to a purchase. These “root” metrics are:

• number of unique users
• number of sessions a unique user had with the site/page/application
• duration of visit
• frequency of visit (returning to the site directly—through a URL or bookmark—or indirectly)
• percentage of visits that can be determined to be repeat visits for an identifiable single goal
• recentness of visit
• depth of visit (percent of site visited)
• click-through rate
• “bounce measure” (determined by number of visits that were less than a set number of seconds, which implies the person arrived at the site by mistake or arrived, found nothing they wanted, and left)
• subscriptions, and conversion from free to subscriber service
• sales of product(s) through site and/or referrals that resulted in partner sales
• lifetime value – the last being probably the hardest to evaluate

There are also action metrics, and social-engagement metrics based on elements that are key to social interaction design:

• content contribution (e.g., text, uploads – images, video)
• RSS feed subscriptions
• bookmarks, tags, ratings
• viewing of high-value or medium-value content (as valued from the organization’s point of view—note that depth of visit can be combined with this variable)
• inquiries
• providing personal information, such as filling out profiles
• downloads, content resyndication, and customer reviews
• comments (with some modulation depending on their quality, and some analysis of the ratio between posts and comments plus trackbacks)

Recent applications like Tynt’s Tracer tracks people’s copy-and-paste actions to see what you liked enough to copy and paste it, and many services track site recommendations.

Problems with Internet Engagement Measurement
The artful combination of measures with a clear view of what one is trying to achieve is key. Avinash Kaushik, an analytics practitioner and author of Web Analytics 2.0, calls for good design practice around Web analytics on the issue of engagement. His steps are:

1. Define why your website/application exists, asking, “If there were one thing your website would do, what would that one thing be?”
2. Determine the critical metrics (three or fewer) that will identify exactly how you can measure if your website is successful at delivering against its purpose.
3. Decide what engagement means to you in your context.
4. Don’t call that metric “engagement.”

He urges us to call a spade a spade, saying, “Think very carefully about what you are measuring if you do measure engagement. If engagement to you is repeat visitors by visitors then call it Visit Frequency, don’t call it engagement.” It is crucial to determine ahead of time what your goals are and what constitutes success. This is akin to working on a product and being clear as to what the primary goal of the product is. So many great ideas and great products are hampered by a version of “creeping featurism” that could be called “excitable expansionism.” Whenever I hear someone say “Yes, and we could do this as well!”, I cringe and try to drive the conversation back to the core issue we believe we are addressing—the core goal, need, or hedonistic channel we believe the product should exist to serve.

Engagement cannot be a one-size-fits-all calculation. It varies according to industry, organization, business goals, and so on. Along with this tailoring, one needs to be clear that the relative weighting you give any action depends on your goal. Your metrics and measurement research program depend on whether you are assessing a feature, an application, a site, or a business/brand; whether you are assessing the value of the product in itself for a single user or as a broker between social entities. There are (single) user-engagement measures, but these may not be the same as those that are appropriate for social media. A useful single-user metric might be clicks and content (i.e., how many features are clicked on, how much information and content is uploaded), but a useful measure for social applications may be reciprocity between the people using the application (i.e., how many links do you send me in response to what I send you—how conversational is the application, and how much sharing does it encourage?)

A Broader Yet Still Measurable Notion of Engagement
Before closing, I would like to broaden the idea of engagement still further. Taking my cue from media studies, I am inspired by the “consumer expressions” model and the “connectedness scale” model, both models applied to media like TV and film, but nevertheless fully within the broader and braver new world of partipulation. Or was it vongagement/reciprocative assessment?

The consumer expressions model, devised by researchers from MIT in 2002, suggested the development of a metric that combines qualitative information (the nature of the content, the media consumption environment) with quantitative information (time spent, satisfaction). In 1999 the connectedness model proposed by Cristel Russell and Christopher Puto focused on use of media including self-definition, creative contribution, social interaction around the show, ritualization (organizing and maintaining specific social functions of viewing and using), and the purchase of show-related paraphernalia. This was broadened in 2004, when researchers Russell, Norman, and Heckler conducted a validation of the connectedness scale that examined the extended contribution around a series of constructs—attitude (degree of favor or disfavor), involvement (mental state during viewing), and overall viewing (time spent overall in the medium). Their model, albeit particularly focused on TV and media events, offers six overarching dimensions, some of which perhaps could be extended to the world of digital and physical products and especially to media products:

• escape (immersion into the event)
• fashion (the extent to which the viewer is influenced by the characters’ appearance)
• imitation (the inclination to imitate the characters’ behavior or speech patterns)
• modeling (the degree to which individuals relate their lives to the lives of characters
• aspiration (aspiring to actually be on the show or meet the characters)
• paraphernalia (the degrees to which people collect items to bring the show into their real world)

As connectedness increases, so does frequency of show-related social interaction with others, the development of relationships within the community of co-viewers, and the size of the viewers’ social network of co-consumers. People also have a greater memory for the characters and storylines, and surely this kind of memory is key to long-term engagement as well as in-the-moment engagement. So a deeper sense of overall engagement, and a measure that moves beyond immediate activities into activities beyond the screen, mouse, click and brand awareness into behavior and identity. Indeed, consumption, participation, and identification are key. When I think of a social Internet site/service like Flickr, I immediately see how this level of analysis is useful as a complement beyond assessing clicks and content. The impact of a site or service like Flickr beyond the screen and beyond the session is what makes Flickr a place to see and be seen, not just a place to visit now and then. Avid Flickr users identify with Flickr; they don’t just see it as a place to view images.

My main point is that more integration between different measurement forms is needed to get a clear picture of overall engagement. This is systems thinking; it necessitates measurement perspectives from clicks to brand to identity; it requires a mixed-methods approach and the insight to see how a survey can relate to a field study can relate to a programmatic series of principled data collections … and so on.

In sum, there is so much more to engagement than immediate actions captured by a simplistic action-analytics model or reflected feelings on a survey. Engagement is more than immediate instrumental value and, as a topic, engagement is in need of a broader perspective. Apparently, engagement is itself quite engaging.

Open, closed, or ajar? Content access and interactions magazine

[This is a draft of a column I co-authored for the ACM’s interactions magazine with Mark Vanderbeeken of Experientia.  It appeared in September 2008 — interactions, ACM Press, Volume 15, Issue 5 (2008)].

Harvard’s Law School announced it would open access to the intellectual content created by its faculty members. This means content that is produced by faculty at Harvard will be available for us all to read. A driving issue behind this turn of events is the sheer cost of academic journals. For most individuals, certainly, the costs are prohibitive. But it’s sobering to note that fewer and fewer libraries can afford to stock titles that are directly relevant to academic courses.

The university’s blog post states, “the faculty voted to make each faculty member’s scholarly articles available online for free, making HLS the first law school to commit to a mandatory open access policy. Under the new policy, HLS will make articles authored by faculty members available in an online repository, whose contents would be searchable and available to other services such as Google Scholar.” Contrary to some of the negative rhetoric around openness, “open” does not necessarily mean losing control of ownership altogether; publications will be made available with copy/share-friendly licenses. The blog goes on to say “Authors can also legally distribute the articles on their own websites, and educators here and elsewhere can freely provide the articles to students, so long as the materials are not used for profit.”

Appropriately, this announcement rattled swiftly around the blogosphere. For many it represents a significant step, a step toward the vision for democratic access to information on the Internet. Commentators and open-access campaigners were articulate on what this means for individuals and for the broader intellectual community. Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College, and John Palfrey, of Harvard’s Law School (also the executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative) are both long-term open-access campaigners involved in the motion at Harvard, and both blogged the event. Writer Cory Doctorow, who has benefited from publishing novels online before moving to print, reported the event with enthusiasm on the technology and Internet “pulse” blog, BoingBoing.

Even for those not immersed in debates around open content, it is easy to see that this is an important event. From its inception, one of the founding concepts of what sociologist Patrice Fiichy refers to as the “Internet imaginaire” has been democratic access to content. Many have argued that closed knowledge bases limit innovation, stunt business potential, and reduce creative growth potential for business globally; personally, I recommend Eric von Hippel’s 2006 book, Open Innovation, and the writing of authors like Dominique Foray and Steven Weber  on open and closed innovation and the economics of knowledge.

How does all of this relate to us, the readers and writers of interactions? Well, directly. Recent debates around interactions illustrate how discussions of openness and open content are challenging traditional views of publication, content distribution and dissemination, and indeed the economics of idea circulation. This issue was foregrounded when the interactions website went live earlier this year, with a number of people expressing surprise that only the first paragraphs of articles were available for download unless one had a subscription to ACM’s digital library. Currently, two pieces in each issue are available in their entirety on the interactions site; they’re pieces that promote the magazine as a whole and the editors’ vision for the magazine. But a subscription to the magazine is required for viewing the rest of the articles.

At CHI 2008 in Florence, a discussion arose on whether or not interactions should publish more articles, and possibly the magazine in its entirety, for open download, online ( Mark Vanderbeeken, of the experience design consultancy Experientia, and I spoke on the “Interactions Magazine Comes Alive” panel. We discussed some of our personal thoughts and experiences of open content, and discussed our perspectives about making the content of interactions freely available on the Web. Some of the points we brought up there reappear here.

First and foremost, paraphrasing John Thackara, quality that is not communicated is simply not quality. To put it crudely, who cares how great the ideas are if we make barriers to hearing/reading them so high that the ideas reach only a small in-group? Closed content is restricted content, and restricted content shared among the few is likely to have limited impact.

Second, the Internet has been called a disruptive technology for the publishing industry in general. Disruptive technologies shake things up. Disruptive technologies lead to the creation of a new industry or transform an existing one. They can add value and shift market position. They can destroy existing competencies and drive/enable change in a value network. And most strategists agree that the only losers are those ossified in an outmoded business model. That said, readership of print magazines in the United States remains stable; around 85 percent of adults read consumer magazines, and this figure has not changed since 2003. So far, it looks like digital publication of articles is simply not a replacement for a carefully designed printed artifact.

Why? Well, for starters, print and digital artifacts simply have very different properties. They invite a different interaction, and the experience of the content is radically different. For example, I am a big fan of O’Reilly’s Craft magazine. I have given copies as gifts to a number of people. I like to annotate my own copies with scribbles and notes. I share my annotated copies with friends. Copies sit around the house visibly waiting – plaintively calling out – to be read. And, crucially, my magazines can be read in the bath and can get just a little soggy without catastrophic effect.

The layout of a magazine differs greatly from the layout of content on the Web. Flicking through a magazine and stopping when something catches your eye is different from browsing through windows, pointing and clicking. Tearing a page out feels different from bookmarking or printing a page. In short, the Web page and the magazine have different informational, tangible and aesthetic properties and ‘affordances’. And in my opinion, the core product, the print magazine, is not going away.

Digital artifacts should invite the reader to desire the physical artifact. And vice versa: I go online to sites like, to, and to to find other crafters and to see videos of how to do something—some skills, especially motor skills, just don’t get communicated as well in static print. I believe that medium matters, and we need to take seriously the careful design of a complementary relationship between the two.

Third, there are many kinds of value, aside from charging hard currency, for content. Value may be purely nonmonetary. For individuals who do not charge for their labor to produce content, the value may be personal satisfaction, or reputation and contribution to the community. For companies who produce materials, like print magazines or web sites and blogs, the value the artifact provides may come from a subscription, it may come from where the content points people to perhaps spend later. The artifact may be a link in a chain of value but not the point of monetary exchange.

Mark’s report of Experientia’s strategy on content sharing renders abstract assertions around value generation concrete. Experientia has demonstrated that the paradigm of company information as proprietary, protected at all cost, is now completely obsolete. Rather, an alternative approach is being taken there: Everything not protected by NDA or of strategic value (e.g., the markets they plan to address in the next four months), should be open to all. All important content and ideas are published on the company blog, Putting People First. The blog started out as something internal. However, it was not protected, and before long, it was getting more and external visitors. The team decided that was not such a bad thing. Many visitors now come to the blog from major international companies like Yahoo!, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, and Samsung.

The company has directly experienced several benefits of this approach:

  1. A channel—Putting People First provides an easy-to-handle communications channel (no email newsletters, no expensive advertising campaigns);
  2. An audience—usually about 6,000 professionals a day
  3. A reputation—a company that has its finger on the pulse of what is going on;
  4. A brand—substantial brand recognition for a company that is not even three years old;
  5. Loyalty—readers feel involved in the content that is given for “free” (Putting People First has become a professional research tool for many, thanks also to its categories and effective search engine), and this openness creates loyalty;
  6. Regularity—the blog is updated nearly every day, so to some extent Experientia is constantly in the minds of its readers;
  7. Relations—people contact the company regularly based on the blog; the blog offers a social nexus;
  8. Jobs—Experientia even got a few new clients, although that is not the main reason for the firm’s doing this; if anything, PPF confirms the firm’s reputation rather than landing new clients out of the blue;
  9. PR opportunities—Experientia staff is regularly invited to conferences and offered writing assignments based on their perceived qualifications;
  10. Dialogue—reactions and reflections on what is going on, either informally or publicly, either directly, or because people link and relink to the site

As the Experientia example suggests, the value-add of the open content is the ripple effect—the other things that become known, which do generate monetary reward. In the case of scholarly journals and magazines like interactions, much of the labor of content production is volunteered, not for monetary gain. But the labor fits within a system in which the rewards are very real—promotion of ideas, of products, of companies, of self, personal satisfaction, growth of future opportunities.

Printing a magazine has a price tag of course. The costs of magazine production include editing, illustrating, layout, printing, distribution, and archiving. Online distribution does not erase operating costs; funds are needed to cover platform and interface development and maintenance, promoting, and archiving. The revenue model currently in place to cover these costs is subscription, or what has been called “reader page charges.” Other models that we can start playing with are:

  • Free access after an embargo period—charge those who want content immediately, but after a while the content can become freely available; this is one of a number of possible tiered revenue models
  • Author page charges—charge authors for the content
  • Institutional, governmental, and vested agency payment—with open content in the academic domain, many argue that taxpayers have already paid for government-funded work through taxes, so the results should be freely available
  • Advertising—arguably, the model that drives much of the Internet
  • Sponsorship is another possibility—this could be issue-based sponsorship or section-based sponsorship

Mark and I argued on the panel that there is a great opportunity with interactions to generate interest and gain momentum around important sociotechnical design issues through a thoughtful, well-written, and well-edited magazine very much appreciated by the professional user-experience community. interactions provides—as named above—a great entrée point: to ideas, people, and potentially, to our funder, the ACM.

We sparked debate from the panel with ideas that simply scratch the surface on the issues involved. What are your views? Are you someone who would/do pay for the subscription, who would pay to download the articles? Do you have artful suggestions for business models not explored in this brief article? So the question is, what does open content mean for a magazine like interactions? Please share your thoughts on the interactions site.

Blog confessionals #1

So after weeks of thinking about writing a blog, I am stymied.

I (re)discover that I am a curmudgeon. I (re)disocver that I hate
writing. I (re)discover that I have a messy mind that thinks about 10
things in parallel. So, I find I am trying to differentiate what I'd
write for myself, or for a specific audience and what I would write
that would be something of an opinion I'd like to share with random
whoever out there. What is my schtick (and how do you spell schtick
anyway)? What is my angle? What form would I like – Image+text (most
comfortable for me)? Sudden fiction? Academic discourse? Proto-papers?
Thought pieces on the way to punditry? What rhetorical stance should I
take, and how should I organise my site to reflect the differences? Or
should I not bother? More than that, I hate reading poorly written
things that offer unsubstantiated opinions and which don't refer to
relevant literatures. I like rambling opinions to be saved for pub
conversations. Which is why my enjoyment of the blogosphere is limited
to the few people I think can write. I fear that I am not among them –
I have written a few papers I am very proud of, but I always stay close to the data, and/or to the technology I have helped design/build. I prefer conversing about things I don't know with those close face to face or in email, person to person.

But reader be warned, there is *no* quality control on my blog. Finally, I hate this editor. It sucks. So now I suppose I have to work out how to get to use a better one.

Ok, first thing is to import stuff from "Cyberxee analects", "Xeepiphany" and "Xeel" my previous marginal use of blogs to collaborate with myself and others.

The Diversity of Cyberethnography: Approaches to the Study of Sociality in Virtual Lifescapes

Submission for EPIC 2005: Methods Paper (10 page limit)

Title: The Diversity of Cyberethnography: Approaches to the Study of Sociality in Virtual Lifescapes

Authors: E.F. Churchill, B. Jordan and R. Moore


If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings
through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical
geography” (Gibson, 1984), then cybersociality lies in the details of
engaging, maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated
interconnectedness. For ethnographers, for whom seeing, observing,
recording and analyzing patterns of activity across and through time is
the very foundation of understanding sociality, such disconnectedness
is more than Gergen’s postmodern fragmentation of the saturated,
information loaded self; it is positively maddening in its
methodological implications (Gergen, 1991). It highlights that humans
live lives beyond our gaze – palpably so – and often actively operating
simultaneously within multiple “social worlds” as they switch between
different mediated engagements (Strauss, 1978).

“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the
ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated,
telesociality of the physically disconnected (Gajjala, 2002; Hine,
2000). We have been using ethnographic methods (again, cyber and
otherwise) to paint in the details of interconnection in “global
corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike
many excellent cyberethnographies which focus solely on life “online”,
we have triangulated online and offline observation.

We present highlights from three studies, which lie along a
continuum of ‘cybersociality’ and ‘cybermodification’ possibilities
(i.e., offering more or less latitude for modification of the
technology, the virtual experience and therefore, presumably, the
social experience). The first is a study of distributed teams
collaborating through video and digital shared workspaces; the second a
study of collaborative work in a text-based virtual environment where
interactions take place mostly in the virtual environment, but also on
occasion, face to face; and the third, interactions in massively
multiplayer environments, where virtual commerce is growing but where
people never meet in person, always in persona (avatar). In all three
cases, we present an ecology of communication technologies, but focus
on those through the lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and
connection practices – within the context of the broader social
settings within which the interactions we have observed take place.

We illustrate how, in our studies, an understanding of that which
lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames our understanding of what
takes place “virtually”. We consider what can be recorded (technically,
ethically and legally); what can be analysed (time, distance, data
complexity issues), and finally what can be reported effectively.

Finally, we reflect on cyberethnography itself. While we have drawn
on data gathering and analysis methods in cyberethnography texts, we
ponder what the prefix ‘cyber’ adds to the encompassing, entirely
worldy word “ethnography”. Ethnography, after all, means to write
culture. We reflect on how questions raised (e.g., what is “the field”
and where it may be found; what are appropriate data for reflecting
sociality in these contexts; what does it mean to get permission to
record from an avatar, one persona of many?) differ from debates within
ethnography as a whole. In our online/offline ethnographies, have we
seen anything that makes us more ‘cyber’ than we were before, or is it
just what we have done?

Gajjala, R. 2002. An interrupted postcolonial/feminist
cyberethnography: complicity and resistance in the ‘cyberfield’.
Feminist Media Studies 2 (2): 177-93.

Gergen, K.J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Book.
Hine, C. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage.
Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.),
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,

Hine, C. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage.
Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.),
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,

Notes on Cyberethnography for EPIC 2005

Cyberethography and cybersociality in virtual lifescapes: methods, obstructions and abstractions


If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings
through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical
geography” (Gibson, 1984), then cybersociality lies in the details of
engaging, maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated
interconnectedness, operating simultaneously within multiple “social
worlds” (Strauss, 1978). Reacting to the embrace of graphical
simulation, the emergence of “virtual reality” and the promise of
artificially intelligent agents, Gibson’s dystopian cyber(meaning
helmsman in Greek)space is a simulated structured world where one can
“jack in”, away from this corporeal world.

“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the
ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated,
telesociality of the physically disconnected.

We have been using ethnographic methods (cyber and otherwise) to
paint in the details of these acts of interconnection in “global
corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike
many cyberethnographies (but entirely in keeping with ethnography
unbounded by mediated or physically collocated locales of activity), we
triangulate online and offline observation.

In this paper we present highlights from three studies, which we
believe lie along a continuum of Gibson’s ‘cyberness’, with more or
less latitude for personal agency and modification of the technology
itself to manage the telemediated interaction. The first is a study of
distributed teams collaborating primarily through video and digital
shared workspaces. The second is a study of collaborative work in a
text-based virtual environment where interactions take place mostly in
the virtual environment, but also on occasion, face to face. Finally,
we present interactions in massively multiplayer environments, where
collaboration and commerce are growing, and where control over one’s
presence is entirely in the hands of the individual to the point of
multiple personae with multiple appearances. In all three cases, we
present an ecology of communication technologies, but focus on those
through the lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and connection
practices – within the context of the broader social settings within
which the interactions we have observed take place.

These studies are used to render visible the often tacit boundaries
of ethnographic data collection methods and reportage. While we draw on
methods in all cases that have been loosely called cyberethnography,
interested as we are in mediated sociality, we illustrate how an
understanding of that which lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames
what is understood. This triangulation drives new forms of data

In this paper we consider 1. what can be recorded (logistically, it
is getting increasingly important that we are very technically oriented
to gather our data; many field sites in business contexts create
restrictions that curtail broad data collection; many ethical issues
arise); 2. what can be analysed (time is the biggest constraint in many
business ethnography settings, and this is amplified in studying these
distributed settings), and finally 3. what can be reported (in many
settings what is seen cannot be reported or will not be heard).

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Book.

Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.),
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,

Gitte’s references

THANKS for these Gitte – excellent list of references, I want to read several papers right now!

Arthur, Brian
2002 Is the Information Revolution Dead? Business 2.0. March 2002:65-72.
2003 Why Tech Is Still the Future. Fortune Magazine, Monday, Nov. 24.

Baba, M. L., J. Gluesing, H. Ratner, and K. H. Wagner. 2004. The Context of Knowing: Natural History of a Globally Distributed Team. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 25(5), 547-587. (GDT)

Cramton, Catherine Durnell
2002 Attribution in Distributed Work Groups. Pp. 191-212 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Davey, Theresa, Anastasia Envall, Mark Gernerd, Tiffanne Mahomes, Maria Monroe, Jenna Nowak, Matthew Patricoski, Jacob Weiler
2005 Instant Messaging: Functions of a New Communicative Tool. Messaging.pdf. [Very interesting paper written by a group of students in an anthro class at Notre Dame University]

David, Ken and J. R. Lloyd
2003 Tools for organizational learning and organizational teaching: Learning and communicating about collaboration in dispersed engineering design projects.” Chapter 21 of Field Book in Collaborative Work Systems, G. Klein and J. Nemiro, eds. Center for the Study of Work Teams, University of North Texas. Jossey-Bass.

Gibson, Cristina B. and Susan G. Cohen, eds.
2003 Virtual Teams that Work: Creating Conditions for Virtual Team Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Grinter, Rebecca, James D. Herbsleb and Dewayne E. Perry
1999 The Geography of Coordination: Dealing with Distance in R&D Work. GROUP 99: 306-

Herbsleb, James D. and Rebecca E. Grinter
1998 Conceptual Simplicity Meets Organizational Complexity: Case Study of a Corporate Metrics Program. In Proceedings of the 20th International Conference on Software Engineering. Pp. 271-280. Kyoto, Japan: IEEE.

Herbsleb on attribution

Herbsleb and Grinter

Hind, Pamela and Sara Kiesler, eds.
2002 Distributed Work. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hine, Christine
2000 Virtual Ethnography. London: SAGE.

Jones, Steve., ed.
1999 Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Jordan on learning and work

Jordan on diffusion?

Kiesler and Cummings
2002 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds.

Kitchin, Rob
1998 Cyberspace: The World in Wires. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Kraut et al
2002 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds.

Mannix, Elizabeth, Terri Griffith and Margaret Neale
2002 The Phenomenology of Conflict in Distributed Work Teams. p. 212- 233 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds.

Mason, Bruce
2003 Issues in Virtual Ethnography. In: Ethnographic Studies in Real and Virtual Environments: Inhabited Information Spaces and Connected Communities. Proceedings of 1999 Esprit i3 Workshop on Ethnographic Studies, K. Buckner, ed.

2002 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds.

Olson et al
2002 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds.

Ruhleder, Karen and Brigitte Jordan
2001 Co-Constructing Non-Mutual Realities: Delay-Generated Trouble in Distributed Interaction. Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work 10:1:113-138.

Suchman on learning + work

Walther on attribution

Wasson, Christina
2004 Multitasking in Virtual Meetings. Human Resource Planning 27(4):47-60.

Weisband, Susan: Maintaining Awareness in Distributed Team Collaboration: Implications for Leadership and Performance. Pp. 311-333 in Distributed Work, Pamela Hinds and Sara Kiesler, eds.